Most Problems Can’t Be Solved in the Dark

I declared bankruptcy when I was 28 years old.

It had been a long time coming, to be honest.  Like most private catastrophes, it was the product of a long line of poor decisions and even worse reactions to the consequences of those decisions.  When things started to go wrong, I doubled down instead of folding.  My ego wouldn’t let me do anything less.

When the subject comes up in conversation these days, I usually summarize the whole affair by saying that “I was young and stupid.”  That’s partially true.  I’ve sometimes said to others (and myself) that I suffered from the delusion of invincibility all too common in youth.  But, truth be told, I didn’t exactly feel invincible.  

I just felt like I was smart enough to fix whatever I messed up.

I used to believe that I could best solve problems on my own.  And by that I don’t mean “without assistance”.  I mean “in secret”.  I believed that if I publicly admitted that there was a problem there would be all kinds of judgment and unhelpful input.  As long as I kept my problems to myself and maintained the illusion that everything was just fine, I could solve my problems quickly and efficiently.  

They say the first step is admitting you have a problem.  The thing is, I fully admitted to myself that I had a problem.  I cried many, many tears over it.  I lost sleep trying to figure out how to make it the rest of the way to payday without any money left.  I was fully aware that any time the phone rang it could be a creditor.  I knew.

But until I admitted it to others, nothing changed.  

What I eventually learned the hard way is that sometimes, maybe even most of the time, actually fixing mistakes comes at the cost of ego.  When I finally hit the point where I really had no choice but to wipe the slate clean and subject myself to ten years of cash-only living I realized that doing so was, in fact, fixing the problem.  That was me, finding a solution.  

In public.

The illusion of control had to crumble.  I couldn’t pretend that I was good at managing money.  I couldn’t use credit cards to cover the fact that sometimes I couldn’t afford something.  I had to ask for help from others, and to do that I had to admit to them that I’d messed up.  

The first step wasn’t admitting that I had a problem, but realizing that I couldn’t hide the problem.  

All of the effort we put into concealing what is wrong is effort we could be using to make positive change.  In fact, all of the effort we put into concealing what is wrong is effort we are using to resist positive change.  

It seems silly in retrospect to realize that if I wanted people to think I was good with money, it would have been so much easier to learn to be better with money than to keep spending and pretend everything was fine.  We can pretend to be a lot of things.  At first, the pretending seems easier than the doing.  The problem is that pretending only gets harder as time goes on.  

Doing?  The learning curve on that goes the other way.

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The First Rule of Religion Club…

There’s something most people would consider noble about adhering to a religious tradition which comes with certain rules or sacrifices which must be kept.  We generally respect people who are able to adhere to certain dietary restrictions while the rest of us indulge, who can avoid activities the rest of us enjoy, or who keep daily routines which seem tedious to us.  There’s an admiration we feel towards those who are able to do these things which we would consider to be difficult.

But only to a point.

When we begin to feel that a rule or restriction is being undertaken in way which casts judgment on the rest of us, the reaction changes.  We may respect the ability of a vegetarian to avoid delicious meat products right up until the point where we feel they are judging us negatively for eating other sentient animals.  People who dress modestly as a spiritual practice are fine until we feel they are trying to make us feel guilty for the way we dress.  We can respect a person’s dedication to daily meditation until we feel pressured to do the same.

As much as we are compelled to paint a different picture for the sake of social harmony, part of the reason spiritual traditions have rules and restrictions is to separate adherents from the nonbelievers and to, in the process, demonstrate what is supposedly wrong with life outside the faith.  The rules a person follows because of their faith says a lot about what they think is wrong with the rest of society.

Not having a defined tradition to follow, I don’t have many rules.  But working backwards from what I think of the world around me, I would say that the only spiritual standards to which I’m willing to aspire would be those which encourage more connection to others, more empathy, more freedom and equality, more knowledge and understanding.  If we’re judging people on any standard other than how they treat the people around them, are we really doing anything at all to benefit humanity?  To better ourselves?  

What would become of the world if we practiced empathy and advocacy as strict religious requirements to the point of making those around us feel bad for not doing the same?  What if we built our spiritual lives on celebrating ways we are the same rather than on practices which set us above or apart from others?  I think it would be absolutely game-changing.

Don’t Fear the Future

I tend to have a bit of a problem with the all-too-common rants against “modern technology” and “today’s society” or even “kids these days”.  For every major shift in how humans live their lives (and these shifts do seem to be coming faster and faster as the years go by), many of us become filled with an overwhelming desire to dig in our heels and try to keep things the same.  

I don’t think this resistance to change is necessarily part of human nature.  I think it’s something we’ve learned, something we’ve woven so completely into our collective culture that most of us can hardly imagine another way to think.  And I think it has to do with one basic concept: that there must be One Right Way.  It’s true in politics, it’s true in religion, it’s true in business, it’s true in just about every facet of life: everyone is looking for (or thinks they have already found) the only good way to think, to pray, to lead, to love, to live.  

Of course, if there’s only one right answer, one correct way of thinking, and we’ve already found that one right way, change must be bad.  The internet has now connected us in ways we could hardly conceive several decades ago, and the negative reaction is as strong as ever.  Some believe it is eroding spiritual commitment and devotion.  It’s much the same argument as you’ll hear from anyone who thinks that the internet is actually making us less connected.  

But really, all that’s being said by all of those who lament the changes is that the more we embrace this new technology and the culture growing around it, the less we do things the old way.  Whether that statement is delivered as a complaint or not depends on how much the speaker believes in the absolute superiority of the old way.  If you believe the future is bound to bring us wonders we cannot begin to imagine, then the idea that things are changing is likely to be exciting and promising.  If you believe that the current way or past ways of doing things are the only right way, then change is only destroying what is good.

This could easily become a diatribe on how we should all be optimistic and embrace the future because all our problems will be solved by technology someday, but that’s absolutely not where I’m going with this.  Honestly, I think faith in future perfection is as misguided as a commitment to preserving some imaginary perfect past.  

But change comes whether we fight it or not.

One way or another, the future will come and it will be vastly different in some ways from everything we know and have known.  It simply will happen, and our attitude towards the change can do nothing to prevent it.  

So the question then becomes not whether change is good or bad, but how we use it for good or bad.  Instead of lamenting the shift in culture brought on by the internet and social media, real concern for the future should have us asking what abilities this new connectedness gives us that we can use to create positive change?  Perhaps we should be considering what our lives, the spiritual portion included, would look like if we accept the changes and adjust accordingly.  

Most spiritual paths focus to a great extent on the future, but few embrace the inevitability of future changes in culture and way of life.  Few encourage the kind of personal adaptability and flexibility which is necessary to smoothly navigate shifts and changes as they come.  Instead we’re taught “unchanging” truths and encouraged to remain unchanged though the world around us falls apart.  

It’s no wonder, then, that we fear change so much that we fight it.  Spirituality in the form we know it best has failed to equip us to deal with it.  I think it’s imperative that we find or create and embrace a different way, a different mindset, which focuses our spirits on becoming more discerning rather than more correct, more purposeful rather than more pious.  

Stop Dreaming the Impossible Dream

About three years ago some friends finally convinced me that purchasing a house wasn’t the impossible proposition I’d always considered it.  My sister pushed us further, taking us on driving tours of neighborhoods to look at houses to prove to us that we could find a house we liked for a price we could afford.

And that’s when we found The One.

It was built in the 50s, all mid-century awesome and largely untouched.  Pink bathroom fixtures, flagstone dining room floor, built in niches and corner windows.  It was a Sunday, so we couldn’t actually get inside the house to look, but the listing held our imagination for hours.  It was far larger than anything we would have hoped to buy and seemed to be built entirely of charm.  It was a short sale and well within what we imagined our budget might be.  However, we’d never even whispered the word “mortgage” in the vicinity of our bank, so we didn’t really know for sure what we could or couldn’t afford.

It didn’t matter.  By the next morning the house’s internet listing indicated it had sold, and we hadn’t even made contact with anyone from the bank yet.  

We were sad, but we’d barely had time to fall in love with the idea.  We set about getting finances in order and thinking about what, exactly, we wanted in a house.  

About six weeks later, we found the house listed again.  This time, it was a foreclosure and the price had dropped by a third.  Ecstatic, we called a realtor and set up a viewing for the very next day.

And fall in love, we did.

The realtor warned us that if we wanted to move on it we’d have to do it fast because starting the next day investors would be able to submit offers.  We scrambled.  

But we weren’t fast enough.

An investor paid cash the very next day, and the house was out of our grasp forever.

I’d mentally invested in the dream by then.  I knew in my mind where furniture would go and what colors of paint I would use.  I imagined dinner parties in the formal dining room and barbecues on the deck.  I could see the art studio set up in the third bedroom, the office and library in the fourth, and the fifth turned into a meditation space.  

But all that was gone.  I cried like I’d lost someone close to me, and I couldn’t seem to stop.  I was upset for weeks.  It sounds ridiculous, but it’s true.  I didn’t want to look at houses, I didn’t want to talk about bank loans, and I didn’t want to even think about furniture or paint.  

People tried to get me to be logical.  There would be even better houses out there.  (But not for that price!!)  That house probably needed way too much work.  (But at that price, we could afford to do some work!)   That neighborhood isn’t so great, anyway.  (It’s so close to my running trail, though, and we know people who live there!!)

The thing is, though, that they were right.  All those things were true.  I wasn’t really mourning the house, anyway.  I was mourning what I thought was the only good chance we’d ever get to have anything close to the life I dreamed of.  It wasn’t really the house I was attached to, it was the life I imagined it would make possible.  I was upset that our finances didn’t allow me to dream as big as I wanted.  I was sad that we might have to settle for something I didn’t really like, knowing that I was so close to having what I really thought I would love.

My attachment to the idea of that house completely disabled my ability to be honest with myself.  It allowed me to dream impossible dreams.  It turned off the part of my brain that wanted to be reasonable about the true cost of repairs and maintenance.  Holding onto the dream of that house let me escape from the reality of my actual life.

Our ambitions, our dreams of better lives, can drive us to do great things.  But they can be an off switch for the functional parts of our brains.  They can turn on our soul but switch off our spirit, leaving us unable to find the motivation to improve our reality because we’re too invested in a glittering illusion.

It took several months for me to come out of my funk, and I did so reluctantly.  That place in my mind where I achieve some unreachable treasure which allows me to live a fairy tale version of life is one I’ve inhabited regularly since childhood.  It’s comfortable.  It makes me feel something a lot like optimism and motivation.  But, in reality, as long as I live there I’m not living in the real world.  As long as I’m imagining what could be “if only…”, I’m not putting any effort into what really, truly could be.  As long as I’m dreaming, I’m not doing.  

Eventually I started going to open houses again.  We looked at random houses just for fun, just to see what was out there even far beyond our budget.  We did it so I could get back in touch with reality.  And in the end we found a home.  We don’t have a library or a meditation room, there aren’t pink bathroom fixtures or flagstone floors, and it cost more than the other one would have.  But it’s everything we needed and a lot of the things we wanted, and the life it has allowed us to build is a much better version of reality than where we used to be.  

On Origins and Meanings

I joined a sorority when I was in college, and Greek organizations (for those who are not familiar) utilize a formalized set of rituals for bringing new members into the group.  These rituals were created by the founders of each group, written by young men and women with the intent of these traditions being kept over the years such that every new member would go through virtually the same experience.  I found it really interesting, actually, to picture the group’s founders, meeting together in secret around the turn of the 20th Century, creating scripts for elaborate rituals meant to convey special meaning to those who were stepping into this world they were creating.  

No matter what kind of tradition we are in, even if we are convinced that a divine being was the creator of that tradition, most of the formal ritual elements were created in the same way — humans sitting down and planning out the experiences that will be shared by fellow adherents over time.  Few people, if asked to actually consider the idea, could claim that the god in which they believe actually decided what kind of clothes should be worn to a service or whether those in attendance should stand, sit, or kneel, what words should be said in what order, and how the room should be arranged.  These are details created by people for the purpose of conveying meaning or status or evoking emotion in other people in a way which is meant to embody deeper spiritual content.  

These are traditions and rituals created for us by those who came before.

I doubt many people actually think about why they worship the way they do and why or how these rituals and traditions and concepts even came to be.  We follow them because that’s what we’ve been taught, it’s what feels right or good to us, and it is part of our spiritual culture.  Even fewer question whether these things are actually serving the purpose they were meant to serve.  Significantly, when religious communities as a whole start to look at the history and purpose and meaning behind their rituals and traditions, drastic things take place: schisms, the formation of new denominations or offshoots, complete overhauls of doctrine and practice.  And it’s not until it becomes obvious that something isn’t working anymore that communities become willing to dig deep and create something new which works for them in that moment.

My parting from organized religions began with questioning where all the trappings, all the different practices and aesthetics, come from.  I determined that many of them are beautiful and potentially meaningful, but they’re not particularly sacred any more so than the rituals I experienced in my sorority in college.  And there is certainly the danger, when asking questions such as this, that when the sacredness vanishes we will be left with no significant meaning after all.  

But that’s only really true if we consider these things to have no meaning if they are not sacred.  

Experiences can connect to our spiritual selves without having anything to do with god or doctrine or a church.  Ritual experiences will be meaningful to us if we connect with the intent of those who created the ritual.  It’s the formation of the community of people who agree on something, who find the same things important, which makes a ritual or a tradition meaningful.  And so, I think, to find meaning we first have to find a practice or tradition in which we can find a connection to those who created it, in which we can find connection to a larger community, and in which we can find meaning which speaks to us.  And to do that we must start asking why we do what we do, why we follow the rituals we follow, and why they came to be in the first place.