Recriminations

I saw a Facebook meme the other day that showed in the top half of the picture someone doing drugs and the bottom half of the picture two extremely obese women eating a pizza the size of a table and drinking straight from liter bottles of soda. The picture’s caption said, “Substance abuse comes in many forms.” That picture bothered me because I know I have a problem with overeating. And I know I need help.

I’ve done Weight Watchers and lost 50 pounds. Gained it back. Did Nutrisystem and lost 50 pounds. Gained it back–and then some. In the past year I’ve been using an app called “Lose It!” to track everything I eat. I started doing some high intensity interval training. And still my weight won’t budge.weight

In the small town of Port Angeles, Washington, where I used to live the local hospital regularly offers a six to eight week course called the Diabetes Prevention Program. It involves teaching you the habits, exercise, and nutritional goals you need to develop to take care of your body. I heard about it while I was visiting family in the hospital there.

Upon my return to St. Louis I looked for a similar program here. I thought surely a city this size with all of its medical facilities would offer something akin to the Port Angeles program. Nope. I asked my primary care physician if she knew of anything. Nope. I saw many listings for smoking cessation programs. Drug rehab is available. But nothing for weight management. I couldn’t believe it. My doctor and my OB/GYN just tell me every time I come to see them, “You need to lose that weight.” And I say, “I’m trying, but I need help.” And they say, “Control your portion sizes and get more exercise.” Easy, right?

Why are there programs helping people to quit smoking if that’s the logic? Quitting smoking is easy. Just don’t smoke. (I know there’s really more to it than that.) But you can’t just quit eating. I would even consider weight-loss surgery, but my health insurance doesn’t cover it. I can’t afford it otherwise.

I know I could return to Weight Watchers, Nutrisystem, or TOPS (Take Off Pounds Sensibly). I have done them all. But I just keep rebounding after each program, eventually gaining more weight back than I lost.

What brings this all up for me again is that I have an appointment tomorrow with my OB/GYN. When I saw her six months ago, she admonished me that I need to lose the weight. My pre-diabetes could become Type II diabetes. For the past six months I’ve tried and tried and failed and failed. I am embarrassed and ashamed. But I can’t do this without some tangible help–that I can afford.

I know that many people in America are in my same situation. Health insurance, if you are fortunate to have it at all, does not pay for many of the preventive services that could stave off the conditions caused by excess weight. Advertisements in health magazines tout wellness retreats where you can go for a month and learn cooking techniques and develop exercise routines to get you on track. The price for those retreats is something I will never be able to afford.

Other countries offer programs like that as part and parcel of their health insurance. Germans can go yearly on a spa retreat for restorative therapies–not only good nutrition and exercise but also massage, acupuncture, etc. They return to their workaday lives rested, relaxed, and having reinforced healthy habits. The US wouldn’t sanction paying for people to relax and get healthy. We wait until people have chronic conditions and pay the (higher) cost to treat them with pharmaceuticals and surgeries.

I’m frustrated and sad about all this, but I will continue trying. I’ll track my foods, do my exercises, and walk. And continue to hope that somehow, some way, my lone efforts will begin to tip the scales in my favor. With our politicians unable even to repair Obamacare I hold out little hope for preventive therapies and programs to become a part of our health care paradigm. I’ve got to do this on my own.

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Sin by another name

What if we looked at the word “sin” in another light? For many people, especially those who grew up in conservative Christian traditions, the word “sin” is fraught with crushing connotations. Many were taught that God sees them as lowly, sinful creatures. Throughout each day of their lives, they are committing acts that will damn them to hell. Only through Christ, they are taught, can they be redeemed.

Everyone surely is prone to make mistakes and to do wrong things, and for some, it is quite intentional. Many of us, however, make a lot of our errors because of our egos. We don’t intend to do harm, but because we are trying to protect what makes us feel safe, special, and unique, we do hurtful things. So, I want to conduct a little thought experiment. What if we looked at some Bible passages and substituted the word “ego” for “sin”?

Of course, I’m not saying that I have any authority whatsoever to change the words of the Bible! I think however that this little mental exercise might be helpful in examining a different perspective on “sin.” Everyone has an ego, and some live more according to its desires than others. When we think of someone who has a big ego, we see a person who is self-centered, selfish, easily angered, and who craves control over others.

In this thought experiment, we will also use some phrases from the Bible akin to the word “sin” such as “living according to the flesh,” “bondage to decay,” and a “spirit of slavery.” If you will indulge me by taking those phrases to mean that one is living a life led by one’s ego rather than by God’s Spirit, let’s take a look at a passage from Romans 8. In verse 13 Paul wrote, “…if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the flesh, you will live.” Now read the passage replacing “the flesh” with “your ego.”

…if you live according to your ego, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the ego, you will live.

In other words, if you live your life always looking out for yourself, you are leading a life steeped in negativity and harm to others. If you live instead out of a sense of concern for others without a need to defend your territory, your specialness, even your reputation, you are really living. You are living the Spirit-led life.Seeking_human_kindness

When you think about how Jesus lived, he had no concern for protecting his ego. It did not matter to him one whit what others thought about him. The disdain of the Pharisees, the scorn of the Romans, the unbelief of the crowds never made him less caring, compassionate, and loving. He was secure in God’s love and did not need the people’s adulation. He was centered in God; no insult could harm him. Jesus came, in part, to demonstrate to us that we too could live that same way—no longer concerned with the “things of this world”—ego, fame, reputation—but with the things of God.

Indeed, Paul went on to say in verse 15, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” Try reading that verse as follows:

For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to the ego, to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.

You, as also with Jesus, have become a son or daughter of God. Therefore, you don’t need to live a life afraid of what other people think. You belong to God! What could be better than that? No earthly accolade can surpass God’s adoption of you as God’s child. You can go forth and live abundantly in the same ways that Jesus did. If humans, through Christ, are adopted now as children of God and are no longer in bondage to sin—their lower natures, their egos—then we are to work to the glory of God and not for the salvation of our egos. Working for God’s glory entails, by God’s very nature, creating, redeeming, making whole. And Paul says that when humans are working and creating in imitation of God’s creative power, then creation itself will rejoice because it too is set free from the selfish, destructive acts of the human ego: Verse 21, “Creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

Creation itself will be set free from the selfishness of human ego and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.

Ego seeks its preservation at the expense of others; people infused with the Spirit of God seek wholeness for all. This dichotomy—ego vs. Spirit of God—becomes a good evaluative tool for testing our own motivations and for seeing behind others’ motives. You can ask yourself, “Is the action I’m taking meant to ensure the protection of my ego, or is it truly meant for the well-being of all?”

For example, is every instance of our moral outrage really about God’s will? Or is it about protecting our status, tribe, political party, or wealth? Darrell Lackey in a blog post called “Christian: You are upset about the wrong things” wrote:

If you become upset when hearing that gay marriage is legal or that a transgender person may use the same public restroom as you, but you are less upset regarding the hate, violence, and discrimination directed toward such people, often leading to suicide: You are upset about the wrong things.

You are protecting your sense of self without regard for the well-being of the whole. In another example, Lackey wrote:

If you become upset when the government tries to pass reasonable gun restriction laws, but you are less upset with the amount of accidental firearm-related deaths among children and the general level of gun violence in America: You are upset about the wrong things.

What you are upset about is the thought that someone might take your right to own a gun away. Your ego-protection is outraged at that thought. How dare they? This anger makes you unable to work to mitigate gun violence and death in any way because of your fear of losing out on something for yourself.

I could add that if you become upset when NFL football players kneel during the national anthem, but you are less upset about the injustices African Americans face every day of their lives: You are upset about the wrong things. If you become upset about the removal of Confederate statues, but you are less upset by the generations of harm done to enslaved Americans: You are upset about the wrong things. Is protecting these symbols more important than the harm that was and is being done? Is the protection of your ego (and the idols of it) more important than alleviating suffering?

When sin is looked at in terms of ego, it gives us a new way to engage with our issues. We can stop and wonder whether we want something for ourselves or for others. Are we protecting our turf? If so, why? Am I protecting, with righteous indignation, something benefiting me while turning a blind eye to the suffering it causes others? Is my ego causing me to sin? You know what Jesus would say about that.

On the fringe no more

Conspiracy theories used to be a “fringe” thing. Aliens landed in Roswell, New Mexico. moon-hoaxBarcodes are the “mark of the Beast.” And it used to take years to hatch a complete conspiracy theory. People watched Stanley Kubrick movies and gathered photos of the “supposed” moon landings. They combed carefully through the actors’ dialogue and the photos’ shadows for clues to substantiate their beliefs. People, most people anyway, shook their heads and laughed about these theories, and we all went on with our lives.

These days the internet allows theories to generate and propagate worldwide in minutes. Slick web sites tout headlines announcing the latest theory as fact. These sites look like news outlets, so the content in them must be true, right? Hillary Clinton is running a pedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant. Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The Holocaust didn’t happen.

The city of Charlottesville, Virginia, hadn’t even finished cleaning up debris left by the crowds of alt-right and counter-protesters when a new set of conspiracy theories hatched. Brennan Gilmore was a counter-protester that day, and he happened to be on the street where James Fields drove his car into the crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring 19 other people. Gilmore had his cell phone out and was filming when it happened. He shared the video with law enforcement and eventually also with the public. Almost immediately thereafter the alt-right took various biographical information about Gilmore, that he had worked for the State Department for example, and spun it to assert all kinds of conspiracy theories that shift the blame for the attack from the man who did it, James Fields, incredibly, to Gilmore! Gilmore wrote

They wrote that I was a CIA operative, funded by (choose your own adventure) George Soros, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, the IMF/World Bank, and/or a global Jewish mafia to orchestrate the Charlottesville attack in order to turn the public against the alt-right…They claimed my ultimate aim was to start a race war that would undermine and then overthrow Donald Trump on behalf of the “Deep State.” (Politico.com, “How I Became Fake News,” 21 Aug. 2017)

Gilmore was there as a protester and happened to film this horrific scene, and suddenly he is the cause of it? The leaps of illogic are astounding. As an English teacher and a librarian, I wonder all the time what people are learning in school. Is no one teaching students what a logical fallacy is? Such faulty reasoning goes, “Since Gilmore worked for the State Department, he was a government operative; therefore, he is a part of the ‘Deep State’ that is attempting to discredit Trump.”

On such “logic” then what could you conclude about me from these events in my life? I grew up in Texas in a rural ranching area. My parents owned some land. I loved being outdoors. … Then I must have ridden horses a lot growing up, right? Wrong! When I went to Germany as an exchange student and people found out I was from Texas, that was always one of the first assumptions they made about me. You can take virtually any activities or affiliations and string them together to create a theory, but it’s the next step that people seem not to be taking: You must have evidence!

What disturbs me even more than the speed with which these theories multiply is that people I know and love are some of the ones who believe them. I have lost friends on Facebook because they continued to share these types of posts, and when I tried to assert that what they were posting was fake, that there was no evidence for what they were repeating from some unknown source, they became angry at me. I’m not saying I’m always right. I’ve been guilty of reposting some fake stories as well. But everything I’ve been taught about citing sources, checking for evidence, and looking for accuracy made me cringe whenever I saw people sharing “news” that I knew was not based in reality. I was amazed that they did not trust my credentials as a teacher and a librarian.

I realize that what I just wrote might sound arrogant, but I don’t mean it that way at all. It’s just a disbelief in the same way that thousands of scientists are left shaking their heads that people don’t “believe in” climate change. If scientists with doctorates and years of research-based evidence can’t get through to the conspiracy believers, then no one can. I just hadn’t wanted to find that kind of irrational thinking among some of my friends. They either blocked me or I blocked them because we eventually couldn’t stand each other anymore. And that’s really sad. I miss them. But I no longer know how to communicate with them because the system by which they come to their beliefs is incompatible with mine.

I’m just as fascinated as anyone about the moon landings and why we haven’t been back in all these years. It is fun to look at the NASA photos from the moon and to try to see whether it looks like a movie set. But the evidence says we did go to the moon, and until there is evidence—real evidence—to the contrary, I believe there is a US flag stuck in the moon’s soil up there.

People’s beliefs in these theories are no longer just something to shrug our shoulders about. They are causing harm. Edgar Maddison Welch drove from his home in North Carolina to Washington, DC, and entered that pizza restaurant carrying weapons because he sincerely believed Hillary Clinton was running a child abuse operation there, and he was going to stop it by force. Except that there was no child sex ring. It was a conspiracy theory that hatched on the internet and grew into a monster that walked in with a gun. A real gun.

 

 

Is it kind?

Is death kind? Sometimes, it comes slowly, imperceptibly; you look up from the book you are reading, and he’s gone. He’s lain on the bed breathing shallowly for days. You wonder, when he slept, did he dream? Of what do you dream when you’re dying? Sometimes, death comes quickly, unexpectedly, in a van returning from a church retreat. Does death bestow any kindness on its victims before it stops their breath?

frio-river
Frio River, Texas Hill Country

Was song or laughter still caught in the throats of the Baptists in the van when death crushed them? Where is their song now? Did it flow into the gurgle of nearby creeks or float up to mingle among the leaves of oaks? Were the victims blessed with one more grace before leaving, perhaps? A glimpse of blue sky. The red of a cardinal’s wing. The warmth of their friends’ hands? Did death allow them any comfort as they left?

What happens to a man in a war when one minute he’s charging with ferocity at an enemy, and the next he’s lying dead on the ground? Where did his passion go when the bullets hit? Where too his hopes, loves, and dreams? Are they coagulating in his blood and soaking with it into the earth? Or, as the fight goes on without him, do they float, lifting above his body in the breeze, catching thermals and rising to flow through hawks’ wings?

I’ve been thinking a lot about death since my dad passed away in January. I’ve been looking around me to see and hear, feel and breathe the grace of being alive. If people’s hopes and dreams and laughter and song are indeed floating among leaves–swaying and leaving dappled, sunlit patterns on the earth–if their passions and joys have soaked into the ground beneath our feet, then we must tread carefully and reverently. We must look and listen for them, and when our turn comes, may death escort us kindly to join them among the trees, in the air, in the rivers, and within the good earth.

Generations

In a part of St. Louis called St. John, an off-ramp from I-170 northbound curves north and west to meet St. Charles Road. This road, now the St. Charles Rock Road, had been a path for westward-heading wagon trains long before it carried Fords, Toyotas, and Mercedes.

 

charles-rockThe Lewis and Clark Expedition had traveled through here in 1804 on what later became a post and stagecoach road. In 1851 it was paved with oak planks, later with gravel (and thus the reason “Rock” was added to its name), and in 1921 with concrete. Every workday, I travel it a short distance in addition to my I-170 and I-64 routes.

The north exit to St. Charles Rock Road arcs beneath I-170 to a stoplight. Between the arc of the ramp and the road sits a triangle of green, a mini-wetland environment where scrubby trees, cattails, wildflowers, and grasses grow. Some birds make their homes there: red-winged blackbirds, sparrows, cowbirds, barn swallows.

One particular spring evening stands out for me. I exited the freeway to make the curve to westbound St. Charles Rock Road, an orange and pink sunset glowing at its end. As I slowed to a stop at the light, I rolled my windows down. A cool breeze carrying the scent of bar-be-que wafted through, and from the green space came the “conk-a-ree” call of a red-winged blackbird and the trill of a song sparrow’s melody. I breathed in the breeze–and the sounds carried on it–and smiled.

The city’s rush boomed all around me too as semi-trucks’ engines throttled down, and a 747 roared into the sky, human-made machine noise masking the songs and chirps of the birds and the rustle of grasses in the breeze. Between the beats of someone’s music and the clunk of traffic crossing above, I heard the male red-winged blackbird proclaiming his ownership of the green space. I heard the song sparrow’s trill and the swallows’ calls to their hungry babies, no doubt peering out from their mud homes among the rusted, green girders of the overpass.

And I was reminded that the birds have been raising their young and the breeze has been carrying their songs for many centuries before I stopped here to listen. Grasses and wildflowers have whispered tales to one another in the wind long before this spot became a bustling intersection filled with human noise and traffic.

red-wingThis blackbird could be the far descendant of one who witnessed the quieter traffic of horse-drawn wagons heading west. That song sparrow’s ancestor might have trilled from a branch overlooking the streetcar line that once ran along this route. I was reminded in that moment that for the birds, the grasses, and the wildflowers, this is and has always been their home. We are just passing through.

As I looked around me at other people sitting in their cars waiting for the light to change, I wished they noticed these things too. I wish people could turn off their music, turn away from their cell phones, and roll their windows down to hear the music of ages past and the ages to come, the wisdom of place and time told by winged sages and the wind.