Intentional Happiness and Misery

It is a good thing to be happy. It is also a good thing to be sad. It is a good thing to choose to feel emotions, and it is a good thing to choose to act on reason. Making choices about how you live your life is in general a good thing. I was at breakfast with a good friend of mine yesterday and during our conversation my friend observed that it seems that most people don’t seem to make much of an effort to minimize or curb their upset-ness or misery.

This, in combination with some other things, has started a slow and ponderous train of thought that starts and moves a little ways then slows to a stop, and it starts and stops again, moving along when it feels the impulse. Most of us don’t choose to be miserable or unhappy, and I think we’re the worse for it. I think all things are better done by choice — sometimes it is good and healthy to be miserable, unhappy, or sad. Not all the time, of course, but on occasion. But most of the time when we’re miserable we are not making any sort of conscious choice in the matter, but we are merely reacting to the pressures and stresses imposed on use by the world we live in. We’re not choosing to be miserable, neither are we making any effort to remedy the misery. We are just sort of wallowing.

I think it is always better to make a choice — when stress and pressure and tragedy hit, we must make a conscious decision: do I want to be sad right now or do I want to not be sad right now? Instead of mindlessly reacting to the circumstances we are in, I think it is always better to make a choice. Maybe I know that I will not be able to work towards a path out of grumpy mood I am in, or maybe I want to be grumpy right now. Maybe I am aware that it is good to grieve the loss I have suffered or the pain that has been inflicted on me so I choose to be sad and to act and express my grief in healthy ways, or maybe I know that I am wallowing unnecessarily in my emotions and just need to get a hold of myself.

I think this doesn’t apply just to misery but to all moods. I think we would be better off if we made more choices about our moods. We cannot instantaneously change our moods or feelings by willing it, but we can take steps to express or change our moods.

The Problem with Politics and Religion

I had a thought today that I’ve been having recurrently in different forms for the past year or two: people care more about labels than they care about substance. They care more about words than they care about actions.

I watched the 3rd Democratic primary debate this evening, and I’m struck at how basically zero policy gets discussed. It appears to me that the candidates are basically either using buzzwords in an attempt to trigger strong emotions in people without ever substantively talking about their policies, or they sling mud and villainize other people again trying to stir up emotions against other people. It seemed like half of what people had to say is ‘Trump is a horrible person and we need to beat him at all costs’ (some candidates tried to stay above that sort of mud slinging than others). I’m not a fan of Trump, but it seems a bit juvenile to do what most of the democratic candidates seem to accuse Trump of doing… scapegoating.

(Sidenote: while we’re on the topic I’m rooting for Andrew Yang.)

Anyways, I’ve noticed the same thing in Christian circles as well. We put such an emphasis on words and beliefs that we forget about substance and action. We get so hung up on making sure that people ‘believe’ the correct doctrinal formulas. We get worried or upset when people don’t mentally assent to certain abstract ideas that we hold as true that it seems we often forget to look at reality: how are people living their lives and holding themselves in relation to the world and others?

This seems to be not a Christian problem but a human problem: the same thing happens in politics and society at large. We almost never get down to the important details and definitions and distinctions of things. We sling around buzzwords to which we attach so much loaded meaning, and when other people use certain words we get triggered by all of the associations we have with those words without trying to understand the motivations and actual substance of what other people believe. We automatically see the world dualistically — when I started writing this paragraph I wrote the second sentence as ‘they’. They almost never get down to the important details, they get worried or upset… I naturally think that they (whoever that is…) are wrong and I am right. I’m guilty of this dualistic us v.s. them mindset too.

I sometimes wonder what I can do in such a world where people are so entrenched and polarized. I guess the best I can do is be as good an example as I can of a listening ear. Try be a presence of peace and comfort and light to those who cross paths with me or enter my home. I need to try to not fall into the dichotomy game of judgement but I need to follow the path that Jesus laid: compassion. I need to not get angry at them for being so caught up in the wrong things. I need to softly, quietly live truthfully and compassionately, not wielding rhetorical swords against others but accepting them for who they are and what they believe. I need to pin up my beliefs with my actions, not my words.

A Toast to My Brother Sam

The toast I gave to my brother Sam at his wedding.


Sam is a troll. He very much enjoys the reactions that he evokes from people, sometimes maybe a little too much. Only just a little. Most people say provocative things just to get a reaction from other people, but I’m convinced that Sam’s main motivation for saying the bizarre and non sequitur things he does is different.

A story that took place when Sam was around 4 and I was 6 describes our personalities aptly. We had created a pirate ship drawing on a giant piece of paper and taped it in front of our dad’s pool table to make a pirate movie.

My dad, helped to narrate by asking us questions, and at some point asked us where the plastic swords we were wielding had come from. Sam started dancing around me, while I tried to remember where the swords came from. ‘From Mick-Donalds!’. The swords had not come from McDonald’s, which I informed Sam, as I continued to try to remember exactly where they had come from.

To which he responded…

‘It’s a toy sword from mick-donalds!’
‘No, they’re definitely not.’
‘They’re from mick-Donalds’
‘No, Sam, we didn’t get them from McDonalds’
‘We got them from mick-donalds!’
‘Sam, NO WE DID NOT.’

Sam wasn’t really paying attention to me as he danced around me quipping ‘it’s a toy sword from mick-donalds!’. Though I suspect he enjoyed my vexation, I’m also convinced that his main goal was not to rile me up. I don’t think Sam himself knows entirely what his motivations are for trolling sometimes. But this is one of his greatest gifts. More than perhaps anyone I know Sam lacks ego. He does things for the sake of things themselves; he dances purely for the sake of dancing; he loves people purely for themselves; he trolls people because he has an ego-less love of idiosyncrasy.

Sam has a contagious enthusiasm and a sharp rhetorical mind which he uses to sell the importance of Jesus following, to cast beautiful visions for what life could be like, to recast your vision of what life is actually like, and to throw precisely calculated wrenches into the cogs of your preconceived notions in order to shake you out of complacent ruts. It strikes me as almost paradoxical that he is such a charismatic and visionary leader, but at the same time holds high people’s dignity and their right and responsibility to make independent decisions.

Sam has no respect for persons. Which is mostly wonderful but has gotten him into trouble on a few occasions. I mean that in the way the apostle James talks about ‘respect for persons’, telling us not to treat people better because of their social position. Whether you are 5, 15, 50, or 100, whatever your race, orientation, beliefs, or choices, Sam will treat you with dignity and respect. Sam has an uncanny ability to hone in on the right priorities instantly: he has taught me to value people for their own sake. Sam freely, abundantly, without reservation gives away his time and love to people — a gift of far more value than his money which he is just as generous with. Most of us, when we give our time and money to other people, attach hidden strings to our gifts and we expect some sort of reciprocation. More than anyone I know, Sam gives with absolutely no expectation of reciprocation.

Even though I’m the oldest child in our family, as we’ve gotten older Sam has become a role model for me. I have probably spent more time with Sam than anyone else here, and I think that gives me particular weight when I say that I trust Sam more than almost anyone else I know to be deeply, deeply good. For that reason his thoughts and choices hold tremendous influence in my life, as I’m sure they do in many of your lives. Tessa, I don’t know you very well yet for myself, but I know that you are an amazing, good, beautiful person, because Sam chose you. I’m so happy to have you as my sister and look forward to knowing you better in the years to come.

To Sam and Tessa.

Starry Nights

The cool California evening was lit by stars, and slowly as I walked down the dark dirt road my eyes adjusted to the dark. I was looking for a good place to step off the road and get a good view of the stars, and I found myself in a brushy field after climbing a small embankment to this end. As I gazed up and around me my heart was cut by the sheer glittering beauty of the sky around me.

After feeling overwhelmed for a few moments I emptied my pockets and knelt to the ground. And after a few more moments of being overwhelmed still, I lay face down in the patch of dirt I was in and began talking out loud, not sure if I was praying, or talking to myself, or talking to no one, or perhaps all three.

I am dust. I am an insignificant particle in the fabric of an intensely giant universe. I am unworthy. Yet I am also worthy. This amazing, beautiful, chaotic, stunning creation was made for me. But why? I don’t deserve any of this. But it doesn’t matter if I deserve it or not, it is a gift to me. And I receive it as a gift. It doesn’t matter if I understand why, or if I deserve it. Everything is a gift. All that matters is how I receive the world, creation, my life, my body, my circumstances. My pain, my suffering, my joy, my hope, my love; it’s all a gift. I am a gift, a pitcher full of God’s grace and love to be poured out into the world as a gift to others. That’s why I have hands, they are a gift to play music for other people, to cook people wonderful food, to caress my love, to hold children with. Hard circumstances, difficult people, close friends, brothers and sisters, every one of them is a gift to me: to teach me, to strengthen me, to stretch me, to help me, to love me. Even the people who frustrate me are a gift. Even the pain and suffering are a gift.

At this point in my prayer I was pacing around my little dirt patch listing off everything and everyone I could think of and seeing them as gifts. I stopped and looked up at the sky again. Have you ever been in a place with so little light pollution that you can really see all the stars? I’ve talked about stars in the night sky many times before in poetry and songs, but I think that it has become a cliche to me, because when I gazed around me I felt a throbbing pang of awe run through me at the beauty. What an amazing gift this world is, this life is. I pray that my heart is always open enough to receive everything that is poured into it, and to receive it well and pour it back out again.

Poem – Second Hand Truths

One day back in February while I was in Moscow (Idaho) after my hermitage, my dear friend George Callihan and I were sitting out front of a coffee shop smoking and drinking coffee. The day was quite bleary, and rain would drizzle and then threaten a downpour every now and then. We decided it was the perfect time to co-write a poem. Anyone who knows either of us will quickly laugh at how well this captures the ethos of us both. We took turns writing the stanzas, though there was some sharing of ideas on certain stanzas. Perhaps you can decipher which voice is me and which is George. On second thought, they may be too similar for you to tell. 🙂

The cold and wind and rain was grey,
outside the coffee shop,
We sat upon our chairs and smoked,
And hoped the grey would stop.

We looked around for sight or sound
Or anything with breath,
But we saw none, so here we sat,
And here we toasted “death.”

The metal chairs were fitting,
Though they laughed at our vain boast,
For they matched the blackened lungs
We used to realize our toast.

My yellow hat, your duster coat,
My friend we’re quite a pair,
Though passers by were soaking wet
We didn’t have a care.

Ah yes, it’s true, we sat and smoked,
And smoked and sat with flair,
I think the girls could not resist
The joy of our despair.

For as they passed each one would turn
And look with some disdain,
Although we knew they only wished
That they could feel our pain.

For pain, both you and I know well,
Can oftentimes be sweet,
And in their hearts the girls know too
And wish to take a seat.

We’d offer them a cigarette
And though they would refuse,
We’d tell them it’s the only way
To cure their black and blues.

They’d laugh and call us cute
But still their words betray their game:
For happiness masks true despair,
True sorrow births great gain.

Intrigued yet unaware they left,
They didn’t understand:
The truths we freely offered them
Were only secondhand.

And so we watched and smiled,
At all that passed us by,
Our offerings of truth and smoke
Accepted by grey skies.

Poem — Walking Stick

One last poem from the mountains.

I stop pushing my way,
For a moment,
Through the near waist-deep snow
And gaze around at the trees.
My eyes come to rest
On the stick in my hand:
My walking stick.
There are a number of strange
And oddly beautiful
Carvings across my walking stick,
Chewed  out paths by termites
Which I found after peeling the bark off.
They somehow remind me
Of Native American mound structures,
Twisting into the outlines of
Creatures both familiar and foreign.
Time to push on through this blasted snow.

 

Blog Redesign and Reflections on its History

This blog has long been overdue for a facelift (well, more like a severe facial reconstruction surgery). I’ve updated the theme and fixed things up a bit today. I’m sure no one besides me cares, but it was too painful for me to look at any longer, so I sat down today and polished things up. Now you can read these posts on your phone! The joys of pervasive responsive design.

Guys, I’ve been doing this for a long time. Like over 10 years. The earliest post in the database is from late 2007 — but the first 62 posts are copy pasted from my original blogspot, which I started January 2007. And omagosh I just checked and that original blogspot is still there! Holy cow I posted a lot that first year. If you scroll to the bottom of the page you can see 14 year old very slightly mustachioed me… I used to be pretty good looking if you can ignore the mustache. Guess things have gone downhill since then. Ah well. At least I now have a fairly sizable beard to cover up my aging face.

As I’ve spent a day updating this blog I’ve re-read some of my old posts through the years and it has brought me to reflect on how I’ve changed and how I haven’t. It’s fascinating that the basics of how and what I think haven’t changed much, they’ve only become more nuanced and refined. It’s cool to have a record that goes back this far of my thought life, and I wondered a few times today what my kids (if I ever have them) will think if they ever read the archives of this blog.

Thanks to those readers who have subscribed and who have continued to slog through my unpolished postings on this blog.

 

I hope someone’s listening,
And Oh I know I can’t sing,
But it means the world to me
If you listen…
So I’m giving you all that’s left
Of me after all this mess
I’ve opened my heart I hope you see
A little bit of beauty.

Poem – With Everything

This was a response to the last poem. I decided I ought to try my hand at answering my question.

I stand solitary, yet not alone, on the ridge.
A great lake of deeply green pines
Covered in last nights pure white snow, sweeps below me,
Surrounded by ponderous, grave, purple mountains,
Drenched in the golden beams of the early morning sun,
Ascending from behind my ridge into the dancing blue sky
And exchanging familiar glances with the mountains,
Latent with something I cannot put my finger on.
All is quiet.
Perhaps if I had better ears I could hear the melody,
The hymn swirling from among the trees below
And echoing from atop the mountains afar.
And yet.
And yet…
Somehow, somewhere deep in my heart I feel the same song beat.
I stand together.
With everything.

Poem — Untitled

Another poem from my retreat into the mountains. You’ll see a progression in these poems as I get further into the quiet.

I’ve sung so often
Of love and heartbreak,
loneliness and sorrow,
Pain  and grief,
And the ecstasy of melancholy.
In fact, I think that’s
All I’ve ever sung of,
For so many years.
Why do I never write
Of peace?
Of light and life,
In a way that is not
Tinged with sadness?

Poem – Beauty

I figured I’d share the poems I wrote during my retreat into the mountains. I’ll post them in order.

Beauty.
It surrounds me.
I don’t want to escape it,
But sometimes,
Too often, I think,
I forget.
The numbing waves of worry and calculation
Cover my soul,
And I forget the sharp,
Blissful ache of beauty.
But occasionally
A lull in the waves
Brings my head above the water,
And I gasp in a breath,
A cutting breath of beauty.
And I remember
That I don’t ever want to forget,
And forget why I ever forgot,
And hope, probably in vain,
But hopefully not,
That I won’t forget again.