Sunday, January 29, 2012

I don't like that answer!

      Wednesday morning I went out to the garage to get into the car to drive to work.  I put my things in the trunk and, as I was walking to the driver's door, I looked down and noticed that the rear tire was flat.  At that point, my day began to deflate as well.  Luckily I had a "Plan B" for getting to and from work (that didn't involve a bicycle!).  Triple-A came and swapped the flat for the spare, and my wife took it to the tire shop, where she was told "The puncture is in a place where the tire cannot be repaired.  But it may be under warranty if you can tell us when and where it was purchased."
       I didn't like that answer!  It's not because I thought that the shop was playing a game with my wife, but rather because it didn't fit into my schedule for the week.
      Yesterday, I returned to the shop, receipt in hand.  I got a further explanation on the damaged tire ("Okay, I believe you!").    I agreed to have the tire replaced and was ready to go while away an hour while the work was done when the manager said, "Wait, let's see if I have those in stock."  It turns out that the answer was not only "No", but that NO-ONE in the country had them (this is/was a snow-tire, and inventories are depleted, and nobody is restocking in the middle of January).  "What are my options?" I asked.  It seems that the best idea the manager could come up with was to do the seasonal switch-over early (that is, replace all four tires with my summer set).  Coloradans know that we can expect snow over the next several months, and sloppy snow at that.
      So, I didn't like that answer!  Not only were we going to have to drive with less traction beneath us, but my schedule for the week took another body blow!
      This morning, I went to a different shop, hoping for a different answer.  "Perhaps THEY will have a different patching system," I thought.  "No," was the next shop's answer as well.  I didn't like that!  It's a vast conspiracy against my schedule!
      Well, no, it had nothing to do with me.  The folks at both tire-repair shops were simply telling me the truth.  I can hear Jack Nicholson shouting at me "You can't handle the truth!"* I certainly didn't want the truth!  The truth was going to be very inconvenient; it was going to interrupt my life in uncomfortable ways.
       But that is the way of individual truths or capital "T" Truth.  Our lives will be interrupted, inconvenienced, changed with our encounters with that which is true.  What my most recent run-in with it showed me was what was at the root of my resistance:  my control-freakism.  And, for me, that was the take-away:  when I find myself resisting some news I don't want to hear, I should first seek the source of my resistance.  Most often, I suspect, the resistance is an indicator of something I need to change.



* The quotation is from the early 90's film "A Few Good Men".  It is reportedly one of the most famous lines in film!

**  By the way, I finally DID get an answer I liked.  But it took compromise.  At my suggestion, approved by the tire-guy, I'm only swapping over the front tires, so I still have snows on the back for the rest of the season!  It will, however, have to wait until tomorrow -- another blow to my schedule!

Friday, January 20, 2012

Glasses on!

     When I was growing up, one of two popular science fiction television shows was "The Outer Limits"; the other was "The Twilight Zone".  Both were popular enough that they were revived decades later, either in movie form ("Twilight Zone"), or as another TV series ("Outer Limits").  The original "Outer Limits" began with a shot of an oscilloscope with a voice over:*

There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. We can roll the image, make it flutter. We can change the focus to a soft blur or sharpen it to crystal clarity. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to - The Outer Limits. 
- Opening narration, The Control Voice, 1960s 

As "The Control Voice" would speak of the image softening or fluttering, the picture on the screen would obligingly mirror those effects.  And, of course, this was in the day when many of us had to fiddle with knobs on the front of our television sets to fine-tune the focus, contrast and brightness -- so, for the Voice to tell us NOT to worry wasn't that out-of-line with our lived reality.
     Over the course of the recent holiday break, I had occasion to remember this old TV show (all of the episodes, by the way, are available on Hulu).  During those weeks, I went to see two current movies and the "Blossoms of Light" display at the Denver Botanical Gardens.  Both movies were 3-D, and required special glasses to view them.  At "Blossoms of Light", special glasses were available that would, theoretically, enhance the experience.
     In the first case (the 3-D movies), the films were primarily a blur unless one was wearing the glasses, in which case, the picture was almost alive.  In the second case ("Blossoms"), without the glasses, everyone pretty much saw the same thing; with the glasses, the viewer might see twinkles or halos or something else.  In both cases, the wearer had a different, more expansive, view of reality than someone without the glasses.
     "Seeing differently" is something, I think, that many religious/spiritual traditions encourage.  Buddhists speak of enlightenment, an understanding that what we see isn't necessarily the way the world is.  Muslims recognize that, all appearances and desires to the contrary (i.e., contrary to human understanding), whatever happens is the will of God.  Many of the accounts of Jesus' interaction with people suggest that he recognized possibilities in them that the rest of the population did not.  Likewise, Ghandi saw in the "untouchables" of India a more profound humanity than the dominant caste system would admit.   Those alternative ways of seeing then translated into alternative ways of acting.
     A religious, or spiritual, vision -- and I'm going to pun here -- is BOTH a different sense of what the future might hold, but also a different way of seeing the present.  It is, as The Control Voice puts it, "participating in a great adventure"of making real what we see.
      Glasses on!



*  You can see this opening scene on YouTube at: 

Friday, January 13, 2012

Mild or Spicy?

      A number of years ago, I was part of a committee at UC-Berkeley planning a campus-wide student leadership symposium.  The committee was still in its formative stages, so every meeting needed to start with an ice-breaker.  One day, the ice-breaker was called "Mild or Spicy".  Basically, each person would declare "mild," "medium", or "spicy" -- these would indicate the kinds of questions that any of the other members might ask.  "Mild" would be something like:  "What's your favorite color?"  "Medium" would increase the potentially embarrassing nature of the question, one can imagine the nature of "spicy" questions.  Each member would have two minutes to answer questions from anyone else.
     As it would happen, the questioning began with the person on my right and proceeded in that direction, i.e., away from me.  Given the number of people in the room, and the time set aside for this exercise, when it came to me there was about 30 seconds for me to answer questions.  Wanting to be "hip" and somewhat confrontive, I declared "Spicy".  The room went quiet; no-one had any idea how to ask a chaplain a spicy question.  After a moment, I said, "The clock's ticking!"  One of the committee chairs, a student I had worked with before, asked, "So why ARE you involved in religion, anyway?" I responded, "In 30 seconds or less?"  Laughter erupted.
      I then looked at the student, and said, "You asked a great question.  You deserve a serious answer."  I thought for about five or ten seconds (the clock WAS ticking, after all), and finally responded, "I guess it's because my religion provides the best way I know of making meaning in the world."  After a few seconds of silence, he simply said, "Thank you."  And we returned to the agenda.
      I've told this story a number of times in the years since that meeting; clearly that brief exchange had an impact on me.  I have no idea if the questioner remembers anything at all of that meeting, let alone his "spicy" question to me.  But that question rocked my world, and crystallized a lot of things for me.  I realized that I had a "Sacred Canopy" (in the words of sociologist Peter Berger).  Very little of that canopy had to do with dogmas or practices; it was more about a framework, a structure from which I could navigate my world.  And so it often is, we find ourselves in unexpected situations where some sort of clarity descends upon us.  The moments may be positive or negative, times of stress or calm.  And sometimes the pressure of the moment will occasion incredible insight.
      A couple of things this week reminded me of that meeting:  an interview with physicist Arthur Zajonc who was discussing the "process" of discovery, and reading Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist.  Remembering the meeting always makes me revisit my answer, and the content behind it.  And that's a good thing.
      I assume we all have those moments . . . mild or spicy.



Friday, January 6, 2012

(Re-) Taking aim . . .

     Today was trash pick-up day in my neighborhood.  As I left the house, standing like guardians before each house on the street (including my own) was a garbage bin, flanked by recycling bins.  In most cases, in addition to those usual containers, there were large flattened boxes, cardboard boxes filled with crumpled wrapping paper, and an occasional evergreen tree.  Larger collections of trash than usual, a material reminder that we have just concluded the most active consumer-focused time of the year.
     Driving down the street, I recalled a line from an interview I heard recently with biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman.  The interviewer, Krista Tippett, quoted from Brueggeman's 1978 book The Prophetic Imagination "Our consumer culture is organized against history. There is a depreciation of memory and a ridicule of hope, which means everything must be held in the now, either an urgent now or an eternal now."*  Those bins, boxes and wrapping paper seemed to suggest that "ridicule of hope".  We want stuff!  As kids, we knew that that remote-control car, or doll, or bike would change our lives!  And we couldn't wait.  And, as most of us have experienced, within several days or a few weeks of receiving a gift, it is either broken, lost, or forgotten.  It may have even ended up in the trash bin!
     And that musing reminded me of a little parable by Jesuit spiritual teacher Anthony de Mello:


     The Master welcomed the advances of technology, but was keenly aware of its limitations.
     When an industrialist asked him what his occupation was, he replied, "I'm in the people industry."
     "And what, pray, would that be?" said the industrialist.
     "Take yourself," said the Master.  "Your efforts produce better things; mine, better people."
      To his disciples he later said, "The aim of life is the flowering of persons.  Nowadays people seem concerned mostly with the perfectioning of things."**

     I like "stuff" as well as the next person.  I maintain a constantly changing gift list (people DO ask me what I want, after all!).  And I have high expectations for the things on that list.  But my drive to to the Light Rail station this morning certainly reminded me of the transitory, and illusory, nature of many of even the most perfect of things on that list.
     I would probably do well to reset my sights and aim higher.



*  The interview can be heard here:

** from One Minute Wisdom (Garden City:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1985),  163.