Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Courage and Love

The way of love is not
a subtle argument

The door there
is devastation.

Birds make great sky-circles
of their freedom.
How do they learn it?

They fall, and falling
they're given wings.
~ Rumi

My sister, Carla Zilbersmith, was this year's recipient of the Mary Lou Krauseneck Award for Courage and Love presented by ALS TDI. According to ALS TDI's website:

his award is presented to a member of the ALS community who has, despite all obstacles, created a foundation of hope by maintaining a passion for life. The recipient of this award inspires his/her community to fight alongside them in the battle against ALS. He/She understands the importance of keeping a positive attitude and remains committed to finding a cure. This person is a model of strength, courage, and love in his/her community."

I was given the honor of accepting the award on Carla’s behalf. The following is the acceptance speech I gave on that occasion.

2010 Mary Lou Krauseneck Courage and Love Award Acceptance Speech

First, I would like to thank ALS TDI for honoring Carla with this award. Carla passed away May 17th of this year, two and a half years after receiving her diagnosis. And though her loss is devastating to those who knew her and loved her, the impact on the world of her life, and the humor and the honesty with which she lived her life, is very much alive. This past weekend the film, Leave Them Laughing, a documentary about Carla, was screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival. It is incredible to think that through this film, Carla’s life will continue to inspire countless other lives with just those qualities for which she is being honored here today—Courage, Love and a passion for life.

My sister Carla was a performer. An extraordinarily talented jazz singer, an outrageous and outrageously funny comedian, a writer of uncommon depth and honesty, an actor, a director, a provocateur, a songwriter, and an occasional poet. But Carla’s greatest talent was her humanity. She was a devoted mother, a wonderful sister and daughter, and a loving friend. Carla loved people, and she had the ability not only to be able to see the real essence of a person, but to express what she saw, to communicate in word and deed to you what she saw and loved about you.

When Carla was first diagnosed, she was clear that she did not want to become a poster girl for ALS. In her blog she wrote, “I will not become a tireless crusader for a cure for ALS, I will not fight until the bitter end or be anyone’s poster-middle-aged-woman – rather I will do what we were all meant to do – be with people I love doing things that make me happy, trying to make the world a little brighter when I can and giving myself a break when I can’t.”

Carla was not unaware of the irony, in fact she thought it was pretty funny, that not two years later, it was a photo of her that headed up the Calendar she had conceived as fundraiser for ALS TDI. She had become a tireless crusader and a poster girl for ALS and it happened because she did, as she said, what we were all meant to do—be with people she loved doing things that made her happy and trying to make the world a little brighter.

Carla never felt that she was capable of the kind of dedication she had encountered in people like Corey Reich and his family, Toni and Warren Schiffer, Mary Harrington and so many others. She was awed but their endless capacity for giving, even in the face of their own personal tragedies. Carla considered herself a joker and an entertainer and felt that whatever she could offer would be in the example of her spirit for living and her prodigious creativity.

It was out of this spirit that she conceived of the Always Looking Sexy Calendar. For Carla, a person’s humanity was always more important than their medical status, and she envisioned a pin up calendar with people at different stages in their progression of the disease. She wanted it to be sexy, she wanted it to be real and honest, and she wanted it to make a lot of money for ALS research. I know that she was always grateful for the enthusiasm with which ALS TDI embraced what for some was a controversial project.

And this was truly an international project, with models from at least four different countries. In a matter of months Carla had coordinated models and photographers, printers and art directors, all while sitting as one of the models herself. It was a flurry of creative and administrative activity that would have taxed a healthy, able-bodied person, and she was tireless and dedicated.

Whether battling her illness, confronting her own mortality, raising awareness for ALS and the need for a cure, or writing bravely and honestly about it all, Carla used humor. She never missed the opportunity for a joke, especially if that joke was in any way bawdy or inappropriate. And yet, she was never gratuitous. When Carla formed a Facebook group called “People with ALS for GIANT Gimpy Foam Hands”, it was not to make fun of the failing bodies of herself and those with ALS, but to bring awareness to those bodies and the souls of the people inhabiting those bodies. Her vision for the Giant Foam Hands was never realized, but I remember her telling me how beautiful she thought it would be to have an entire stadium of people holding up these giant, yet frail, bent hands. She wanted to shock people into awareness, yes, but she also wanted to remind us all of our fragility and our vulnerability, to remind us that we are all dying, whether we are ill or not. She wanted us to remember that we are all in this thing called life together and it is our job to make this world a little better and a little brighter if we can.

And I think if Carla were here to receive the Courage and Love award she would say that the real courage is displayed by all of those who live their lives despite having ALS, who get up everyday to be with the people they love and do the things they love to do as long as they can. She would say that the real love is in the all the acts of caring—both great and small—given daily by families and caregivers of those with ALS. She would say that the people who have dedicated their professional lives to helping those suffering with ALS, or who devote their time and talent to finding a cure are the ones who display courage and love on a daily basis. She would look around her and say that everywhere you look you can see acts of courage and love and there just aren’t enough awards to recognize them all.

Carla believed that despite the pain and the suffering, there were gifts and lessons to be gained from living with ALS. It was Carla’s mission in the last two years of her life to bring awareness to those gifts, the chief among them being that this life is precious and there is no time to waste in the living of it.

I’ll close by giving the last words to Carla. This is an excerpt from her blog in which she describes the special knowledge that comes from living with ALS:

“You know how life can knock the wind out of you so suddenly and you envy the innocence of the rest of the people around you who don’t realize that just like you they could die at any moment. You want people to know how hard it is, but you don’t want them to feel sorry for you or to think you’re brave or to give you the Olympic Gold Medal for Suffering. You want people to see how easy it would be for them to wake up one morning and decide to give up their self-inflicted pain and enjoy their wonderful life. How easy it is to have a great day when you can make and eat you own toast, throw on your own clothes, go out into the world and do whatever you damn well feel like.

You want people to live all the life you’re going to miss.”

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Missing Carla

It's possible I am pushing through solid rock

In flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;

I am such a long way in I see no way through,

and no space: everything is close to my face,

and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief

so this massive darkness makes me small.

You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:

then your great transforming will happen to me,

and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Rainer Maria Rilke

My sister Carla died.

No matter how many times I speak them, I can’t make that combination of words make sense. I know she is gone. It’s been over a month since she slipped into a coma, finally letting go three days later while surrounded by loved ones. I understand what the words mean. I said goodbye over Skype knowing that a few hours later she would be gone, I sat through the memorial when we all said and sang our goodbyes, I wandered through her house after most of the furniture had been moved out and only a few piles of things sat in the corners of the empty rooms. I know that it is true. My sister Carla died. Still, something in me just can’t comprehend…

Grief comes like a punch in the gut. "I thought I was prepared for this," my father said, fighting through his tears to tell me the news, barely five minutes old. I sat on the other side of the phone line, on the other side of the country, feeling the wind being knocked out of me, even though I had known the reason for this call the moment the phone rang. Even though I, too, thought I'd prepared for this. For two and a half years and one of the longest weekends of my life I prepared. And then came my father's call...

Rilke's image for grief is "pushing through solid rock," as though one were deep in the earth's core trying to push up into the light. It is a place where there is "no space" and "everything is close to my face." Claustrophobic. Immobile. Stuck. For me, grief is more like a fog or a cloud. I can't shake the feeling that I'm forgetting something or missing something. Like Rilke, "I am such a long way in I see no way through."

. . .

I wrote the above paragraphs a month ago. They took weeks to write. I could only manage a few sentences at a time and then I'd have to stop. It's been almost two months now since Carla died. That's the equivalent of about five minutes in grief time. The feelings are not so raw as they were a few weeks ago, but the pain is still very new. My feelings have hardened somewhat, less like a fog now, more like Rilke's stone.

I understand Rilke's cry to God when he says, "You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in." I have always found comfort and pleasure in the practice of prayer and meditation. For me, religion has been a source of vitality. Like art, it is a way of making sense of the world, of being more alive to the world. And, like art, it is a discipline. It is hard work. In the face of grief, it is even harder. I still continue my regular practice of prayer, but it seems like I am simply going through the motions. I feel like a guy holding someone else's place in a long supermarket line that isn't moving. I'm just waiting and waiting, hoping to move forward soon. And so, like Rilke, I long for God to make his presence known. I need God to do all the heavy lifting right now. I need to know that there is meaning in the world, despite all the pain and sadness.

After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote a book called A Grief Observed. In that book he says, "Talk to me about the truth of religion and I'll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I'll listen submissively. But don't come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don't understand." The easy pieties of "She's in a better place" just won't do. I don't want to feel okay that Carla is gone. I don't want to "get back to normal" and "feel good." Religion as an easy consolation would only be another form of repression. If anything, I believe that the hard work of religion means to feel more, not less. It means to look directly at difficult and painful realities and be transformed by them. Even so, I wish it didn't have to hurt so goddamn much.

Somewhere inside me I can sense that I am being changed by this grief. It has to be so. After Carla's death, how could I ever be the same? I imagine that grief is God's way of working some mysterious alchemy in me. I can feel that that is true as I write it, and yet I'm not sure I believe it. Does that sound like a contradiction? Everything about grief is contradictory. This makes sense considering that the pain I feel at Carla's passing is in direct proportion to the love I had, and have, for her. And so I find I need God, but at the same time, I want nothing to do with him. I feel empty and desolate, and yet grief is the one place right now where I feel most fully alive. I want this pain to end, but it feels awful when I do feel better, like a kind of betrayal. I know that Carla is gone, but something in me will not believe it and acts and reacts as if she is still alive. "Like a phantom limb," my therapist said. "Like a phantom limb," I agreed.

The question, of course, is, if I am being changed, what kind of change will it be? Will I shut down, repress my feelings, become colder, encased in the rock? Or will I find a new way into life, a new aliveness somehow birthed by this time of darkness? I honestly can't say right now how things will go -- I feel both of these possibilities within me everyday. But if I am going to get through this, even if I don't yet believe it, I have to have faith that new life can come out of this painful experience. I have always believed that we must be transformed by life, but you have to live through what is and not wish only for what you'd prefer life to be. And so all I can do right now is trust that by not resisting or denying this pain I can, by living through it, return to life renewed.

Shortly before her death, Carla received a package of homemade butterflies made by the children of the playgroup that Allison leads, and that my kids attend. Carla wrote this thank you note to the children, which they received the day after she died:

I was so excited to receive all of the butterflies you made me. I have a picture of them hanging in a fig tree in my backyard. I love butterflies because they are beautiful, but it takes a long time for them to change and a lot of hard work. It makes me feel like anybody can be beautiful if they work hard and are patient and kind, like butterflies. I have a bed in my backyard and I lie under an umbrella and look at your pretty presents. Thank you so much First Parish Playgroup.
Love, Carla (Annabel and Atticus' Auntie Carla)

I hope that through all this I may become a butterfly. I know that is what Carla would want. But she is right, becoming a butterfly is hard work. Right now, I am in the chrysalis stage -- hardly moving, dissolving, all the old forms breaking down, not sure if I'll ever emerge.

At the memorial, towards the end, Atticus said, "Why is this such a long funeral?" At the time, I didn't know what to say beyond, "It'll be over soon." Afterwards, I told Carla's good friend, Gina, about Atticus' remark. Her answer was brilliant and quick. Carla quick. "That's a great question," she said, "because the answer is: It was so long because Carla was loved so much!"

I know that because of the love I have for Carla, and because I miss her so damn much, working through the chrysalis of grief will be a long, hard process. My answer to Atticus was wrong -- it won't be over soon. I hope that I can honor this process, stay open even through the pain, the dislocation, and the uncertainty about where this all leads. I hope that I can return to the fullness of life, embracing it with the kind of joy and delight that Carla always did.

And I hope that with hard work and patience, one day I, too, can be beautiful.

Like Carla was beautiful.

Like she knew we all could be.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Stronger Than Death

Now on that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem, and talking with each other about all these things that had happened. While they were talking and discussing, Jesus himself came near and went with them, but their eyes were kept from recognizing him. . . As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. (Luke 24:13-16; 28-31)

Relationships change us. From the beginning of our lives, key aspects of our personality—the way we experience ourselves and the world around us—are shaped by our primary relationships. If, as infants, we experience secure and stable attachments with our caregivers, we will develop a sense that the world is trustworthy and safe. If, on the other hand, our first relationships are unstable or otherwise traumatic, our ability to navigate the vicissitudes of life will be greatly impaired. Recent studies have shown that early healthy attachments lead to such things as greater self-esteem, greater life satisfaction, and a more robust immune system.

In the most fundamental of ways, relationships change us.

Later, as our worlds expand beyond the circle of family, our connections with others invite us to discover and develop wider dimensions to our personality. But this process of development is not something that is strictly an internal and individual affair. C.G. Jung states, “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” This is the basic premise of psychotherapy, that change is effected by relationship.

Religion, too, teaches that relationships can be transformative, particularly one’s relationship with God. All religions place central importance on the development of compassion, but it is Christianity, with its doctrine of the Trinity, that seems unique in asserting that relationship is not just something enjoined by God, it is the very nature of God. Referring to the idea of the Trinity, Huston Smith tells us, “If love is not just one of God’s attributes but his very essence—and it may be Christianity’s distinctive mission in history to claim just that—at no point could God have been truly God without being involved in relationship.” Looking closely at the story, quoted above, of Jesus talking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus, there is a hint that relationship is also an important factor in the mystery of resurrection.

I can’t really speak to the theological understanding of resurrection as it is beyond the scope of my knowledge. And as for the spiritual reality of a life beyond this one, well, that is something that surpasses human knowing. It has always seemed likely to me that there is an existence that continues past this life, and I share Mary Oliver’s attitude in her poem, When Death Comes, when she says:

“I want to step through the door full of curiosity, wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?”

My personal belief is that death and resurrection are synonyms. Our death is an end on this plane of existence, but it is also an opening to a new and unknowable existence on some other level. A short while back, Carla woke and discovered that she had a sheet wrapped around her and could not move. ALS had left her too weak to free herself and too weak call for help. In order to avoid panic she imagined her body as a sandbag that she dropped off the side of a hot-air balloon. This allowed her to shift out of being identified with her trapped body and to find refuge in her free and soaring imagination. I believe our resurrection is like this, we let go of the body and become all soaring imagination. Or, maybe, it is like an actor walking off stage. We take off the costume and makeup of this character we’ve been playing and remember the wider, more complete personality that we’ve always been.

One of the stories told in the Christian tradition during the Easter season is the appearance of Jesus to two disciples on the road to Emmaus. The two disciples are walking in a state of grief, discussing Jesus’ execution, when they are joined by a stranger. They invite the stranger to join them for dinner and when he blesses and breaks the bread, they suddenly recognize that it is Jesus. As soon as they recognize him, Jesus disappears.

The word ‘companion’ is made from the words com- ‘with’ and panis ‘bread.’ To break bread with someone is to be in relationship with them. In this story, as I noted above, resurrection and relationship are joined together. In fact, in many of the post-resurrection stories, Jesus visits his disciples—his companions—and eats with them. This pairing of resurrection and relationship suggests one way to understand the mystery of life beyond this life. That is, we are most alive in this world and the next where we generate the most love, both given and received.

This, to me, speaks to the psychological dimension of resurrection. Relationships change us. More than this. Who we are is to a large part determined by our interactions with others, good and bad. We are shaped by the successes and failures of love. Relationships not only change us, they create us. It is not too much, I believe, to say that the primary place of relationships in our lives means that we are not confined to our personal, separate selves. We are not merely our egos. We are what happens in the space between two (or more) people.

Certainly, we continue to live on in the memories of those we have loved and those who have loved us. But I am suggesting that we live on in more than just memories. If we are made up of our relationships, then in every person we have met and loved some part of our being has been planted . We live not only in the memories of another, but in his or her very being. Maybe those who are left behind are like pieces in a great puzzle of love. When two or more of the people who have loved us in this life meet again after we are gone, the pieces come together and, in that moment, we are resurrected, we are alive again. We are, in a sense, put back together in those meetings. We are re-membered.

And this to me is where the psychological dimension of resurrection opens out into the spiritual dimension. Maybe our spiritual existence is built up of the love we have generated in the world. The more love we have known, the more our spirit takes on a substantial existence able to become a living presence long after we have released the ballast that is our mortal body. Life ends. Things decay. Even memories fade. Love never dies.

“Love,” teaches Paul Tillich, — and I believe him with all my heart — “is stronger than death.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

The Pope of Crazytown

“A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes.” – Mahatma Gandhi

I really didn't want to talk about Glenn Beck again, but I'm feeling kinda prescient right about now. Recently, in a post about Beck, I included a Gandhi-themed video. Now Glenn Beck is comparing himself to Gandhi. You may have thought I had been trying to be satirical. Well, you were wrong. What else can I say, but: Nailed it!

I have to admit, I was wrong about the guy. I thought that Beck was merely a foolish blowhard who engaged in a bizarre form of pseudo-political performance art in order to keep his audience deceived and, as David Frum writes, angry, because "if they are less angry, they listen to the radio less, and hear fewer ads for Sleepnumber beds." I thought Beck suffered from some kind of Wingnut Tourette’s syndrome that caused him to spout nonsensical schizophasia like “social justice is a code word for Nazism.

I was wrong.

I now realize that Glenn Beck is the greatest spiritual leader of our time. He is a modern day Gandhi. More than this. He is also a crusader for civil rights. For as he lets us know in the very same sentence, he is not only like Gandhi, he is just like Rosa Parks. As I listened to the clip, I kept expecting him to break out with the chorus from the Ballad of John and Yoko: “Christ, you know it ain’t easy. You know how hard it can be. The way things are going, they’re going to crucify me.”

I believe we have yet to discover the true greatness of this spiritual crusader. Think about it. What do you get when you put Gandhi and Rosa Parks together? Would it be too much to claim that Glenn Beck is the next Martin Luther King, Jr.? He’s already done it.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Glenn Beck's Jesus

“Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.” (Isaiah 1: 17)

It’s hard to imagine that it is possible to read the Bible and not come away with the impression that God is deeply concerned with the care and service of those most in need. Indeed, it is often explicit and unambiguous on this point:

“Do not deprive the alien or the fatherless of justice” (Deut. 24:17)

“Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy” (Ps. 82: 3-4)

“He defended the cause of the poor and needy, and so all went well. Is that not what it means to know me?" declares the LORD.” (Jer. 22:16)

Apparently, Glenn Beck has never read the Bible, or if he has, he hasn’t understood what he read. Beck has been advising his audience to leave their churches if those churches dare to speak of social justice. The words ‘social justice,’ according to Beck, are code words for . . . wait for it . . . Communism! Or Nazism! One or the other or maybe both, perhaps: Communazism! So, real churches do not engage in the evil that is social justice.

Beck is a convert to Mormonism, but apparently no one in that church explained to him the Mormon faith. As the New York Times reports:

“Even Mormon scholars in Mr. Beck's own church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said in interviews that Mr. Beck seemed ignorant of just how central social justice teaching was to Mormonism.”

Hmm. “Mr. Beck seemed ignorant.” Sounds about right.

The website Bread For the World, a Christian organization dedicated to ending world hunger has begun a petition to urge Beck to stop making these kinds of inflammatory statements. Of course, Glenn Beck IS inflammatory statements, without them he would have nothing to offer and there would be no show. So the petition is unlikely to go very far to change his behavior, but if you are so inclined it can be found at the Bread For the World website.

I don’t think Glenn Beck would like Jesus if he ever decided to skim through the New Testament. I mean the guy counsels rich people to give away all their money to the poor. Talk about redistribution of wealth! What kind of Jesus is that? I wonder what Glenn Beck imagines when he thinks of justice? If social and economic justice are evil, what's left for an extremist libertarian? Street justice! Instead of compassion and care for the poor, I imagine Glenn Beck's Jesus is a kind of cosmic vigilante. Brian McClaren posted this hilarious video of a Gandhi sequel on his blog recently. Just replace Gandhi with Jesus and you get the picture. "He's back and this time He's apocalyptic!":

Monday, March 15, 2010

A Fool Such As I

For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength. (1 Cor. 1:25)

I have not been able to publish a post for the past several weeks because I have been studying to take the Propaedeuticum, otherwise known as the Stage 1 exams, at the Jung Institute. This set of exams is major rite of passage at the Institute, as it marks the transition from the theoretical and academic phase of the program to the practice-oriented phase. To be in this second stage of training is roughly equivalent to beginning a residency in medicine. With the guidance of experienced analysts, the Stage 2 diploma candidate now becomes immersed in learning to become a practicing Jungian Analyst.

As my exam date drew nearer, I had this dream: I am getting ready to be tested. I introduce myself and say, “I am a fool. I don’t care what you think.”

Now, being a good Jungian, I tend to take my dreams very seriously. That this one refers to my exams seems quite clear. However, it’s that last phrase that I take to be the key to the dream. On the one hand, you could read the last part of the dream to mean, “I would be a fool to not care what others (the examiners) think.” After all, the point of an exam is to submit yourself to another’s judgment. It matters what others think because they have the power to pass you or fail you.

Being concerned about what others think, though, is not my problem. Or, rather, it is my problem, because I tend to worry too much about what others think about me. I spend far too much mental and emotional energy trying to accommodate myself to what I perceive to be the needs of others, trying to make myself into an “acceptable” version of myself. And though this can appear humble or self-effacing, it has a strong narcissistic quality to it. I want people to like me, so I present a likable self. In the end, I lose myself. In Jungian terms, I defend my persona, but am cut off from my Self—the wholeness of my being.

Given my tendency to care too much about what others think, perhaps the way to read the dream, then, is as an unambiguous statement regarding the attitude I needed as I approached my exams. That is, I needed to be able to say, “I am a fool. I don’t care what you think.” Jung’s attitude to dreams is very different from Freud’s. Where Freud sees the dream as a disguised fulfillment of an unconscious wish, Jung believes that the dream is a self-portrait of the individual’s psychic situation. In other words, the dream doesn’t disguise anything. It says what it means.

So, what does it mean to be a fool?

The classic image of the Fool is found on the card numbered ‘0’ in a deck of Tarot cards. It is the prototype of our modern day Joker in a regular deck of cards. The Joker has taken on sinister implications, being associated at times with the devil and, more recently, in the identification of this figure with the ultimate arch-enemy of Batman. We think of the Joker as creepy, frightening, dangerous and cruel.

The figure of the Fool, however, does not originally have those connotations. It is a symbol of freedom and wisdom. As Joseph Campbell describes this image, it signifies a condition of human consciousness in which the individual is “careless of the bites of the world … a wandering sage.” It represents a state of being where the individual has attained a certain detachment from the cares of the world, in particular, from those cares that keep us limited in our narrow ego perspectives—wealth, possessions, achievements, social pressures. It is, to be sure, a subversive figure, but not a malevolent one. This subversive quality of the Fool is most clearly seen in those characters that populate Shakespeare’s plays. The Fool, like the one in King Lear, satirizes the dominant attitudes of the court. He speaks truths to the King that no one else has license to speak.

Now, I am nowhere near being a realized sage, but in light of all these considerations, I took this image from my dream as pointing to the danger of taking myself too seriously. If I went into my exams trying to prove to my examiners how good I was, I would be in danger of going off track. On the other hand, if I could say, “I don’t care what you think,” then I would be freed to confidently express what I thought and not try to present myself in some imagined “suitable” way. It was important that I owned and trusted my particular understanding of the material. (Just to be clear: This was not a kind of multiple choice test. The exams included both essay questions and an oral examination. It was not so much a test of discreet bits of knowledge, but of how that knowledge was integrated and presented.)

I determined that instead of continuing to be anxious about learning the material, I needed to focus more on getting myself in the right frame of mind. To do this, I decided watched the greatest motivational speech ever committed to celluloid. Win one for the Gipper? Too obvious. Kenneth Branagh’s St. Crispin’s Day speech from HenryV? Wonderful, but too bloody. Besides, I needed some Fool energy, not Kingly power. No, this masterpiece was the cure for what was ailing me:

The figure of the Fool is a surprisingly common one in the various religious traditions. St. Paul says, “If any one of you thinks he is wise by the standards of this age, he should become a ‘fool’ so that he may become wise.” In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the figure of the “Fool in Christ” was a venerated figure who was understood to have given his life completely over to God. In the Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu says:

I am a fool. Oh, yes! I am confused.
Other men are clear and bright,
But I alone am dim and weak.
Other men are sharp and clever,
But I alone am dull and stupid.

The Sufis describe themselves as drunkards and madmen. The image of the Fool can be glimpsed in this quatrain by Rumi. Here he is called the lover:

Let the lover be disgraceful, crazy,
absent-minded. Someone sober
will worry about events going badly.
Let the lover be.

What is the lesson of the Fool? I think it would be a mistake to understand the message of the Fool as “Don’t worry, be happy.” It’s not that if we stop worrying about life, only good things will happen, or we will finally get all that we want. Besides, as Bill Murray wisely reminds us, winning is no guarantee of happiness. The other team may still get all the girls.

Is the Fool’s message that we should have trust in the universe, or, if we are religious, trust in God? Well, yes, up to a point. As long as that trust doesn’t cause us to abdicate any responsibility for our own lives. An illustration of this pitfall is a recent story about Minnesota’s Governor, Tim Pawlenty, who has been talking up the idea of “God’s in charge” as a key principle of conservative politics. For this he has earned the rebuke of a group of Lutheran ministers, who issued this statement:

Governor please, stop talking to us about God. The governor is going around saying 'God is in control.' We elected you. We elected you to be making decisions for this state that will help everyone in this state. Things that will lift up the poorest in this state. Don't pass this on to God. That's no God we've ever heard of. And please stop lecturing us about God. It's offensive.

Trust in God without personal engagement in life is sterile. The formula that makes the most sense to me in this regard comes again from Joseph Campbell who says, “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of the world. We cannot cure the world of sorrows, but we can choose to live in joy.” The point is essentially this: Bad things can and will happen. Some of those bad things will be the result of getting things you thought you wanted. And some of the best things in your life will look like failures or losses at first. Beyond this, expect to encounter great suffering in the world. Do what you can to alleviate it, but don’t get caught in the delusion that you can eliminate it. And to the best of your ability, have a good time while you’re here.

This is one of the main teachings of the Bhagavad Gita: “You have a right to your actions, but never to your actions’ fruits. Act for the actions sake. And do not be attached to inaction. Self-possessed, resolute, act without any thought of results, open to success or failure.”

In our bottom-line, results-oriented, winning-is-everything world, this ancient wisdom sounds foolish. But every now and then it helps to remind ourselves: “It just doesn’t matter.”

Sunday, January 17, 2010

What's Wrong With Pat Robertson?

“It is customary to blame secular science and anti-religious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion--its message becomes meaningless.” ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel (God in Search of Man)

My father recently joined a Facebook group called: Dear God: If you really exist please tell Pat Robertson to SHUT THE F**K UP!” Now, my father, like me, is a very mild mannered person who rarely swears. It usually takes something fairly extreme before either of us are moved to utter a curse word. So it was quite startling to see him associated with these particular words. Before this, the most unexpected thing I’d seen him do was actually joining Facebook.

So, what was it that Pat Robertson said that had my Dad resorting to asterisks and expletives? Just this pearl of wisdom and compassion:

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.’ True story. And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal.' Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."

When Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the passage quoted above, I doubt he had Pat Robertson in mind. But to his list of religion’s failings—“irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid”—we might now add ‘heartless and cruel.’ Heschel’s critique of religion is not a condemnation, but a call to action. It is a powerful critique because it is made by a deeply religious man—a rabbi raised in a family of Hasidic Jews, a mystic, and a theologian. Heschel’s point is not that religion is wrong, but the uses to which it is put by human beings are too often wrong. God caused water to flow from a rock, but the vessels of religion that we have constructed to capture that stream harden into authoritarian doctrine and the living fountain of faith is stopped up.

I have seen the video where Robertson makes these reprehensible remarks, and I have to say, I think that he truly believes that he is being compassionate. He is not filled with righteousness or hatred. He is not preaching fire and brimstone. In fact, he expresses concern and hope for the people of Haiti. This does not make his words any less troubling, however. He still said what he said. He believes Haiti is being punished by God for making a pact with the devil. But, if he is not intending to be cruel, that still leaves this question unanswered: “What’s wrong with Pat Robertson?”

I’m sure several people reading this can answer that question easily, but I want to suggest something else, as well. I think that the problem with Pat Robertson, and those like him, is that they have constructed their religion in such a way that it becomes a defense against truly experiencing the full impact, the full horror and catastrophe of events like the earthquake in Haiti. To declare such a disaster as God’s punishment is to make an escape from the reality of human suffering. It means you don’t really have to feel the pain, the grief, the fear and the horror, which are inescapable realities for the Haitian people.

For Heschel, religion and love of God meant compassion and action. It meant being affected by the suffering of those around us and doing something about it. He was active in the Civil Rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King. Heschel believed that we should not defend ourselves from the human predicament:

“I would say about individuals, an individual dies when he ceases to be surprised. I am surprised every morning that I see the sunshine again. When I see an act of evil, I'm not accommodated. I don't accommodate myself to the violence that goes on everywhere; I'm still surprised. That's why I'm against it, why I can hope against it. We must learn how to be surprised. Not to adjust ourselves. I am the most maladjusted person in society.”

In the Christian tradition, the portrait of Jesus is one of a man who did not remain distant or aloof from human misery. We see a man who weeps in the face of death, who reaches out his healing touch to the sick and needy, who responds to those who seek him out honestly with love and compassion. He saves his condemnation for the scribes and Pharisees, those religious leaders who rigidly hold to the form of religion, but have lost its spirit. To others, the so-called sinners, as in the story of the adulterous woman, he speaks with tolerance, forgiveness, and acceptance.

How different is this portrait than the one painted by Pat Robertson! I suppose that if you conceive of an event like the earthquake in Haiti as God’s punishment, then you can’t feel too sorry the victims because that would be to question God, to doubt both his mercy and his justice. But to experience doubt about God in the face of such a tragedy is an honest response. And maybe it’s against that kind of doubt that Robertson’s version of religion is ultimately defended against. It is uncomfortable to consider where a loving God is in all of this and how he could let such devastation occur to a poor and defenseless people. It is hard not to feel that the Haitians have been abandoned by God. And if them, then all of us.

I believe a truly religious attitude must be willing to undergo the painful feelings of doubt and abandonment. To allow such a feeling is to share in an experience that has been sanctified, in the Christian tradition, by Jesus’ own encounter with suffering. In the unspeakable torment of his crucifixion, he confronts the terrifying possibility that he has been abandoned by God, and cries out the opening words of the 22nd Psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

It is by allowing thoughts like these, as Jesus did, that we prevent ourselves from offering facile and merciless explanations for occasions of suffering, such as that offered by Pat Robertson for Haiti. The word compassion means ‘to suffer with.’ We cannot defend ourselves against the suffering of others if we are to be able to respond with caring and compassion. And when we consider the outpouring of concern, the expressions of compassion, the relief efforts, the generous contributions of time, money and assistance; when we consider the spontaneous generosity of ordinary human beings, isn’t this where we find the presence of the divine that we had thought to be so absent from the scene? I believe that if we can learn to sit with suffering, if we can allow ourselves to experience doubt and grief, then we truly stay open to the living fountain of divine reality, which reveals itself in the astonishing resilience of the human spirit.

The New Testament offers this assessment of religion: “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (James 1:26-27).

Today Haiti has more widows and orphans than it did a week ago. They need the care and generosity that is the true spirit of humanity; they need the compassion that is the hallmark of true religion.

If Pat Robertson cannot open himself to this vision of the human spirit, so beautifully exemplified in the life of Jesus and in the words of Abraham Joshua Heschel, then he should just shut the fuck up.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Pathways of Love

O my friends,
What can you tell me of Love,
Whose pathways are filled with strangeness?
When you offer the Great One your love,
At the first step your body is crushed.
Next be ready to offer your head as his seat.
Be ready to orbit his lamp like a moth giving in to the light,
To live in the deer as she runs toward the hunter’s call,
In the partridge that swallows hot coals for love of the moon,
In the fish that, kept from the sea, happily dies.
Like a bee trapped for life in the closing of the sweet flower,
Mira has offered herself to her Lord.
She says, the single Lotus will swallow you whole.

~ Mirabai (trans. by Jane Hirshfield)

This is my New Year’s resolution: To lose my mind, to dive into the heart, to turn every moment of my life into a song of praise. Like the Hindu poet-saint, Mirabai, I want to be crushed by God, enclosed in His sweet flower, and swallowed whole by the Divine.

Do I sound a little crazy? Does what I want sound impossible, unlikely, extravagant? Then I’m on the right track. You see, I am tired of asking too little of my life and being disappointed if that is all I get. This year I don’t care about losing weight, eating better, or exercising more. I want nothing less than the total transformation of my being. I don’t want to be healthy, I want to be fully alive. I don’t want to have more fun, I want to know the fullness of joy. I don’t want to have better relationships with family and friends, I want to become Love itself.

There is a legendary story about the great Sufi poet and mystic, Hafiz. It is said that when he was still a young man, Hafiz fell in love with a beautiful woman. Desperate to win her love, he went to the tomb of a great Sufi master where it was believed that anyone who could stay awake for forty consecutive nights would be granted his heart’s desire. In his burning love for his beloved, Hafiz completed his forty day vigil, at which point he was visited by the angel Gabriel. He was so overcome by the beauty of the angel that he forgot all about the young woman. When he was asked to name his heart’s desire, he cried out: “I want God!” From this beginning, Hafiz became the God-drunk lover of the Divine who is still so wonderfully present in his ecstatic poetry.

There are two things that I take away from this story. The first is that any path, if followed with devotion and discipline, can become a path to God. In this case, it is the very human realm of romantic and sexual love that draws Hafiz to the revelation of God. But I would suggest that this would also apply to all the great religions as well. I will confess that I am not very picky when it comes to the ways God chooses to reveal himself. I mean, who am I to demand of God that he choose a particular face or dress simply to please my sensibilities?

Not that I think that it is a simple matter of my choosing one path over another. It is not the ego that leads in this, picking the bits and pieces it prefers from some spiritual buffet. No, my experience has been that certain things—moments, ideas, images—are filled with a power that can only be called Divine. I believe that it is in this way that my path chooses me. The individual definitely has a role to play—Hafiz had to stay awake for forty days before God was revealed—but the initial choosing belongs to God. And though it is the Christian path that has chosen me, that in no way precludes me from experiencing the Divine in other traditions as well.

The second idea I take from the story of Hafiz is that the heart of any path to the Divine is Love. And its two faces, as mentioned above, are devotion and discipline. In other words, Love is both a feeling and an activity. As the Hafiz story shows, there is a parallel between the relationships we have with other human beings, and the one we have with God. We are caught by some power that draws us into a relationship with the other and, in response, we take action to strengthen and understand that relationship.

But, just in case we make the mistake of thinking that the Path of Love is something merely sentimental or sweet, Mirabai, in her poem, lets us know that the road is not an easy one. She warns us that “when we offer the Great One our love,” we will be crushed, killed, trapped, and swallowed. Love, she is teaching, is a radical dismantling and de-centering of the ego. Perhaps what she is saying is that through love we return to, and become one with, the source of Love —“The single Lotus will swallow you whole.” In the Christian tradition these ideas are expressed in the words of John: “Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God,” as well as those of Paul when he says: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

And so it is that I set myself the impossible goal for the New Year of being so completely overpowered by the Divine that all that is unworthy, all that is petty, all that is greedy and grasping and selfish in me is dissolved and I become, in the words of the old song, a fool for Love. I am under no illusion that this is a goal I can reach in this year or even in this life, but that is no reason not to make the attempt. Who knows? Maybe if I am disciplined and devoted enough, I might be able to say with Hafiz (as imagined by Daniel Ladinsky):

“It is all just a love contest. And I never lose.”

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Poverty and Abundance

“Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And he said, ‘Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.’” (Luke 21:1-4)

Recently, my sister, Carla, wrote a post on her blog which was titled A Call to Action. It’s a wonderful meditation on the activity of love. She writes:

“If your partner is ill, love is a call to action. Love wakes parents up in the middle of the night. It caused a man I know to risk tenure because his mom was sick half way across the country in Cleveland. It invited my friends to discover the bottomless depths of their generosity and compassion. Yes. Yes. Love is not so much a feeling as an alarm bell, a runner's gun, a reminder that we are only as good as the good we do for one another.

Love is not so much a feeling as a call to action.”

Regular readers of this blog will know that my sister has ALS. Carla faces everyday with the knowledge that her time for action in this world is limited. She cannot use her legs or her hands. She has round-the-clock caretakers who wash her and feed her and get her dressed. And yet, through all this, she remains a woman of action.

Carla is endlessly creative. She has turned her confrontation with death into a work of art. She writes a beautiful blog. She doesn’t just use a wheelchair, she transforms it. She has decorated it, and the van in which she now travels, with colorful, funny, completely irreverent, and appropriately inappropriate images of her experiences.

In recent weeks she has been putting together her latest brainchild—a pinup calendar featuring regular people with ALS in provocative poses to raise money and awareness for ALS. It’s going to be called the Always Looking Sexy Calendar, and even though she is confined to a wheelchair and tires easily, Carla has coordinated the activity of models and photographers, printers and publicists from different parts of the country to get this project completed for the holiday season. It would be a daunting project for someone with full capacity and energy. Like many creative people, she’s a little crazy, but this allows her to throw herself into such a project and make it happen.

Whenever I read the story of the widow’s gift from the Gospel of Luke quoted above, I think of my sister. Whatever she does, she gives it all she has and all she is. She lives what she writes – that love is a call to action. One of the things that she loves the most is life itself, and her creative activity is one of the ways that she cares for life.

Last winter, after my wife had come home from the hospital following emergency surgery, Carla offered to come out to help take care of our family. She was already in a wheelchair and had very limited mobility. “I can’t do much,” she said, “but I’ll do whatever I can.” She didn’t have much she could do, or much she could give, “but she out of her poverty put in all she had.” She’s crazy like that.

And isn’t that the point of the gospel story? The widow’s poverty—like my sister’s—is, in reality, abundance because it is full of love. The abundance of the rich, really poverty if it is devoid of love.

I remember when I was a little boy getting into situations which seemed to me at the time scary or panic-worthy, like having soap in my eye that stung me, or getting my pants leg caught in my bike chain that I couldn’t get out so I was unable to get back home to safety. I remember in those situations crying and calling for help. Inevitably, it was Carla who would appear out of nowhere to see if I was okay. Rarely, did she get angry at me, but with simple caring and compassion she would rescue me and bring me back home.

In stating that love is a call to action, Carla has touched on the thing that Karen Armstrong finds is the root of all the major religions, that is, compassion:

The religions are forms of ethical alchemy, if you like. That you behave in a compassionate way and this changes you. Why? Because all the great masters of religion tell us that what keeps us from a knowledge of the divine, from — which has been called variously God, Nirvana, Brahman, the sacred — what keeps us from this ultimate reality is our own egotism, our greed, that often needs to destroy others in order to preserve its sense of self, or even just to denigrate others. What compassion does, it makes us dethrone ourselves from the center of our world and put another there. And it's this that they all teach leads us into the presence of the divine.”

Carla’s version is immediate and imperative:

“If you knew you were going to die, who would you want to be with and how would you spend your time together? What are you waiting for? From my vantage point I can see that there is no time to delay -no time to deny the people we love of our time, our attention or our action.”

Carla’s love is an active love. I have known it from the time I was a small boy. For this I am grateful. For this I am blessed.

I love you, Carla.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

A Grace Deeper Than No

“It’s whether you say yes or no to the serpent, to the adventure of being of alive.” ~ Joseph Campbell

Last week I attended a beautiful Vespers service at my church. Dimmed lights, silent reflection, and quiet music set the mood for a meditation on the 23rd psalm. The minister took the image of the cup that runneth over as the focus of his talk. He read a quote from Martin Luther that I haven’t been able to track down, but it spoke of the grace that comes when we stop resisting the troubles and difficulties that are a part of life, when we stop saying ‘No’ to hardship. There is a Grace that is deeper than that No, says Luther, if only we are able to affirm all that happens to us, good or bad.

In the quote, Luther describes his own experience of being “crushed in the spirit.” By enduring his anguish, by surviving it, but, more than this even, by saying Yes to it and affirming his suffering, he discovered that Grace awaits on the other side of such pain, and he knew the experience of the overflowing cup talked about in the psalm. Listening to this meditation, I was moved by the idea of a Grace deeper than No, which I take to mean that to resist a part of life is to resist the whole of life, and that pain and sorrow are not barriers to living, but are also bearers of life’s secret.

When I was in theater school, we would take classes in improvisation. One of the cardinal rules of improvisation is that you can’t say No. That doesn’t mean that you can’t actually use the word no, but that you must avoid blocking the suggestions made to you by the other actors. So, if someone says, “Gee, your sex-change operation went really well,” you can’t say, “I didn’t get a sex-change operation!” You would have to go with the suggestion. In other words, you have to adapt. But it is about more than that. To say No is to cut off the creative possibilities of the moment. As Keith Johnstone, an improvisation teacher and the creator of Theatresports, once put it, “There are people who say Yes and there are people who say No. Those who say Yes are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say No are rewarded by the safety they attain.”

Saying No, or blocking, is not just a problem in improv, it is a problem in life. In many ways, we have become people who are unwilling to suffer any kind of discomfort, let alone pain and suffering. Our collective mantra has become “I can’t deal with this,” or sometimes, “I don’t need this right now.” And yet we don’t always get the option to decide whether we will deal or not.

There have been many times in the past two years when I have been confronted with the question of whether I could deal, whether I was willing to face pain and loss. After my wife, Allison’s, cancer treatment was done, and she began to look and feel healthy and whole again, I realized I was having trouble opening up to her and allowing myself the emotional intimacy that was always so easy and natural for us. I had come too close to losing her and I recognized that in opening up to her, I was recommitting myself to the possibility of experiencing that agony again.

I have experienced something similar with my sister, Carla, since she was diagnosed with ALS. Beside the instinct to be near her and get every moment I can with her, there is a counter instinct in me to stay away. Pain in this situation is not just a possibility. It is a certainty. And something in me wants to run far away from it. With both Allison and Carla, there is a strong No in me that does not want to have to feel my grief. But, the thing is, the alternative is unacceptable, because it would mean not having the experience of loving and being loved by these two incredible people in my life. It would mean saying No to happiness and joy. I believe that there is a Grace deeper than No.

In my work as a psychotherapist, and in my personal experience, it has become ever clearer to me that one of the most important qualities a human being can develop is the willingness to tolerate pain and suffering. I have found that a person who has a capacity for grief usually has an even greater capacity for joy.

To deny pain and suffering is to deny life. It is to choose a less than human life. Because there is no life that will be free of difficulties, that will be spared the encounter with sorrow. To accept this is not to give in to despair. Quite the opposite. It is to develop an important strength, a strength born of an honest vulnerability. And this becomes a doorway to joy, because when we are faced with loss we remember that each moment is a gift. Life is a gift. Love is a gift.

This is not just a nice idea. It is literally true. We do not and cannot will life and love into existence. They are given as part of the condition of existence and it is our task to learn to receive them. And this is the heart of the matter. To receive these gifts means that we agree one day to let them go, to give them back, to lose them. This is what it means to say Yes to the adventure of being alive. Yes is a small word, but its implications are immense. To accept love means to accept loss. To fully accept life means we must fully accept the fact of death. But the opposite is also true. If we accept loss, we will know love. If we allow death, we will truly be alive. It is only in saying Yes that we finally come into the fullness of our true being.

Saying Yes takes courage. It takes courage, says Paul Tillich, simply to be. It can be a trial and a sacrifice, but the reward is great. Deeper than No is Grace. Passing through pain we discover joy.

At Vespers, as the minister spoke, I knew that this was a service I needed to hear. I knew as I heard about the Grace beyond No, that I was blessed to know love that caused me pain, and to know pain that taught me also about joy. At the end of the service, the sanctuary was lit only by candlelight. Everyone lingered a while in that glow, in the still silence, before, one-by-one, we each got up to leave. I wandered out into the cold, dark New England night thinking about Allison, and Carla, God, my life. At that moment, I was the cup that runneth over. Everything seemed to be exactly in its place.

If you had asked of me anything that night, I would have had only one answer: Yes, yes, yes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Wrestling With Joy

"If we consider the unblushing promises of reward and the staggering nature of the rewards promised in the Gospels, it would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered to us... We are far too easily pleased." ~ C.S. Lewis

A friend posted this quote on Facebook and I felt it added such a great new dimension to the topic of rewards that I had to pass it along.

Religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are often imagined as populated by figures such as the prudish moralist or curmudgeonly ascetic who are concerned that somebody somewhere might be having a good time and are out to put a stop to it. But this remark of C.S. Lewis turns the whole thing on its head.

It's not that we are creatures carried away by our desires. Rather, our desires are "weak." We are "half-hearted." We don't want enough! Is it possible that we talk about pursuing happiness, but are really seeking something less? We look for admiration. We want to be entertained. Many just want to be numb and not feel at all. For me it's comfort (which includes all of the above) for which I trade the possibility of joy.

The poet, Rilke, knew that we asked for too little. He wrote:

You see, I want a lot.
Perhaps I want everything:
the darkness that comes with every infinite fall
and the shivering blaze of every step up.

So many live on and want nothing
In another poem he uses the image of fighting, but the message is the same. We set our goals too low:

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I don't know why "we are too easily pleased." Rilke suggests that our perspective is too narrow. We want to reduce the "extraordinary and eternal" to a manageable, consumable size. But if the joy that is offered us is truly infinite, we need to take on some of the quality of that larger world. When we "let ourselves be dominated," we grow. Rilke goes on to say that being defeated by the eternal changes us at a fundamental level. We become ready to give up the ambitions of the ego and to accept the promises of the Spirit:

Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
Letting go of our "half-hearted" wants can sometimes feel like a defeat. But perhaps it is our little self that is being overcome to make way for a much larger life.

I, for one, am ready to stop wrestling with infinite joy. It's time to cry "uncle!"

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Following After Rewards

“to the humble and faithful, to those with compunction and devotion, to those anointed ‘with the oil of gladness,’ to the lovers of divine wisdom who are enflamed with its desire, to those wanting to be free to magnify the Lord, to be in awe of him, and even to taste him.” ~ Bonaventure (from The Essential Writings of Christian Mysticism)

PsyBlog has an interesting article on how rewards can have a negative impact on motivation. The article points to research that shows that when people are engaged in an activity they like, their interest in continuing that activity will diminish as soon as they start to expect a reward for doing it. At first this seems counterintuitive. Surely, if you like doing something and you get a reward for it, that should increase motivation. Shouldn’t it?

The problem is that when rewards are introduced, it doesn’t so much add motivation as shift it from one location to another. That is, an activity that used to be fueled by an intrinsic motivation—you just liked doing it—is now driven my extrinsic motivation—the external reward. In other words, pleasure becomes associated less with simply doing a particular activity, and becomes attached to the reward itself.

The authors of the article suggest some other reasons to be wary of rewards:

“Not only this but rewards are dangerous for another reason: because they remind us of obligations, of being made to do things we don't want to do. Children are given rewards for eating all their food, doing their homework or tidying their bedrooms. So rewards become associated with painful activities that we don't want to do. The same goes for grown-ups: money becomes associated with work and work can be dull, tedious and painful. So when we get paid for something we automatically assume that the task is dull, tedious and painful—even when it isn't.”

Back in July when I entered into the Beliefnet blogging contest, I did so because I loved writing, and I loved exploring the idea of God and of religion. It was a chance for me to engage in the “love of divine wisdom.” It was for me a form of prayer and devotion, a way to focus my thoughts and feelings about God, not to mention a chance to think about and share my enthusiasm for the works of people like Rilke, Rumi, Abraham Heschel, Carl Jung, Paul Tillich, and Alan Watts. A chance to dive into the scriptures of the Great Traditions and be enlivened and enriched.

I was honored and excited to win the contest. It was truly a thrill. It is a great gift to be recognized for doing something that you love to do. It is a great need that we all have to be seen, to be given some kind of positive mirroring, to have the things we offer be received and welcomed. I will always be grateful that I had a moment of having those needs met through the writing of this blog.

But rewards also have consequences.

Somewhere along the way, my enthusiasm for writing was overshadowed by my concern for the aftermath of the contest. Where was the blog being promoted? For how long? The fact that it was being promoted at all created such a pressure to come up with new material that my inspiration all but dried up. Then the blog stopped being promoted and my desire to write all but vanished. A lot of this was exacerbated by some miscommunication with the Beliefnet staff, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, left me feeling hurt, abandoned, and a little resentful. (This has all been cleared up, by the way. The people that I have dealt with at Beliefnet have been very helpful, very professional, and very gracious. I’m aware that the feelings I experienced are in large part due to my own psychology, of which I’ll spare you the details.) In short, my thoughts and feelings about this blog became distorted and disconnected from the simple joy I experienced when I first started writing it.

And that brings me to the quote from the mystic, Bonaventure, with which I prefaced this post. When I read this quote it reminded me of the things that initially inspired me to write. These posts are my acts of devotion, and this quote highlights all the qualities that I want to be present in my writing – humility, joy, desire, freedom, and awe. I want this blog to “magnify the Lord,” and, yes, I hope through my writing “even to taste him.”

And so I rededicate myself to writing as an act of love, as an act of devotion, as an act of prayer, and as an act of play. I want to remember the intrinsic pleasure that I get from engaging in these extended meditations and allow that to be my motivation to create. Of course, I still like recognition and I still like rewards. But I believe the true “oil of gladness” with which we are anointed comes from within, and being connected to the world within, teaches Jung, gives a person dignity and certainty in this life.

That said, I still want you to like it.