Thursday, June 28, 2012

Ramblings on Life and Death: The Spectrum of Death

Life and death seem to be polar opposites. Death is the absence of life, and if there is some life, death is nowhere to be found. Life and death are a dichotomous reality.

There is plenty of evidence for this sort of dichotomous understanding of life and death. People buried in cemeteries stay there. No one wonders whether those bodies are coming back. My grandfather died of heart attack when I was 10 years old. He was alive and then he was dead. Just like that.

And yet, death and life are not always so easily categorized. Anyone who has a debilitating disease, serious mental health disorder, or has a loved one in hospice, can see that there is life and there is death co-existing – competing as it were, for dominance.

People wrestling with major depression sometimes describe the experience as a weight on their spirits, as thought death itself were gnawing away at their still living soul. People with long term or terminal illnesses or fragile health conditions are aware that death is not only near, but sometimes encroaches in, even when life is very much active. In hospice we see the relenting of life in an often gradual transition to death. Death occupies more and more while life vacates more and more.

Life and death is more like a spectrum with a point of no return on the death side. Unless the person has crossed the point of no return, there is some life, but there has been some death as well.

This idea that there is a little death in all of us is hard for many to accept. We want to be fully alive until we are fully dead, but this is not the reality for most people. We assert our science and our technology in efforts to eliminate the death end of the spectrum – or at least stretch it our further than it is. We assert art and literature in efforts to understand this spectrum and this mystery of death, to define it, to control it just a little.

Theology enters in differently than art and science in that theology does not accept death as an end to the spectrum, but rather a transition into the next portion of the spectrum. It is the great reversal where life is launched from death itself like the very dead seed germinates when conditions are right.

Science and art seek to deal with death on its terms while theology deals with death on other terms.

As we sit with my father-in-law at in home hospice, giving him medicine for comfort, we see this spectrum playing out. We do not believe that his death is the end of the story, that there is no more life once death captures his entire body. We see death as a transition. His weak, broken, leaking body is the seed of something wonderful about to germinate.

Our lives, everything out our fleshly existence happens in the dirt of heaven. Only when we die can we live above the dirt.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Song of the Northern Pacific

I tried to get the attention of the ocean. I wanted to listen to what she would tell me. I introduced myself and asked a questions, but she would not answer. In fact, I was completely ignored. I knew she had much to say, but she would not speak to me, not with words. No. The ocean does not stoop and the ocean does not waste. Words fail as they leave far too much room for interpretation.

The ocean does not speak, but she does sing and she does dance. She sings not with words, but with unending experience. She performs her music - she dances.

She didn’t notice me. I rode a massive boat over her skin and she didn’t notice. I exploded onto her with all my might, with all my fury, with all my sound. I churned her waters with a mighty churn, like pools under Niagara. White foam waked from my ship, cutting a thick line through her surface. I rocked her with all I had. 

Within seconds, the will of the sea recouped my little flutter and she became untouched once again – not even tickled. She was unamused by me, not because I was unamusing, but because I was not consequential enough to be noticed. My greatest barbaric yalp melts into silence, into nothing, into the sea.

The sea is not big on empathy. She’ll open up and swallow a boat without remorse. She offers no condolence. She’ll let a whale launch through her surface without need for applause. She is impervious to cursing and to affirmation. She has never walked a mile in your shoes and never intends to. She does not bless and she does not curse with any sense of benevolence or malovence. She provides, but not because she is giving. She is violent, but not because she is evil. She is simply being who she is and will not agree to be otherwise.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Rally of a Lifetime

The ump should have called the game for fog in the 4th inning. A dense fog had settled into the late night game at the  St. Louis Park ball field that hosted the Minnesota state tournament for the 13 year old Babe Ruth league. It was a losers bracket game in the double elimination tournament – Apple Valley against St. Paul Battle Creek. Apple Valley was down 7-1 in the 4th inning and we were grumbling about the fog.
The umpire wasn’t about to call the game. It was already past ten o’clock at night and the winner had to play a double header the next day. The tournament schedule was already way behind. Barring tornadic activity, the game was on.
We were a powerhouse that year. When the season ended, we had won 64 games and lost 10. It was demoralizing to be down to a patsy team like Battle Creek, a team that played bush-league ball and kept on with the infantile baseball chants bad coaches allow their teams to do. We were too old for the “belly itcher” chant.
We fought out way back to a score of 7-4, but now it was the bottom of the 7th inning. This was it. If we did not come up with three runs, it was the last game of the season. We would go home and privately cry.
Battle Creek was low on pitching. There was an inning limit per pitcher and their good pitchers had all burned through their allotment. They brought in some kid to pitch that last inning who had probably played second base all year hoping for a chance to pitch, but never gotten one because frankly, he wasn’t that good. He walked the bases full for our number 5 hitter, Harry Anderson.
Harry had prematurely already grown into a man by the age of 13. He was regularly shaving and weighed over 200 pounds. He had already hit a ball over 400 feet earlier in the season. It was called the “condo shot” because he hit it off the roof of a condo past the left field fence. Harry was capable of ending the game with a grand slam. He was also capable of ending the game by striking out.
With two outs in the bottom of the last inning, down by three runs, Harry stepped up to the plate with a I-am-going-to-be-a-hero look on his face. It was the look that made it most likely for him to strike out. The first pitch came in like watermelon. Harry swung for the fence, but completely missed the ball. Brian Davidson was on first base and clapped, “Let’s go Harry, no need to be a hero.”
The next pitch came in as fat as the first. Harry swung again and missed. It was his NASA swing as he was going for the stars, which were completely obscured by the dense fog. In fact, during Harry’s at bat, the fog intensified. We could barely see where the outfielders were. The stadium lights just made the fog bright, but didn’t help in seeing much.
Harry looked at the next pitch. A ball . He looked at two more. ball two – ball three. Now it was a 3-2 count with two outs in the bottom of the last inning of the losers bracket game of the Minnesota state tournament. The next pitch carried a lot of weight.
The pitcher threw another watermelon and Harry went NASA again, only this time he connected. He sent the ball straight up into the fog and it disappeared. Everyone ran. The second baseman backpedaled, but looked confused. The right fielder charged, but with shoulders shrugged. Harry rounded first like a freight train laden with cargo. our coach John Sherman screamed wildly, “Run, no one knows where it is!”
The ball landed in shallow right field almost hitting the right fielder on the head. Harry lumbered into second base as the rest of the bases cleared. The game was tied. The bench went berserk. Harry stood on second base pulling his batting glove off finger by finger with an I-knew-it-all-along look on his face. Only this time it didn’t annoy anyone. Harry was the hero.
Tim Kraft stepped to the plate next and lined the first pitch into right center field. We heard something hit the chain link fence which we only assumed was the ball. The right and center fielders disappeared into the fog haplessly chasing the sound of a ball. Harry lumbered home and scored the game winning run as the team rushed home plate and tackled him. We would have lifted him onto our shoulders, but he was just too big. We all hugged. It is times like these when men can pour on the hugs.
It was the rally of a lifetime. 

Monday, June 04, 2012

Healing From Privilege?

Healing from privilege? What does that even mean? How is privilege a wound? What’s wrong with getting ahead? Having some entitlement? having a little leverage in life? It’s not like I am a bad person to have resources or authority or get a pass on a few things others have to account for, am I? Am I?

Privilege in and of itself is not a wound. There is nothing wrong with having privilege, per se. However, there are significant vulnerabilities that come with privilege that initially hurt other people and ultimately hurt oneself.

There are at least three significant areas in which people with privilege need to heal.

Mono-awareness. People with privilege do not have to be aware of much outside of themselves because in large measure there is little need to have to be aware of it. Nothing is contingent on needing to know how others (gender, ethnicity, wealth…etc) live because they are (in the short term) unnecessary. People with privilege do not have to get to know anyone unlike themselves. Therefore the privileged seem to gain nothing for stepping outside their comfort zone. It is the exact opposite with the less privileged.

Healing from mono-awareness means first and foremost becoming aware that one is privileged – that not everyone lives like they do. What is easy for them is difficult or impossible for others. Then it means being intentional about learning the lives other people who are very different than themselves. It requires learning enough to be able to grow empathy for other people and be able to connect in their less than privileged status.

Leveraging for self. People with privilege have, in general, either learned how to leverage the system to their advantage or were simply born into a leveraged situation. There is power in their status or resources which make increasing their status or resources easier than less privileged people. There is a certain logic to this leveraging that may or may not include greed for more resources or lust for for more status or power. Whether there is greed and lust involved or not, the very act of leveraging all of one’s power for oneself is a wound.

Healing from leveraging for oneself means to find meaningful and sustainable ways to leverage one’s power, resources, and status for the benefit of others who have les privilege. It is an intentional act that should not be reactionary, guilt-based, or a mask for further leveraging as so much philanthropy is today.

Narcissism. The world revolves around the privileged. Attention, resources, trends – any pathway toward maintaining relevance seems to require a little if not a lot of narcissism. It is an accepted part of the game. Be as narcissistic as possible without looking like that is what you are doing – who you are being. You can get away with a whole lot of it without penalty with some extraordinary payoffs.

Narcissism is a wound in need of healing. Gaining perspective that any world that would decide to revolve around you is a pretty sick world is a good place to start. Being willing to release and abandon the narcissistic striving required to maintain one’s place is a major component to healing the would of privilege.

A final word. Healing the wound of privilege does not require a vow of poverty. It requires perspective, empathy, and action.

Sunday, June 03, 2012

To Heal or To Hurt; To Be Healed or To Be Hurt

Life is consequential. Everything matters, even if just a little bit. Every single human interaction serves as a mutually constructed change of trajectory for everyone directly involved in the interaction, not to mention those indirectly involved.

Presence Matters. Each individual’s presence matters – always - in every situation in which they are present. People are simply incapable of not behaving and therefore incapable of not communicating and therefore incapable of being inconsequential. Presence is influence of some kind. When we are in the presence of other people we are constantly in the process of making their experience of the moment different than it would have been otherwise.

Absence Matters. Absence matters just as much as presence and sometimes even more. There are contexts and situations in which a person is expected or needed or wanted to fill a role. When that person is absent, their non-presence is felt. Absence is still a behavior, still a communication, and still an influence.

It should be noted that there are two kinds of presence/absence. Physical presence is the kind of presence we think of most often. It is obvious when someone is physically present. However, there is another kind of presence that is a little less obvious – psychological presence. Psychological presence is when someone is felt, whether their body is there or not. A parent facebooking while their child is telling them an important event of the their day is being physically present, but psychologically absent. Being apart form someone on a special holiday could be a situation ion which a person is physically absent, but psychologically present. When physical presence and psychological presence are incongruent, there may be stress or relational ambiguity.

Intentionally Present. Intentionality of presence or absence is important because it is consequential. Deciding to be present or absent in any moment is the first step of influence and being influenced, of healing or being healed, or hurting or being hurt. Simply being aware that presence or absence matters is part of what it means to be intentional about making a difference in this world…about deciding how this world will make a difference on yourself.

Making Presence Matter. When the decision to be present occurs or when you find yourself present in a situation that was unplanned, being intentional with the way that presence is spent matters. Will this be an experience in which your presence helps the other present people? Will you be a healing presence for others? Or will you be a hurting presence? It is impossible for your presence to be neutral. Even in the slightest way, people will be better off or worse off because of you.

Making Meaning of every Moment. Everyone else’s presence and absence has an impact on you as well. No one is neutral. Whether the presence of absence of others hurts or heals has two important factors. The first is the initial impact of their presence or absence. Does it heal or does it hurt immediately? What is the reflexive internal or external response before you even get a chance to think on it? The second factor is how the experience is framed – essentially, what meaning will you decide to make of it? Events are events and have an initial impact, but the post-event meaning making shifts the influence from the sender to the receiver.

Viktor Frankl used this power of interpretation and it saved his life. He developed logotherapy as a way of healing and living.

Our lives matter. We cannot not have meaning for ourselves and for everyone else who connects with us in any way. We are consequential people in that we impact and influence others. We are particular people in that the influence we have is unlike the influence anyone else has or could ever have were they to put their entire effort into it. We will heal or hurt. We will be healed or be hurt. And best of all, we have some say so in all of this.