The Believing Game

This is the text of my April 2, 2017, sermon/presentation to the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. The audio version is on YouTube, starting at about the 25 minute mark. I began by presenting an inkblot and asking what people saw in the inkblot and requesting they explain how they see it to the congregation. My conversation with the children begins around the 16 minute mark. Their image was from the cover of this book.  

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So why are we talking about ducks, rabbits, and inkblots?  Today, I’ll posit that the way we talk about pictures of duck/rabbits and inkblots can hold the key to how we save the world, or at least make it a bit better.

These images provide us an excellent opportunity to practice the easy version of  what Peter Elbow, Professor Emeritus in English at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, calls The Believing Game. The Believing Game is a thought exercise that focuses on a temporary belief in another person’s stance or an argument rather than focusing only on doubt.

I first came across Elbow’s Believing Game when I began teaching argumentative writing and critical thinking to gifted young teens. This phase of life is often marked by stubborn adherence opinions and ideas. At this age, most kids are still their parents’ thought shadows, voicing opinions held dear by the family. A few, the born doubters and disbelievers,  have found their way to the direct opposites of those family opinions, making dinner conversation lively and, most likely, heartburn inducing. Either way, these bright young people are sure about life. They also generally believe what those they trust tell them is true. They often have a loyalty to the stances of those who protect and care for them. Before the November election, I’d have said these kids were at a unique stage of life with this level of entrenchment in opinion, but, as I’m sure I’m not the only one to notice, it seems this is how most of us operate most of the time: We know our position, and we stand our ground firmly. But perhaps, sometimes, we are all are doing it wrong.

Where entrenched adults excell that young teens do not is what Elbow refers to as the Doubting Game. The Doubting Game embraces skepticism and critical thinking as the primary ways of meeting any stance other than our own. It is the game we play when our Uncle Matt pounds his fist on the table at a family dinner and proclaims that he doesn’t think this Obamacare is any good, and then launches into a lecture about limits on government and people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and the importance of making one’s own way. If Uncle Matt is amicable, we might play the game aloud, asking him how he expects the poor who don’t qualify for Medicaid to cover their medical bills. We might shoot down his premise of bootstrap-lifting by discussing Medicare, which provided coverage for both of his parents, including Mom, who stayed home with children (including Uncle Matt) and was never the paid workforce, all while volunteering in her community for decades. We pick away at his every point with wild abandon. We barrage him with facts, because that should work, right? Mostly, we just play verbal defense. He says it, and we doubt it. Nothing changes.

If Uncle Matt is a less-congenial sort of guy, we might just cast sideways glances at each other while passing the wine around the table until someone extolls the virtues of Cousin Chris’s fabulous green bean casserole. This time, the critical thinking and doubting is done in silence, each person obliterating Uncle Matt’s points, one by one, until it’s time for pie. When Uncle Matt falls asleep in the recliner, the doubters whisper while divvying up leftovers and washing the dishes. Regardless of Uncle Matt’s mood, we’ve doubted all he says, soup to nuts.

Let me be clear. Doubting and critical thinking are necessary.  By critical thinking, I mean the sort of thinking that looks for errors in logic and reason as well as in fact or source. Critical thinking isn’t a matter of just thinking or shouting “He’s wrong!” It’s a matter of knowing what makes a sound argument and being able to question what is true and what is, as some now say, an “alternative fact.” When we think critically, we are using those tools in a scrupulously responsible manner, without resorting to the very logical errors we pompously point out in others. The Doubting Game is a serious manner, and it should be played with scruples in place.

The Doubting Game is what causes us to discredit and denounce the latest white supremacist, misogynist rant on Breitbart, eschew the newest miracle diet, and refuse to send money to that Nigerian prince . It is also what drives scientific progress. As Elbow notes, “Methodological doubting is central to the classical definition of (the) scientific method”. Science demands we continually wonder about what causes what, and it demands we ignore our tendency to mistake correlation — two events occurring together — with causation — one event causing another event. Without skepticism and doubt, we would likely still be applying leeches to those with fevers while believing that the Sun goes around the Earth. Science is a doubting game, and doubt and skepticism do us well both as individuals and as a society.

Except when they don’t. It’s easy to doubt what we don’t like or agree with or what is from what we see as an unreliable source. It’s harder to be a skeptic when we trust a source or it agrees with our well-considered and tightly-held opinion. Uncle Matt’s proclamations are easy to doubt because so often he holds a stance opposite our own. He speaks. We doubt. Wash, rinse, repeat.

So what? First, doubting out of habit and bias can cause us to miss legitimate issues we’ve overlooked . Naysayers — those who hold opposing positions to our own — offer us much to consider, if we’re willing to listen to them and ponder another point of view. If we simply doubt, we miss things. We miss not only the thread of their argument but also the values and understandings of the world that sit under that argument. We miss, essentially, the person behind the opinion as well as miss the arguments from the other side. We should value both, but we can’t do that when we simply doubt.

The second problem with habitual doubting is that we tend to only doubt those who disagree with us. We struggle to doubt those who hold the same stances and biases as we do, as it just feels bad. We really struggle to doubt ourselves and the sources we rely upon. It is distinctly uncomfortable to contemplate being wrong or just uninformed. However, doubting our own point of view and understanding of the situation is not optional. It’s painful and uncomfortable and potentially embarrassing, but it is entirely necessary. As fallible humans in an ever-changing world, we must doubt ourselves with the same veracity as we doubt others.

When we share our musings about inkblots or images in the clouds, we play the Believing Game, albeit on Level 1 difficulty. Whether or not you can see what another person sees in the inkblot or the clouds isn’t that important, in the bigger scheme of things. We might be mystified by what another sees, but we’re likely not sizing up the other’s intelligence or integrity or sanity based on what they see. We may be able, with their assistance, to see what they see, if we’re willing to squinch up our eyes, turn our heads, and try really hard. Or maybe we can’t see what they see, even with their explanation. At least we are trying.

By honestly trying to understand another’s point of view — what another sees and why they see it — we are playing Peter Elbow’s Believing Game, which, according to Elbow, can help us in more ways than in understanding the inkblot interpretations. No one’s pride or values or sense of worth is on the line with an inkblot or a cloud in the sky. Neither are votes and policy or human lives. When I have my students play the Believing Game, I move beyond inkblots and other images. I ask them to consider a tightly-held belief. I make a few suggestions — gun control, meat consumption, or voting age — and send them to a few websites that explore — with sources — both sides of many contentious issues. And then I have them write a paragraph arguing the stance opposite their own.

The rules are simple but challenging: You must explore the other point of view thoroughly. You must write your paragraph as if you really believe what you’re writing.   Sarcasm or blatant simplification of the other view is not allowed. Neither is repeating simplistic rhetoric. You have to sit deeply with that point of view and create a paragraph that represents it credibly.

I tell them it will be hard.

I tell them it will be very hard.

And then, I ask them to write a paragraph reflecting on the process of doing the assignment.

I ask “How hard was it?” (“Really hard.”  “Harder than I thought.” “I didn’t think I could do it initially.” “I tried, but I don’t think I did it well. It was too hard.”)

I ask if they learned anything new. (“Some countries don’t allow citizens to own guns.” “Meat production uses more resources than I thought.” And perhaps most informative and insightful of all: “It’s hard to write about another point of view without being sarcastic or mean.”)

And, the big question: Did you find yourself changing your mind about anything?

Most say no. Their overall viewpoint remains the same. Gun control laws should remain in place. Meat production may harm the environment, but it’s a personal preference, and meat is full of protein, and, well, yummy, so they’ll keep eating it. Many will tell me they learned about the opposition to their point of view, and several students note that they have a better understanding about the complexity of the issue. They now understand why there is so much dissention. That’s a big leap. When someone can move from the sense that “all people who think X are crazy and stupid” to understanding WHY some people think X, while you think Y, progress has been made.

And every semester, a few students say yes to my biggest question. They do change their mind about something. They never knew that violence rates rise in states that adopt conceal and carry — they were sure it was the other way, and now they wonder just what’s right.  Maybe guns should be more tightly controlled.  Those who now realize that there are environmental concerns about raising farm animals for food sometimes plan to have a few meatless days a week.

As I noted earlier, the goal of the Believing Game isn’t changing minds or giving up your well-considered opinions or values. While that can happen when you listen or read carefully about a position different than your own, changing your mind is not the point. It is understanding the other point of view so you can appreciate the arguments of others and see the holes or even flaws in your own thinking. Peter Elbow articulates it this way:

The flaws in our own thinking usually come from our assumptions — our ways of thinking that we accept without noticing. But it’s hard to doubt what we can’t see because we unconsciously take it for granted. The believing game comes to the rescue here. Our best hope in finding invisible flaws in what we can’t see in our own thinking is to enter into different ideas or points of view — ideas that carry different assumptions. Only after we’ve managed to inhabit a different way of thinking will our currently invisible assumptions become visible to us.

The Believing Game has a role not just in the classroom but in our workplaces It also has a place at our family dinner tables, in our churches, and even in our social media. By allowing us to sit in the argument of another, it brings us understanding of the issues another has and the language they use to talk about it. As we sit in that argument, we are more likely to question our own thinking than if we simply ignored the other or talked over them.  

When we believe before doubting, we might see that we  have missed a valid concern. We might find that we’ve trusted a poor source. We might even turn over in our minds a long-held value or belief and consider if it needs a bit of tweaking or a more extensive adjustment. All of those processes are painful, but they are essential to honing arguments with the integrity that comes from an open and free search for meaning and truth. Here’s the comfort: By enduring this discomfort, we will argue more effectively, and we’ll even likely come up with better policy that has messaging that reaches beyond our own echo chamber while better supporting our fellow citizens.

While doubting is the tool of science and, at least lately, responsible citizenship, the Believing Game plays an essential role as we work to hold the nation — and the world — together. We cannot, in our well-meaning and often-deserved skeptic state of mind, forget that we only come to a better place in the long run if we can work to understand the point of view of others. Take Uncle Matt. Instead of countering his every point, arguing about statistics, and having indigestion before dessert, what if we just listened to him for a moment? What if we even asked him some neutral questions of clarification? What if then we, in the silence of our heads, pretended we share Uncle Matt’s beliefs.  It might go like this:

“I don’t like Obamacare because my premiums are now really high, and it’s hard for me to find a doctor who will take my insurance. My buddies, who also are now piecing together part-time jobs, are in the same boat, and some of them are really sick. Their deductibles are so high, however, that they won’t go and get checked out. Also, I really work hard for my money, and now with more people getting Medicaid, I am working to pay for their care — and they don’t pay anything! Why do they get free healthcare and I don’t? I’m hardly rich. This really feels unfair to me.”

Did you learn something new by looking at this attempt at believing? Do Uncle Matt’s concerns expose a different point of view? If you were aware of these sorts of concerns — high costs of products with high deductibles and trouble finding care — great. If this is news to you, you might find yourself initially doubting rather than believing as you try to articulate his stance. That’s okay. The goal is to make that attempt to verbalize another point of view without dissecting it at the same time. That’s not easy, and you’ll likely have to remind yourself of that task often at first. Try to sit in the stance. What is it like to see this issue from Uncle Matt’s point of view?  As Elbow says, the Believing Game asks you to sit with an idea, not marry it. So sit.

If you’re without a living counterargument generator in your life, you can play this game effectively on your own. Simply start reading from sources outside of your comfort zone. Most of us live in a filter bubble, especially if we consort mostly with like-minded people and find our news via our social media feed. Filter bubbles feel good, but they don’t often broaden our understanding of other points of view, and sitting in a filter bubble is a sure way to forgetting that there are more ways of seeing an issue than your own way. Instead of sticking to The Washington Post, The New York Times, and NPR (which are all excellent news outlets), reach a bit right and read The Hill, The Economist, The Wall Street Journal, and even The National Review. (If you are read The Huffington Post, then do due diligence and read The National Review as well.)  This sort of reading allows you to practice your Believing Game skills without an Uncle Matt. It also allows you to verify facts and separate them from noise and opinion.

All of us in this room are likely struggling with feelings of anger, panic, frustration, hopelessness, and helplessness these last few months. Some of us are taking activist roles for the first time. (That’s me.)  Others are picking up where they left off in the early 1970s, when they were protesting the Vietnam war. Some have been fighting for justice since they could shake an angry fist and speak. And some of us aren’t sure how to use or even find our voices. Whatever your experience and wherever you sit, I ask you to try believing where you have only previously doubted. Listen to your Uncle Matt. Hear behind the rage of the once-was friend. Step into the shoes of those who voted in a way that makes you crazy. Do this with integrity. Do it to learn. Do it to question your own tightly-help opinions, values, assumptions, and truths. Do it even though it hurts and feels like a betrayal of yourself. It’s not.

Believing alone won’t save the world, but it can help us hone our own arguments and clarify the complexity of opposing viewpoints. It can help us see our own blind spots and force us to dig deeper than our favorite, cognitively comfortable source. It can even repair some of the hurts we’ve all experienced and inflicted over the last several months. And doubting? Keep doing that. Skepticism is not just the tool of the scientist. It is also the tool of the savvy citizen. Doubt is ever more required in our “post truth” world, so continue to refine your critical thinking skills.  But also take time, at least now and then, to believe.

To Know and To Believe

(Sermon given at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington on April 3, 2016.)

DSCN0296Science is a way to call the bluff of those who only pretend to [have] knowledge. It is a bulwark against mysticism, against superstition, against religion misapplied to where it has no business being. If we’re true to its values, it can tell us when we’re being lied to. It provides a mid-course correction to our mistakes. (Carl Sagan)

Knowing and belief. Science and religion. As Unitarian Universalists, we hold religion and science far from one another. We say that religion doesn’t belong in science, and, if we’re true to our dedication that everyone has the right to their own search for meaning, we don’t impose our science onto someone else’s religious beliefs. For example, we hold, arms outstretched, our understanding of how humans evolved from earlier primates in one hand, while our beliefs about whether a god cares about our existence in the other.

Just as we hold those domains to be separate, insisting that the realm of science be clear of the realm of religion, we often confuse our ways of knowing in science with our ways of believing religiously. We cup those ways together, mixing them and using them indiscriminately, undoing that separation out of carelessness and simple human nature.

Today, I’ll explore understanding in two realms — science and religion. I’ll tease out belief, which loves to pose as knowledge but isn’t. It may be a way of understanding, but it should never be confused with knowing and knowledge. I’ll explore knowing of a particular kind – the scientific kind of knowing. I’ll also sit with uncertainty and its relationship to science and to religion, as it drives both.

Let’s start with what science is. Science is, according to Dr. Bruce Railsback of the Geology Dept of the University of Georgia,…the concerted human effort to understand, or to understand better, the history of the natural world and how the natural world works, with observable physical evidence as the basis of that understanding. It is done through observation of natural phenomena, and/or through experimentation that tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions.”

Let’s start in the middle of that definition. Science involves the observation of natural phenomena. It’s using the senses to attend to the details of the universe. The twinkling stars above. The scurrying ants below. The breeze on our face. The evidence of the passage of time and the aging of our bodies. Science involves observation of both the untouched, natural world and of the manipulated world (experimentation), but the starting place is unadulterated observation.

So science is watching the chickadee eat, noticing their preference for one thistle feeder over the other. It’s about observing many chickadees over many days. It’s about noticing that the sun appears in the same direction every morning, but depending on your latitude, not at the same time each morning. It’s about watching person after person succumb to smallpox, as Edward Jenner did in the late 1700s, hearing from others and noticing himself over many years, that milkmaids, who often developed the mild disease of cowpox, rarely suffered the deadly smallpox.

There is a level of knowing that occurs with observation. I know that the chickadees in my yard prefer the feeder in the front yard because the thistle seed vanishes far faster from that feeder with its perches than it does from the mesh feeder in the backyard. I know the sun appears in the same direction every day, at least for my lifetime, because I’ve seen it do so for the well-over forty years of my life. And Jenner knew that, in the population he observed, milkmaids rarely contracted smallpox.

So observation leads to some level of knowing — a conditional knowing, a descriptive kind of knowing limited by what has been seen. Alone, an observation tells us very little, or at least often less than we think it does:

Three people were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” said the first with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” said the second, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” said the third, a scientist, glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

Science, however, doesn’t end with the observation of one side of one sheep or the position of the sun from one spot on the Earth, but observation is at the heart of all science. It is, as Dr. Railsback notes, the basis of understanding, but it is not alone science. Faced with data from observations, we start to ask questions. Why do these chickadees prefer one feeder over the other? Why do we see the sun in the same place each morning? Does the mild disease of cowpox, common to milkmaids, somehow really protect them against the deadly smallpox?

It’s these questions that lead to more thought, more observations, and, perhaps, an eventual hypothesis. A hypothesis is often defined as an educated guess, but that sells short the work that goes into creating a hypothesis. Rather a hypothesis is based on multiple observations paired with previous scientific knowledge. It’s a proposed answer to a question about what’s been observed. We have to be careful when we hypothesize, for it’s tempting to become attached to these so-called educated guesses. When we hypothesize, we aren’t stating knowledge. We’re stating possible connections that need to be tested and very well may not hold up to testing. That’s tricky, because as humans, we want our guesses to be right, as it just feels good to be right.

The chickadees like the feeder in the front yard because it has perches, allowing them a more secure stance when eating. Something about having cowpox makes smallpox a milder disease, so giving someone cowpox might be a way to prevent smallpox deaths.

Hypotheses are small steps. They are testable steps. They lead to experimentation which, per Railsback, “…tries to simulate natural processes under controlled conditions”. Experimentation yields more observations and more data. And it yields more questions. A hypothesis that proves false is just as valuable to science as the one that is proven true. The feeders’ positions are switched, and the chickadees continue to dine from the front yard feeder, the one with metal mesh and no perches. The hypothesis is unsupported — location of the feeder seems to matter more than the form of the feeder. Jenner innoculates a 9-year-old boy with cowpox from a milkmaid’s pustule, resulting in a mild illness with no rash, and, a few months later, he innoculates the boy with smallpox. The child remains healthy. The hypothesis is supported– infection from cowpox did seem to protect the child from smallpox.. Either way, hypothesis supported or not, the next step is another hypothesis and more experimentation.

Now, not everything is easily testable by experimentation. Some systems are beyond our ability to control conditions, leaving us with finding ever-more sophisticated ways to observe. Our understandings about the universe and its laws and age unfold because we learn to observe differently while developing new ways to observe. We smash particles together and watch the fallout, for example. Our knowledge about how life began and diversified on Earth is also observational, relying on fossil-hunters and increasingly sophisticated methods of determining the age of those fossils.

When does that cycle of observing and often experimenting stop? It doesn’t. After many experiments and accumulation of data from many sources, we start talking about knowing in a scientific way.  We are the best scientists when we keep in mind that we still don’t know much, and that our current knowledge is limited by the accuracy of its mode of discovery, the tools and technology of our time, the integrity of this scientific process, and the creativity and insight of those observing and asking questions.  The scientific method of observing, questioning, hypothesizing, and experimenting is not flawed, but we are. We are prone to bias. We prefer not to be wrong. We see correlation and assume it is causation. We see patterns when none exist and miss patterns where they are present. We reach, seeing what’s not there, because we are so desperate to know. We make mistakes.

So, then, if we make mistakes, what is knowing in science? Knowing starts with observation and is furthered by repeated experimentation. It’s driven by data collected by those looking for fact and truth. (Hope and conjecture have no role in science. Anecdotes aren’t science either, for as the adage goes, the plural of anecdote is not data.) Knowing in science can mean understanding a theory, one of the big, broad theories such as those about evolution or gravity or germs. It can also mean understanding, as well as current research allows, the mechanisms behind the disorders and diseases that cause us to suffer and, at some point, to die.

Aside from the big theories and the basic mechanisms of action in biology, chemistry, the Earth science, and physics, knowing in science is tenuous and subject to change. We are perhaps most aware of this in medicine. Here’s an example from routine women’s  health care:

Recommendations for calcium supplementation, self-breast exams, and pap smears have changed drastically in the twenty-two years I’ve been practicing medicine. When I started working as  PA in family practice, we urged women to take 1200 mg of calcium daily to prevent osteoporosis, examine their own breasts monthly to check for suspicious masses, and get a pap smear annually to check for cervical cancer, starting at age eighteen. Observational studies followed by experimentation drove those recommendations, so most health care providers followed them. That is how medicine works. Large studies, preferably verified by other large studies produce reams of data that lead, after much discussion and dissention, to recommendations for practice.

Today, those recommendations have changed. Calcium supplementation is no longer routinely recommended for osteoporosis prevention, as it has a dubious role in preventing fractures while having a clear role in increasing kidney stones. While some women do find their own breast cancers, monthly self-breast exams did not save lives. Annual pap smears started very young led to over diagnosis of benign conditions and a corresponding unnecessary increase of the not-always-benign treatment for those conditions.

Was the science that drove those recommendations wrong? Yes and no. Yes, calcium plays a starring role in bone metabolism. Yes, women who notice a breast lump should see a doctor promptly. Yes, pap smears reduce the rate of death from cervical cancer. But because science is an ongoing process, and because doctors and scientists continue to question and continue to experiment, the book didn’t close on those issues in women’s healthcare. It stayed open, because that’s what science does. It remains open.

And that’s where uncertainty enters the room. No matter how much we know about the natural world, what we don’t know dwarfs that knowledge. The universe is vastly big, and our smallest bits of ourselves are so very, very small. We know so much. And so little. Science embraces uncertainty because without that uncertainty, without that examination of what is known, we would have no need to keep questioning and wondering.

Uncertainty in science is good. It is necessary. It is what brought science to be and drives science on. Without uncertainty, we remain frozen, without impetus to look again, without reason to wonder. We need uncertainty to move forward scientifically. But uncertainty can also drive us away from science, especially when science doesn’t yet have answers to our questions. The earliest people were uncertain when the moon eclipsed the sun, when stars changed position in the sky, when rains and winds brought death and destruction. They were uncertain why people died and how new life came to be. In that uncertainty, they built beliefs and rituals and stories. Before science had a codified process, uncertainty brought us religion, a way of understanding what we did not know and couldn’t explain.

I think we’d agree that the Jewish primary texts, the Torah and rest of the Old Testament, and the Christian primary texts, the Gospels and remainder of the New Testament, don’t explain the true origins of the world or explore the root causes of plagues, floods, or other natural disasters and wonders. Similarly, we don’t take as true the stories of the Hindu gods, with Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer as actual forces in the natural world. We read these texts as history and literature, and while we may take those metaphors of creator, preserver, and destroyer to be meaningful representations of the process of our own birth, life, and death, we don’t confuse these with the actual forces of our natural world. We know those stories are stories, explanations from a time before the knowing of science.

But what about the god or gods or goddesses behind those pieces of historical literature? What are we saying when we say we believe in a god or goddess or an assortment of them? Belief is a trust, a confidence in something or some idea that is untestable and perhaps not even observable without generous interpretation. Some may believe in a deity who knows their name, who breathed life into them. Some may believe that an unseen deity protects them from harms, known and unknown. Some may believe that deity brings them trials and tribulations as tests of faith and devotion, or simply as ways to make them better people. And some believe that their loving, omniscient deity, giver of life, then calls them away from that life to something better — something unknown, unseen by anyone on Earth, somewhere where pain and suffering vanish and life never ends.

Whatever the narrative of the human life within that belief structure about the divine, it is a narrative designed bring comfort, order, purpose, meaning, and security. We all want those in our uncertain, unpredictable, sometimes chaotic and always finite lives. Belief in a divine force, something beyond ourselves and beyond the ever-evolving scientific knowledge of the world, can bring a sense of certainty to the uncertainty of our lives. Belief in a set of religious precepts ordained by an omnipotent God or beliefs in a single uniting force, connecting us all and giving us some power beyond our mortal limits, can help us manage the uncertainty of being human. Belief in forces outside our natural world can be amazingly soothing and helpful.

That’s where belief belongs. Belief is the language of religion. In that realm, it’s valid and sound, allowing one to hold close and valuable something untestable and ephemeral. While belief may lead a person to make seemingly scientific connections (the cancer vanished, so God exists), it should never — ever — be confused with the knowledge, however mutable, that science provides.

But, as I mention, we are uncertain, and we, as humans, are not so good at accepting that uncertainty. That’s what drives good science inquiry and, eventually, knowledge. It’s also what drives us to belief, the way understanding in religion when we should be in the realm of science.

Belief is a way of understanding the world, but it’s not appropriate to science or applications of science, like medicine. Uncertainty in the scientific  realm — and especially the medical realm — can drive us to claiming knowledge in ways other than scientific ways. When medicine doesn’t provide clear relief from symptoms, we may turn to those anecdotes from a friend or the friend of a friend or some guru on TV. In our uncertainty and often our fear, we may become prone to follow fads and  accept pseudoscience, sure that doing something — anything — is better than doing nothing. We cling to answers that go directly against the scientific process proven to be effective for over 400 years — simple answers, such as a specific diet or oil that cures everything. We read lists of symptoms from vertigo to fatigue, impotence to rashes, all linked to a single substance either used in excess or in deficit. Gluten and lyme disease and even vaccines get named villains for all that ails — while vitamin D and coconut oil become the new fountains of youth. (And, yes, gluten can be deadly to some and troublesome for others, and lyme disease is a real entity requiring medical intervention, but neither cause all medical woes, nor does Vitamin D or a fad diet fix all that ails us. And vaccines save lives. The World Health Organization attributes the measles vaccine alone to saving 17.1 million lives just since the year 2000 while not contributing at all to autism rates, according to numerous studies.) In the face of no clear answer or no easy answer, it’s easy to cling to what is not knowledge — It’s easy to cling to belief.

But we shouldn’t.  Belief isn’t the language of science. It’s not how we know what is under our feet, over our heads, or in our own bodies. And if we’re serious about holding science and religion as far apart as we can, if we’re committed to understanding that knowing in science can never be preempted by the beliefs associated with religion, we cannot mingle these ways of understanding the world.  

We hold science and religion apart because they are different domains in our post-enlightenment age. Science is built on observation, questioning, and experimentation. It requires constant uncertainty and scrutiny, testing and retesting, looking forward and backwards at the same time. It is a continuous process of uncovering knowledge that leads to more questions. It is about objective truths and the building of knowledge as understanding.

Religion also fills the void of uncertainty, but it fills it with belief. Untestable and often unobservable, beliefs may change across a lifespan due to experiences or new ideas or just need. Beliefs carry no burden of proof and offer comfort that, for some, lasts a lifetime unchanged. Belief is about that which touches our metaphorical hearts. Belief is personal, subjective, and entirely non-scientific. It can be what brings us comfort when nothing material, science or otherwise, can, but it should never be confused with the knowing that comes from science.

So here they sit, science on the one hand and religion on the other, arms stretched wide. 

And here’s our ways of understanding, knowledge paired with science, belief sitting with religion.

May uncertainty be with you as you hold those realms apart.

It’s Complicated

This is the first essay I’ve written in almost a year, and I seem to have a backlog of words. Bear with me.

IMG_2113I teach a facinating group of young teens and preteens how to write using resources other than their own opinions and previous knowledge.  Together, we wrangle with essays written by the pros and debate the credibility and reliability of sources online and in print, and they write essays using those sources to support their well-considered thesis statements. However, teens and preteens glue themselves to an opinion tighter than Thomas the Tank Engine stickers adhere to oak book shelves, and this tenacity to ideas interferes with anything close to critical thinking or clear-headed writing. They seek for what confirms their bias and often discard what seems to be against it.

So I’ve challenged this group of young, intelligent idealists with blinders with an assignment I’ve called “It’s Complicated.” Rather than starting with their stance on an issue, they start with the thesis that a particular idea is just that — complicated. Technology’s effect on learning. The ethics of driverless cars. Animal testing. The voting age. Nuclear power. Their task is to present the complexity with an open mind while grappling with ideas on both sides. After that, and only after that, they can discuss — briefly — their opinion.

Why bother? Because our world is complicated. Painfully, heart-searingly complicated. That seems to hardly be a contentious statement to anyone reading or listening to reliable news sources. Take Syria, for example. Tease out who started what and when, and whose actions affect whom, and just who is called good or bad or somewhere in between. Reach back five years. Then reach back further – a decade, five decades, a century, five centuries. When did all this really start?

Then take a single possible outcome — one way this situation could turn out (good luck with that step) —  and look forward five years. Don’t just look at ISIS and Syria when you slide your eyes along that mental timeline. Look at Turkey. And Russia. And just about all of the Middle East. Don’t leave out Nigeria. Oh, and peek in on Europe. Plus the US. What do you see?

Now look at your social media feed. Perhaps you have a rather homogenous feed that serves as an echo chamber of your thoughts. If your feed is like mine (and mine is embarrassingly politically one-sided), you’ll rarely see complexity as an issue. Last week, you might have seen maps of the states in different colors, red usually pointing its finger at states declaring they’ll take no Syrian refugees because the timeline they mentally drew leads to political risks for them and perhaps some honest fear of other as well. You might have seen debate about attention to Paris when the Beirut massacre just days earlier failed to fill the New York Times front page — and most social media feeds — for a week and counting. And the  pictures you saw were likely those of Syrian refugees, women and children in most, afraid for their lives and willing to risk possible death in escape rather than what likely seems certain death in staying.

Your social media feed may be more balanced than mine, still filled with maps of red states, but this time with lines of applause about protecting America by refusing those same Syrian refugees. Debate may have centered around how to protect the U.S. and which candidate takes the strongest stance on immigration. Those feeds, too had pictures of refugees, but more perhaps of armed young men, willing to lie and coerce just to take the lives of Americans, with captions reading, “It only takes one.”

What you likely won’t see is anyone saying this: “It’s complicated.” And that’s too bad for all of us.

It is complicated. It’s complicated because it involves people — with all their fears and passions and desires and needs — and people are messy. We have irrational thoughts, faulty memories, and little tolerance for what we can’t quickly categorize and judge. We struggle to sit with the tangled knot of ISIS, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, Russia, France, and so forth, teasing out each thread while realizing that each tug pulls the knot tighter while fraying our understanding. We sit with the moment only — in a theater in France or in a plane out of Egypt — and then cling to the emotion it brings. We miss, in our fear, in our hate, and even in our love, the complexity when we are quick to label and judge.

Don’t get me wrong. ISIS is a horrific entity, and killing civilians to prove your might and morals is abhorrent no matter what your aim. And, at least in my understanding of compassion, caring for the orphan and stranger, is right. In my Catholic years, that was what Jesus said to do. As a Unitarian Universalist, it’s treating humans with dignity. But the work of dismantling terror organizations so new ones don’t pop up in their absence is complicated. And bringing in those running from terror into a population riddled with those who fear them because of race, religion, and the obscene acts of their oppressors is also complicated. We’re foolish to think it isn’t.

Life in any sort of community — from the smallest community of family, to life in a country full of refugees and immigrants, to a planet with over seven billion other beings — is complicated. Even when we feel completely in step with the most familiar of “other,” we can quickly run into conflicts that come from two different minds thinking different thoughts, fears and hopes and desires and passions discordantly clanging to the floor. Sometimes we manage these with grace and perspective, but often we clash.

Life with other human beings is complicated. When we embrace that, we’re partway through to a solution. Simply saying together, “It’s complicated,” we start down the road to cooperation and progress, even if only in our agreement that complicated problems don’t have simple solutions. When we look at ISIS and Syria and all that and say, “That’s a mess. It scares me,” or look our estranged loved one and say, “This is complicated, and I’m afraid,” we’ve made a crucial step to not only solving the complicated problem but healing our deepest divides.

Why does admitting and appreciating complexity matter? First, it acknowledges that few problems are solved by a single-step algorithm, like the “You cut, I choose” rule for two siblings sharing one donut. Our relationship problems are almost always multifactoral, and if relationships between two people bonded by love and blood can stumble over as seemingly little stuff as dirty socks or curfews, then it stands to reason that all the big stuff is exponentially more prone to problems taking more than rock, paper, scissors to solve. It reminds us that yelling “yes!” and “no!” across the internet or the Thanksgiving dinner table is worse than futile — it divides us when we most need to think together.

Admitting complexity also means acceding that the other side has valid points. Ouch. Aren’t they just generally wrong? Many problems are not simple and thus not simply solved — multiple perspectives can help. Many problems are like that knot, fraying yet bound, and teasing out a thread on one side may tighten the opposite edge of the knot. When we’re willing to see that tugging our sacred thread may make part of the knot more unwieldy, we’re starting to appreciate that complex problems aren’t solved with a single tug without exacerbating other problems. We may then see that, as bound to peace as we may be, there may be times when military action costs the world fewer lives than waiting for change. We may also see that refusing refugees based on the human-created boundaries circumscribing their birthplace makes as much sense as assuming everyone living in the hometown of a mass shooter should be refused entry to neighboring towns, because they might, you see, be future killers themselves.

The minute we scream “It’s simple, stupid!” we’re missing something and losing more. To be certain, listening to the the opposition should not mean letting go of our own values — not at all. It should mean that we hold them up to the light carefully to examine them, making sure that we’ve not battered those values of peace, compassion, love, equality, freedom, and human dignity. Are we loving everyone, even those voting to keep those assault rifles? Does our compassion extend to those who look different than us and those who fear those who look different from us? Does our freedom to believe or not to believe trample the freedom of those who pick the opposite? Without care and frequent inspection, our values become parodies of themselves, active only when we feel that another is worthy of them.

So let it be complicated. Read broadly, listen carefully, ask questions designed to understand opposing positions, and quiet defenses enough to listen to those positions. Drop the rhetoric and see where your words and actions betray your tightly-held values. Talk about what you truly value and not what others don’t. And keep seeking to understand.

It’s a complicated world, both within the walls of your own home and underneath our shared atmosphere. Start with the small stuff, just as my students are — driverless cars, technology and learning, the voting age. When you’re ready, move up to the harder stuff — religious freedom boundaries, the U.S. role in the Middle East, and how to parent your teens. It’s all complicated, and that’s okay.

Idealism, Existential Depression, and Unitarian Universalism

IMG_1582(Somewhat edited text from my sermon given on Sunday, April 26, 2015, at the Universalist Unitarian Church of Farmington. This piece was inspired by a book by James T Webb, Ph.D.: Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope)

“Can you understand? Someone, somewhere, can you understand me a little, love me a little? For all my despair, for all my ideals, for all that – I love life. But it is hard, and I have so much – so very much to learn.”

Sylvia Plath, The Journals of Sylvia Plath


It starts something like this:

I read something in the New York Times or hear something on NPR about some aspect of health care. Perhaps it’s about affordability: sky-high deductibles on top of high premiums that keep people from seeking health care despite having insurance. Or maybe it’s about lack of access to dental care for low-income adults. Teeth are, of course, part of our bodies, and they are a part that can be damaged or diseased. Dental care isn’t a luxury, and teeth aren’t expendable, like an appendix (whose removal is generally covered, after that sky-high deductible). Yet for the poor, affordable and timely dental care can be near impossible to find.

Or maybe I go to work, to my job as a PA in a family practice that serves mostly the poor, addicted, and disenfranchised. Maybe I’ve spent too much time that day (time that causes other patients to wait for ages) searching for the doctor or medical center that will take a patient’s particular flavor of Medicaid, frustrated because this patient has something rare, something only a few surgeons in a large metropolitan area can manage well, and the best of those aren’t in her network. Or perhaps I’ve cared for a woman who lost her housing and is living out of her car. She has Medicaid as well, thus she has healthcare coverage (well, aside from dental care), but she can’t afford a place to live and has exhausted the meager resources of her friends. Her skin infection on her foot is getting worse, and her blood sugars are rising, which isn’t helping her infection. And why isn’t she taking her insulin? Because without a house, she has no refrigerator in which to keep it, and it’s terribly hot outside. Besides, if she takes it, she has to eat, and access to food isn’t predictable.

Whether via the news or the through the lives of my patients or the experience of a friend, I find myself in some mix of anger and despair over a myriad of healthcare wrongs in this nation and across the world. My husband is a fine conversational partner when I’m in this state, and he’s willing to nod and shake his head in turn, listening to the verse of the day: “Why don’t teeth matter? Why is it so hard to find quality mental health care for people of need? Couldn’t we take better care of patients if we had more time? What if the Affordable Care Act, despite all its limitations, disappears in the next election cycle?”

He’s patient through the chorus as well: “Why is it like this? Why don’t we care for people — really care?! Why do we focus on war and wealth and not on people?!”

It’s hard being an idealist.

I can’t recall a time in at least the past twenty years when I didn’t see the world in two painfully conflicting ways:  One way is filled with sunshine, hope, and clarity that what should be will be. That what is right and good and best will happen. It’s optimistic, in a way, brimming with faith in humanity and hope for the future. Optimistic, but not giddily or mindlessly so. Maybe it’s more high-minded, but not, at least mostly, haughty. It is a view finds solace and hope in morals and values and virtues, the sorts that seem universal. Justice. Equity. Compassion, Respect for human dignity. Equality. Fairness. Kindness. Goodness. Love. Patience. When I wake with this view of the world, I’m certain that I’ll parent a bit better than the day before, sure I’ll be a more loyal friend, a more compassionate partner, and at least a bit more dedicated to getting some exercise. It’s the same part that trusts that after this election, we’ll have healthcare for all, equal pay for women, solutions for poverty, and justice for the immigrant. I even believe that someday, dental care will count as medical care. It’s the side that can find the way out of the bed even on the darkest morning because the sun will always rise. It is my idealist who wakes most mornings.

Idealism, the tendency to see the world in terms of how things should be, is often touted as a virtue. It can be that. For the individual, idealism can provide energy, fuel hope, and inspire action. It’s exhilarating to think about what could be if only. It’s hopeful to consider the vast amount of human potential this world holds. It’s inspiring to consider what one set of hands, one pair of  ears, one mouth, and one pair of feet can to when combined with a compassionate heart, and an outward-thinking mind.

Idealists are catalysts for change: they see the mismatch between what is and what should be. Some idealists act on the distress borne out of seeing that mismatch: they feed the hungry, clothe the naked, march for the oppressed, fight for the downtrodden, and otherwise work to see the world move closer to their ideals, all for the betterment of humanity and the planet. Idealism in community can do even more. When people with similar “shoulds” and “could bes” work together, powerful change can happen. Idealists working together  is what brought emancipation to the slaves, the vote to women, civil rights to Blacks, and, slowly and steadily, marriage rights to gays and lesbians.

Sounds just peachy, doesn’t it? Some days, and often at the end of other days, I see the world differently. I see what is and despair about whatever could be. In real life, the kind with limitations and failures and human beings and differing ideas of what should and could be, idealism is both a source of motivation as well as a source of stress and sadness. It’s just hard to watch the world and those humans, including oneself, not BE what one thinks SHOULD be. The world and its inhabitants just don’t always do what’s better for the world and those inhabitants. Add a fairly sharp mind to an idealist mindset (and many a bright person is idealistic), and it’s not hard to quickly think oneself from hopeful to existential funk. After all, the poor aren’t fed, not even in our own neighborhoods and schools. Dental care is an extra. Racism lives, and young black men continue to be on the losing end of justice, economic equity, and, too often, hope. Those with the privilege to protect use their power to harm those who can take no more harm. Gays and lesbians have the right to marry given and taken away in the same day. And I still lose my temper at my kids. Let the funk begin.

According to James T. Webb, PhD, expert in gifted education, and author of Searching for Meaning: Idealism, Bright Minds, Disillusionment, and Hope, “Bright, intense, caring, idealistic people are more likely to be disillusioned than many others, and along with disillusionment can come depression.” Does that list of characteristics remind of any people you know, perhaps, even, any people around you at this very moment?  Bright? Intense? Caring? Idealistic? And at least a bit discouraged or anxious about the state of the world? Does that statement resonate with you? You — and I — are not alone.

While clinical depression doesn’t strike every idealist, few idealists I’ve known escape disappointment punctuated by occasional outright despair when viewing the human condition. We learn our idealism from many places, but the first source is often our families of origin. I can’t count the number of conversations I’ve had with my father that begin with concerns about something political and social, equitable health care, and ends up with both of us with our brows crinkled, shaking our heads, feeling more than a bit disappointed in our society if not our world. We’re not depressed, but we are discouraged. But what lies behind that discouragement? It’s not just the unmet ideals of our nation or the ones we personally fail to meet. It’s something more.

As humans, we look for meaning in our lives. When I teach biology class, I tell my students that the purpose of all living things is to procreate. It’s true, biologically speaking. The job of life is to preserve the species via reproduction.  As humans, of course, we find our meaning in more than just replacing ourselves. What we find meaning in varies from person to person and from one time in our lives to another time. Meaning can be found in our relationships with self, family, friends, and even the stranger. Meaning may be rooted in personal accomplishments, appearance, or possessions. It may be found in God, goddess, the pantheon of deities, or the assuredness that there is no divine being on whom to call. Some find meaning in money and jobs. And those same may find it in acts of charity performed with that money or within that job. We may find meaning in the intangible and immeasurable: love, honesty, compassion, hard work, pain, suffering, birth, and even death. We may find it in the silence between the measurables and immeasurables, the places where only the breath resides.

Wherever we find it, however we name it at this moment, what gives us meaning is inextricably linked to the existential questions: Who am I? What is important? What is my purpose? Why do I exist? What is there beyond the self? These questions are at the very heart of our search for meaning, and as we look for meaning in our lives, we are actually grappling with these big existential concerns — we are wrestling with the meaning of life overall.

These concerns aren’t products of a modern society, although modern conveniences and generally ample thinking time give us more opportunities to ponder over them. The ancients wondered about the meaning of life and other existential concerns, and our world’s religions exist out of the desire human beings have to explain not only the natural wonders that delight and terrify us but also to explain the human condition in all its glory and suffering.  But gaining scientific understanding of plagues, floods, and the Northern Lights does little to assuage our need to understand our place in the world under the firmament.

The external signs of our grappling for meaning are our shifting focus, our shuffling priorities, our ever-changing ways of being in the world. If I’m convinced (or at least hoping) that status or admiration by others is important to life, I’m likely to find meaning in my job, my income, my home, my possessions, and what is said about me at the water cooler or in the papers. If I’m wed to meaning in human relationships, I’m likely to seek to deepen my bonds to those around me. Our sense of meaning in the world points us towards ideals while driving our behaviors.

In the midst of these ideals, grappling, and even depression, there is hope. There is hope that doesn’t require abandoning ideals, although it does require understanding that many ideals are subjective. There is hope that does not depend on dogmatic beliefs in unseen forces. Hope that accepts that life is messy even when it’s working fairly well. Hope that isn’t escapism via work, media, social networks, material possessions, travel to far-away lands, or food and other chemical substances.  Hope. Not withdrawal into ourselves or collapse into the abyss of detachment or even anger.

Hope. The real McCoy. It is the antidote to this existential funk that so many idealists experience. After all, we can no more shake off our idealism than shed a decade from our lives. And, despite the pain it can cause, the pain of watching ideals go unmet, of seeing a world that seems to continually fight becoming better, I doubt many of us would give up our idealism even if we could. Idealism is, for many of us, what brought us to Unitarian Universalism. We were not content with an “easy God,” a guy in the sky with all the answers, pulling the strings, or, if we waited and listened, telling us which strings to pull. Or, perhaps, we’ve never had an easy God to ask, to blame, to beg, to cajole. Perhaps we’ve just come here because our ponderings of ideals and existential issues were rattling around in our heads, seeking the company of other idealists feeling thwarted by life. Or perhaps we’ve found this place for our children, desiring that their existential questions would find patient ears in this community of thinkers, lovers, and doers. Many of us came to this religion, Unitarian Universalism, with hope, the antidote to existential angst.

Unitarian Universalism offers, among other things, hope. It also encourages idealism and actively ponders the big questions. It encourages knowing ourselves. Our fourth principle (one of seven suggested as common thinking points by the UUA — not creed or dogma but rather a place to start) points us to this responsibility: We affirm and promote a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.

This is first a statement encouraging acceptance of ourselves as human beings — it is part of our natural, human self to wonder and search and to grapple with the big questions. Naming this part of ourselves, whether we consider our idealism and existential wonderings friend or foe, is exceptionally hard, as the mirror it requires to examine one’s self and one’s beliefs throws back images that we may interpret negatively. We do too little. We surf the net too much. We listen with too little attention. We act on our ideals too seldom and on our momentary drives too much. We worry about the small stuff too much. The list goes on. We fall short, and it hurts.

But to manage the recurring disillusionment all idealists face, it’s essential to start with the basic truth that you are who you are — an idealistic, flawed, and sometimes disappointed person who wants a better world. Embrace it. Your idealism is part of you. Embrace also that desire to search for meaning. That’s part of being human, as is the stumbling and bumbling we find ourselves doing as we sort through meaning and ideals. View this existential work as necessary human tasks taken on by fallible human beings in a messy world, and it’s not quite as daunting.

So what now? Now we turn to principle three: We affirm and promote the acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations. We don’t need to search for meaning and manage our ideals by ourselves. We’re here to help each other through both the pain of ideals unrealized and the search for meaning in our lives. We are also here to accept ourselves and each other as imperfect and unfinished beings, and, most importantly, not lesser people for it.

So we’ve accepted our idealism and that of our fellow travelers. What’s next? The rest of our Unitarian Universalists principles guide us there as well. They mention supporting democracy, working for justice, valuing our fellow travelers, caring for our planet and all the life it supports, treating all humans with compassion and dignity. These concepts (ideals in themselves, really) provide a route out of some of our pain, as they affirm the ideals we hold so true while nudging us to not just agree with them but to actively promote them in our world. The words that begin all are these: We affirm and promote. Affirming is the armchair, or perhaps pew, response. Promoting requires action, even if that action is speaking your mind to spread the word or signing a letter to your congressperson. We’re to do to the work that helps these ideals become actualized in the world. This work, even if it is small, helps us feel effectual in our world, and, as we work to serve others, we tend to set aside some of the noise in our head.

Idealism and its often accompanying existential angst and questioning can be abated by techniques that extend beyond Unitarian Universalism, of course.  Relationships can quiet the questioning voices, allowing us to find meaning in those human contact points as we give and receive. Just talking about the despair can help, as knowing one isn’t alone can often be an antidote to pain (recall sharing our sorrows?). But we needn’t just cry together. Laughter helps, too. Laughing at ourselves, at the absurdity of the world, laughing at the absurdity life often presents to us. Laughing requires stepping out of our heads enough to see that situations pass.

And all things pass, from obstinate congresses to “religious freedom” acts. Even wars and epidemics eventually end. If there is anything a look through history can tell us, it is that nations and our world changes. It’s not always for the better, but it’s not also always for the worse. Taking the long view can help the idealist. Not only can that look let us know how that problems — even the most dire ones — have been solved in peaceful ways before but that it is often idealists with persistence who make that happen. As I look out over this room, guess who I see? Idealists with persistence.

So go ahead. Hold onto your ideals.  Dream of a day when affordable health care (including dental care) for all is reality; a day when marriage is between two consenting adults who love each other, regardless of gender; a day when the color of your skin doesn’t affect the level o dignity and justice you receive; a day when caring for our planet is a top national agenda; or even a day when there isn’t a war to send our children to fight. Continue to grapple with the big questions, as it is only by questioning meaning that we shape our ideals and relate our existence to those ideals.  And as you go, hold onto hope, and help others hold onto hope as well.

Anne Frank:

It’s really a wonder I haven’t dropped all my ideals, because some of them seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet I keep them because, in spite of everything I still believe that people are truly good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation of confusion, misery, and death. I see the world gradually being transformed into a wilderness, I hear the ever approaching thunder which will destroy us too, I can feel the suffering of millions, and yet, if I look up into the heavens, I think it will all come right, that this cruelty too will end, and that peace and tranquility will return again.

In the meantime, I must uphold my ideals, for perhaps the time will come when I shall be able to carry them out.

– July 15, 1944

Evolution (but not Religion) in the Biology Classroom

I rarely post an essay on both here and on my homeschooling blog (Quarks and Quirks), but this one fits both. 

Screen Shot 2014-10-12 at 8.51.43 PM

“Now that I’m homeschooling, I’ll be teaching the boys creationism, of course.”

The chuckle I’d expected from my father didn’t come. He paused, unsure what to say. My decision to homeschool my older had somewhat unnerved him, as it wasn’t the typical path, but he was never one to meddle in my life. I’d rarely even seen him pause like that, processing thoughts that were likely previously thought unthinkable. Creationism? How could that be?

“I’m kidding, Dad,” I reassured him, a bit surprised he’d even thought it was possible.  He exhaled but still looked a bit shaken. He was then a Biology professor at a state university and is still today a liberal Presbyterian. He is committed to science while believing in God, and he finds no conflict between science and his religion. I was raised with both, understanding evolution and believing in God, never seeing conflict between them. And while I left my belief behind about a decade ago, it wasn’t because of science.

What does it mean to understand biology through the lens of science? It means to understand that from the simplest species to the most complicated, natural selection drives the changes to that species. Genes copy with errors, and errors can wreak havoc with life or increase the chance of an individual surviving to reproduce. And that’s what life (in the biological sense) is all about — making more of a species. From antibiotic resistance in bacteria to the form and function of the mammalian eye to the modern human today, evolution is the driver. It’s wily driver, without direction or purpose. Every slip of DNA’s copying mechanism is random, with ‘goodness’ or ‘badness’ relative to where the alteration occurred, what (if any) effect it has on the organism, and even the environment in which that organism lives.IMG_0986

To teach biology without this understanding is to miss much of what biology is. To limit evolution to that bacteria’s antibiotic resistance or the finch’s beak is to mangle the very mechanism of change in the living world. It’s akin to teaching composition without discussing grammar. Evolution is how change happens, and biology can only be fully understood by appreciating that overarching truth in science.

So a few weeks back, when I tucked into evolutionary biologist’s David Barash’s recent opinion piece in the New York Times, God, Darwin, and My College Biology Class, I found myself nodding along. Barash begins his undergraduate animal behavior class with what he calls “The Talk.” This lecture affirms that his class with look at all of biology through the lens of evolution, a statement I make on my biology syllabus for the classes I’ve taught my sons and their friends and that other families have used as well. I admittedly have an advantage, as my students are known to me and from families where creationism isn’t part of the curriculum. And so evolution simply permeates the class, with religion rarely brought up. It is, after all biology class.

Barash’s classes are more diverse than my tiny home classroom, and I imagine my father’s were similarly diverse. College biology may be the first place conservative Christians rooted in creationism or, its euphemism, Young Earth creationism, may first experience biology through that lens of evolution in a way that affirms the process rather than denies its validity. That could easily put a student on guard, worried about veracity of the rest of the course or thinking about at least part of his or her faith. I’d agree is seems wise to warn — or at least inform — the class of the lens in place. That should be sufficient.

IMG_0538I can’t recall any reference to religion in any of my biology courses in either my Catholic high school or Catholic university. Religion wasn’t mentioned, and no one every asked, as far as I recall, if it should or shouldn’t be discussed in the science classroom.  Barash takes the offensive, as he starts with a talk about religion and science. He doesn’t stop at stating that evolution is the underpinning of biology, and that all will be discussed through that lens. He does not hold, as I do (and as does Stephen Gould) that science and religion are “non-overlapping magisteria,” meaning they have separate domains and are, therefore, compatible understandings in a single human being. Instead, Barash tells his students that religion and science do overlap in domain, and that accepting evolution demands deconstruction of any belief in “an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.”

After discussion of the complexity created by natural selection and the illusion of humans as central in the living world, Barash settles into theodicy, an issue far afield of the evolution he sets out to explain. Problems with theodicy (the attempt to reconcile suffering in the world occurring in the presence of an omnipotent, caring deity) contribute to many a person of faith’s loss of that faith. Veering from science, Barash steps broadly into religion, confronting students with the news that if they buy evolution, their faith will likely fall, provided they’re thinking deeply enough:

The more we know of evolution, the more unavoidable is the conclusion that living things, including human beings, are produced by a natural, totally amoral process, with no indication of a benevolent, controlling creator. (Barash)

As an agnostic who sees science through the lens of evolution and the universe as a mystery we ever so slowly unwrap, origin somewhat understood, but only with the most tenacious grasp, I find myself irritated with Barash. Like other militant atheists (and I’m assuming he is an atheist), he forces a narrow lens on what God must be to the believer: God, it seems, must be creator of all, simple and complex, pulling each string and guiding each change. God must create humans as separate, with some of God’s supernaturalness in humans but not other creatures. God must be absent given suffering in the world.DSCN0653

About a decade ago, I left my faith behind. But I didn’t lose it in the science classroom, and I didn’t lose it because I understood that the complexity of life is due to evolution, the roll of the genetic dice paired with environmental pressures. I didn’t lose faith because I understood the long arc of evolution that brought humans into being. I lost it in part to the theodicy question and in part to long thought about what made sense to me. Science wasn’t part of my musing.

My father, a biologist who understands and teaches science through the lens of evolution, a man of faith who is dedicated to helping others of faith, understands that science and faith need not be in conflict. He hasn’t lost his belief, despite decades of science study as a researcher, professor, and interested human being. He, like Barash and I, understand the complexity produced by evolution’s often slow hand, and he is unbothered by the lack of supernatural gene in humans. And the theodicy question? He’s obviously found a way through that one, all while appreciating the science of evolution. And at what cost to his science classes? None.

Barash’s mistakes, in my opinion, are two-fold. First, his view of what God is to a believer is myopic and simplistic. Views of God, gods, goddesses, and divine forces in the universe are as diverse as there are people who believe. Second, his approach is arrogant and presumptive. To tell people who believe just how their faith will be undone is an act of assumed superiority and completely without regard to the personal nature of an individual’s faith. Will some conservative believers, steeped in the absoluteness of a seven-day creation myth struggle as they take biology in a college classroom where evolution is the common currency? Probably. But many believers of all flavors won’t struggle one bit, content with their separation of science and religion.

DragonflyBarash wants to warn his students that, should they retain their faith, they will do so only with “some challenging mental gymnastic routines.” How a nonbeliever can begin to step into the mind of a believer and predict whether the wonders of evolution will deepen or destroy the faith of another is beyond me. Yes, science can challenge faith, especially a conservative faith resting on a supreme being pulling the strings and putting humans above all else. But faith, in many forms, can sit comfortably with the scientist, causing no sacrifice to the scientist’s understanding of the universe and the living things inhabiting it. Barash’s talk forwards his own atheist agenda, and that, in the classroom, is going too far.

I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of religion, but when at the front of the classroom, I believe you have a responsibility that includes knowing your boundaries. If you’re a biology teacher, teach science. Unabashedly teach evolution and say that you’ll do so. Talk about complexity. Ignore creationism, as it’s not science. And ignore God, whether you believe or not, as faith isn’t part of science. Encourage students struggling with the concepts to discuss their struggle with classmates, their religious leader, their God, or anyone who will listen and let them sort through. But stay out of the wonderings and wanderings of their faith.

I teach biology through the lens of evolution. I’m an agnostic. My father, on a far larger scale, did the same for decades. He’s a Presbyterian. It works.

Why Church?

IMG_1277Why church?

I’ve asked myself that for much of the last year. Personally and professionally, change abounds. I’ve expanded my work from home and married the man I love. It’s been a good but busy time, with plenty for my hands and heart to do. For the past six months, I’ve found myself often at home with family, attention focused tightly at a time where that seems the most appropriate action.

Church has changed, too. The UU community I’ve called home for the past seven years has also gone through wrenching changes, with a loss of our minister last summer and a moderate loss of congregation in the process. Initially, part of church leadership, I sat through meetings and contributed to email discussions, watching conflict and division grow and wondering just what was right. Gradually, I pulled back, first leaving my committee chair position and then attending services only sporadically. During winter and spring, I dropped my son for his OWL classes (Our Whole Lives — a human sexuality series offered in Unitarian Universalist and United Church of Christ churches) and spent services in the church gathering area, where I could tune in and out as desired. This summer, I’ve attended rarely, excusing my absences to travel and family consolidation time.

I’ve started to more deeply consider the question underneath my avoidance. Why church? Why should I get up each Sunday morning, the one day no one needs to otherwise dress and leave the house, and go to church? Why not stay home with my coffee, New York Times, NPR, and pajama-clad loved ones? Why drive twenty minutes to sit for sixty, sip coffee for fifteen, and drive another twenty home? Why do I go?

Seven years back, I had reasons, the first being a hole I couldn’t fill at home.  A life-long member of some Christian denomination or another, I was, seven years back, rather new to saying aloud that I didn’t see any evidence of a god. A reluctant agnostic, mostly closeted because I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave the safety of a personal god, I was feeling loss. Holidays deepened the sense of loss, with Lent and Advent leaving me unmoored. Finding a congregation that was fine with my increasingly faithless status and offered a touch of ceremony to the big liturgical holidays relieved a bit of the chasm that came with jumping theistic ship. At least I was somewhere doing something vaguely familiar.

I came to that UU congregation with several searching friends. In my socially slow-moving, introverted style, I gradually found new friends and acquaintances.  I’d spent the previous decade and a half moving from parish to parish, never feeling settled. At one, I’d come to know a few families well enough to make coffee hour more than a dash for a donut for each kid, but I never found friends. I certainly didn’t experience the supportive relationships my parents had known and continue to know in their places of worship. At this church, I’ve had true friends, the sort where coffee hour can’t contain the conversations. The sort  that spread to the other six days of the week.

And the sort of friends that can sop up some of the sorrow of a slowly imploding marriage and soften a bit of the disaster of divorce. New friends and old held me when I cried. Sunday mornings because a refuge, a time and place I could let down and feel, for just a bit, cocooned from a reality I couldn’t believe was mine. I don’t believe in fate or a god that directs our lives, but I do believe in the power of two or more people gathered in love and in the balm of friendship. I imagine I’d have found a way through those terrible years without that place and those people, but I’m not sure I’d have made it through with much of my sense of self and dignity intact.

Of course there were the kids. Boys, young boys then, not the type to share their grief and confusion over bagels and fair trade coffee but old enough to feel a sense of community. I considered Sunday morning church and religious education to be a social as well as learning opportunity for my introverted boys. Over the years, I came to deeply appreciate the UU approach to children’s religious education. It’s respectful and thoughtful, and my children blossomed in that environment. Questioning was welcomed, the quiet, thoughtful sort as well as the more outspoken and even challenging type. My boys have done well there, learning lessons about respect, dignity, worth, and love, lessons that came through the members who taught them regardless of what the curriculum of the day was. As they’ve matured, they’ve taken on responsibilities that serve the congregation, learning that belonging to community means participating in the work of the community.

That’s good stuff. But, still, I’m asking the question.

Why church now?

I’ve settled comfortably and confidently into my agnostic, humanist view of the world. Holidays no longer echo emptily. We’ve largely left Easter behind, and Christmas has become a time for family. I don’t wake up the first Sunday of Advent longing for “Oh Come, Oh Come Emmanuel,” and I often find Fat Tuesday takes me by surprise and leaves with no pierogi or other indulgence, let alone a vice to give up. I don’t go to church to fill that hole. It’s filled itself with time.

My life’s settled down (for now) and with that calm, my need for sanctuary seems less urgent. I’ve found more peace within myself, although that’s still a peace that takes work, as I’m prone to angst and anxiety. Over the years, I’ve found more of that peace at home, in no small part because I’m sharing that home with a supportive and loving partner. I have friends, some from church, some from other communities, friends I mostly keep up with outside of the confines of Sunday mornings. And my boys? As the church has aged and the number of families with children has dropped, even with jobs they enjoy and adults who care for them, church isn’t offering them the companionship it once did.

Why church?

I’ve let that question flit in and out of my mind for a year. I’ve pondered it more seriously for the last several months. And for nearly a week, I’ve written and rewritten this piece, hoping to sort through that question a bit more. A sermon a week back, given by a long-time member who’s seen the place through many ministers and countless changes, provided me with a longer view. After a lifetime of mostly Catholic church experience, I’m new to the leadership and political engagement that many other churches require. I’d never watched a congregation grumble and feud. I’d never seen a member cry because of changes in ministry. I’d never sat at the meeting table, seeing how painful and divisive disagreement can be. Frankly, I’ve wanted to flee, missing my ignorance about the hard work it takes to build a church. I’ve wanted to return to the outside, where lack of engagement in process allowed me to keep my rose-colored glasses on or simply leave when things didn’t feel good anymore.

But this longer view makes me think yet again about my question: Why church?

  • Church, because it is a place where others who value religious freedom gather.
  • Church, because values of inclusion, equality, and justice always need a voice.
  • Church, because supportive community is built over time, not just used when in need.
  • Church, because working through pain, anger, and disappointment in community deepens understanding.
  • Church, because children thrive in an environment of thinking, caring adults who see them as competent and valuable.
  • Church, because stumbling and falling aren’t ends if we help each other off, address our hurts, and work together to heal.
  • Church, because it reminds us that community is larger than any one person, idea, or belief.

So I’m finding my way back to church. I can’t say my energy or enthusiasm is high, but seeing the place from a longer view nudges me to have more patience with the time we’re in. So I’ll show up on most Sunday mornings. I’ll ease into participation beyond that, parking my cloak of disappointment and reluctance on the hangers in the hall. I’ll have the hard conversations, listening to others and mulling over ideas. I’ll also look to the past, learning about what it takes to make a community last over a century and a half and perhaps helping to build that community’s future.

Love Lessons from Lilacs

IMG_1064In eleven days, I’ll vow to my partner to seek love with him wherever life takes us. We’ve spent the last several weeks looking through boxes at his past, a past that includes the chasm of a loved one lost, his first wife.  I’ve peered over his shoulder trying to see through his eyes, trying to see her but mostly seeing his love for her, raw and fierce and yet fully aware of her human nature. He’s loved intensely before, and, somehow, he can do it again. We sort through boxes of poems, bills, photos, knickknacks, and a thousand items that make a life, but still I can’t really see her, this woman whom he lost and will always love, because why wouldn’t he? I can just see him and the abundant love he has for both of us.

IMG_1148Last night, I sorted through the details of my children’s lives with my first husband, their father. Sometimes we navigate these with ease, and sometimes not. Somewhere between the ordinary (the driver’s license not yet had, the courses for next term, the funds available for college payments that hover closer than ever) we derailed the way people who once loved each other but now clearly do not tend to derail. I’ve spent the twenty-four hours since then ruminating, crying, cursing, crying more, and writing emails desperately trying to assert my view of what is best for the two beings I love more than anyone or anything else — my sons. Closer to hate or at least intense dislike than to love, I’ve spent a day and night without sleep filled with a venom that appalls me, a ferocity had by a mother protecting her young. It’s all mixed with the sense of the failure of the love that created these imperfect yet perfect beings, my sons. I don’t ever seem to fully adjust to loving the two while struggling so mightily with the one who also contributed to their DNA.

So, tired of crying in the house, fatigued from lack of sleep and a plenitude of arguments that get nowhere except to a lower level of Dante’s hell, one occupied by ex-partners inflamed by their love for their young and ignited by their vitriol that can’t seem to permanently be doused by any substance or reason, I went for a walk. That’s on my mental calm-down checklist: a walk, often accompanied by a playlist that reminds me of love and truth. Shoes on and soundtrack playing, I set out to find at least a moment’s reprieve from my distress.

So much for exercise and fresh air soothing the soul. I cried the whole way, almost aborting the walk after a block for fear of drawing the attention of neighbors. I arrived home without answers or comfort and with a rather drippy nose and blotchy face. I wandered to the backyard, where my older and I have been planting a newly expanded garden that’s part wedding gift from my mom and part therapy for me. The peonies, buds clenched and covered with the persistent ants enjoying the nectar of the fetal flower stopped my tears. Watching ants is a pleasure I learned from my father, who made them his study towards the end of his tenure as a Biology professor. “Watch one ant,” he says. “Watch how it moves and where it goes. It’s hard, but watch.”

IMG_1066

So I watched. There were two, but given the size of a peony bud, it wasn’t too challenging to keep track of their separate treks across the ball of petals-to-be. Contrary to gardeners’ tales, ants don’t help open the peonies. They are hedonistic and hungry, drawn to the intoxicating sweetness of the plant’s carbohydrate-laden sap that coats the petals. It’s a feast, and watching them walk their drunken circles tugged me from my ruminating about the pains of loving and then losing. I pull out my phone-cum-camera and lose myself in the bud-planet and it’s two armored inhabitants.

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And somehow my mind is quieter than it has been in days. After I get my fill of the ants getting theirs, I look at my garden from the ant’s perspective. I search out the small and find instead the singularity. Infinity exists in the ant and its peony, the golden ratio in the spiral begonia, life and death in the decapitated I-don’t-know-what that our bunny friend/foe rejected for lunch and discarded in the dirt. I’m lost in a peace I’ve not known for weeks, a silence of the mind and heart that soothes me in a way my macroscopic way of seeing the world has not. Heart rate slowed, I amble across the yard, bending over and under to see what is small and forgotten.

IMG_1124Then I find the lilac. It’s buds are tight, but the intoxicating scent somehow escapes the clamped bundles of pink. Attuned to the small as one becomes when one wakes up to what is within plain sight but hard to find for roar of the bigger picture, I finally see it: a single open flower. Coins in a purse, poems in a box, and this, a single flower open on a lilac bush. This woman whom my soon-to-be husband loved is remembered in so many ways, but one is via a lilac bush on the other side of the state, at the home of her parents who can grieve her while loving me. While I’m not one for signs, I am partial to reminders and metaphor.

In eleven days, my partner and I make vows of tightly wrapped petals. The love we know now, as strong as it may be, is but a small start of what’s to come. It’s that peony bud, that first lilac bloom. Universe willing, we’ll have a long season to bloom together, lasting past the spring bleeding hearts and fickle tulips and enduring until some bunny or just a sudden and late frost returns us to that same universe. And as we travel this journey together, we carry those we’ve loved. His first love and wife. My sons. Even my ex-husband. From what was very good and what was very bad, along with the vast experiences that are somewhere in between, we have learned some small bit of what love is. We’re filled with snapshots of moments of what it means to love and what it means to let loved ones go, with all the in-between blurring in the motion of the years past. With all of that experience, we start again. Together. A bud. Perhaps with ants, drinking what sweetness we produce, learning that love can happen even after loss. And so we begin to open.

My love to you always, my partner, my friend, my fellow traveler. 

 

 

The Darkest Day

IMG_0144Today is the winter solstice. This means that the Northern Hemisphere has its shortest period of daylight today (nine hours, 4 minutes, and 23 seconds where I live), with the sun reaching its lowest altitude of the year. Starting tomorrow, our days become longer, with what often seems like imperceptible increases in our daily allotment of natural light. We gain three seconds of daylight tomorrow. I’ll take it.

Winter is the rebound season, cold in these northern climes but offering more light with every earlier sunrise and later sunset. Therefore, the start of winter should bring hope. Honestly, I find that hope hard to find. I struggle with the holiday season, finding the period from Halloween through New Year’s Day to be filled with reminders of the rifts in my family of origin and family of choice. Divorce times two resonates loudest during these last months of fall and first days of winter, as I juggle those families, anticipating their absences to the point of missing the time I have in their presence if I don’t watch myself.  Healing continues, but I’ve still not adjusted to having my children away for part of each holiday.

Holidays are hard on my younger son, whose autistic way of being in the world makes breaks in routine akin to tossing him overboard in a leaky dinghy. Just when I’m wrung out from a semester of teaching my own and the children of others, when I’m ready to curl up with a good book and a beverage appropriate to the time of day, he’s losing his moorings. Between the surprises, gatherings, and laxity of the holiday season, he’s forever struggling to find the safety of a schedule. I’d like to say I do my best to make that schedule, but I can’t find my own rhythm during this time, and, frankly, I enjoy the directionless days this time of year offers. I provide some support, of course, charting individual days as they come, discussing what social events he feels he can manage while seeking a bit of form to our general formlessness. I could be more helpful, but the darkness of these days sucks me under.

The hope of the solstice takes some seeking out. This time of year, from now until the warmth of the sun brings us to spring, are hard for me. It’s easy to pull into an existential darkness that comes more swiftly the older I grow. It’s somewhere between an anxiety and depression, helped by exercise, light therapy, and just the right balance of social contact and solitude. (Some days it’s hard to know which I crave more, such is the indecisiveness that lurks with my winter darkness.)

It’s heavy, the blanket of winter. While my residual sadness about family divisions fuels the intermittent funk of late October through Christmas, the pull toward introspection draws stronger during these long nights of deep winter. I don’t know how much is influenced by the increased darkness of late fall, but it seems the lack of light outside encourages much scouting about into my interior. The older I become, the more willing I am to dig around in there, but come winter, my ability to look with equanimity decreases. It’s all too easy to see only the shadows, the failings, the humanness that without the light seems full of flaws.

I see the hurts I’ve inflicted on others, the good I’ve failed to do, all while hearing the roar of the endless motion I maintain to keep away from the silence which makes these wrongs scream their loudest. I keep moving, busy even when there is no busy to really be had, avoiding even a moment of stillness for fear that the sadness that descends with I think too much will just be too much. It’s a restless feeling, that undercurrent, rarely affecting my day-to-day duties but undoubtedly coloring my encounters with loved ones and strangers.

Ironically, perhaps, peace and hope can only be found in those silences. That’s the hope of the solstice. I spent much of this last semester feeling bombarded with busyness. What quiet I had I squandered with online Scrabble, Facebook, tasks that didn’t need doing, at least at that time, and other purposeless pursuits. I’ve rarely ever just been doing one thing, which is undoubtedly part of the problem. I model multitasking and the poor outcomes it produces. Mindfulness? Not even when I brush my teeth.

In an attempt to escape my daily patter, I scoured my bookshelves for some light fiction. Not wanting to reread, given the phenomenal number of unread books around here, I reached into my closet to a shelf holding marginal fiction that I might someday be desperate enough to read. (Yes, my shelving habits are that specific.) And thus Breakfast with Buddha, by Roland Merullo, came to bed with me several weeks back. This is not an amazing read. It is an easy read, however, about a man who takes a cross-country trip with a monk and the changes in that man as he makes that journey. He’s flawed, humans always are, and initially resistant to change. As he journeys, he finds awareness of that something is missing and discovers that stillness — meditation and mindfulness — fill what he did not previously know was empty.

Predictable? Yes. But it reminded me that I’d once tried to reach a more mindful way of being. Some years back, when I was more actively searching for meaning and solace, I reached toward a number of authors on meditation and Buddhist thought, including Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, and others. After a scene where Otto, the ordinary man, attempts to meditate with Rinpoche, his traveling monk companion, I returned to my closet. This time, I reached for Pema Chödrön ‘s When Things Fall Apart, a book I’d read years back during my separation. This collection of talks explores, from a Buddhist perspective, how we tend to miss happiness in our rush to escape pain and suffering. Chödrön advocates staying in those fearful places rather than backing away, learning from them while being compassionate to one’s self. Of course, she advocates meditation as a tool to this end.

And so I started, in the darkness of my quietest time of day, that point just before sleep. I read some of Otto’s path and a chapter of When Things Fall Apart.  Or I reread the previous chapter, as Chödrön’s words sometimes need more time to seep in to my distracted mind. And then one night I tried what I’d not really tried for years: meditation. I’m embarrassed to say how unwilling I was to try again what I’ve often felt I’ve failed so miserably in the past. Yes, I know one doesn’t fail meditation, but I’m harder on no one than myself, and I’d left the practice I’d barely begun because I felt I’d failed at it. Starting again, watching my mind wander after a single breath, the greatest challenge has been not giving up at the first hint of perceived failure. It’s hard. It’s a noisy place, up there in my head, filled with ideas, judgements, plans, worries, desires, joys, passions, fears, anger, disappointment, and a good deal of random noise. The silent seconds (nanoseconds?) where it all silences are rare at this point, but I’m hopeful that they will gradually lengthen and become more frequent.

So I’ve started to use the darkness of winter to find some hope. I will sit in its silence and listen to my breath, letting thoughts go and finding what it is just to be. I’ll read from what feeds me and seek out a bit more mindfulness in my day, decreasing the chatter I’ve been using to push away my darkness within. Perhaps there I’ll find the light promised by the solstice.

Fragmented

Mom. Homeschooling parent. Physician Assistant. Teacher. Friend. Companion. Housecleaner. Ombudsman. Taxi driver. Cook. Handy(wo)man. Obtainer of All Things Needed. Finder of What is Misplaced, Gardener. Problem solver.

I feel fragmented.

Perhaps it’s the change in weather. The days are shorter. Many are cold and wet. It’s dark when I used to take my walks, the walks that assured me time to regroup and recoup.

Perhaps it’s the season. Holidays loom large. I’m starting to flounder with these days needing preparation: shopping, cooking, decorations, plans. Thanksgiving, just a month away, and this year the kind of Thanksgiving that doesn’t include my boys, a reminder that divorce splits families for good. They are, after all, what I’m most thankful for. And Christmas. With my Christianity gone, I’m struggling with the celebration we continue to do, which I say is for the boys but is really for all of us, ritual we need and want while wondering what means what.

Perhaps it’s struggles of my younger. He’s having a hard time, what with oncoming puberty stacked atop his Aspergers and plenty of anxiety on the side. I’ve been pulled in closer as support and stability, jobs a mom expects, yet to a level not anticipated at this age. And to see a child in such a state of hurt… It pulls me in and under, leaving me gasping for breath and wondering where that oxygen mask is. I can’t put it on if I can’t find it.

Perhaps it’s time, cut in too many tiny pieces to do anything but play Scrabble online, check Facebook, read the shortest articles in the New York Times (days after it comes), answer another question about another math problem, watch my younger closely –again or still — for signs of stress, check my email, and make lists of things that will never get done.

I like my jobs, both paid and unpaid. I feel generally competent at them, and I enjoy the interaction with my children, other people’s children, and the adults whom make up my friends and co-workers. I feel respected professionally, cared for by friends, and often appreciated by my children.  I’m less enamored with the tasks that keep us in food, clothing, and a relatively clean house, of course. But each task is entirely manageable. Together, they seem impossible. 

It’s not just the tasks at hand. It’s all the ones that need attention but aren’t getting it, little and big. The call to the university my older son likes, the one to schedule a day-long visit complete with classes. The presentation for church that will happen in just over two weeks whether it’s written or not. The writing that just isn’t happening because I’m never sure when I’ll be interrupted or because I can’t maintain concentration for more than a few minutes. The books on my nightstand that go unread because I can’t pay attention to them, either. The book that I’m trying to assemble, the one that requires a few hours — or even just an hour — each day of undivided attention I just don’t seem to be able to find.

I’m in pieces. I’m not depressed or anxious or otherwise suffering from existential despair. I’m just in pieces. And most of the pieces are good in themselves. While it’s a hard job, homeschooling my sons is a choice I’m glad to have made, to have continued to make, year after year. I enjoy (most parts) of my relationships with them, and while the stakes seem astronomically high when homeschooling an eleventh grader on the cusp of full-time college, it’s overall a good ride to share.

My professional endeavors — medicine and teaching/editing — feed me deeply. Some of that food is straight ego-stroking — the patient who tells me I am the one who truly listens to her or the young student who stops me mid-class to thank me for teaching him to write, noting he really likes our time together. But some of the professional satisfaction is the challenges of the work itself. Both require close attention to the person I’m with at the time. Both require dropping my own agenda at points, attuning to the patient or student and letting the rest drop away.

The personal encounters — those with my friends and fiancé — feed and sustain me when I’m struggling the most. But even these meetings seem smashed between What Comes Next — classes, cleaning, cooking, calming, driving duty, bills, calls, and chaos management. Too often, they are the punctuation marks more than the paragraphs in my daily essay. This fragmentation (repaired somewhat come next spring, when my dearest companion becomes my spouse) is perhaps the most painful. I love my children, and I enjoy and appreciate their company. But a homeschooling mom in her forties who also teaches the children of others starts to get a bit twitchy when days go by without substantive contact with those over the age of 30. I want conversation about things other than Minecraft, computers, comma placement, and tropical fish. (The last is interesting for a while, until the lists of fish are repeated.)  I love my children, and my older is learning to be a somewhat empathetic listener who actually asks how I am and listens for the answer. But still…

So tonight I’m writing, (almost) alone in my home, enjoying the peace sustained attention brings. The presentation/sermon is nearly done, needing only an hour or so of polishing and (likely) shortening. This cathartic piece, almost complete, reminds me of the threads upon which the beads of my life rest connect what can seem broken and unbound.  When I can connect those pieces and roles, seeing them as cohesive wholes and not tiny pieces of me, I’m more settled and more likely to find the time to finish the book, edit the essays, or even veg in front of a show (scandalous!). This sense of quiet and wholeness may not last even another half-hour, but for now, it is here. So I sit with it, feel the connections, and just breathe.

Questions of Comfort

IMG_0392“But if you don’t believe in God or some greater purpose to the universe, how do you find comfort in times of trouble?”

That was the question from a congregant on a recent Sunday morning after a sermon on knowledge and belief at my Unitarian Universalist church. Palpable concern tinged with emotion filled the asker’s voice as she spoke: How could one manage the pain and suffering that goes with life without something greater than oneself along for the ride? Or at least how could one see one’s way through travesty without a sense of it being part of a greater purpose?

After the speaker worked away at his answer, I turned to my pew mate who had lost her husband to cancer not too long ago. Before I could form the question, she answered, her eyes wide: “If there had been a purpose, that would have been worse!”

I agree. I cannot reconcile a greater purpose in the traumas and suffering of this world, a purpose that requires, for instance, someone young to die to do what? Teach patience? Persistence? True love? Endurance? A tolerance for suffering? Can’t most of those be learned in our more ordinary moments, such as while in line at the post office or during a bout of the flu? Questions about the source of a greater force or divinity aside, the thought that a greater source or being would have a purpose to putting a father through cancer, a mother through the suicide of a child, whole countries through famine or war is just, well, unfathomable and, frankly cruel.

But back to the asker’s question: Where do you find comfort in times of suffering if you don’t believe the suffering has a greater purpose? My comfort comes from three sources. First, I ascribe to this Buddhist view: Life is suffering. That’s not a miserable thought designed to depress and defeat but rather a reminder that feeling unsatisfied — suffering — is reality. We all feel pain and distress, making the Buddhist view a realistic look at the world. We come into the imperfect world with our imperfect selves and, to no surprise, live imperfect lives. The Buddhist answer to this suffering is to embrace impermanence and to avoid attachment to what is and to what we wish could be.

Am I good at this? Not really, but remembering that life happens — that suffering and discomfort are part of life — help me out when I’m uncomfortable with a twist life’s thrown me. Sure, I try to control what I can. I get my flu shots, wear my seat belt, know where my kids are, save for a rainy day, and otherwise take the precautions I can against the ways of the universe and the wiles of human nature. But in the end, I work hard to remember that control only gets me so far and so safe and that I can’t protect everyone within my reach. There is comfort in knowing my limits, differentiating what is my responsibility from what is beyond my grasp.

My second source of solace in calamity is knowledge. Comfort in fact, in science, in knowing brings me to peace about some of the suffering life passes my way. Comprehending more about the way the world works helps me ascribe cause where there is cause and ponder where there isn’t. Understanding probability and what randomness truly is removes a good deal of finger-pointing at what is fair and what is not. Storms and sickness know no “fair.” Sure, where you live and your behaviors may move you closer to hurricanes or further from heart disease, but “fairness” suggests an outside arbiter, making decisions about where to place that maelstrom or blood clot. That would be unfair. And cruel. I’ll take comfort in the equanimity of randomness, thank you.

There are, of course, events that are unfair and not random. War. Famine. Terrorist attacks. I’ve been spared these traumas, and I’m grateful. They do confound and pain me, but I don’t question their purpose in the greater scheme of things. They have causes, certainly, but that is quite different from purpose. And how to find comfort through them? As someone who has only observed these through the newspaper, radio, and TV, I simply don’t know, but I’m fairly certain searching for purpose of the purposeless wouldn’t help me.

My fellow travelers provide my third source of comfort in a world of suffering. I am not alone in my suffering. The travelers I know by name comfort me most often, with willing ears and caring words when I’m most troubled. Sharing suffering lightens me a bit, and when commiseration follows a sharing, I’m reminded that very few if any of our pains are unique. We all get sick, become disappointed, lose heart, lose love, lose sleep, lose hope, ponder the place we have in the world, and worry about those closest to us as well as those nameless ones thousands of miles away. So we don’t suffer alone even when we are alone. I’ve many times taken comfort in that reality. With seven billion other humans on the planet, I’m likely not the only one experiencing anything. And somehow that helps.

Years ago, when my beliefs included a God, I prayed when suffering or upon seeing another in distress. And about a decade ago, I started questioning that process. My questions started with source and purpose: How could a relevant force in the world, greater than ourselves, omnipotent and omniscient, exist in the face of suffering? How could a god desire — even demand — praise, petition, and thanksgiving while letting horrific happenings occur despite that praise, petition, and thanksgiving? And if God did none of that — if free will reigned and all hands are off — then what was the point of all that praying?

And thus the comfort of prayer and context of purpose gradually left. Losing that easy comfort in just the conversation with a source was initially both unnerving and liberating. It took time to find that a touch of Buddhist thought, knowledge, and companions could relieve some of the inevitable suffering of life. Truth is that I still find myself starting to pray at odd moments, stopping after the invocation of the divine. “Dear God,” I begin. And end. There just is no more comfort there.

So I sit, without a sense of a greater purpose to the rain that falls other than that rain falls. I’ve not been faced with the truly horrific, so one could say I’ve not been truly tested by suffering, but I’ve had my own traumas in my forty-four years. In the past decade or so, I’ve met with greater adversity than in the previous three combined, and yet, finding comfort has been far easier. I don’t ask the question of the greater purpose to suffering anymore. I suffer. I will continue to suffer. So will all others. With knowledge of this, a thirst for knowledge and appreciation of fact, and the community of 7 billion with whom I hurl through space, I am comforted.