I don’t need a hero who can do no wrong

I don’t need a hero who can do no wrong. I never needed anyone like this. I found Jesus when I was a child, and abandoned him, because I thought I didn’t need him, either.

Men are weak and fallible. Women think they are the antidote to the foibles of men, but they make messes of similar proportions out of things in their own uniquely messy ways.

I found that making myself big became a way to keep people from attacking me on all fronts. But, it also made me mean.

I became as wise as a serpent and about as innocent as one, too. So, I made myself small, and became innocent like a sheep, and let myself be as foolish as a sheep.

I’d like to make myself small again, but get my serpent’s wisdom back.

There is a lot of evil coursing through the world right now, and all of us are dancing with it.

I forgot how to pray (or maybe I never learned how to properly). I forgot how to be grateful. I forgot how to lose consciousness of myself and let Jesus take over.

I woke up this morning happy, even though I fell asleep with a frayed mind. However, I fell asleep with the attitude of accepting the knitting that the angels do while we are at rest.

I decided to stop caring about creating a worldly-savvy posture. I no longer love the ones who are fast and clever. I’d sooner love a simple churchgoing man, whose politics sound backwards and misinformed to my citified ears. I want to love the inarticulate and nigh dumb folk who shine from some place deep within. If we educated Christians don’t learn to love them, then the true serpents will gladly accept them into their clans of little monsters.

I dropped the Thomas Merton diary I was reading in disgust. He got a visit from Joan Baez, and sounded like a smitten schoolboy. He was still forming wildly unrealistic plans in his mind over how he could be together with the nurse. He despised his Abbot, and mentioned how the great Joan Baez could see right through the paternalistic, sanctimonious man. And then the last straw — “have no need for a damn dog.”

Halfway through this journal, which takes place less than two years before he died, Merton no longer sounds the least bit Catholic or even Christian in some contemporary spiritual sort of way. He is writing how much he likes the Beatles and Bob Dylan, is getting drunk, and is seeing friends every single week. He is about as far from being a hermit as one can get.

He certainly might have every right to feel and think the way he does about the monastery and the Abbot–but, why not pack up and leave? Priests and monks were doing it all the time in the 1960s. He certainly would have gotten propped up with a following of his own, and could have easily joined the ranks of the other elder statesmen of the counterculture, speaking alongside Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Alan Ginsberg and Abby Hoffman at rallies, movements and conferences.

The thing is, he was probably too comfortable and safe in his warm little nook there at Gethsemeni, and knew he had a good thing going, even if it was abundantly clear to everyone close to him that he was no longer a monk or priest in spirit or in his actions.

When I began reading Merton, the thing I liked the most about him was how much more mature he seemed about his spirituality than other individuals who opted to be freewheeling Beat poets and folk singers. While he shared a cosmic kinship with these people (which was appealing to my still highly PC sensibilities), he had graduated into a deeper, more permanent place where he dispensed the wisdom that can only come from endless silence and contemplation of God.

Sure, he was always complaining in his journals about how his monastic order wasn’t contemplative enough, and writing letters to his Abbot to consider sending him to new monasteries abroad, but he would return to the same thread he’d started when he made his vows, and he never published these more personal thoughts while living. I had started to read the Asian Journal (which follows the one I’ve been reading presently) a while back, and was struggling to understand how a man who was having a hermitage built, and every request to travel abroad denied was able to convince his superiors to let him visit Buddhist teachers in Asia.

I get that he lived in different times than we do. People like his Abbot were cut from the same cloth that was enabling politicians to keep the US in Vietnam, and keep segregation in the South. To someone with a deep social conscience, the early 1960s folk singers were a breath of fresh air. And, I don’t have anything against Joan Baez. I hardly know anything about her. Her Wikipedia article makes her sound like a decent human being with a deep love for the less fortunate. Or perhaps, an ultra-PC liberal who smugly thinks she’s always on the right side of history. Whatever. My point is that Merton clearly changed in his attitudes about being a Catholic monk and priest from 1956 to 1966. At one point in the early 60s, he writes about going to see Hitchcock’s North by Northwest. By my estimation, this is a classic film, and they rarely make ones like this, anymore. He seemed pretty unimpressed by it, and I read it as the vantage point of someone who has gotten a wonderful outsider’s perspective on our culture, and can look past a lot of the bullshit people of the times are in love with.

So, why the change of heart and the love of Dylan, Baez and the Beatles? Was he just completely fed up with the monastery at this point, and becoming more and more in love with the things of the world? Did his affair with the nurse change him in ways he couldn’t even see? Or was he always just kind of faking it, “playing” at being a monk and priest and good Catholic, while not far below the surface he was looking over his shoulder at the world he’d left behind?

Who knows. At any rate, it’s a turning point for me. I am becoming more conservative, and more in love with old institutions and what they represent: solid foundations and pillars of hard Truth in a present generation whose Joan Baez is probably Lady Gaga. Whatever good the counterculture movements of the 60s brought to our society seems to be largely clouded by the destructive forces they’ve unleashed. The worship of youth who have no substance but plenty of style. The love of so many things of the world that even some of the staunchest Conservatives can’t see how poisonous they are for their souls. I don’t have a clue how all these churchy people at my work can blissfully sing along to Katy Perry’s lyrics about having a menage a trois, and then talk about how much they love Ted Cruz and Chick Fil-a for having great, traditional values.

Of course, the counterculture movements of the 60s aren’t completely responsible for the destruction of our moral fabric. It’s easier to fall in love with a catchy pop tune about an orgy than it is to fall in love with Bach (for most people of a certain age, anyway). It’s easier to fall in love with Harry Potter than it is the baby Jesus (even for a lot of Christians who’d probably rather spend their time watching and re-watching Harry Potter movies than reading their Bibles). Once something is out there in the bloodstream of of our society, it’s an addictive sort of chemical that nobody wants to completely get rid of. These sugar-coated flirtations with evil feel good, and they make the people who deliver them to the bloodstream lots of money. Everyone is feeling like they are winning, so why would they want some old fool to tell them they are most certainly not?

I am no longer in love with much of any of it.

It all reeks of a kind of perfume older women use to cover up all of the odors that are accompanying their final years. Such is our pop and sports culture as it helps us forget how morally and intellectually bankrupt we are. Michelangelo to Damien Hirst. Beethoven to Lady Gaga. Shakespeare to Hip Hop lyrics. The Constitutional Convention to today’s Congress of Tea Party crazies. Are these unfair comparisons because of the contexts and audiences for each?

No. The audiences of Shakespeare were the common folk, and indeed, Shakespeare was criticized in his time for writing lowbrow stuff. Hip Hop lyrics are given critical attention in the NY Times as if they were the latest chapbook of poems by a nobel laureate. Beethoven and Shakespeare were once happily consumed in the homes of people who could afford a piano or victrola and little else to keep them entertained. As long as the annointed purveyors of high art deem Lady Gaga, Damien Hirst, Hip Hop, etc., worthy of receiving as much attention and critical examination as any so-called high art of the past five centuries, they are most definitely worth being compared against each other. And, the argument for relativity based on the context from which these artists and their work lived and live–that just bolsters my argument that Western Civilization is in its final death throes before succumbing to utter barbarism.

***

The will is to make sense of reality when pieces stop seeming to fit.

9/11 may be the greatest cover-up in plain sight, or it is the greatest accomplishment of Muslims who hate Western ways.

Those who sought substance over style, even if they never completely found it, were able to create lasting works that give impressions of substance that transcend the post-modern efforts of artists, writers and musicians, which become inevitably reduced to stylistic motifs.

The post-modern, existentialist rejection of there being any essential Truth beyond appearances has created two-three generations of individuals who do not examine their inner lives.

I can go out into the market and try on the narrative that fits me best, and wear it without questioning it. Just like my choice of clothes, car and decor, my narrative can be a simple, stupid one (even if I am a brilliant engineer, my narrative is still quite stupid), and I can find a tribe that shares the same narrative and congregate and commiserate with them.

When I’m in my high school and college years, I’m faced with an intense pressure of knowing that I will one day have to survive in the world on my own without mommy and daddy (or at least that’s the myth I’m provided with at the time). I’m also under pressure from parents and teachers to make choices that don’t cause me to spend my life scraping by from week to week. In more affluent circles, the horror isn’t one of being left in poverty, but being stuck in a boring, routine office job when I could have been traveling the world like Indiana Jones and going on fast-paced archaeological adventures (or some other sexy, non-boring job that will always get me laid when I mention it to the opposite sex at parties and bars).

With this pressure not to end up ten years out of college scraping by, being boring, or headed down a path where I will die alone, I must begin making my narrative NOW, or one will inevitably be created for me, and I’ll fall into that gray mass of Other Narratives that are Meaningless.

My success depends mostly on how affluent my parents are, but there is also another important deciding factor: the point in life in which the light bulb comes on that I need to stop being a CONSUMER of the narrative and become a PRODUCER or CO-CREATOR. All narratives that are envisioned by a young person within the context of pure fantasy, where the individual gets excited by an imagined future of adventures that has no practical lines drawn back from it to the present, are narratives that collapse into the timeline of the individual’s almost inevitably Other Narrative.

The only time you are successful at anything is when you are producing something. If you are a consumer of cowboy lifestyles, but you sit in an office getting fat and produce balance sheets, then you will inevitably be at least marginally successful at producing balance sheets.

It seems utterly obvious when looked at this way, but there are plenty of less stratified narratives we attempt to create for ourselves when we are ready to deviate from the one we presently find ourselves in. For me, it came as a bit of a shock that most of the career changes I was exploring were simply me envisioning them as a CONSUMER. I was unwilling to make myself face the fact that as a PRODUCER in the role of Art History Professor or Mathematician, my daily routine would have to look drastically different than it currently does.

If I were to realistically expect my writing to be published, I would have to stop being a CONSUMER of the fantasy in which hundreds of thousands of people read what I write, and actually request the services of editors and agents to rip it all to shreds and probably tell me that I’d be better off never typing or writing another word. Of course, after fifty tries, I probably would find an editor-agent pair to work with me, and if I was willing to commit the time to clean everything up and make it pretty for a publisher, I’d then have to agonize for years while they shopped my book around. THEN, I’d have to commit to going and speaking to a lot of obnoxious people to promote it. The other PRODUCER route would be, of course, me actually going back to school to get an advanced degree and pushing out a similar plan of attack via academic publishing channels.

Being a PRODUCER in a way that will foster a true, new and great narrative is exceptionally hard, even if you are born with money to leverage the creation of your narrative.

Being a post modern individual, obsessed more with style than substance, you seek to consume your experience of being a producer even as you produce it. You do things ironically so that nobody can ever find your figurative center of gravity and knock you to the ground. You decide to start an organic farm, and you move in the direction toward being a PRODUCER, but you are always looking over your shoulder at how the world sees you. You want to tell your story on Vimeo. You want people to live vicariously through you, who is having the experience of being a pseudo-farmer–”pseudo” in the sense that you do not have to worry about completely losing everything if your organic farm fails. The same thing goes with any other post modern individual seeking to shift his or her narrative into something that has the look and feel of being more meaningful than the Other Narrative of simply raising a family, driving back and forth to the office every day, and visiting Disney World or the Grand Canyon once a year.

Your sense of personal satisfaction, happiness, and the meaning you derive from your new narrative come from how you appear to the outside world. If you are able to make others, who are your observers, believe that you must be living a more meaningful and happy life than them, then surely this will make you a more happy person. As long as you continue to believe that there is no essence of being beyond the appearance of your being, you can live a life of apparent happiness and satisfaction. If this facade doesn’t hold up well (and it rarely does), then you are forced to reconcile all of the pieces that don’t fit with the narrative thread you manufactured.

This applies to everyone who would attempt to create a truly meaningful narrative thread, even if they don’t go to extremes like throwing it all in for organic farming. We make choices to forego our ill-spent youth of moving from one live music venue to the next in hopes of discovering more meaning in a return to the church, a return to school, or a move across country to start a different sort of life with someone new. The middle-class, suburban, midlife malaise is clearly the more common and talked about one. When the movie American Beauty came out, everyone gushed about how groundbreaking it was with the themes it explored, but the themes have been there ever since a post WWII middle class was established in America.

Very few people have found happiness solely through the creation of an outward appearance that gives others the impression they must be happy.

Very few people have not found utter emptiness inside of them when they break down and go looking closely at what’s inside of them.

What’s past the masks, charades, facades? More of the same, but masks, charades, facades we reserve for our loved ones and ourselves. We who are quite shy become interesting people to those we let into our inner circles. But, those who we let into our innermost areas of being see nothing but emptiness or God’s shining Love, depending on what system of belief we’ve chosen to accept or reject.

Without Jesus, we are, in fact, almost completely empty. No attempt to fill that empty space results in it feeling completely full. The choice becomes one of rejecting it and embracing the post modern viewpoint, which has all but encompassed everyday, secular thought, or embracing a deity to fill that space. Buddhists claim that emptiness is all there is. Other religions have paradigms that beg their followers to seek vengence upon those who wrong their deities. If you take a day to set aside your doubt about the experience you will have when you utterly embrace Jesus, you discover the same kind of renewal that brings back life to the world each spring, and enables us to spring back up to face another day each morning.

But, this path isn’t completely easy, either. If you’ve allowed the devil and his minions to get their tenterhooks inside your very sense of identity, then you will feel uncomfortable for years. Identifying as a Christian after years of walking among those who hate Christ and love the world requires a coping and rehabilitation similar to a recovering addict. It can even be that much worse, because unless you are financially independent, you still have to go out into the world and make a living to survive. And that means you continue to be surrounded by people more completely in love with the ways of the world than Jesus; even many people who call themselves Christians will by all appearances be more concerned with their stocks, their fantasy football, their vacations, boats, cars–their standing or appearance to others in the community. We say “by all appearances” because of course we can’t know how much of these matters they hold close to their heads and their hearts.

Appearances matter. Books, whether you want to admit it or not, always get judged by their covers. Wiser people skip past those kneejerk reactions and look to see if the book is more than its cover. But, nobody maintains for long an appearance that is running completely counter to what’s inside of them. Eventually, either the appearance (if this is still of utmost importance to the individual) will come to change and shape the soul beneath, or the soul beneath (if a person decides this matters more) will come shining forth and re-shape the mold of the mask that was struck during years of innocence and ignorance. Appearances are not to be rejected or dismissed, but simply shouldn’t be the focus or end of the subject.

The will to click into the network of the world is strong

The will to click into the network of the world is strong. I’d rather open a new tab up in my browser, and read the news, and follow trains of thought and chains of links than sit here examining my inner life. It’s somewhat curious to think that it is this way, given how little I care about most worldly things. Were I still single, my possessions would consist of books, clothes and devices to read and write upon. I would drag around a few boxes of my writing from when I used to put pen to paper, and I would keep with me the old journals of my mom and the family photographs. But, in all great honesty, I don’t think I’d have more stuff than what would fit in my two-door Honda Civic, were I to still single and of a mind to pack up and live somewhere else. The furniture would all be sold or given to the Salvation Army, including the bookcase my dad made for me and the easel.

Which is all to say that you’d think I’d have little left of the old urges to acquire and possess. Even being married, I feel little attachments to most of the stuff lying around the house. My wife can call almost all of it hers, if she wants. I watched my parents become dangerously close to being like hoarders–my mom saving old plastic sandwich bags and twist ties off of bread bags–”just in case we might need to re-use them.” They were the children of Great Depression era parents, and I guess that sort of pack rat mentality rubbed off on them.

My mother was especially attached to a few material things of the world that I never quite understood. She was furious when I didn’t care about having a class ring or letterman’s jacket ordered for me in high school, and was completely of a mind that I would cherish these things at a later age, along with the yearbooks and other memorabilia, and that I’d want to pass along such mementos of a lackluster time to my children. I guess my parents had this notion of wanting to give me the kind of life in high school and college that they didn’t have–and I never quite understood why this was so important.

My urges to acquire and possess come in the form of seeing all of it purely abstracted into information. Memories relived and the joy felt by possessing a thing–it’s all in my head. And so, I seek out the same thrills by trying to devour a lot of information, and sometimes I succeed at it. I often come down from an information buzz and realize that I’ve wasted an afternoon learning about things I will likely soon forget, and the subjects I explored aren’t especially relevant to me finding success either in the worldly or the spiritual sense. Looking at art, reading about literary folks, learning about new technology, or enjoying a well-written political rant–none of it really helps with my relationship with God, and little of it helps me develop my career. It really is just information as porn or drugs.

I’ve forgotten almost everything from my days of studying Buddhism. I cling to things.

I cling to notions of me one day being a great thought leader of some ilk or another. I am invited to TED Talks to expound at length on some concept, or asked to write speeches for a President. The thing that is hard to let go of isn’t any one particular idea that I would like to push upon the world, but it’s the clinging to the absurd premise that I must be known as someone great before I die. I get trapped under the weight of my own ill-conceived vision of who I am before I even get out the door in the morning.

This affects every action I take. Everyone around me becomes inferior, and cut from a cloth that is not worth my time for consideration. In my head I’m saying, “yeah sure, I’ll play the game because I have to in order to survive in this modern world as such and such a man, but deep down inside we all know just how much better I am.” I cling to the notion that I deserve something better, simply because of who I am and who others aren’t. I deserve to have Starbuck’s every day, instead of the workplace coffee. I deserve to be in a much more exulted professional role. I deserve more money. Thankfully, such absurd clinging to delusion causes me to develop a massive blind side to my own weaknesses and shortcomings, and I’m soon shown up by someone who has actually worked harder than me to be better than me.

Getting humbled by anyone, especially when it comes to things where you claim to be the Subject Matter Expert, is brutal. If you aren’t ready for it, it can devastate you for years, and leave you whining to anyone who will listen about how you were treated unfairly. Fortunately, if you are able to survive it, then you will wake up one day and see how getting humbled was actually a great gift.

The stupidest delusion is the one where I still to this day cherish the notion that a true calling from the Lord means that I will discover a talent at a trade or body of knowledge that makes me the world’s foremost authority on the topic. I don’t care what I end up doing, as long as I am known by those who matter as the best X there is in the business of Y. Who cares if it’s writing, painting, making music, or some obscure subject? As long as I am exulted and held up in regard as the best. How unfortunate that I’ve carried around in my head a completely unholy concept that the Lord’s will for me is to be a demigod!

The second stupidest delusion is the one where I am one day proven to be a better man than all other men, in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Somehow, I am able to retrain and regrow my middle-age body to become competitive in any sport, and able to retrain my brain to be the world’s greatest mathematician, physicist and philosopher. There is always an excuse for why I never bothered to try out for the football team, or why I completely sucked in band. In actuality, with just a little bit of the right mojo (but never quite the full Faustian bargain), I am transformed into the Greatest Man Who Ever Lived (or at least among the top five-ten along with Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Gandhi, MLK, Plato, Socrates, etc.)

Fortunately, the second one has all but withered and died, thanks to live educating me otherwise. The first one still can paralyze me for months.

What these delusions end up doing is creating massive blind sides for me, to the point where I am unable to properly open my mouth in a polite conversation for fear of saying something that might make the other person think I am too stupid to ever be great. Of course, not opening my mouth at all often leaves the impression, especially on total strangers, that I am indeed quite slow.

Which may not be such a bad thing, after all.

I caught just the faintest glimpse at the dynamics of how the hierarchies of fame dehumanize people. Folks either see themselves as gods among a pantheon of gods, or willfully become like slaves in their adoration of their idols. I participated in a reality show home improvement project, and some of the camera operators were these women who clearly had come to LA to do something other than operate cameras. With their model looks and proportions, it became immediately evident that they saw all who were before them as inferior people. When they deigned to speak to me, they looked at me with complete disgust when I didn’t understand their heavy Brazilian accents the first time. And the staff who helped move stuff from one celebrity’s trailer to another–they had a similar attitude of being exulted people who could barely stand such lowbrow common riffraff being so near them.

To think I didn’t learn much of anything at all from such an encounter. I left Austin to live in a small town like the one that the home improvement project took place in, and in this town I quickly grew contempt for all who seemed to be slower than me, or caught up in worshipping idols of sports, guns and pickup trucks. To any outsider who comes to this town, they probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between me and any of the locals, unless they spent some time getting to know me. And even then, it’s possible they might conclude that in all truth, I am as slow and dumb as anyone else around here, and would never be fit and ready for survival in a bigger city.

The difference between me and the people that I meet out in the world consists of an ever increasing love of silent moments and quiet places where I can listen for what God might say to me. That’s all. In all other ways, I am very much a man of this world. I am easily distracted.

I wake up hearing pop songs repeating in my head, from the workweek when they played on high rotation all day, every day. I start to think about the markets and politics. I get distracted.

But then, I start to imagine myself sitting alone out in the desert somewhere near Galilee, or in a monastery in the mountains. There is no longer a “me” as it relates to the world, only a “me” as it relates to God.

God is trying to fix what’s broken inside of me, and I keep getting in the way.

My relationship with God makes me very happy, the way no other worldly pursuit was ever able to. I strive to empty myself of worldly cares and concerns and become a vessel for what God has to say to me. This includes not giving in to worry over what the world will look like in ten to fifty years.

I had this insight yesterday into the kind of person I was still trying to become. I saw myself as someone who was highly critical of others, and held high expectations for the people I met to be something they can probably never be. Having this kind of attitude means that you must either be a hypocrite and blissfully unaware of your own shortcomings and weaknesses, or constantly be living under the burden and weight of having to prove to yourself and everyone else just how much more of a wise, enlightened being you are.

Since you can’t always handle the weight of the latter, you end up depressed or bitter all the time.

There is so much worrying that goes on in my head, that it’s almost incomprehensible. Need I run through the list of all the things I routinely worry about? So many of these worries are simply numbed by my own will to not face the underlying issues head on. Some worries, like wanting to prove to Daddy that his investment in his boy wasn’t in vain, seem to have been met and dealt with years ago, and then they fly up from within me unexpectedly.

Worrying is a waste of time, but then that’s a thing that’s easy to say and much harder to put into practice. So much of the worries are ultimately met with a reality that shows me there was no reason for them. Problems in life will always present themselves, and they rarely match the ones on my worry list.

Praying is not a waste of time. Changes do come about as a result of prayer, even if they are not immediate or precisely what you beg God for. The power of prayer is in your intent. Do you see yourself as a wizard casting spells, but using Christian trappings? Or, do you see yourself as a humble soul approaching God with utter faith that God does listen to you? I suspect that more often than not, I launch into prayer with the notion (even if it’s mostly unintentional) that God is some kind of magical spirit at my beck and call. I don’t take the time to fully remember my place in the Universe.

My place in the Universe is important and necessary, but I am nothing more than a tiny little spark in relation to God. And my spark doesn’t shine without Him.

I’ve accepted my place in the Universe, but the old habits toward self will die hard. It’s an unnecessary burden I place on myself, of course, when I set the expectation for myself and others that over the next five years I will accomplish X, Y, Z. My past goals have been nothing short of complete delusions. What’s wrong with having simpler goals that you keep yourself aware of, but you don’t kill yourself every time you backslide and do something that pulls you off the path toward realizing your goals?

In my mind I’ve always been on a path. The concept of the path has changed drastically over the years, and needs to again. The path became less about a joyful walk with Jesus and more like a death march toward an Apocalypse in which I’d play some great role as a healer and a martyr. I became severe and judgemental of everyone around me, and was especially judgemental of myself.

Imagine a better path than that for your soul, even if your outside world were to become so bleak. Think about the treasures you could find were you to let go of the idea that you must retrain your mind to only have lofty, focused thoughts.

Lift the burdens you’ve placed upon your soul and let Jesus carry them. If you wish to walk with Jesus, why only invite him along when you are at your best or at your worst? Why not have him along when the things you are doing are mundane, like walking the dog or driving to work?

Remove all those things from your heart that you set as ultimatums. Forget about all your petty attempts to make deals with God. Stop saying things like, “no matter what happens to me the rest of my life, at the very least, I don’t want to die with X, Y, Z still sloshing around in my soul.”

Stop worrying when the outside world pounces on you with criticism over a scowl on your face or word you said or didn’t say. Who cares? If you are caught up in trying to walk down that path with Jesus, then dismiss the criticism like flicking away a fly and keep moving.

Stop putting aside all the things of the Lord every time you slip up and sin. You are a sinner, the Lord gets it. The only way you can get better is to continue to impress better behaviors upon yourself until they take.

Stop flirting with the past and the future that never was. This is going to kill you if nothing else does. Your past was what it was. It was far from perfect, and of course you wouldn’t live it again the same way were you to go back into the same boy’s body at some given time and place of your past. But, you won’t change it. It shaped you, and sometimes you were on the path even when you didn’t think you were. If you have complete faith that you are one of God’s own, then you should know that you were being carried like in the footprints story during those years you felt so far away from God.

Be content with who you are and who you have in your life. Be grateful. Don’t be grateful for who you are and who you have by looking at those less fortunate than you and breathing a sigh of relief. Be grateful because God is great, and has permitted his greatness to flow to you out of grace and mercy–which come in spite of who and how you are, not because of that.

Being a human, especially one in a time and place where violence and disease have trouble finding you–that’s a real gift and blessing. You have no idea just how blessed you are and how many strings were pulled in order for you to get the opportunity to exist in this time, place and body.

Always be grateful. Wake up every morning with gratitude that you still have life. One day you will not.

Stop running from God and start walking with his son Jesus. Invite the Holy Spirit into everything you think, say and do.

The people that flow into your life will change as you do.

I got into a good place Sunday morning before going to meet up with my wife’s parents at the B&B. And then, I had to fight with all my might to stay in that good place.

A relic from a bygone era was at the table, regaling the guests with his stories of swagger. He was fiercely proud of how he had manipulated some poor girl into checking yes for his attendance when he was required to attend chapel at the Bible college. He was a football hero for three years of his life, and he was now mostly forgotten by the people of the college. The football hero relic said something like “the only good Muslim is a dead Muslim.”

I saw this as a test from God. They usually come in this fashion.

I meditate and write some high-minded thing about gratitude and walking with Jesus, and then I’m tested.

I was on the verge of getting up and leaving. I couldn’t stand it. It’s small wonder so many people left the Church in the past four decades, with these kinds of guys screaming about loving Jesus while toting guns and hating everyone who doesn’t look and talk like they stepped out of a John Wayne movie.

But, I kept my mouth shut and observed instead. I know that his kind are dinosaurs. The macho men of today have nothing on guys like this. They are more WWE than John Wayne in their machismo, and that kind of swagger is laughable, not scary.

Sometimes I wonder where all of the sane people have gone? The hyper-judgemental, intolerant liberals I knew in Austin who would scream for tolerance and yell “are you judging me!?” if you didn’t agree with everything they said. Tolerance for all except those Christians. They argued for a world where everyone is gay or at least goes through a phase where they explore their gayness; a world where gay marriage overtakes straight marriage; where a woman can have an abortion up until the moment the last little toe has left the birth canal; where criticizing Obama for making fun of special kids was unacceptable–Obama was above reproach; where being in the know about some obscure pop culture reference was more important than understanding the rudiments of economic and foreign policy.

Then, I move out here, and it’s like the complete 180 end of the spectrum. Ted Cruz is our hero. We worship Jesus and football, and usually not in that order. War, and the financial and human costs that accompany it, is always necessary, unless Obama initiates it. We’d rather get sick and die than explore a healthcare change initiated by a black President. Obama is a Muslim. Getting too much of an education is a bad thing. The country can still turn around by letting our wealthy corporate overlords do what they please and get away with paying no taxes, because they are all fine upstanding Republican men who worked harder than we did. Evolution is the work of the devil. Global warming is part of a liberal agenda to tax us all to death.

Good Lord.

The more charitable part of me should be more understanding. People don’t end up believing in things without reviewing some set of imperfect information about the world, and taking it to heart, weighing it carefully, and concluding such a thing is the best choice to make. For the most part, nobody arrives at a set of beliefs without thinking they are describing what’s best for humanity in general. The problematic part of it is, of course, in how they go about filtering their information and selecting their friends. It’s much more comfortable to sit and talk in a room full of people who will agree with almost everything you say, than to strain yourself with the task of always having to come up with ways to defend why you believe what you believe.

I managed to not get too rattled from the breakfast in which I felt myself to be a complete foreigner. I probably had a more comfortable breakfast every morning at the B&B in Rome, where there were no loud-mouthed, brash Texan dinosaurs blasting their backwoods opinions at me.

I woke up this morning completely out of sorts, though. I hung up talking to my dad yesterday feeling like I can no longer have a conversation of any substance with him, anymore. He seems unwilling or incapable of talking about anything other than the most mundane things that might have transpired in the past week. He doesn’t appear to care about current events, or be too deeply philosophical about life. We had a time period leading up to my mom’s death and shortly thereafter, where we had probably the best conversations we’ve ever had as father and son. And then, he decided about a month or so after she died to create an ad on Yahoo personals, and buy a motorcycle, and basically revert to being 28 again. I’m starting to feel kind of like I’m just using him when I leave my dog out there to go on a vacation. He doesn’t want any help around the house–he’d let his roof practically cave in on him before calling someone to fix it. He teeters on the brink of being a hoarder, and the only hope is this lady he’s started seeing. She’s probably the first one to actually go out there and spend the night with him. Perhaps he just feels like there must be something awkward put between us now that he’s in the first apparently serious relationship with someone since my mom died.

I’m out of sorts because I dreamed all night about making bad choices at work that caused projects and initiatives to fail. I dreamed about girls I once had crushes on. I pushed onward in my current Thomas Merton book, which has left me full of disappointment in this guy. I don’t even know the Thomas Merton I’m currently reading. I’d read in a brief bio online that he’d had some kind of a fling with a mistress, and the account of it appears in one of his journals, but I had kind of assumed that it lasted maybe a few weeks, and he got over it, and returned to his quest for solitude.

Putting this affair within the context of all of his other journals, where he’d constantly expressed desire to move to a more contemplative order, or just move someplace else altogether, I am coming to the conclusion that maybe some of this fellow’s early wisdom was never completely taken to heart–that perhaps he understood it from an intellectual standpoint, but the will to be out in the world experiencing worldly things is still there. He seems to think that he couldn’t live a life outside of the monastery, but gets out of his so-called hermitage every week to visit with friends, drink wine, whiskey and beer, listen to jazz and Bob Dylan, and pretty much live a life that is less hermitlike than the one I live. Who can really say what he was looking for? Maybe he died not completely knowing.

But, this is okay. Because, I would like to think that I will discover a new writer that I’ve enjoyed reading as much as Merton, but this new writer will seem to me to be even more mature and realized in his approach to being.

I’d read The Seven Storey Mountain and some of his journals and other books thinking to myself: “man, I wished I’d discovered this guy in college. He is way more mature spiritually than Jack Kerouac and the Beats were.” Most people I know who read On the Road didn’t even pick up on the spiritual side of Kerouac’s wandering and writing. I think Kerouac represented the kind of rootless soul so many of us have become, who know longer found nourishment in the traditional Church. But, the end result of the social and sexual freedoms the Beats and the Baby Boomers explored appears to be a shallow kind of quest for sensual novelty that will never be fulfilled. The end of the arc that was started by counterculture movements in the 20th Century is one where everyone, both liberals and conservative-minded people, end up obsessed with quick and easy pleasures.

What is a conservative today, anyway? How many people who call themselves that really practice what they preach? Most of the conservatives I’ve known and seen are more than happy to spend the company’s money or the government’s money liberally, but, they just want to spend it on the toys they want instead. Social conservatives seem to live lives that aren’t much different than liberals, either. They fill their heads, hearts, bodies and souls with the same entertainment and prescription drugs everyone else uses to numb themselves from reality. When their heads are thoroughly examined, you’d probably find a lot of conflicting responses around how they really feel about gay marriage, guns and abortions as well.

It’s almost as if being conservative vs. liberal simply is a way to pick a team to cheer for when you go to the political Super Bowl of election season. It makes no sense to have an election if you don’t have two individuals running against each other. Let’s pick a side, and put our dollars and that side, and see who wins. If we were really concerned about $15 trillion in debt, and thought the federal government was worthless, we would be creating constructive economic initiatives in our own states and counties to ween us off of our dependence on federal dollars. Instead, we are in Washington trying to just smash everything, because it’s like the Super Bowl. The fun didn’t stop with the end of election season. Let’s keep fighting, because competition for its own sake is fun.

Perhaps what is happening right now to our country is just a logical course that every powerful nation state must run. The more wealth there is to be found, the more people feel compelled to come out of the woodwork to assert their voices and gain power for themselves. Social media just amplifies the angry Tea Party or OWS voice. What once might have been a laughable Bircher or Marxist quietly publishing an independent newsletter to an audience of a few thousand has become a loud, angry voice drowning out the silent majority of common sense. Social media, with its built-in requirements for thoughts and ideas to be expressed in the form of soundbite-sized sentences (or smaller), naturally gives an advantage to those agendas that succeed with little conversation and much shouting.

The assumption has been that the Arab Spring was a good thing, and a great example of social media creating actual social change, but maybe it wasn’t such a great thing. Perhaps these countries will be like France after the French Revolution for the next 100 years, and woe to any Christians or Jews who set foot in them. Stability? Democracy? How can you expect to have such things when you are in a constant state of unrest and unhappiness for your government? When you expect your government to satisfy your every ideological whim, all of the time?

My new narrative begins

My new narrative begins with me deciding to begin again without the rules that I previously set for myself. A horrible way to begin a journey consists of laying down ground rules and planning for outcomes. The quickest way to derail the journey is to make a rule that you should follow. If I decide to impose upon myself the command not to make any rules, have I already made a rule that my rebellious spirit might wish to break? I’m not going to wrestle with it. What’s the point?

The journey consists of me waking up on a cold October morning in the year 2013. I am 37 years old. I own property. I have a tenant. This day never appeared in any of the plans, so why should I continue making plans?

I don’t want to be a slum lord. It just happened. It made a lot of sense. It was that or lose money on an investment that hasn’t matured.

…and you decide to break all of the rules you made for yourself.

You place more unnecessary rules upon yourself than any parent or teacher did when you were a boy. All of the rules are meant to make you feel as if there is great meaning to your existence, a true narrative from which you can look back and extract a series of steps that only went upward.

But, nobody cares about your rules. In fact, people who care about you seem to like being around you when you aren’t busy living inside a cloud full of self-imposed rules.

Stop worrying about whether or not you are on some kind of path. You are on some kind of path, and nothing you do or don’t do will change that. Instead, pay closer attention to yourself. You laugh. You’ve been doing almost nothing but that. But have you?

There is yourself and then there is your Self. Pay close attention to that part of you who abides in spite of illness and distractions. Is this a light that will be completely snuffed, or a dimly glowing bulb waiting for you to give it permission to shine at full capacity?

On the future and the road to death

The future is not going to be a friend of mine, if the trend of culture in the past three generations is an indication of things to come. If you read the writings of someone like Thomas Merton, where he is critiquing the shallow, materialistic obsessions of his age, you become shocked to think that he and others like him actually thought the 1940s-1950s were spiritually and morally bankrupt decades. We are light years into a deeper spiritual and moral state of decadence, as anyone who cares to think about it knows. If the future trend of our culture continues along the same arc of going from Marilyn Monroe to Miley Cyrus, then the next fifty years are going to be extremely rough.

On the other hand, you still have the option to check out of all of it, and live somewhere where people haven’t completely dehumanized themselves for the sake of cheap, instant gratification. Except, even in these bedroom communities where folks still think they will one day return to work at a factory or farm, people are more obsessed with the sports and reality television entertainment that is presented to them around the clock. They might still attend church every Sunday, and home school their children, but then you get them off down a path of conversation about worldly things like their last trip to Vegas, and they sound the most depraved of all.

It’s not about becoming a more conservative kind of person, although I probably am to some degree more conservative than I was ten years ago. I see plenty of conservatives, even the most rabid ones, who are completely out of tune with the music of the heart, the soul, the Earth itself. They aren’t listening to those things. They are mad with lust for power like everyone else, and they’ve just happened to have bet on a different horse in the race. What my new narrative is about: finding the decent human being inside of myself again.

Every push I’ve ever made to race down a path of pursuing some so-called “calling” has resulted in me becoming this monster, this zombie, if you will. I become obsessed about politics. I consume and regurgitate nothing but politics. All other vital functions suffer. I don’t have time to sit in quiet contemplation, or get enough sleep. I overcompensate by drinking too much coffee in the morning, and too much beer at night. It isn’t long before I become a complete asshole to be around, unless you’ve got my attention as it pertains to politics, and that’s the only room in which you can come to me as a human being.

Ironically, I even become an asshole to the very people I wanted so much to help by getting involved in a political campaign. I don’t have time for the needs and requests of the little guy who wants his voice to be heard. I am now playing only one note, over and over again.

This is, of course, a symptom of the times we live in. You don’t get to be successful if you are a jack-of-all-trades, unless you already have a nice trust fund to enable you to hire staff to help you with your endeavors.

For me, it seems that there once was a thread that I lost when I chose to move down a path of pursuing peer acceptance. This much I’ve thought about for years, but trying to define the essence of what that thread is may have hurt more than helped. For example, I saw within that thread a strong will to give the impression to all my classmates that I wasn’t smart, to affect a posture that I was a slacker and a rebel. In that period, I purposefully refused to let mathematical concepts sink in, or only gave such studies the minimal effort required to keep my father from yelling at me each quarter.

So, I extrapolated that the essence of the lost thread was a “true calling” to re-learn the math I’d forgotten, and pursue this as my midlife crisis re-education. Except, I began to see that math wasn’t the thread. Perhaps back then I could have pursued a math or computer science degree if I’d stayed true to myself, but going back and doing it now would most definitely not be a way to pick up the thread that was thrown away so carelessly. In order for me to excel at this re-education, I would have to forsake other aspects of the thread, like being a reverent soul who loves to worship Jesus. I would certainly get a lot of high praise from both my Atheist and my Christian friends for pursuing a BS in Math, but I would never be completely reclaiming that which makes me whole.

Are you picking up one note to the song that you forgot and forgetting the rest of the melody, counter-melody, bridge, chorus and bass line–or, at the end of the day perhaps you’re singing the same refrain of trying to get more widespread peer acceptance.

Of course, by choosing to become more of a reverent soul who loves to worship Jesus, I am leaving behind about 90% of the friends I’ve made since the age of 12. My wrongly chosen path that embraced all things worldly is a path that has, over time, seen me naturally “fit” into workplace environments that are full of people who hate Christians. When I made the decision almost ten years ago to get off this path, it was like trying to turn around Titanic. I continued to find myself more easily fitting into atheistic workplaces, and found it more comfortable not to bother showing up to a church I tried to go to after a few weeks. Returning to a regular churchgoing cadence was extremely hard. The pride and self will I had to put aside to embrace the fruits of communal worship would cause me intense pain, but I could see that the pain was all of those unwanted forces within me rising up in rebellion as they knew that they were about to be ejected from me once and for good.

Within the workweek, even working now among coworkers who all seem to be pretty churchy, I still find that all things of the world, all of the material pursuits in life, give me great pain and unrest. I will never obtain peace of mind and soul within those spaces that are devoted to making money. Those who have their eyes so keenly focused on material gains, no matter how churchy they claim to be, are people that are becoming increasingly strangers to me.

I don’t reject the world outright, and think that I am striving to become a disembodied spirit who only lives for the spirit world and afterlife. I don’t reject the world at all. The world was made by God and tainted by Satan. Appreciating the beautiful things of the world by focusing on the fact that God is responsible for them gives me great profit, and happiness beyond a shallow consumption of whatever eye candy is offered up to me on TV. So, it really seems to be about where I choose to land with my focus. My center of being is some place deep inside of me that is rooted to both Heaven and Earth, in a rich, life-sustaining sort of way. Each generation of the mainstream Western culture is obsessed with the things of the world, but paradoxically becomes more rootless and removed from the Earth and nature.

This is where I think so many voices on both sides of an argument go astray. Some say we should be more conservative in every endeavor, because progress in science and understanding is what’s killing us. Some say being conservative is holding us back, and we should forget about history and only look to a Utopian sort of future where science provides all of humanity with their every need and want. It’s like anything else the West has chosen to abstract and then proclaim to be the ultimate, absolute Truth. It’s why modern art descended into a series of ugly stabs on the canvas with a Master’s thesis accompanying them to explain why they are great art. Someone took one note of a song, and proclaimed that this note was what made the song beautiful. The old masters might have heard someone like Greenberg speaking about what a great painting is, and laughed and said “yes, that is certainly one aspect of great art. That’s what we teach our students on day one.”

The answer to all of this is, of course, making a manifesto that distills all of this, and attempts to formulate a way of being or thinking that embraces all that was and is good about our culture. The manifesto invites people to join me in this way of thinking and being, and come together to celebrate our elitist kind of mentality. We meet up in coffee shops and wine bars, and ex-communicate anyone who dares open their mouths to spew the heresy of professional sports or reality television. Even politics and mainstream film and music are verboten and anathema. This makes me feel good, and it has surely been done a hundred thousand times across the country, but it doesn’t change much of anything. It doesn’t get kids excited about art before 1900 and classical music.

And, naturally, my manifesto becomes an abstraction of that which actually makes me human and decent, and those things in life that truly delight me. Before I know it, my manifesto has taken a life of its own, and we are living in a bizarre totalitarian, Victorian kind of state where nobody is allowed to watch television unless it’s educational or religious programming. The popular mindset rebels against it, and everyone celebrates in long-tail fashion (as they’ve done for the past 100 years) just how liberated they’ve become from their old, oppressive institutions. The key differentiator in changing a popular mindset is making them believe that they came up with the idea themselves. Anyone who is called to task over why they love a reality show or pop culture icon is going to violently defend their love of it, and claim that they love it because they decided to love it of their own free will. The makers and shapers of our mainstream obsessions and fixations are keenly aware of this, and would want nothing less than to have each and every one of us convinced that we are in the driver’s seat when it comes to making the most informed decisions about how we will fill our minds and souls. These makers and shapers are perhaps not a sinister cabal of a few exalted elites, but rather, a loosely collected set of the wealthy and powerful who want to make as much money as possible off of our baser, more sensual tendencies. If we are spending all of our disposable income on cheap, shallow entertainment, then that leaves us with nothing to spend on improving ourselves and our childrens’ futures, so that we might also gain more access to opportunities that would give us upward mobility.

In short, if everyone stopped loving sports and reality television and Miley Cyrus and all of the other inane bullshit that is presented to us for quick consumption, we might start reading more books and developing minds that could make us competitors in the arena of acquiring wealth. If the entire world went down this path, then the top 1% would have that much less in the way of wealth and resources for themselves. If Paris Hilton had to fly on a common airline flight, even first class, instead of on her private jet, then this would be but one of many signs to the 1% that their entire way of life they cherish was being threatened.

So, as a society and culture, we’ve been carefully conditioned to accept and be happy with a reasonably comfortable sort of life. It’s okay if we are running a little high on the debt side, and it’s okay if we don’t really see any paths of career advancement where we work. It’s all right if we will never accumulate the wealth and savings that is required to break out of the cycle of spending almost everything we make. The ones who are able to actually benefit and profit off of the stock market or even investing in profitable new businesses, are very few indeed, and it’s an elite club that only wants to admit a few new members each year. If everyone got serious about what they needed to do with their lives to join, then the world would become terribly egalitarian, and almost seem Marxist–which would be about the worst thing ever, even if no violent transfer of wealth ever happened.

And, the above paragraph is where I dropped the narrative thread yesterday. When I picked it up this morning, it sounded so pompous to my ears. This need in my writing to get up on my high horse and proclaim things about society and culture–what is that? Is it relEt and helpful to anyone–even myself–or is it simply a way to make me feel pumped up with pride before I head off to work. Here I am, writing grandiose generalizations about what everyone on this earth should be doing, while I go off to work ignoring my tire pressure light and grinding noise on my transmission.

I’ve thought a lot about death, lately, and this liminal stage that I’m in. It’s weird being cognizant of the fact that I’m in yet another liminal stage. The stage of struggling to find the love of my life, and then I meet her–but, now a stage of waiting for the right moment to ask her to marry me. Then the stage of yet again feeling stuck in limbo–being engaged to be married isn’t the same thing as having sealed the deal. But now…where are the children?

Of course, I was stuck in a liminal stage for years, and hardly thought about it that way. That’s one of the great gifts of Austin. It’s a city where you can go to live when you are in your early twenties, and wake up ten, fifteen, twenty years later and not feel the least bit older, even if everyone around you has changed their style or moved on and gotten married. You can always find a new crop of twentysomethings arriving from other parts of the country who will more or less accept you, and help you not worry about trying to grow up or worry about the fact that you are growing old. But, surely I can’t blame it all on Austin.

Part of my arrested development came from refusing to broaden my world beyond a few select friends and coworkers. I finally got the complete shock of just how far behind I was in relation to other people my age when I went to work at the medium-size software company. Then, after I decided to stop dyeing my hair, I showed up at a creative agency full of twentysomethings, and they all seemed to resent the intrusion of a middle age man at their party. Suddenly, I was the old, hanger-on guy who should have gotten smart about rising up through the ranks of middle management years ago, or gone back to school to get his PhD to quietly publish papers and teach a class on some random subject.

There was a bit of a shock when the twenty-five year old with the internship showed up at the IAH (my non-profit job before the software company) and assert herself as my boss. But, I dismissed her as a fluke–a conniving woman who spotted an easy environment full of opportunities to manipulate the leadership into giving her a position and salary she wasn’t really qualified for. But, when I finally got out of that hell hole, and arrived at the software company to discover I had a boss who was only slightly older than me, and who was hiring people younger and less experienced than me to be in positions above me, I received the wake up call I needed to fully understand just how far I’d let myself go by not charging and driving hard with my career.

It wasn’t even a case of me wanting to have a career, or obtain positions of power over others. It was that horrible feeling of being spoken to condescendingly, when people dismiss you as being too simple or childlike to be able to comprehend how to play in adult games. I would even argue that it’s the wrong kind of way to go about practicing humility. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there’s merit to being humble before others who are not as experienced or smart as you, except to the point where you feel like they are attacking your very sense of dignity as an adult human being.

At any rate, I got the message: I needed to either start really figuring out what all of my bad habits were that were keeping me immature, or cash out and decide once and for all that I was simply going to be a proverbial Austin Peter Pan-type, moving from bar to bar every night, playing pool, wearing sandals and t-shirts, throwing darts, occasionally hooking up with some random woman who was my female equivalent. Whether or not my growing up ever amounted to me having a real career was irrelEt–the important thing was that I was not going to die the same person I was in the present.

Which brings me now to thoughts of death and all the meanings that accompany it.

In my mind, I see the outline of a short narrative of how I became cognizant of death, and what my relationship with death has been. Then, I get more ambitious. I start imagining a book on the arc of how we in the Western world view death, starting in 1900, and covering all of the wars, vaccines and media technologies that have come and gone or stayed to help craft the current lens through which most of us view death.

My one-time roommate in Austin, who fit perfectly the Austin Peter Pan stereotype, once said to me after relating some random train of thought: “but we don’t have to worry about death anymore.” He said it within the context of a drunken analysis of history and how people were more religious at one time because they were more preoccupied with death, but I never really asked him to elaborate, because I’m not sure I really agreed with him, and was tired of arguing with someone whose intellectual development was basically stunted from around the time he graduated from college (he was in his 40s when he was my roommate.

His assertion that “we don’t need to worry about death anymore” came from, I think, more of the perspective of: “we are all enlightened Humanists who don’t believe in an afterlife, therefore, we needn’t worry about God.” Except, I also picked up a deeper angle to this, even if it wasn’t his intent: “we don’t worry about death anymore, because technology has enabled those of us with modest affluence to be kept completely sheltered from death 99% of the time.”

My roommate had the curious distinction of being a man in his 40s who’d never lost anyone close to him. No grandparents had died, no parents, no siblings, no friends, no aunts, no uncles–not even a beloved pet. I’d already lost all my grandparents, two of my siblings, one of my parents, an aunt–and had at least three people commit suicide at my high school in a town of about 5000 people. And, for whatever it’s worth, I’d lost two beloved pets as well.

But even I haven’t had the experience of death the average person in America circa 1900 would have had. Like my roommate, I didn’t hunt or kill farm animals for the meat I devoured each day. I have never seen anyone actually die on the spot, with the exception of one of those beloved pets. The family that I’ve lost, with the exception of my little brother, have all been neatly laid out in the casket and covered in heavy makeup by the funeral director when I actually saw their dead faces. I watched my mom move from being intelligible to barely hanging on over the course of a couple weeks as the last round of cancer overtook her. But, only my dad was there when the last bit of life left her.

In all of this, though, I think that it’s easier to be an atheist when you are almost never around death at all, or if you are around death non-stop. I’ve read stories of battle-hardened soldiers losing their faith after seeing so many of their buddies blown to bits.

I have days where I wake up and realize I’ve gone months without thinking about my own mortality. Even as I watch myself age at a terrible rate, and feel aches and pains and slow recoveries from injuries, I don’t think about death all the time. I would like to think that God didn’t put us on this earth to obsess over death all the time. It seems like an approach that would cause us to end up being like the miser in the parable of talents. Instead of celebrating the life we were given and trying to do the most with it, we hide it under a board in our house for fear of it being snatched away at any minute.

But, I also am not a proponent of the school of thought that my roommate arrived at. He is now almost fifty, and has probably ten years left before all of his years of living without a bank account from random job to job will catch up with him. He will need support from friends and family and the state to cover all of the medical bills he’ll start to see when his body starts to break down. I didn’t know the guy that well, but one time I did kind of allude to the fact that one day he’d have to face these things, and he just kind of brushed it off and said he didn’t want to think about it. I suspect that when death finally does come upon him, he will be absolutely terrified of what might be coming next for his consciousness.

The image of seeing the heavy metal singer Dio being blessed by a priest after he died–what an incongruity! Was that something that happened at a family member’s request, or did Dio suddenly realize that death was asking him to make Pascal’s Wager, and he no longer wanted to err on the side of eternal damnation?

For me, I wake up terrified of death when I’ve let my relationship with God lapse. I give myself a good look in the mirror, and get snippets of a big, weighty insight that tells me: “One day, your consciousness as it is tied to this face will be completely extinguished. You will not get to play and dance inside this body forever.” I start to understand. I start to see myself for the fragile, helpless little thing that I am. I am not big without God. I am this speck of dust that can readily be flicked into the fire. God will create another soul and body in an attempt to grow wheat. To him, I am but chaff if I decide to cut myself off from him.

And, it’s not the obvious ways of cutting myself off from God that scare me anymore. I no longer question his existence. I don’t fly into a rage at God when someone close to me dies, and demand an answer. I don’t scream at God to appear right in front of me to demonstrate he exists. I don’t have fantasies of violence being enacted upon groups of people I don’t like. I’m not asserting any foolish notions about me only needing to practice love and kindness to my fellow human beings, and I’ll be okay. I understand the importance of God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, the Virgin Mary, and having a regular relationship with these beings and the other saints. I’m not Catholic, but I clearly get that it’s a waste of time to believe in an all-powerful, all-loving deity if you are only going to make mention of this belief once a week.

So, I don’t feel like I’m in deep, grave danger of being thrown into the fire. The threat level, once orange and sometimes red, has subsided to a sharp yellow. I am still very much not doing enough to cultivate my relationship with God and his only begotten Son.

The world makes being a slacker Christian easy.

There are so many ways to get distracted and pulled away from focusing on Jesus. You could stay in bed all day, and still run through an endless seeming litany of thoughts and cares in your head without ever touching upon the one true thread that matters–having a dialogue with the Holy Spirit to help purify your heart.

A huge part of the disconnect is that it’s hard to imagine what the everyday life of Jesus was like, when he walked the earth. The difference between a universe where Jesus performed a few miracles, preached a few sermons, and then died and rose up to heaven; and a universe where you have to remain focused enough on the duties as a householder not to lose your job and marriage–it seems almost irreconcilable. It’s easy to forget that Jesus probably had to spend a lot of time waiting for the next opportunity to preach or perform a miracle as he traveled between cities, or simply sat in repose before the next crowd arrived. Understanding how Jesus leveraged his down time (at least as I could best imagine it) is probably more useful to me than trying to beat my brains over how I could apply the miracles of the loaves and fishes inside an office environment that is at best neutral to religious things.

Jesus likely spent an enormous amount of time meditating, contemplating and praying to stay close to his Father while cast in his mortal coil. Perhaps staying focused on being holy was just as hard for him as it is for us. After all, he was completely a man, and I have never met a man who didn’t struggle with the distractions of the flesh. Jesus had biological urges and probably was visited by demons more than the Bible tells us. The cacophony of voices attempting to distract him, both inside and out, was at times probably unbearable, hence the visits to the desert. He may not have had any superhuman abilities when it came to fighting off those distractions and urges, maybe just a fully realized relationship with the Father and a completely developed sense of Love. But, the everyday picture of dealing with the devil may have been a much more intense one than we are given in the Bible–a single trip out to the desert to be tempted by Satan doesn’t cover the onslaught of evil voices Jesus heard in his head each day.

The fear of death doesn’t stop me from sinning or seeking out distractions that take me away from developing a deeper relationship with God. My love of Jesus doesn’t stop me, either. Which is not to say that either of these aren’t the key to helping me stop sinning, I just haven’t formed the habit where I can make these two forces stronger in my head than the ones who encourage me to sin and accelerate the will to seek out distractions.

A big box full of junk and treasure

When I look at myself, and see who I am, and see where I’ve been, I see a big box full of junk and treasure that I just can’t seem to get sorted out.

When I completely dismiss some era of my life as being totally unproductive, I am really doing nothing less than chopping off a limb to rid myself of a few unbecoming warts.

What I am struggling with right now, aside from the huge questions, are these issues of seeing some of the old me I thought I’d laid to rest come forth in times of stress or uncertainty.

It’s easy to lay down the framework of a plan, make some annual and even monthly goals, and set about to improving the self, only to find that you still have mornings where you wake up and you don’t want to change at all.

When you live a life of trying your damnedest to pull yourself out of the muck that keeps you from becoming a great man, and see so many other men do great-becoming things so effortlessly, you begin to wonder if you were meant to be a man at all.

Then, when you see the cliques and various interests of all men and women, you find yourself rejecting almost everything for it not adding up to meet your expectations of what being human is all about.

So, you reach a stage of crisis where you are hypercritical of everyone around you, and then you wake up in a state of Zen where almost all is good, aside from that which is completely perverse and evil.

But, my goal, now more than ever, is to become relentlessly focused on self improvement that leads to self transformation. For the past few years, I’ve wrestled with finding a way of being that enables me to stay truly self-motivated. I could say it’s been longer than that–since, before I met my wife, it was clear that most of my self-improvement programs were nothing more than attempts to take my lumpy self and mold it into a sharp, cleanly chiseled block of a man.

I would wake up after sleeping through the morning and go running in the Central Texas heat with the hopes that the sun itself would burn off all the dross that made me go buy a six pack of tallboys and order a pizza, and watch movies and masturbate relentlessly until I was completely spent.

I wanted to take my hairy torso that slumped to the right from years of bad posture, and hold it erect for 10-15 miles, letting the sun burn me to a crisp, and then shaving my head and shaving down the worst of the hair. I wanted to go from being more like Woody Allen to being more like Vin Diesel–all in the span of a few short weeks.

That’s really what my Austin narrative was for me. I am here now, sitting in a hotel in Cedar Park, with little to do before a wedding this evening, then a flight to Las Vegas tomorrow.

What I have to accept is: I did succeed in changing, but the change wasn’t evident until years later, when I found myself speaking to F500 clients, or standing at the altar to get married.

When the wife goes out of town, the adolescent in me wants to stop at the corner store and grab a six pack, but knowing the way I’ll feel for the next 24 hours stops me in my tracks.

I spent two solid months this spring and summer studying math hardcore, hitting everything alegebra and trig related to prepare for an entrance exam this fall. And then I stopped, and couldn’t muster the will to return. I made the assumption that I hadn’t made a dent in my knowledge or even in resuscitating my memories from high school. But, when I happen to peak back into a book or problem set online, I know I know math in a way that I haven’t known it since high school.

In other words, the end-of-chapter and practice exams aren’t the best way for me to know whether I’ve learned anything or not. If I get six out of ten problems wrong, it may mean I’m not ready to take Calc I at a university, but it doesn’t mean I haven’t learned a damn thing.

But, the enormous question now is: do I want to move forward with this or not?

I’ve been accepted into the local university. I can start taking classes next year. It will be slow going, whatever subject I choose. The easy degree would be Art History. If they accepted all of my past art classes, I could have a PhD within six years. The Math BS may very well take just as long as the Art History PhD, given that I have a full-time job, and this school doesn’t offer night or online classes.

The fact that I’m weighing the two at my age has me a little concerned that I would likely take neither as seriously as I should.

But, I can’t keep working in my field of web and email marketing. Everyone thinks they know how to do marketing. Everyone thinks they know how to measure the success of it, and proclaim whether a marketing campaign succeeded or failed based more on how much of their own ideas were involved in the campaign. It was always meant to be a temporary means of funding a more leisurely life until I made money off of a book sale. But, the months turned into years, and then one day I woke up and a decade had passed, and I still found myself getting shot down by mouthy upstarts who would come into an organization with a degree and a year’s worth of internships.

I would love to change who I am as a social being, but I’m not sure that I ever will. I’ve seen the work required. You can be the nicest person ever, and make polite conversation about the weather, but at some point, you are going to have to invest time in cultivating an interest in the things of the world–sports, pop culture, media and political drama. You can’t get away with putting your nose in old books for months on end, and expect to have conversation material with the bulk of humanity. You can learn all of the social cues you never learned in your adolescence and early adult years, but if you don’t have a body of current knowledge to access that overlaps enough on a Venn diagram with someone else’s body of knowledge, you are going to find conversation tough going.

People get sick of talking about what they do for a living, for the most part, because by and large most people don’t do anything for a living that actually means something to them beyond a paycheck and a cultivated resume.

In order for me to develop a career in my field that actually turns me into a somebody, I would have to jump on the whole self promoting bandwagon, and get excited about all of the latest trends in digital marketing (which generally end up looking a lot like the past set of trends). I’ve already done that–I started a blog when I first heard of what a blog was. I got a Twitter account and a Facebook account before most people, and proceeded to champion these things within my organization to deaf ears, and then finally watch the slow adopters come around to them and become champions of the technologies after I’d long since given up.

I would love to work in a profession that isn’t driven by trends so much. Math is something I generally enjoy reading about, as much as I can understand it. But, I don’t think Math alone would ever be enough to fill my soul up. The same goes for religion and history and art. I love getting caught up in reading about these things for a few weeks, and then I wake up one morning and they are no longer the least bit appealing to me.

***

I woke up yesterday morning, and it was exactly one week since I wrote the above passage. I moved through a rough, long week. It was a week that opened my eyes about our human condition in unexpected ways. For some reason, I’ve taken with me this notion that if the average man on the streets (who could be joe plumber or joe lawyer) were given the right opportunity to see how amazing a life of learning and culture could be over a life of shallow entertainment, then the average man would see a spark ignited, and eventually favor visiting the public library, reading Wikipedia entries, watching TED Talks and going to art museums over his fantasy football, pop music and reality television.

But, I don’t believe this anymore. I don’t believe that everyone is essentially made from the same stuff, and given the right set of conditions, we can all change to be better, more fully realized human beings. I believe that intellectually-speaking, we are all getting dumber from the top down. People who pride themselves as readers will more than likely read critically acclaimed bestsellers that contain less of a vocabulary than a spy or mystery thriller did forty years ago. The music we get excited about is not full of any sort of richness and complexity of ideas, no matter how hard a NY Times critic tries to polish a turd that is today’s hip hop, rock or country. I do believe each of these genres contained more clever lyrics and more attention to musical craftsmanship twenty years ago than they do now. Perhaps only hip hop continues to innovate with new sonic experiments, but the lyrics are infantile.

The bottom line is, nobody wants to dive into a deeper well than the one that they are presently pissing in to find new material for whatever it is they are trying to communicate. Writers of sit coms reference other sit coms from maybe as far back as Cheers. Political pundits are the same way–they reference what happened in political races and partisan control of areas of government no farther back in time than Reagan and the 1980s.

I woke up and decided that I am no better. I’ve struggled to care about movies that were made before I was born. I grew up having older people remark how amazed they were that I knew rock music before the present time, but my musical exploration pretty much ended with the Beatles and a few bluesmen. My push to learn great epochs in history has often been pleasurable, but I’ve ended up forgetting whatever I learned from Plutarch. I can say with confidence that my own vocabulary hasn’t changed much since I graduated from college–I no longer have any sort of great aspirations to be a great writer in the anthology/canon sense of the word.

But, I can’t stand seeing a nation still completely gorged on abundance that can’t seem to wake up and find a new direction for itself in this world. My visit to Las Vegas last week was incredibly enlightening for me. I’d made the assumption that the kinds of pleasures people go to seek there are a marginal part of our society, and we are still by and large a healthy civilization. Now, I can safely lay that assumption to rest. America is a sick, perverted civilization. We are a shallow, empty civilization. When those among us want to make a claim at being readers or having some depth about us, we buy a few books off the bestseller rack, and devour them, then return to our sports and television.

It’s impossible for us to have an intelligent conversation as a nation about our spending priorities, or who we should or shouldn’t be going to war with, because we are all getting fat, stupid, and lazy off of the backs of slaves in other countries. The large corporations we villify are the same ones that help get laws passed to keep the flow of money going into the right hands in those countries that will keep those slaves working in sweatshops for our cheap fashion finds and gadgets. There isn’t a single person among us who enjoys even an exceptionally low middle-class lifestyle who can really throw the first stone, or objectively start cutting all of the lobbying fat out of Washington.

I have no proof that we are all turning into drooling slobs. Perhaps there was a large cross section of the folks I saw in Vegas who do go home and make the effort each day to study something new on Wikepedia, MIT Open Courseware or some other MOOC or online series of videos. I understand that making vast, mostly uninformed generalizations about people is at best naive, and probably mostly stupid. But, I do think that there is evidence for a general shift away from the U.S. being full of people who are striving to make something better for themselves–whatever that might look like–to a country full of people who are happy just to be fat and dreaming of getting rich quick.

Suffice to say, my trip to Rome a year ago, vs. my trip to Vegas gave me a lot of food for thought that I have yet to completely crystallize into something that sounds like great insight.

I also woke up yesterday and came to the conclusion that I will not continue on this path to study math. I’m not going back to school to focus on it, and take accredited classes from a well-known university. I’ve decided that if my goal is to ultimately transform myself in the last part of my life into an all-around better human being, then having such a singular focus on math, no matter how much it would accelerate my ability to be more incisive and analytical in my thinking, would be a focus that caused other areas of soul development to suffer at the expense of sharpening the intellectual one.

I have to be able to have the freedom to download and read a book like Zibaldone, or weighty histories of England from Peter Ackroyd, or resume my reading of Barzun. I want to know the world from the standpoint of someone who is endlessly curious about everything related to human endeavor. If I can’t seem to ever connect with people on the personal and social levels, I can at least become well-read on how those interactions have created cultures and genocides across the millennia.

Which brings me to my “eye openers” around my own ongoing struggles around engaging with others socially.

Having a lot of manufactured charisma, and taking a few pep supplements, will never be enough for me to see sustaining change in the way people respond to me. For what it’s worth, I still engender the same responses I did when I first hit puberty and it all became dark. Only now, it’s worse. The lines on the face are more set. The learned patterns of behavior are more ingrained. My thinning white hair doesn’t help–it just adds to the overall perception that I must be some kind of angry middle-age man.

Times where I feel at my best and sharpest, I still often get the same responses: why are you so pissed off? What’s wrong? He’s mad about something.

I catch people scowling at me when I’m standing in a crowd and honestly didn’t think I was looking at them at all. Perhaps my lazy eye, combined with my face’s naturally scowling state, appeared to be focused on them. I get these looks from total strangers where they seem to want to kill me, and I smile, and they continue to gaze at me with the death look.

I will never be the kind of men who has his gang of buddies. I am not a man’s man. I don’t know what I am, really. But, I can’t keep pretending that I will one day take up extreme physical fitness endeavors and develop a love of MMA and gambling. I just won’t. I’ve never met a man who turned me on, sexually, either, so I know that there’s nothing down that avenue worth exploring. Believe me, I would have explored it years ago, if I thought I could find the peace I was looking for from it.

I am not of this world. The things of this world that I enjoy are so very few. I love good architecture, both modern and and classical. I love books and art. I like classical music and jazz, and the occasional rock effort. I enjoy trying different kinds of food, but I’ll never be a foodie. I just don’t have the drive to devote that much time to carefully wiring my intellect to my GI tract. I like reading about new advances in physics and technology. I enjoy mathematical ideas, when I can understand at least 30% of them.

But, all that said, I am not of this world. The things of this world that I love are almost all things wrought forth by the human spirit, as it is connected to a higher plane of existence, and it endeavors to bring such beautiful things into this world. The focus is always on how those things affect my soul, and how the souls of those who brought them here must have felt, whether they believed they were being informed by a greater intellect or not.

This world will pass away. This world can only sustain so many human souls in it. The more of us who seek to keep coming back, the more it begins to groan under our weight. Even those of us who seek to consume less and not leave such a big footprint of garbage and destruction–we are still creating a strain on this world that otherwise wouldn’t be there. The people who devote all of their time to being madly focused on an effort to stay inside this world forever are probably the worst. They have completely forgotten their missions, unless they were sent back by angels of evil. Of course, those particular souls are doing exactly what they were told to do: spread as much doubt about God and glory about being an animal as you possibly can.

My will is one of wanting to commit the worst kind of idolatry. Forget about God. Read plenty of literature. Literature that should be shaping my own understanding of my personal experience as a human. Study art. Art that should be illuminating the power of the spirit to take hold on matter and leave behind some description of the life force that once inhabited this plane. Instead, I become enamored of the word choices and ideas expressed by the author, or the pictorial language of the painter as being completely independent from the spirit that brought them forth.

So goes my endless search for a calling. All professions on this planet, with the exception of being a priest or monk, seem to be geared toward getting you so caught up in the subject matter, that you eventually forget about God. Indeed, it seems that in order to make any sort of living at all–to survive in this world as a decent human being–you must choose to make that switch every Monday where you say goodbye to God for the time being as you immerse yourself again in pursuits whose endgame is merely mammon.

I struggle to keep God close to me when I’m not at work, but when I’m at work it seems to be almost impossible. Even maintaining an awareness that there is more to living than simply the worries of the workday is beyond my capability. People around me choose to rectify this by becoming immersed in gossip and simple pleasures–blasting the office with pop songs from the 70s on, and singing along, talking at length about the game, getting excited about where they will eat their next meal.

The existence we cherish as mostly middle-class white folks in the 21st century is an exulted one, for sure. We live with luxuries that only kings could afford up until about fifty years ago. We don’t worry much about any number of bacterial or viral diseases that used to wipe out or cripple populations in huge numbers. We live in safe places where we rarely witness anything that remotely approaches a violent crime. And yet, we seem to be in many ways more impoverished souls that people of a hundred years ago were–we don’t strive to know beauty, truth and meaning from what few books we are able to obtain from our nascent public library. The hunger for knowledge and wisdom is no longer there, because we know that it’s now available on-demand, if we ever do need to know something.

I’ve occasionally made the effort to go sit somewhere with a book on my lunch break, or take a few minutes out of the day to at least see what matters in the business world beyond the business that my company does. But, then I start to care about the EU Economic Crisis, and feel some need to help provide my own solution to it. Then, the same thing with all the other political crises we’ve witnessed over the past decade. I write letters to politicians that I know will be ignored. I entertain no illusions that someone out there, other than God, is really listening to me.

Things can get incredibly depressing for the person who has rejected God and watched all of their friends move on to other cities and other projects that don’t involve them. When people see spouses grow disinterested in taking time to communicate with them, and watch children who once thought they were the center of the universe reject them in favor of trying to assert independence and only communicate with their peers who get them–such moments in all of our lives are pretty brutal. I’ve not even come close to having the sort of faith one might have that would enable me to believe that if I sat down and prayed to God at greater length, change would come into my life in ways that I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

Sadly enough, I lapse into periods of obsession over any number of worldly things, whether they are simply workday concerns or vices I haven’t conquered. And in these periods I am for all intents and purposes an Atheist. I surely would tell anyone who put me on the spot and asked me point blank that I do believe in God. But, my mind has simply decided to shut God out, because I don’t think God is relEt or matters much when I’m trying to solve certain problems or worry about what I’m supposed to be doing with my future. It’s like I’ve relegated God to the role of being a little child whose ears aren’t fit to hear my worldly preoccupations.

Of course, I know better than that when I’m called to task about it, but that doesn’t change the fact that old habits persist within me. That when the going gets tough in the mundane world, I simply forget to involve God at all in the decision-making process. Is it any wonder that I haven’t discovered a true calling yet? If God is only really made to feel like a valuable friend when I am in my darkest hours, then surely I am not benefiting nearly as much as I could from his help, and most definitely I am not living my life that much differently than an Atheist or Agnostic does.