Like attracts like

Like attracts like. Seems like a cliche. Surely the people who came into my life got there by chance, and of course, to some degree people with like interests and backgrounds will come together. But, any time I found myself asking why these kinds of people again, why are these types all around me, all I had to do is look a little deeper at my intentions and my actions. Yes, I might have said on some late night that I wanted to wake up and be surrounded by a bunch of cosmic, liberal-minded Christians who were a lot like Thomas Merton. However, there were too many old patterns of thought and behavior still running in the background. I ended up in yet another work or church environment where everyone was more like me than I was willing to admit.

The work environments were probably the hardest to face. At the translation company, people had been there for so long that they all started to act like each other or bring people they were like into the fold. If you were the GM and her sales team, you were blonde and probably female and Christian. Many of the women downstairs in operations were angry, bitter and probably Christian. The editing department was full of bitter old men, who were atheists for the most part, and a couple of young guys who were quietly hanging on for something better. My department, the Production Department, which was a poor man’s desktop publishing unit, was full of mostly atheists, humanists, non-religious, with the exception of two older ladies. We took to our kind and didn’t mix well with those who weren’t of our kind. It was an enormous step for me to go from Production to Sales, and I never fit in with the Sales team.

When I moved to the non-profit, I expected there to be at least a few souls like me who were Christian, but ones motivated to do some social good instead of just happily ignore the poor and give to their smooth-talking pastors. There was an Egelical who stood out like a sore thumb, and a few other Christians who turned out to be Christians like me, but I didn’t even know they were such until later–like, years later when I was still connected with them on Facebook. Again, I was disappointed that I hadn’t been able to insert myself in a community of like-minded individuals.

It was to be the same story at a lot of other places–the people I got along with best and who seemed to be on the right track when it came to caring about others turned out to be atheists. Partly, I get that this is due to the fact that I have chosen to participate in a strand of Christianity that is not necessarily the most popular one in this country. I vote Democrat almost exclusively, I generally agree with the need for better science education in our schools, don’t question the theory of evolution or the age of the universe. I am almost always on the left on any social issue. Perhaps where I differ the most is largely around abortion and the ability for government to be a panacea for all of our problems (but, I think that most people who call themselves conservative want the government to solve all of our ills as much as a lot of liberals do, it’s just that they have a completely idea of what ails us and where/how to spend the money). At any rate, I think more like a lot of atheists do when it comes to the material and social world. My inner world, which is my business and where I depart from atheists, is primarily a spiritual one, and Jesus has been the answer for a lot of my questions for many years.

To be for sure, I don’t broadcast my Christianity to everyone like a lot of Egelicals do, but I generally don’t broadcast my politics, either. It could be that we all just end up feeling comfortable around certain people. However, there are a lot of people I’ve felt comfortable around in work places who turn out to be miles away on matters of faith. My theory is that while I have spent some time trying to change to be more like the person I hope to become, a lot of the old habits and the old self still linger on. On some level that is mostly under the surface of conscious thought, I still am inclined to swear and use the Lord’s name in vain and think about the world from the point of view of the callow youth who was mad at the world and sought authenticity by way of how rebellious or punk someone was.

You might think that this isn’t really much of a big deal, or shouldn’t be for me. After all, I have met my wife who tracks pretty closely to me on spiritual and political issues, as far as I can tell. I have very slowly made inroads in the church environment, though the progress is about to be reset as we move away from this town. I have managed to get a lot of the old me cordoned off and pushed to the dustbin, in spite of the occasional temper flare-up or descent into some other un-Christian thought or behavior pattern. I am more inclined to resort to prayer at least once during the day, instead of waiting until night or morning.

It’s sort of like a large water-filtering tube like the one I remember from Chemistry class. I think it was primarily a charcoal filter, but had some other filtration in it. At the bottom was the pure water. The bottom is where the self I show the world resides. I am not talking about my core Self as I know that self to be, but the true Me of the world. As someone who very much hates the sight of an inauthentic person, I often do try to play my cards close to the vest and keep a tight control over what I reveal about myself. But, in spite of that, the world is going to see not whatever I am putting in at the top, but the end result of what has percolated through many years of good and bad habits around thoughts, words and deeds.

I don’t know anything at all about Chemistry and water filters, but for the sake of my analogy, I’ve dumped some other chemical into the filter in the past and it is still percolating through, even as I poor water into it. I am working to get the other chemical dumped out at the bottom, and no longer put any more of it in at the top, but old habits die hard. The pure water I want people to see is just not there yet.

Speaking of inauthentic people, I was reminded of one fellow I worked with at the non-profit. He was a relentless promoter of the self. He knew it, but like a lot of other self-promoters in the non-profit community, tried to masquerade it behind promoting the mission of the non-profit and broadcasting out how much good he was doing in the community. Maybe I was just seeing your average community organizer face-to-face–your guy who is good at mobilizing a crowd with charisma and words, but then goes and schmoozes with the politicians and business leaders while the crowd disperses to do the actual work. I never saw the guy sign up to get his hands dirty. He would probably argue that he had done those things when he was in college, and now he has advanced to be a thought leader and community organizer.

I couldn’t say whether such a mentality is valid or not. I don’t think you are going to change the world if you only sign up to beautify parks, mentor kids and work in soup kitchens, but I do think you are going to see firsthand what needs changing and keep yourself more authentic if you at least do some of those things now and then while you take a break from your consortiums and seminars. But, that’s my opinion. Almost everyone loved the guy, or at least took him as he was at face value. I liked the guy, or tried to. But, I could see that there was a lot of him under the surface that wasn’t much like the friendly, happy guy he projected. I think that he was able to see that I tended to look below the surface at people for their authentic selves, and he didn’t like it. He wanted friends, associates and partners who responded to his personality–or maybe just a persona, if you will.

Clearly, it worked for him most of the time. Most people do take you at face value, and if you are projecting a lot of kindness and graciousness and happiness out past whatever demons are lurking underneath, they will see you as being an upstanding person. If you are someone like me, who has been inclined to clean up the demons and not try to fool people too much, you will probably project an air of hiding something or even project out some of the demons. In the short run, I’ve been pretty miserable with my approach. I think it will eventually pay off huge dividends for me…but, I have missed a lot of opportunities to connect with people who I think might have been good for me to have as friends…or lovers back when I was single.

What’s more, I have begun to see some value in projecting a smiley face even when there isn’t much of a smiley guy underneath. A lot of time, I am at utter peace with myself, and am feeling pretty neutral. However, I have whatever the male equivalent of resting bitch face is, and people seem to think I am utterly miserable and pissed off all the time. So, I have to project some happiness just so that people see I am not pissed off. Complete and utter peace for me isn’t a state of euphoria. Euphoric states brought on by artificial stimulation–be it just getting myself psyched up or imbibing some chemicals are not peace, and they tend to have negative backlashes at the end of them.

But, that is something else I should be working on, too. While there might be Newton’s Third Law in place for our physical universe, there is no law saying that after a period of intense joy, when the feeling dissipates, you must now commence a period of intense sorrow. I have learned to start catching myself when I want to dive into a pool of sorrow. It has felt right for so long to go there, whether after a time of happiness or after a time of anger when I lose my temper and feel bad about it, or after a time when I screwed up socially. But I am learning that you don’t have to go there if you don’t want to. Because, once you do decide to go into the pool of sorrow, you are kind of stuck there and it can pull you in pretty deep into a world of self-defeating negativity.

This is exceptionally different from faking it until you make it, or just pretending to be positive-minded until the negativity goes away. It is about paying extremely close attention to what is going on inside of you, and making micro-tweaks to the flapping butterflies that are on the verge of sending you into hurricanes of depression or anger.

I used to be rather hypercritical of the self-promoting types following my departure from the non-profit world. They are certainly not the kinds of people I am ultimately hoping to become, but I wouldn’t say they are bad for non-profits or the community, either. Everyone in their twenties and thirties is hustling, trying to have a career, and will often do and say things they never thought they would do or say. The demons that the self promoter is trying to avoid having to deal with will be there for her someday–I feel sorry for anyone who is putting that day off until they retire, but it’s really none of my business if a person has chosen to make an artificial shelf of a persona be who they are for this world, and keep that shelf as separate from their real self (examined or not) as possible.

I don’t have a complete grasp on how my self of this life connects with a higher Self who connects with God. I think that there is probably some of that percolating going on with the higher Self, the immortal Self, as much as there is with the true self of this world that people see on display via so much non-verbal communication. By percolating, I mean that the thoughts, words and deeds of this life do matter and do change the Self. If it were utterly immutable, then what would be the point of even being alive here?

But, I wouldn’t even begin to say I know what I need to know about the world beyond this one. I would like to think that we will be treated a bit nicer than all of those graphic descriptions of wheat and chaff. I, for one, feel like most days I would probably be tossed into the eternal fire if I died that day. I mean, for sure, I have accepted Christ into my heart and believe in Him in a way that is deeper than simply believing in His existence, as the devils do. Yet, I am nowhere near ceasing some of my patterns of behavior that cause me to sin. I think I am still at least ten years away from getting through a lot of my shit. Which is to say, I am now at the age of 40 your average man–not a bad man, mind you, but only a good and decent man by most worldly standards. By God’s standards, I’m pretty lousy, I would think.

I may be too hard on other Christians. I have often expected more from them, as I think I probably should, but much of their and my behavior that seems so incongruent with the behavior of Jesus could be the result of them doing as I am doing–trying to be real with ALL of me, not just my lovely public persona. If you don’t believe in a soul, and think that your unconscious self is just a wasteland, and that the you you present to the public really is the only you there is, then you might be most inclined to craft and perfect your so-called personality. Though I think even someone like this will at times have glimpses into something deeper inside of them, or catch someone else having the glimpse, and grow extremely uncomfortable because they are doing nothing whatsoever to change who they really are inside. I wouldn’t be capable of speaking for all Christians, but there must be at least a few who like me are striving to know their deeper selves and change those selves even if it means unleashing the ravening wolves now and then. Better to get the ravening wolves out and met and dealt with in this life, I suppose.

One more insight that came to me regarding how like attracts like concerns the fact that a lot of the people in the workplace who I gravitated towards were people who, like me, had been raised in pretty religious homes of some sort, be they Egelical or Catholic. And so, it may not just be my learned patterns of behavior as a mostly agnostic during my teens and twenties that are affecting my non-verbal presentation of self, but also the deeper things we all learned as children that we have tried to run away from, namely proper Christian ways of treating each other. Or, to be more succinct, a light was lit in many of us once a time and many of us tried to put the light out, but it still shines on, hoping to be set up on the hill again some day.

Spend some time working up this outline before commencing writing another lengthy book project

Spend some time working up this outline before commencing writing another lengthy book project.

 

  1. Getting to know each other, me and you. What does this mean to know someone, to connect with them?
  • Are we all lovable at our cores?
  • Can we know each other deeply and joyfully without sex?
  • Are we similar at our cores or too different to ever connect deeply?
  • What about you is worth knowing, aside from your likes/dislikes, natural gifts (looks, brains, athletics) and occupation?
  • Even further, beyond memories, cultural identity, gender identity, hopes, dreams, etc.–who or what is left?
  • We are humans and treat each other with dignity and respect, no matter what our differences are.
  1.  Can You and I, reader and author, enter into a relationship?
  • Clarification about what the relationship entails — we are seeking to know each other deeply — core identity with core identity, but the relationship remains platonic
  • What glue(s) of the universe can connect us? Same species, conscience (can we both cry when we see someone who is hurting), sense of peace and love, love of family
  • Design a place where the author and reader can go to engage with each other–what, if anything can we agree upon is required for our new world?
  • Can we work together if we find ourselves at an impasse in disagreement?
  • Imagining very different people who live in very different physical environments (material space and bodies) — can we put ourselves in their shoes?
  • Criminals and sinners–who is worth eventual forgiveness after how much rehabilitation? Who is to be considered beyond repair?
  1. We will do something together — we will run a “camp” for souls that have forgotten how to connect with other souls.
  • The religious people at war with each other.
  • The rich and the poor at war with each other.
  • The men and women at war with each other.
  • The blacks and whites at war with each other.
  • The parents at war with their children.
  • Nations at war with other nations.
  • The people who have taken escapist routes from humanity.
  1. Building a new world of humans connecting with humans properly.
  • We disagree, but we know how to resolve the disagreement and know that we have more in common than not.
  • We are humans and treat each other with dignity and respect, no matter what our differences are.
  • We listen to others who are hurting.
  • We are deeply connected with everyone, so we know immediately when our lifestyle is causing someone else to hurt.
  • We derive more satisfaction from sharing, but are willing to accept a shared thing, too.
  • We aren’t waiting around for the perfect savior or government to bring us the way of living we desire.
  • We are realists and know that there will be days when we should be disconnected from each other.
  • We seek to offer help and ask for help. Neither of us and no one we know wishes to be seen as an unquestionable, all-powerful leader.
  • Leaders may be necessary, but leaders always know where their authority comes from and know they can be criticized and removed from their positions at any time.
  • The members who speak up the least in group discussion are still given plenty of opportunities to have their voices be heard. They are NEVER treated as if their voices don’t matter.
  1. Present day ways of being and cultural artifacts that just aren’t our thing.
  • We have outgrown the need for certain ways of being, pride in private ownership of things, governments that would tell us what to do (whether it is our ideology or not)
  • We seek the basics for thriving, but thriving and living well without causing someone else to suffer in another part of the world
  • We don’t have rules about eating meat or not, drinking or taking drugs or not, etc. We return to core principles of what it means to be a dignified human being thriving among others who are connected in this brand new way. We respect the natural world, but understand not everyone can go without eating meat. However, an inordinate activity of consuming anything is cause for concern. We stop and do everything we can to help someone who is struggling with an inordinate amount of consumption of anything. That person could be needing deeper help beyond the attention to their addiction.
  • There will be those who don’t want to live the way we do. The message should be clear that if that day comes for someone, and that person can’t change their mind about it, we should show them the door. This is very much not like a cult in that regard. Unhappy members who are sticking around out of fear or brainwashing or other negative motives–free riders who seek to abuse the system–they should be shown the door if they cannot be convinced to behave and participate as we hoped they would.
  • We don’t give up our day jobs unless we have a clear understanding of how we could do something that further helps the group be self-sufficient. The group isn’t formed to destroy capitalism or any other economic practice, but it is formed with the intent of human beings accepting that they can connect more deeply with each other and treat each other differently than they would if they continued to live completely outside the group.
  • The long run goal would be to build multiple self-sufficent homes in a community where there is much shared space–workshops, libraries, kitchens, play areas for children–as much as possible is shared while still understanding that some privacy for individuals, couples and families is necessary. The overall intended focus of everyone, though, is on the community and making sure others in the community are happy.
  • Also to be constructed would be a small, simple organic farm with a small woodshop, ceramics area, easels, digital creativity space, metalworking, etc. The goal is to be self-sufficient in a sustaining way, but also to make and produce things that people would want.
  • A chapel is vital to this area. All faiths are welcome, or lack of faith and desire to be alone in a chapel.

 

When I went back to Columbia earlier this month

When I went back to Columbia earlier this month, I was pleasantly surprised to see that the Peace Nook was still open. I was happy to see that Flat Branch was still there, as was the Chez and the old Adams bookstore that was only open once a week. I even felt comfortable seeing the more popular standards like Tropical Liqueurs, Harpo’s, Willie’s, Blue Note, etc. even though they weren’t really my scene in college, except for the Blue Note. But, the Peace Nook was a real treasure that I should have visited more when I was in college.

When I first went to Columbia by myself during the summer before my Freshman year, I discovered the Peace Nook and thought that I had arrived in Gen X, multi-cultural heaven. I bought a magazine with Alan Ginsberg on the cover, though I had no idea who he was. There were books about Wicca, Buddhism and many other things I’d never heard of. There were posters on the wall to go meet with people who wanted to be radical and change the world.

I never got into that scene, though. I think I was too scared to, and wanted to get involved with EVERY scene on campus. I didn’t want to be a frat boy, but I did fancy myself spending a semester or two like some kind of Pauly Shore character, which isn’t any better. I had a sense of myself as being some kind of generic rebel mad about the man, like Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites–a really deep, cool guy who was so over it.

Seeing that the Peace Nook was still there made me happy, though, because I could see that there remained at least a few folks in the Midwest trying to make the world a better place outside of the standard paradigm that has been shoved down our throats and made to seem sacrosanct after 9/11. I was pretty sure 9/11 and the younger generation would have killed any organization of significance in that area that sought peace in this world, in our time. I don’t know why, since I wasn’t active at all for social change when I went to school.

It is to my detriment that I would assume that downtown Columbia would have become nothing but a bunch of chain restaurants and stores, with the only local shops selling stuff they bought from China. It seems to have been the trend in some places I’ve known fairly well here in Texas, where there is always a downtown committee trying to revitalize things, a group of old farts trying to keep everything like the 1950s, and the compromise being a bunch of kitschy stores that sell merchandise made in China.

If anything, Columbia seemed to have gotten more focused on remaining true to its local businesses than when I lived there. One of the bookstores was gone, but two remained. A store that sold nothing but beer and served beer from the tap was now there. That alone was enough to make me almost want to move back there. There was certainly the large contingent of affluent white families walking around and their kids who were there for early summer Greek activities–it seemed at one point on the last night I was there as if the entire Greek population of Mizzou was drinking at Harpo’s. But, you could also pick up on the presence of other interest groups and people who didn’t all look and act like they were going to get blitzed on fruity drinks walking around.

Aside from being afraid to do anything especially different and potentially get teased for it, I know that I stayed away from getting involved with the groups on the posters of the walls of the Peace Nook because I didn’t want to do the real work involved to change things. It was nice and pleasant go get a little dose of progressiveness now and then and buy some books and magazines about people who didn’t think that Jesus, war and money were the answer to everything, but I didn’t want to actually have to change myself and possibly face the fact that I wasn’t as different and rebellious as I thought I was.

The trend of this kind of behavior continues. It doesn’t even have to be a group that is significantly outside of the mainstream. Even going to church over the past four years has seen me very reluctant to get significantly involved with people who are for the most part older, rural and more conservative than I am. I certainly could have tried harder and asked the pastor or someone else point blank, how do I get on this or that committee–how do I get involved in a big and significant way? There were always plenty of excuses. I am too busy with work, family, personal interests, etc. I don’t want to impose myself upon groups that have known each other for decades and “steal” a committee position from someone else. I don’t think the people here even like me. Of course, there might have been some validity and truth in those reservations, but they were at the end of the day simply excuses for not having to get too involved and possibly see myself changed in a significant way.

Paradoxically, I am always obsessing about how I could change myself in a significant way, but I am terrified of having it happen outside of my control–probably because I know that most of the changes that have taken place inside of me have happened when I wasn’t in control.

The radical change, then, is not necessarily giving up wearing store-bought clothing (in favor of loose, locally sewn garments) and eating anything but locally-sourced vegetables (the dented and imperfect ones only) raw, and showing up at every agitating event where people are against war, poverty, sexism, racism, capitalism, etc. I don’t need to go sit in front of a guru or have someone help me realize perfectly just how guilty I should be for being a white male. These are superficial, nonsustaining changes, anyway that just make someone miserable, I would guess.

What radical change needs to happen is much more basic and goes back to all of the groups I refused to join in high school because I thought I was too cool for them, when I was really just too scared to join them.

I need to seek out groups by asking others what groups are available, asking when and where they meet (even if the other person is going to sigh with exasperation and tell me that I should know where such information is posted), and generally allow myself to be awkward and uncomfortable in order to get someplace new. Maybe I will embrace a more radical form of Christianity as I progress in school–not one that has a new agey cast to its theology, but one that requires me to show up at community meetings and listen to what the problems are people are facing, and slowly get involved without thinking the least bit like I am the drum major or even the third chair trumpet player. However, if there does come a moment where it is clear that I could be doing more at a higher level then I shouldn’t ignore that moment and project false humility where it isn’t helpful.

This is difficult to explain, but I am very much aware of how the clock is ticking

This is difficult to explain, but I am very much aware of how the clock is ticking, and how much time I’ve wasted. The down time may be needed now and then, but it can also feel like a pure indulgence instead of a renewal. I am all for a renewal, but I can hardly stress enough to myself just how much of a chance at renewal I’ve gotten over the past year. Yes, watching a baby full time every single week day is stressful and requires more effort than one would imagine, and I probably wouldn’t want to do it again. But, I’ve also had the opportunity to renew my spirit which had been languishing in an endless-seeming existence of offices and mean people.

Death doesn’t scare me like it used to. My death will come when it comes. But, the fact that I am an older dad who looks even older than he really is due to his graying, thinning hair does bother me. It irks me because I haven’t really done anything with my life that would have put that much stress on me. So, I can conclude that my own internal way of coping with life has been one of putting undue stress on myself, or my genetic hand dealt to me was a really crummy one when it comes to hair and skin.

Aside from my appearance, the will to be accomplishing something has never been stronger. I might be exacerbating my graphomania by trying to write all the time–fanning the flames of a compulsion that I can generally quiet down–but, on the other hand, I feel almost like nothing if I don’t hammer out some words about…anything.

Do I want my life to be perfect?

Do I want my life to be perfect? I don’t think so, but I don’t want to live with problems that I could be solving, either. The goal is to winnow down the things that aren’t especially necessary, and if I find myself living in a house again, not to accrue more stuff just because people are giving it to you, or you are able to buy it.

The process of collecting junk doesn’t end with the material world, though. I am incredibly adept at getting interested in a random subject for a few weeks with such a zeal that I want to read all of the most highly rated books on the topic, and then I drop it, and am left with books I don’t especially feel like reading. But, I might be interested in them again, someday.

However, it goes beyond just books on shelves or random notes on hard drives. The brain becomes a cloudy, messy place where any sense of real direction and purpose is lost.

The way forward, I think, is to look at what things have consistently kept my attention and sustained efforts throughout my adult life. I no longer feel guilty about hammering something like this out, or starting a writing project that never gets finished. I like the purity of the process of writing–really, it’s a matter of having a tactile experience connected with visual/symbolic representations of my thoughts that flow in a linear way instead of the general mess of non-linear chaos that is my unfocused mind. I am forming something concrete and yet it is mostly ephemeral as well–it won’t be stored for the ages, or even recalled by me in my lifetime. Yet, the concreteness of the words that appear has a certain quality of firmness that lends it more meaning than simply wandering around the house muttering to myself would.

So, then–what things are the things I will carry on with me until I die?

I am not going to ever become the perfect man as I imagine the perfect man should be. If I take away some of my imperfections, I inevitably raise the volume on some of the others. The perfect man is no longer caught up in sex of any kind, he is a vegan, he is well-versed in many areas of knowledge, never becomes too spiritual or too materialistic. He helps others at all times. He is a hippie kind of guy minus the drugs who practices some of the best traits of Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day. The perfect man has no interest in his own advancement or acclaim. Nobody will remember him, because his acts are many small ones, rather than the great movments.

The perfect man doesn’t need to write because he is perfectly aligned with his words, deeds and God. He doesn’t need to collect anything, inside his brain or his home, because he takes with him the knowledge he needs and leaves the rest behind. He doesn’t become overly involved with anything, except helping others.

I won’t ever be the perfect man because I have appetites for things. I do like the occasional drink or two or three. I like reading books and writing. I am caught up in the culture of my time to the degree that I still halfway pay attention to it. But, I will strive to be the perfect man, more and more with each passing year. If old age finds me without a spouse and my children and grandkids are all able to take care of themselves, I will certainly consider the monastery if they will have me, but until then, I do have to walk the tightrope between the materialistic demands of my throwaway culture and the spiritual yearning that comes back around every single month.

I won’t ever be the perfect man because I don’t think Jesus wants to work with me if I am perfect, and perfectly so due to my own efforts. What room do I have for God if I’ve made myself into a little god here on this earth?

There was a prolonged period of time where I maintained

There was a prolonged period of time where I maintained this unhealthy fantasy of what life would be like if I could go back to a certain point in time to make better choices. From an early age, even before seeing Back to the Future and being aware that science fiction writers speculated about time travel, I would often wander around out in our back yard dreaming of a past vacation and trying to completely and utterly insert myself back into it, by saying things like: “This time last week (month, year, etc.) we would have been getting on the plane to Florida. This time last week, we would be down at the beach.”

At some point in the history of my active imagination, I took to almost exclusively running fantastic scenarios of what the future would be like. Even after my little brother died, I mostly fantasized about the future. This probably stopped some time in my early thirties (finally, thank God) because I came to the realization that I had fantasized my way through my teens and twenties. Maybe it was reading Bill Clinton’s My Life at the age of 30 and seeing that he was already governor of Arkansas by then, while I was still a nobody of nothing, that made me aggressively assert myself over this part of me that could often spin out of control to the point where it seemed like it was running me or occupying me for days.

By then, another insidious form of fantasizing crept into the activity of the escapist demon, and this made him continually beg the question: what would happen if your consciousness was yanked out of your present self and dropped into your past self of five, ten, fifteen, etc. years ago? I am willing to concede that most human beings pause to reflect now on then on what was and what might have been. If we are honest with ourselves, we have plenty of regrets, but if we are kind to ourselves, we don’t obsess over them to the point where certain moments from the past become more crystal clear than the reality we are observing in the present.

But, I became obsessed with certain moments. I would imagine a series of prolonged events, where I was dropped into my self of five, ten, fifteen years for maybe a day or an hour, and whatever changes I made during that time or instructions I left for myself would hopefully change the future for the better, bit by bit, until I became a respectable so-and-so who was much further along with career and family, or a monk, or a priest, or in my more honest moments of reflection I could see the consequences backfiring and scenarios where, for instance, I saved my little brother from dying but I went on to become a heroin junkie or something.

I would relentlessly posit the question of when the best moment would be for me to be dropped into, were I to get to live entire chunks of my life over again. The arrival of my young son put a stop to a lot of this. Obviously, I would never want something like a do-over to happen now unless I had some guarantee from Jesus Himself that little guy would still get to be incarnated in a happy, safe, loving environment, namely, whatever family I ended up creating. But, if pursued from the angle of being a little more scientific, the odds of me being able to make another kid who was just like my son are slim to none–even if I kept myself from getting married until I met my wife, and we didn’t try to have a child until around the exact same time, there would surely be enough of a variation in time of conception that the one out of a million swimmers would be different, and my son might still have the same name and even look pretty much the same, but he wouldn’t be the same, either.

As such, the era of fantasizing about going back and changing the past has mostly ended, with the exception of the occasional desire to at the very least just try to prevent my little brother from dying. Maybe I am not even dropped into my past body, but my entire physical self is sent back and I am just standing outside the house while the family is eating with a knife in my hand to go slash the tires on his pickup truck.

For the longest time, that dinner would have been the gold standard for a life repeat start. It was the last time I saw my brother alive, and I was out of college, away from the influences of some friends, had just started dating someone who was reluctant for days to return “I love you” to me–which is to say she could have been dumped with few regrets. There was no later time in my past than that in which I would have wanted to be dropped.

But then, I started thinking about how nice it would have been to actually attempt a proper college experience instead of one that saw me mostly drinking with my nowhere friends or moving through those years by myself when I was on campus. So, it became appealing to send myself back to early August 1994, when I had finished the kitchen job at Embassy Suites, and was yet to meet anyone on campus. Who I met, what groups I joined, how hard I studied and what major I would choose became the topics of endless speculation for me. Would I try to become a pure mathematician, or simply get an accountant degree, playing it safe but getting a degree that would make me decent money after school? Would I convert to Catholicism and bypass girls altogether, putting myself on the path to become a priest? Or, perhaps I would go down to the church of my present denomination in Columbia, and get involved with its youth group, and if I met a life partner at that time, so be it. Or, maybe I really would hang on until I met my wife… it was all kind of open for speculation, but also for simply ruminating wistfully on nostalgia for a less stressful time.

But, after awhile, I began to ask: why stop there? Why not go back to the start of High School, and try to join every group possible, play as many sports as possible, study my ass off, and see if I couldn’t become the Valedictorian headed for Harvard–or at least one of the top five students with a scholarship or two? I could work to further repair my relationship with H, and ask all the girls I had crushes on to the movies or go to dances and ask them to dance with me and find out just how far my endless obsession with one of them being my soul mate would have gotten in the face of actually having to get to know her.

Of course, I then began to think about some of the really horrendous things I’d done to others prior to high school, and to myself, to give me issues I still deal with today. Things that could have been stopped, and people who could have been treated better. I said a lot of mean things to my older brother, as he was getting ready to leave. We were sick of sharing that room together, and I was always trying to put him down and make him feel guilty for being so desirous of getting out of the house, or just plain mean to him. The same with my little brother. I started calling him “dumb” relentlessly some time around the fifth or sixth grade. After a lot of thoughtful consideration, the best time for me to return to would have been some time in the fifth grade, before I started saying nasty things to both of my brothers, before I got caught up in wanting to play Little League baseball (I was terrible at it, of course).

But, for that matter, as I remembered my obsession with baseball, why not go back to the fourth grade when that all started, and save the money I’d spent on baseball cards (everyone kept telling me I needed to spend my savings on something, but I never should have listened to them–once I found something I liked to spend money on, the trend never stopped). And then, I would sometimes wonder if there was anything that I, a little seven or eight year old could have said to my oldest brother to make him decide not to be so mad at my dad, and reconcile himself with the family. Perhaps I could even convince my dad, as an extremely precocious five or six year old, not to even bother moving to Missouri, as we probably would have been happier in the long run as a family if we’d stayed in Colorado.

This is all why, if there is such a thing as reincarnation, people keep coming back. The tantalizing notion of getting to do it all over again and not make the same mistakes is just too great for most people, myself included. Let’s say I do live to be ninety-something, and the world has mostly gotten better and things aren’t as terrible as most people today think they will be. Wouldn’t I want to have another go of it?

But, who would I be?

I have considered this at some length as well. I am not completely convinced anyone, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, has it as good as they might project. Everyone has something good going for them, no matter who they are, if they aren’t living in utterly hopeless squalor. To be quite frank, I don’t think I would want to be black. This isn’t a racist statement, but one simply based on what I’ve observed with what is happening to people. I am trying to simply be honest, and answer the question to the best of my knowledge: who would I be if I could be reincarnated as anyone I want to be?

While being black does seem to have a certain appeal for me–and I am basing this just on what I’ve observed–being black gives you access to a certain kind of community that being white does not. The black community is more authentic and generally more connected at the heart and soul. White clubs and interest groups generally have little or no appeal for me. Even the Presbyterian church draws me to it more for the liturgy and the confessional aspect of it than the chance to connect with other (mostly) white people. In the liberal world, being black as a certain kind of cred to it that being white does not. You have experienced pain and suffering we have not, therefore, what you have to say about our society comes off as more genuine, authentic, etc. and you are more respected by a certain liberal mindset than others. But, it probably isn’t for me. The negative aspect of being black, which is becoming more and more obvious to those of us who aren’t exposed to it on a regular basis, makes me think that I couldn’t handle it. However, if the future was one where pretty much all white families are no longer religious, but a lot of black families still are, I would likely choose to be black.

There are similar considerations for being male and female. In wealthier, more liberal areas of the country, growing up as a girl seems to have certain advantages. As a male, I can speak more about the negative aspects of being a male, and I think that a lot of these stem from me really discovering my manhood at a very late age and never quite fitting in with the bulk of masculinity. The male groups in high school and college were mostly impenetrable or full of a lot of joshing and ribbing that I could never quite ascertain if it was put upon me as a kind of initiation rite to be accepted into the group or if I was being teased and bullied for being too different. Being male has its clear advantages, but there are also pressures around performance and speaking up, and this relentless obsession guys have with sports that makes it probably a non-starter for my ideal next life. Certainly, if I had a long talk with the angels helping me decide my next life, and they were adamant that I would be most happy in a celibate, priestly or monkish kind of life, I would choose to be a male. And if I was told that the likelihood of me being born a girl into a house where I would be treated well and given opportunities to succeed as a woman was pretty slim–that the likelihood was greater that I would fall into a cycle of abusive relationships with deadbeat dads–I would probably choose to be born a man again.

Poverty is, of course, where a lot of notions of being reincarnated start to seem kind of absurd. Well over 90% of the families in the world live in conditions that I am pretty sure I or anyone else who is given the chance to decide wouldn’t want to experience. The middle class here in the western world is shrinking, and the wealthy and upper middle class are having fewer and fewer children. If my metaphysics are coupled with reality, I get a clear probability that I would be born into a grinding sort of poverty. I think I could possibly accept this if my family were still at least somewhat intelligent, full of some drive to better themselves or at least be curious about their world, and weren’t complete redneck slobs or the equivalent of that elsewhere. However, I would have to think long and hard if the bardo angels told me I was still kind of rolling the dice, and may or may not get the family I am asking for.

But, all that said, if I were to pick the perfect next life, I would likely first want to know about my mom and little brother from this life–where have they ended up? The same thing with my wife and son (and any future child we have). How does that work? Does everyone connect in the in-between, and then go back out to pursue more lives with more people? If I was pretty reassured that all my loved ones from this life were okay, I would likely want the rich kid’s existence in New York City–going to private schools and getting exposed to art, theater, music every single week. I go on to get a job in fashion, and be some kind of Sex in the City kind of character, until I meet an acceptable rich spouse after trying many different partners, and we live the good life with two perfect little blonde kids until we die at the ripe old age of ninety-something. It seems kind of lame to say that, but I am pretty convinced now that I know myself as well as I think I ever will that I am really not strong enough of a soul to endure a lot of hardships.

The hardships I have faced–the challenges and struggles of a soul who never seemed to quite align with his Midwestern white body and all of the potential advantages that would have entailed–but also the challenges presented by parents who were pretty out of step themselves with the rest of the world–my dad’s hermit behavior and my mom’s religious mania–having two older adopted brothers who never seemed to take to the family and a younger biological brother who died way too young. These aren’t especially unique hardships or even the most challenging ones anyone on the planet has ever had to face, but they really probably did me in to the point where I’ve had to struggle to set myself on a decent course–a good sort of life that I should have started trying to live probably twenty years prior to when I started trying to live it.

Yes, I get all of the arguments for challenges in life making us who we are, making us have more character, be stronger people, be more empathetic of others and the problems they face. But, I can’t help but think that a nice, long sheltered life of privilege where money is never a concern for anyone and people always smile at you and seek your approval because you are pretty and they want you to shine some of that pretty girl light on them–such a life must be grand, exquisite, lovely, etc. and make a soul an all-around happier soul.

Even with the potential negative consequences–you become immune to the problems of humanity to the point where you never lift a finger to help anyone, you have such a distorted, skewed picture of reality that you help fund programs that inevitably bring the downfall of humanity, or help get politicians that do the same elected. You carry a certain unconscious contempt for everyone who isn’t rich, lives in NYC and gets to travel wherever and whenever they please. Your lifestyle is possible due to the misery of tens of thousands, instead of maybe dozens (as in the rest of us schlubs who buy cheap clothes made by sweatshop labor and do a minor amount of polluting of the planet). You get bored easily, and dump boyfriends when the sex or conversation stop being interesting, whichever happens first.

However, the life of such a person, likely to be a female, does have an overwhelming appeal. Maybe if it were possible for us to “try on” each others’ lives for just a few months? We can see what it is like to live in the shoes of pretty much everyone. This could lead to a much greater amount of empathy, right? It’s sort of like having term limits for congresspeople and presidents. If you are allowed to stay in office of a body and life of an affluent person too long, then you start to abuse your power and privilege.

In all truth, I think that unless I were permitted to live a perfect sort of life, free of any worries at all and full of a lot of art and fancy dining, I am not sure I would want to try on any other person other than myself. I could be wrong. I might go on to meet any number of people from other walks of life when I become a pastor, and begin to see a certain appeal to being old, infirm, poor, marginalized. It’s not the appeal we would ordinarily have for how we would want to live on this earth. It’s a deeper appeal than simply wanting to build character and feel virtuous.

The appeal is more around being closer to God and being free of material possessions and all of the concerns and cares that come with them. Those of us who marry into middle class worlds are expected to maintain certain semblances of being stable and possessing things. We don’t want to live without a washer and dryer. We must keep our lawns green. We need to drive cars that aren’t too old, and have televisions and computers and phones that are nice and new. Owning but two outfits would be obscene. We need to read a lot of the latest articles in all of the liberal publications, and be on top of the trendy restaurants and movies and music. There is a certain pressure, whether you are a more conservative or a more liberal middle class person, to have certain things and maintain a certain level of connectivity with the outside world. And, just wait until we have kids–then, all of these needs for certain things are magnified times a thousand–we have to keep up with other parents and our kids have to keep up with other kids.

And, all of the expenses that come with this. If you want to be a marginally acceptable middle-class person in most parts of the United States, you should be prepared to have a household income of of about $50K per adult. As children arrive and get older, this probably goes up to about $85K per adult.

Do I want my life to be perfect? I don’t think so, but I don’t want to live with problems that I could be solving, either. The goal is to winnow down the things that aren’t especially necessary, and if I find myself living in a house again, not to accrue more stuff just because people are giving it to you, or you are able to buy it.

The process of collecting junk doesn’t end with the material world, though. I am incredibly adept at getting interested in a random subject for a few weeks with such a zeal that I want to read all of the most highly rated books on the topic, and then I drop it, and am left with books I don’t especially feel like reading. But, I might be interested in them again, someday.

However, it goes beyond just books on shelves or random notes on hard drives. The brain becomes a cloudy, messy place where any sense of real direction and purpose is lost.

The way forward, I think, is to look at what things have consistently kept my attention and sustained efforts throughout my adult life. I no longer feel guilty about hammering something like this out, or starting a writing project that never gets finished. I like the purity of the process of writing–really, it’s a matter of having a tactile experience connected with visual/symbolic representations of my thoughts that flow in a linear way instead of the general mess of non-linear chaos that is my unfocused mind. I am forming something concrete and yet it is mostly ephemeral as well–it won’t be stored for the ages, or even recalled by me in my lifetime. Yet, the concreteness of the words that appear has a certain quality of firmness that lends it more meaning than simply wandering around the house muttering to myself would.

So, then–what things are the things I will carry on with me until I die?

I am not going to ever become the perfect man as I imagine the perfect man should be. If I take away some of my imperfections, I inevitably raise the volume on some of the others. The perfect man is no longer caught up in sex of any kind, he is a vegan, he is well-versed in many areas of knowledge but also takes time for physical exercise–probably yoga and swimming, never becomes too spiritual or too materialistic. He helps others at all times. He is a hippie kind of guy minus the drugs who practices some of the best traits of Gandhi, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day. The perfect man has no interest in his own advancement or acclaim. Nobody will remember him, because his acts are many small ones, rather than the great movments.

The perfect man doesn’t need to write because he is perfectly aligned with his words, deeds and God. He doesn’t need to collect anything, inside his brain or his home, because he takes with him the knowledge he needs and leaves the rest behind. He doesn’t become overly involved with anything, except helping others.

I won’t ever be the perfect man because I have appetities for things. I do like the occasional drink or two or three. I like reading books and writing. I am caught up in the culture of my time to the degree that I still halfway pay attention to it. But, I will strive to be the perfect man, more and more with each passing year. If old age finds me without a spouse and my children and grandkids are all able to take care of themselves, I will certainly consider the monastery if they will have me, but until then, I do have to walk the tightrope between the materialistic demands of my throwaway culture and the spiritual yearning that comes back around every single month.

I won’t ever be the perfect man because I don’t think Jesus wants to work with me if I am perfect, and perfectly so due to my own efforts. What room do I have for God if I’ve made myself into a little god here on this earth?

I would like to think that we all get together after we die and regroup and compare notes, and discuss at length about how so-and-so ended up being such an asshole or even a criminal, while this other soul refrained from such a course. In a way, everything and nothing we do matters all at once. Everything matters, except it matters for a world that transcends this one both temporally and spatially. And, nothing really matters as it pertains to this world alone–all of the accolades you receive for whatever you do don’t amount to shit in the long run.

Naturally, all of this is speculation, and I would be the first to admit I have no idea what really happens when we die or why some of us seem to have happier lives than others. The insight one gains by being who one is is always limited, no matter how much you like to think you’ve lived a little and known a few things.

Today marked the last day

Today marked the last day of my wife’s employment at the local university. I have been unemployed for over a year, aside from a few contract jobs. My primary job has been to watch the little guy, starting when he was about nine months, and now ending as he is about to turn two.

Obviously, the occasion probably meant more for her, as she had been employed there for four years, but it is a significant milestone in our progression toward leaving this town and moving back to Austin. Of course, she’d given notice some time ago after I’d signed the matriculation letter and it was certain I would be going to school again full time starting in September. And, the house is under contract, and we pick up the keys to our two-bedroom apartment next Tuesday, but it’s one of those milestones that makes it all feel much more real and upon us.

I have no reservations about leaving this town. As I’ve stated before, all of the good things about it were known pretty much from the beginning, and they remained good things. The bad things about it were also known, but they just seemed to get worse. There is a palpable anger among so many conservatives right now, even good Christian ones with decent-paying jobs. My theory is that they know they’ve made a deal with the devil, and have to work themselves up to convince themselves that he is less of a devil than Hillary. Or, perhaps they’ve been angry for some time. Events like the one we went to last night seemed to be not much different in years past–youngish men with thinning hair and paunches unhappily herding their broods around, and not saying much of anything to anyone. They’ve always looked pissed off, come to think of it.

Can you blame them? They were hoping to have the perfect man’s man job in a factory somewhere waiting for them after high school and maybe the military, and this job would pay enough money for them to live an upper middle class lifestyle in a small, Texas city or large, Texas town. Of course, those jobs had left the country back in the 80s. Bruce Springsteen sang about it. Even the ones who go on to make a decent living in an office seem pissed off about it–they drive pickup trucks they don’t need to the office and back, to church, and to pick up a handful of things at Home Depot on Saturdays. They are pissed off because they are doing things only pussified liberal boys and women should be doing for a living.

Now, I lived in Austin for almost fifteen years, and I know that the liberal mindset can be just as nauseating when it’s taken to extremes. People congratulating themselves for not eating anything that doesn’t hurt the environment or exploit others while driving Priuses, but doing their share to deplete the water table in the area and clog up the air with pollution from its emission that they think is sweeter for the planet than an SUV’s. The extremes to which some people go to be the most virtuous seem to be fairly comparable in both places in terms of their output of insufferability and hypocrisy.

But, I am more of a liberal than not. I prefer being among more educated people than less, and being in a town that values the arts and the environment, at least in word if not always in deed. The university town we’ve been living in is incredibly divided between the university people and the other townspeople–much more so than I remember Columbia being and more so than Columbia seemed when I went up there earlier this month.

Right now, I would say that I am living with a heightened expectation that something might not go right–the school’s housing coordinator will point out a tiny new fine print rule added in the past month restricting breeds, the contract on the house will fall through, the house will require a major repair, or I will. It isn’t exactly the same thing as worry, because I am mostly not worrying about it. I have a distinct feeling that God has gotten me this far, and would be sending a rather mixed message if things suddenly manifested themselves in such a way to make me think this vocation wasn’t really from God, after all. All of the crap surrounding the sale of the condo that managed to resolve itself in barely the nick of time, and the way a contract fell into place for us for this house. The financial aid and subsidized housing from the school. The free time I’ve been able to have to get a lot of this done, and still have time to spend with my son and also to write and contemplate, etc.

Even though we’ve never really felt at home up here, we have lived here for four years–in the house we bought up here for three. There is a certain amount of…not sadness, but just the usual wistful set of feelings that come when you leave a place you’ve lived in for awhile. Maybe some of the fear of the uncertainty of what is to come is also there, too. While I have lived in Austin for a long time, and know it like the back of my hand, I hadn’t really expected to go back there as it was clearly becoming too much of a young, single person’s town (maybe it always has been) for a different generation than mine. It no longer felt like home anymore than anywhere else I’ve lived feels like a home to be returned to. Austin is noisy, busy and crowded and parking is brutal. It’s always been that way and I think it’s probably gotten a lot worse. The few times I’ve been down there, I’ve felt like an old man out of place when I walked down to Town Lake or visited a restaurant.

Also, I am going back to do something I haven’t done since I was twenty-two years old: be a full-time student. Money will be an issue, and I may also have to work part time. The pressure parents and other family members put on me back in my undergrad years to find a mate and get a degree that will be worth something is no longer there, but there will be a kind of pressure coming from myself–if I screw this opportunity up, I am pretty much through with the idea of ever having a career I can be happy about. I will most certainly resign myself to being a slightly well-paid office schmuck of some variety managing some kind of technology and riding out various waves of layoffs in home that they don’t get me next.

So, of course I have mixed feelings even though I’ve been mostly excited and at times seemed hardly able to wait to get down there–like I was eighteen again and stuck in my senior year in high school again. I do still have quite a few of those dreams about having to redo a year of high school because I hadn’t finished something I was supposed to, and high school is kind of an amalgam of high school, college, graduate school and life. I keep finding myself in these hopeless-feeling dreams where I discover some class I’d supposed to be attending is about to have its finals and I am woefully unprepared. I suppose that’s how I feel about life in general–I am woefully unprepared to die right now and face the Lord with a good conscience of knowing I’ve done everything I was supposed to do in this life. I mean, my son is not two yet, and I’ve never really had anything resembling a vocation, calling–my career barely passed for a career–it was more of a cobbled-together series of bad employment choices doing things that were vaguely similar. And, the intention to go to grad school or go back to school was always there. Everything under the sun was considered, except preaching. That seemed foolish until I really started to think about it with my ego mostly out of the picture.

Of course, the idea of being a monk like Thomas Merton appealed to me. Yes, I would love to do something amazing like Dorothy Day did. But, I kept saying I didn’t know where to begin. And, I was right. I was clueless about where to start–trying my hand at any number of volunteering activities and working for a non-profit–but, always feeling like I was somehow still taking more than I was giving back. I jumped into trying to be an EMT one summer, and worked on a political campaign another summer, and so on…but, the thing is, I was declaring that I knew best what God wanted me to do after a night of drinking and binge watching shows on Hulu or Netflix then buying some spiritual books at Half Price Books the next day. I was, of course, completely clueless about what God wanted me to do, because I kept putting my ego in between me and God and declaring that my ego had all of the information from God I needed to begin some new thing.

So, is this next adventure any different? I would really like to think so, and I have a lot of faith that it is, but I am always open to the possibility that I have misheard God again–I still don’t listen nearly as much as I should. However, I have maintained a great interest in Bible study from a historical perspective, even as many other interests have waxed and waned after so many months. I do think that I will keep moving forward in some fashion, either as a preacher, chaplain or professor–and this is the correct next step.

I am especially excited to be entering into a phase of life where there are hard stops and starts again. Instead of that vague, neverending feeling that accompanies jobs until you decide to leave them (and often for another one that isn’t any better in any significant way), the academic life is punctuated by many stops and starts, plus the hard date on the calendar of: you will be graduating on this date, for better or worse. Having some structure imposed upon my near future by an outside entity is something that I’ve needed for some time now. Even when I tried to go back to school to become an EMT, there was this sense of…well, the school may or may not accept me this year or next year, so I will continue to keep taking these non-core, but required classes and hope for the best.

In spite of what my dad once thought (he screamed at me to get off the phone with the recruiter when I got serious about it), I think I would have done pretty well in the Army. I actually respond better to being told what to do than I or anyone could have imagined when I was in the thick of my rebellion. Of course, it has to come from a trusted source, and I have to be on board with the program, but I am terrible at setting goals for myself and sticking to them, hence my non-existent career and late start in life around marriage and family.

I like being told: in five years, you will be doing this, and then in ten, you will be doing that. This is also some of the appeal of sticking with the traditional preaching route. I know the timeline for when I will be ordained, when I will likely remain an Associate Pastor, and when I will become a Senior Pastor. And, the mainline denominations are full of hard stops and starts throughout the liturgical year: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, etc.

Anyone who thought they knew me would be shocked to find how comfortable I am with being told what to do and when to do it. But, as I’ve written so many times, I excelled at fooling myself and others about who I really was during my teens and twenties. I am anxious to begin the second half of life being a considerably different person, but I am still partial to bending and breaking the rules when I feel like such an action is needed. I certainly hope that in the past four years up here, I have worked to soften some of my original rigidity I felt when I left Austin and more or less embraced a more conservative environment. I am now a more whole person–I am no longer running from my past self or trying to do violence to him, but embracing a new me who in turn embraces new opportunities to be and do things differently than before, but with a good deal of structure to them.