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A Crooked Faith

Out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made. Immanuel Kant

I love many kinds of music, but classical music is my first love. I was classically trained on the piano from age four through high school; my first piano teacher, a Julliard graduate who somehow ended up in northern Vermont teaching piano, was also the organist for the North Country Chorus, a volunteer choral group that was, in the estimation of Vermonters at the time, our version of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. Every year the North Country Chorus performed Handel’s Messiah, which became—and still is—my favorite classical composition. Its music is inspired, of course, but in addition its settings of texts from the King James translation of both the Old and New Testaments were an artistic gift to a kid who was forced to study and memorize significant portions of the Bible from an early age. Even today, decades later, I hear Handel’s glorious music every time I encounter a passage from Scripture that is included in the libretto of Messiah.

After an instrumental introduction, Messiah begins with a tenor recitative and aria set to prophetic texts from the first verses of Isaiah 40:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness; prepare ye the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill made low; the crooked straight, and the rough places plain.

This is followed by the first chorus:

And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken it.

Handel’s music is so beautiful that it is possible to miss the power and promise of the text: When God arrives on the scene, messes get cleaned up, crooked things get straightened out, imperfections are made perfect, and problems get solved. A wonderful promise—but not one that squares with my experience.

I was reminded of these texts and this music as I read and responded to the Facebook comments on a recent blog post that a friend shared on a progressive Christian Facebook page that she administers. The back-and-forth started innocently enough:

  • Him: From the last couple of posts you have made it seems as if you are questioning your faith that’s my thought.
  • Me: I’m ALWAYS questioning my faith! In my understanding, that’s perhaps the key factor that keeps faith alive and prevents it from becoming rigid and inflexible. A favorite writer of mine says that the opposite of faith is certainty–doubt is an indispensable part of a vibrant faith.

In a quick succession of posts, the commenter then sought to set my crooked ideas straight:

  • Him: The word of God stands firm it is not flexible in no way form or fashion And to quote anything from a man’s corruptible heart against it is sin there’s no two ways about it . . . If you always question your faith you are lost and I feel for you you can’t ride the fence or change his word to suit your will . It is what it is period.

Well, now. Before I had the opportunity to say something snarky and self-righteous in response to this clearly misguided, conservative, evangelical, fundamentalist person, another commenter posted that she appreciates my posts because they help her “grow and learn,” suggesting to the first commenter that he should “find something more conservative.”

  • Him: I’m a progressive liberal in politics thank you but first and foremost I’m a true Christian to the best of my ability.
  • Me: I also am a progressive liberal in my politics and seek to be a true Christian to the best of my ability. The difference perhaps lies in our understanding of what “true Christian” means. I completely reject the idea that it requires inflexibility, rigidity, or being in service to a specific interpretation of texts that lend themselves to multiple interpretations.
  • Him (after some further pushback from others in the conversation thread): I’m not a conservative in no way but yes I am seeing this page for what it truly is I will see myself out. I will pray for you and those like you who can’t accept the truth of the Bible for what it is and maybe one day you will see your personal opinion on what you want the Bible to mean is in fact wrong. Good day.

I’ve been involved in this sort of conversation many times over the years, and they just about always end this way, with the conservative Christian promising to pray for the liberal “Christian” to see the truth and thereby escape hellfire and damnation, as the liberal immediately rehearses how he will judgmentally and condescendingly share this story with his fellow progressive friends at the first opportunity. But a half hour or so later, the commenter posted one more time, offering some well-intentioned and much appreciated scriptural advice.

  • Him: I leave you with one verse and I promise I will not persist here any further. Proverbs 3:5-6: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
  • Me: Thanks–this is a favorite of mine as well. Except that I prefer the more accurate translation of the final clause: “And he will direct your paths.” Faith is not a straight line–it’s an adventure that takes a person in many unexpected directions.

When Immanuel Kant wrote that “from the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made,” he was observing, at the beginning of a discussion of his moral theory, just how great the challenge of getting human beings to morally straighten themselves out actually is. Perhaps it is reflective of my natural perversity when I say that I sort of like the crooked timber of humanity. The best moral theories take human beings as we are rather than as the theorist idealistically wants us to be. The same can be said for faith. My own faith is rooted in my embrace of the central, incarnational idea of Christianity: God became human—and still does. The Christian story is not about God straightening human beings out, but rather is about God using our natural human bends, twists, and turns.

Reading the gospel accounts of what Jesus said and did using this lens reveals the crooked timber that we all know to be definitive of being human. Christians love to focus on the loving, generous, eloquent, patient, courageous Son of God that we find on every page and tend to overlook other things we discover about Jesus. He got tired, could be curt and dismissive (even to his mother), and was occasionally sarcastic, impatient, and judgmental. He was a real human being, in other words, with all the lack-of-straightness that involves. And that’s good news, since it means that I don’t have to “straighten up” or “sit up straight,” as various authorities used to demand from me, in order to be a bearer of the divine in the world. God is often just around the next corner of our crooked paths.

Taking a Moral Holiday

It has been a bit over three months since the Presidential election, just over three weeks since Donald Trump’s inauguration. It seems like an eternity—time apparently only flies when you are having fun. There has been no end of unsolicited advice from all parts of the political and religious spectrum for those who, as I, are having a bit of a hard time figuring out both how to process what has happened and, more importantly, how to approach the days, weeks, and months ahead. I have, for instance, been told “You lost, so stop whining and deal with it!” (as if principled resistance and whining are indistinguishable), as well as “Why don’t you give him a chance? It may not be as bad as you think” (You’re right—it’s worse). But the response that disturbs me most is one that I’ve read frequently on Facebook from fellow Christians, both those who voted for the new President last November and those who did not. “I just fall back on believing that God is in control and that things will work out according to His plan.” I used to hear that sort of thing a lot when I was kid as a response to or explanation of any number of disturbing developments. I didn’t buy it then, and I still don’t.

As much as I would like to take a hiatus from the insanity that seems to accompany the new administration’s efforts on a daily basis, I am finding that the courses I am teaching this semester won’t allow it. As I reread a talk by William James in preparation for an upcoming class in my American Philosophy course, for instance, I found James discussing an issue that has arisen frequently over the years in my classrooms with students: for many persons of faith, the whole purpose of religious belief is the apparently attractive, but elusively vague, state of “comfort.” “It comforts me to believe in God,” someone will say, without specifying whether this comfort is a fuzzy hope about an afterlife, a sense of solidarity created by hanging out occasionally with people with similar beliefs, or a warm emotional attachment to believing that “it will all work out right in the end.” William James calls this theistic attitude “trust in the Absolute,” and faces it head on.

What do believers in the Absolute mean by saying that their belief affords them comfort? They mean that since in the Absolute finite evil is “overruled” already, we may . . . without sin, dismiss our fear and drop the worry of our finite responsibility. In short, they mean that we have a right ever and anon to take a moral holiday, to let the world wag in its own way, feeling that its issues are in better hands than ours and are none of our business.

There have been a number of times during the past several weeks when I have been tempted to take such a moral holiday. But if there ever was a time when persons of all faiths should not take a break from being on the moral front lines, this is it.

Pragmatist philosophers like William James often talk about the “cash value” of an idea, suggesting that the “truth” of an idea or belief is to be judged not by whether it matches up correctly to some objective fact of the matter, but rather by considering to what extent the idea or belief “works” or actually makes a difference in one’s life.

Any idea upon which we can ride, so to speak; any idea that will carry us prosperously from any one part of our experience to any other part, linking things satisfactorily, working securely, simplifying, saving labor; is true for just so much.

The radical nature of this reinterpretation of what it means for something to be true becomes obvious when applied to faith and religion. In what does the truth of the theist’s “I believe in the existence of a good God” reside? Not in the comfort provided by believing that such a being actually exists in a heaven beyond the reach of human investigation, but rather in the difference this belief makes in the theist’s day-to-day life. Where the rubber of faith hits the road of real life, comfort is a scarce commodity. What matters is what my faith causes me to think and do in what William James calls “this real world of sweat and dirt,” noting that the services of the divine are needed not in a heaven “out there” somewhere, but “in the dust of our human trials.”

The fundamental problem with the attitude that “God is in control” or “We may not recognize it, but God has a plan” is that, for those of us who profess the Christian faith, we are God’s plan. Taking a moral holiday by wrapping ourselves in the platitude that God knows what God is doing is to deliberately ignore what the gospels tell us over and over again. We are the salt of the earth, we are tasked with caring for those who fall through the cracks, we are the way that God gets into the world. When those in power enact policies that harm the very persons for whom God cares the most, it is our responsibility to speak truth to that power in words and actions.

One of the ways that persons of faith often engage with the surrounding world is through prayer, which makes Colbert I. King’s opinion piece “Should we pray for Trump?” in Saturday’s Washington Post of particular interest.

Washington Post: Should we pray for Trump?

King reports that Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention advises us “to pray that Trump’s presidency is a ‘great and good one’ and that he flourishes in the civil arena,” while the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church have concluded that Trump’s policies are “clearly demonic acts.” Quoting the Apostle Paul, the bishops advise their congregations to wrestle against “the rulers of the darkness . . . [and] spiritual wickedness in high places.” King himself says that his “humble prayer is that the President of the United States gets help,” similar to my wife’s prayer that “the damaged four-year-old inside the President’s adult body will be healed.”

My own experience with persons who pray (now sixty years and counting) reveals that prayer often becomes a way for persons of faith to take a moral holiday. Throwing a few words, formulaic or improvised, heavenward might seem to satisfy the person of faith’s obligation to engage with a world in which it often seems beyond our capacities to make a difference. But we are instructed by the Apostle Paul to “pray without ceasing,” indicating an engagement and activity that goes far beyond a few set pieces offered at specified times. My relationship with prayer was tense and fraught my whole life until I realized that prayer is not an activity—it’s a state of being. It’s an attitude that, for me, means asking How do I bring the best of me, the divine that I know is my deepest me, into this day, this class, this essay, this conversation? What does the divine in me have to say about policies and decisions at the highest level of government that are an affront to what I believe God wants for all human beings?

“I trust that God knows what God is doing” is simply a platitude and an escape until I realize that when it comes to God’s engagement with the world, I’m it. We’re it. This is how God does it. Jesus loved the unlovable, healed the sick, challenged the powerful, and eventually paid the ultimate price for not taking a moral holiday. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who knew something about putting his life on the line, wrote: “Living confession does not mean the putting of one dogmatic thesis up against another, but it means a confession in which it is really a matter of life or death.” Lives are at risk—don’t go on holiday.

Tolerance on Steroids

What happens when a perfectly good virtue gets turned into not only the most important virtue, but in many cases the only virtue? I have come face to face with this question in the signpostsearly weeks of this semester with fifty juniors and seniors in two ethics classes. I chose this past summer to organize my General Ethics course, usually a tour of several of the notable moral theories in the Western philosophical tradition (Aristotle, Kant, Mill, Sartre, etc.) that are then applied to the details of human experience, by starting instead with those messy details themselves. We find ourselves in a world of competing religious, moral, and political claims shouting at each other across various divides, claims that are both incompatible with each other and resistant to compromise. How in the midst of diverse perspectives that too often lead to violence are we to find a place of stability from which to plot the way forward?

I have discovered both from early class discussion and student writing reflections what I suspected—most of my young adult students have been taught for as long as they can remember that the “go-to” virtue that must be cultivated in order to wend one’s way through the minefield of incompatible beliefs and commitmaristotleents is tolerance. It’s interesting that the granddaddy of virtue ethics, Aristotle, did not include tolerance in any of his lists of virtues—apparently such a virtue was not particularly useful in fourth century BC Athens. Tolerance is also rejected by many contemporary people as a sign of weakness, of lacking commitment to one’s beliefs, and of a willingness to compromise too quickly. But for many in our culture, particularly those who might consider themselves as “liberal” in some sense, tolerance is the proposed remedy for many of the things that ail us.

Don’t get me wrong—I have no problem with tolerance as a virtue. As a matter of fact, it probably plays as regular a role in my life on a daily basis as any virtue you could name. My concern about tolerance arises from intimate facebookfamiliarity with how it often works in my own life. When I remove myself from an email list on campus because I’m sick to death of being inundated with what I consider to be the often petty concerns of my colleagues, it feels like tolerance. “Let them continue emailing about anything they want,” I think. “I just don’t want to be part of it.” When a Facebook conversation wanders into areas that I find either offensive or seriously different-strokesmisguided, my tendency is to withdraw from the conversation rather than insert my concerns. Tolerant, right? Not really.

I find in my own life, and I suspect I’m not unusual or unique in this, that “tolerance” is an umbrella term for “whatever.” “Different strokes for different folks.” “I disagree with you but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” (although I almost certainly wouldn’t). In other words, one of the best safeguards against being judgmental and ethnocentric, a check against our natural human tendency to negatively judge those who believe, think, and act differently than we do simply because they are believing, thinking, and acting differently than we do, turns into a placeholder for laziness and a reticence to engage even with what one most strongly disagrees with. When writing on topics related to diversity and difference, my students regularly include phrases such as “we all just need to accept people as they are” and “the world would be a better place if everyone would simply be more tolerant of differences.” Tolerance is not only the first virtue that gets mentioned in class discussion and assignments, but is often the only virtue in play. But is tolerance suitable as the primary virtue in a moral framework or ethic? And what if there are some things that must not be tolerated?

herodotusA brief but familiar story from the ancient Greek historian Herodotus provides a useful jumping off point for asking uncomfortable questions about tolerance. In his Histories, Herodotus tells the story of King Darius of Persia, a (somewhat) enlightened ruler who was fascinated by the various customs of the different groups of people from the far-flung reaches of his empire who were part of his extended court. Darius noted, for instance, that two different groups of people—the Greeks and the Callatians (a tribe of people from what is now the Indian peninsula)—had strikingly different methods of dealing with the body of a person who died in their community. The Greek practice when someone died was to burn the dead body, while the Callatian practice was to eat the dead body.

Intrigued, Darius first asked representatives of the Greek community what he would have to pay or give them, what honors he would have to bestow on them, so that the next time someone died in their community they would eat the dead body instead of burning it, as was their custom. Appalled, the Greek representatives told Darius that no amount of riches or honors could possibly convince them to do such a horrible and immoral thing. Darius also asked a similar question of the Callatians—could I convince you to burn the next dead body you have to deal with in your community rather than eating it, as is your custom? Hell no! the Callatians said, insisting that nothing could convince them to do such a disgusting and immoral thing. Herodotus’s conclusion? callatians“Custom is king.” What a person or group of people considers to be “right” or “moral” is what they are accustomed to, the practices of their family, their community, or their culture that they have been taught since their youth. Humans nature causes us not only to embrace what we are most familiar with as morally right, but also to assume that it is right for everyone.

If “custom is king” and moral values are culturally defined, then the most important attitude to cultivate, the habit most likely to put up a firewall against unwarranted projection of one’s parochial practices and values on others, is undoubtedly tolerance. As Herodotus’ story is intended to illustrate, the best answer to the question “Who is right about the best way to dispose of a dead body—the Greeks or the Callatians?” is “Both, within the parameters of their culture.” Furthermore, there is no way to step outside one’s own culturally defined moral stance and be “objective.” There is no such objective standpoint. The only proper response to differences between groups, or perhaps even between individuals, is tolerance—the habit of accepting differences without judgment.tolerance

The problem, as a student quickly pointed out in each section of my ethics course, is that tolerance as an exclusive or primary virtue is not sufficient to account for many of our strongest moral intuitions. What if, for instance, the difference is about something more serious than the difference between eating or burning a dead body? What if the difference is between a culture that practices female circumcision and our culture that does not? Is tolerance appropriate in this instance? Are we to say “wow, I’m glad I don’t live in that culture, but for them that practice is morally right”? If our intuitions say that some practices cannot be tolerated, no matter what cultures adopt them, is this because our intuitions have been shaped by our own culture or because our intuitions are resonating with a moral absolute that transcends cultural differences?moral-values

Of such questions a great General Ethics class is made. But it appears that if we raise tolerance to primary virtue status, we at the same time take any commitment to moral principles that transcend cultural differences off the table. And that may not be a price worth paying. As I told my students the other day, a moral theory that does not account for our strongest moral intuitions is like trying to cover a queen-size mattress with a twin-size fitted sheet. It covers some of what needs to be covered, but not all of it. I, for one, am not ready to tolerate a theory like that.

Random Midsummer Thoughts

After the most beautiful Rhode Island June–sunny and low eighties day after day–in my twenty-two years in RI, July is feeling more like a traditional southern New England summer. High eighties or low nineties and noticeable humidity, pushing me out the door early in the morning for my daily bike ride in order to avoid dropping five pounds of sweat. As I ride my bike, various random thoughts weave in and out of my brain.

The next time somebody tells me that they bought a $500 tablet on Ebay for $70, I’ll say “I guess that makes it a $70 tablet.”tablet I have many Facebook pet peeves. One of them is people who put up seventy-three pictures on Facebook one post at a time consecutively, making it necessary to scroll down for five minutes to get to the other stuff on my feed. It is possible to put as many pictures as you want on one post, people (you know who you are)!funny-posts-on-facebookIf I could ask God one question, I would ask “What’s up with praying mantises?”Praying%20Mantis2[1]

A group of larks is an “exaltation,” and a bunch of sheep is a “flock.” Numerous penguins are a “colony,” and a gathering of cows is a “herd.” A group of philosophers should be called a “confusion,” and a gathering of theologians should not be allowed.Exaltation

The older I get, the more Aristotelian I become. The older I get, the more I look like Plato.Sanzio_01_Plato_Aristotle[1]

According to Gallup polling, in November, American voters have the unique opportunity to elect as President the person who has been the most admired woman for the past seven years running, replacing the person who has been the most admired man for the past seven years running.

Most admired man and woman

When I was the director of the large interdisciplinary program that is the centerpiece of the core curriculum at my college, I created a form for faculty teams to use to demonstrate how their course will satisfy course objectives. I just submitted my team’s form for the first time after stepping down from being director. My comment to my teammates: ” I hate this form–who is responsible for it?”fill-out-form

When Moses asks the burning bush “Who shall I say sent me?”, the bush should have said “Bruce Springsteen.” That would have been less confusing than “I am that I am.”Bruce-Springsteen-singer-Boss[1]

If there is a script for how not to roll out a Vice Presidential running mate, the Trump campaign followed it perfectly last week.trump pence

Three-legged dogs should not lift their leg when they pee. They will fall over if they do.June 2009 056[1]

If Jesus was on the Olympic gymnastics team, his specialty would be the still rings. But I bet he wouldn’t go to the Rio Olympics. Too many possible problems.Jesus at the gym

Are We Better Than This?

A few days ago I posted the following on Facebook:Facebook

My favorite sort of discussion (very common in social media) is the one in which the person with whom I am disagreeing doesn’t know the difference between disagreement and lack of comprehension. You know, the sort of person who continually says “What is it about my perfectly clear and 100% correct position that you don’t understand?” since of course there is no possible chance that I might understand perfectly and just disagree. Or that the person in question might just be wrong. Or that there is more than one supportable position on the issue. Sigh.

My Facebook message was prompted by the latest unsolicited example of such communication. On Tuesday morning I opened my email, as is my early morning custom, to find that a comment had been posted in the middle of the night on my blog in which, among other things, the commenter accused me ofRD

  • Not knowing the difference between Republicans and Democrats (I do)
  • Not knowing the difference between liberals and conservatives (I do)
  • Claiming that all conservatives hate poor and disabled people (I didn’t)
  • Being a socialist (I saw no evidence that she knows what the word means)
  • Making her life difficult because she would now have to refute my argument on her “political blog.” (Guilty as charged–my purpose in life is to make your life difficult)

She was commenting on a blog post that made its first appearance two years ago—and is by far the most popular post in the four-year history of my blog.

The Return of Republican Jesus

I made a point of going to her “political blog”; as soon as I saw that her “go-to” adjective to describe the positions held by liberals on various issues is “moronic,” I knew there was little sense in seeking to engage her further. Still, I couldn’t help myself and responded as follows:cl

Thanks for your comments. We probably do not share much in common politically, but that’s fine. Please note that my post you commented on is not about liberal vs. conservative or Republican vs. Democrat in general–it’s about the challenge of fitting one’s political commitments together with one’s Christian faith. Your comments are simply a rehash of the usual conservative vs. liberal stuff, which I’m not particularly interested in. If you care to engage with the issue that I’m actually writing about, I’d love to hear your thoughts. You might perhaps be interested in a follow-up essay to the one you commented on that I posted several weeks after the first one:

Donald Trump and Evangelicals

This was just my latest example of fruitless conversation about important issues, a problem that infects our private and public conversations at every level these days. Lest I give the impression that it is only people on the other side of the issues from me who regularly fail to participate in civil debate, I freely admit that the only reason I avoid being nasty and snarky in conversations with those who disagree with me is that I generally manage to avoid such conversations like the plague. Jeanne and I, for instance, recently visited family in Pennsylvania for the first time in several years. social mediaWe are liberals, they are conservatives—and we all know it. Accordingly, we talked about the many things we share in common—our dogs, the kids, our shared faith, sports—and did not talk about politics, flash-point social issues, and so on. And a fabulous time was had by all. This is one of the reasons that social media is a poor substitute for real interaction with flesh and blood humans. Social media thrives on controversy, name calling, virtual bomb throwing, and typing things into your device that you would never say in person to your worst enemy.

I am a philosophy professor and spend a lot of time and energy trying to convince my students that doubt and questioning are healthy human activities, that certainty is overrated, and that civil discourse requires the ability to engage without judgment persons holding contrary viewpoints to yours. foxmsnbcYet I find that on some issues I do not believe that there is “another side.” Same-sex marriage, gun control, global warming—don’t get me started. I used to occasionally watch a few minutes of the 24-hour news channel whose programming is built on the promotion of the opposite of what I believe on just about every issue, just to “see what the other side is doing.” Not anymore. I’m even selective about what I listen to on NPR and the 24-hour television news channel where everyone pretty much agrees with me all the time. The other day after a big news event the host of a show on that channel lined up a former head of the DNC and a Republican senator to comment. I listened to the first guy and changed the channel before the second guy got to give “the other side”—life’s too short to waste any time listening to people who are wrong. My guess is that there are millions of people out there who in practice are just as intolerant of “the other side” on some issues as I am. How did we get to this point?

I received a number of wide-ranging and interesting comments from my Facebook acquaintances—the vast majority of whom share a worldview strikingly similar to mine (that’s why we “friended” each other in the first place)—after posting my mini-diatribe about people who don’t know the difference between disagreement and lack of comprehension. A sampling:

  • I don’t understand. (smart ass)
  • I love these people too! They remind me of what most people are like and how fortunate I am to have been raised with an open mind and heart. Unwillingness to see someone else’s side is the source of most conflict. bcAnd it is the sad state in which we currently live. Feeling your pain! (a bit condescending for my taste, but I do appreciate the Bill Clinton reference)
  • People increasingly live in opinion bubbles. This applies to both left and right. (I’ve written about this before (notice how skilfully I am getting links to other blog posts in? I need the numbers)

    Red and Blue Bubbles

  • I saw a funny statement. “I hold in my hand a device that can access the whole of human knowledge. And I use it to argue with strangers and look at pictures of cats.” (I love it)

A few comments particularly stuck out:

  • Favorite song line (from Maya, by Incredible String Band) “opinions are his fingernails” They just keep growing, even after the reason is dead. Or chewed on. (Much better than the old saw “opinions are like assholes—everyone’s got one.”

Some were self-reflective:

  • They evoke some combative part of me that aims for vindication, instead of the better part of me, that wishes to achieve understanding through discussion.sad

Others turned me into a “sad” emoji (this one from a very smart and engaged cousin):

  • For the most part I’ve stopped trying to have reasoned debate with people of contrasting views. Reason seems to be too rare, and as you said, it degenerates to “why don’t you understand me?”
    • A sad but accurate comment on the state of discourse these days.

And finally, this from the priest at my Episcopal church:

  • Persuasion at any cost… Even at the expense of the truth. We are better than this.

Are we really better than this? Sometimes I wonder.

Red and Blue Bubbles

As Jeanne and I do various things in the house on Saturdays, we often have NPR on. This past Saturday, however, our local NPR station was in the midst of fund-raising,RINPR interrupting the shows we wanted to hear so that two locals in the studio could talk to each other about how fabulous it would be if people would call in or go online and contribute money so that we could avoid having our local public radio station circle down the drain for another few months. About as exciting as watching paint dry. I actually am a monthly contributor (sustaining member, no less), which makes having to listen to fund-raising even more annoying. There should be a special station where people such as I can listen to what they tuned in and paid for while fund-raising is going on—I’m told that a couple of NPR stations  actually do have such an arrangement, but they have a far greater listening audience than our tiny state can muster.

MN_LakeWobegon1aTurning to WGBH, the mega-Boston NPR station, I was glad to hear that they were not fund-raising. “Prairie Home Companion” was on, which I find mildly amusing—fictional Lake Wobegone is actually based on a little town in central Minnesota close to where I spent a few months on sabbatical five years ago—but generally not amusing enough to fully engage my attention. Then guest musician Brad Paisley sang a song with the following lyrics:

Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea
Not everybody owns a gun, wears a ball cap boots and jeans
Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race
Not everybody knows the words to “Ring Of Fire” or “Amazing Grace”

southern comfort zoneThe song is “Southern Comfort Zone,” a zone about as far from my comfort as one could possibly get. Paisley is bemoaning how tough it is to be away from his Tennessee home, which I find hilarious. Dude, I lived in Tennessee for three years and was looking to escape within two months of our forced arrival (Memphis was the location of my first teaching job after graduate school). I do go to church and do know the words (lyrics, that is) to “Amazing Grace,” but other than that, the comfort zone Paisley is longing for is as far outside mine as possible. I don’t own a gun, I find sweet tea vomit-worthy, mtajikand I think NASCAR is probably the preferred entertainment in hell. Somehow I think I would be more at home in Tajikistan than in the “Southern Comfort Zone.”

I was reminded of a survey that popped up on my Facebook wall a week or so ago. This one, “Do You Live in a Bubble?” is much more detailed and serious than most quizzes that have popped up in the past months.

Do You Live in a Bubble?

Charles Murray, a libertarian political scientist at the AEI.pngAmerican Enterprise Institute, argues that the super wealthy, super educated and super snobby live in so-called super-ZIPs, cloistered together, with little to no exposure to American culture at large. Such people, he says, live in a social and cultural bubble. His 25-question quiz, covering matters of interest from beer and politics to Avon and “The Big Bang Theory,” is intended to help readers determine how thick their own bubble may be. After taking the quiz one is given a score from 1-100; the higher the score, the less thick one’s liberal, pointy-headed, academic blue-state bubble is.

I fully expected to receive a negative score, if that is possible, given that the vast majority of my friends are liberal, Episcopalian, college-educated and/or college professors (often all four). Sure enough, questions such as these clearly skewed me toward the center of a thick-walled blue bubble.

Do you now have a close friend with whom you have strong and wide-ranging political disagreements? I have many acquaintances with whom I would have such disagreements if we talked about politics. But we don’t.

During the last month have you voluntarily hung out with people who were smoking cigarettes? Definitely not.

Do you know what military ranks are denoted by these five insignia? (Click each one to show the correct rank). I might have guessed one of them correctly.army-insignia

During the last year, have you ever purchased domestic mass-market beer to stock your own fridge? We’ve had this conversation before– If I Were a Beer . . . No.

Do you own a gun? During the last five years, have you or your spouse gone fishing? No, and no. We haven’t been hunting, gone to a NASCAR event, or eaten grits or biscuits and gravy either, just in case you are wondering (they were).

Have you ever attended a meeting of a Kiwanis Club or Rotary Club, or a meeting at a union local? Really? No.

But I scored a 53 on this quiz, which essentially means that I’m comfortable in both the elitist blue bubble and the sweet-tea-drinking red(neck) bubble. That’s not true—it’s not even close to true. How the hell did this happen? Undoubtedly because of questions such as these:

Have you or your spouse ever bought a pickup truck? As a matter of fact, yes. A number of years ago, under circumstances too complicated and forgettable to summarize, the only working vehicle Jeanne and I owned was a small Ford pickup that was barely road worthy.DIGITAL CAMERA

Have you ever participated in a parade not involving global warming, a war protest, or gay rights? Once. I played the sousaphone in my high school marching band my senior year. And by the way, how often do war protest or global warming parades happen?

Have you ever walked on a factory floor? Yes. My uncle owned a small factory that assembled modular homes and I visited once.

Have you ever held a job that caused something to hurt at the end of the day? Are there really people out there who could honestly answer this one “No”? Now that’s really a 1% bubble! I had many such jobs as a teenager and twenty-something—and my brain often hurts at the end of a long day of teaching.

Have you ever lived for at least a year in an American community under 50,000 population that is not part of a metropolitan area and is not where you went to college? Yes, for at least twenty of my sixty years.

Johnson_Jimmynscs_jimmie_johnson_456x362.png.mainThere were also questions about whether I know the difference between Jimmie and Jimmy Johnson (I do), and how often I ate at Applebee’s, Ruby Tuesdays, TGI Fridays or Chili’s in the past year (fortunately, only a few). And then the question that totally skewed my score:

Have you ever had a close friend who was an evangelical Christian? The survey went on to clarify that The distinguishing characteristics of evangelical Christians are belief in the historical accuracy of both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, including especially the divinity and resurrection of Christ, and belief in the necessity of personal conversion — being “born again” — as a condition for salvation.

evangelicalism-300x462Mr. Murray. You really don’t have to explain to me what an evangelical Christian is. Everyone I knew growing up was an evangelical Christian, including me. I’ve spent the last forty years or so not so much trying to get over it as to try to understand how it has shaped me and what is still forming me. I don’t call myself an evangelical Christian any more—“freelance” presses that boundary way too far—but I have drunk the Kool Aid, and lived to write about it.

I was somewhat embarrassed to post my results—I really don’t want to be as well-balanced in this case as the quiz claims I am. Several of my Facebook acquaintances in the blue bubble were offended by the obvious sense in which the quiz was trying to make us feel badly about how thick our bubble walls are. These friends suggested a few questions that could be asked in an alternative “Do You Live in a Red Bubble?” quiz.

Do you know who Mr. Casaubon is?
How many times in the past year have you eaten arugula?
Do you know the difference between Sunnis and Shi’ites?sunni-vs-shia
How many of your friends are nonwhite?
Do you know anyone who is married to his or her first- or second-cousin?

Well, I threw that last one in but you get the point. The problem with this sort of exercise is that it tends to thicken the walls of one’s bubble rather than making it more likely that one will go to the other bubble for a couple of weeks on vacation. Unless you live in a blue bubble and your relatives live in a red one. Then you bite the bullet and do your duty, trying to smile as you turn down yet another offer of sweet tea. But I am not watching NASCAR.??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

Under My Skin, Part Two: Yes, It Hurts!

Bright and early on Wednesday morning, it began. Actually, it began around 10:30 on Wednesday morning—that’s bright and early for my son, who often works late into the evening. He had tattooed until midnight on Tuesday night. After Photoshopping two pictures of my dachshund Frieda into one, tracing the picture onto what looked all the world like carbon paper (familiar to those old enough to remember typewriters), then transferring the tracing onto my left arm, we were ready.

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“Looks like you’ll be doing paint by number,” I said to Caleb. “Thanks for reducing my profession to a kid’s activity, Dad,” he replied.

With a small light strapped on his forehead, Caleb looked like a miner. My sister-in-law LaVona had been asking me for a couple of days if I was nervous. I wasn’t, but even if I had been, I had announced to my corner of the world that this was happening, so I would be a great disappointment to all and a total pussy if I backed out now. cleatsI wasn’t sure what a tattoo needle biting into my skin would feel like, but it really wasn’t that bad (stay tuned). I told those present (Caleb, my brother, and me) that “It feels like a centipede is walking on my arm with tiny cleats on.” That was kind of a cool visual, one that worked for at least a while.

Caleb’s job was to do the tattoo, my brother’s job was to document the event with his camera and my tablet, and my job was to stay as still as possible as I reclined in the tattoo version of a dentist’s chair. All three of us are Tolkien fans, so we talked about our various favorite parts of the books and movies, then moved to “Breaking Bad,” “Rome,” “Sons of Anarchy,” “Game of Thrones,” and every other movie and television show we could think of.WIN_20160413_12_51_08_ProWIN_20160413_12_06_29_Pro

 

 

 

 

This took up the first ninety minutes or so of the event, as Caleb tattooed from the bottom of Frieda’s outline (her coat) up through the right side of her face. I learned that different tattoo needles cause different uncomfortable and annoying sensations—the shading needle is not as intense as the outlining needle, for instance. But I was doing great—no cold sweats or familiar light-headedness that precedes fainting, and no fighting off the desire to scream or cry. I was the man, impressive to all present—especially me.WIN_20160413_12_51_16_Pro

The female contingent of my entourage—Jeanne, LaVona, and my daughter-in-law Alisha—Caleb’s partner in life and business as well as a tattoo artist in her own right—arrived around 1:00, fully expecting to hear screams, I think. They also were impressed with my Stoic determination. Jeanne tried to feed me an orange until Alisha reported that food is not allowed in the tattooing area. Apparently the Florida health inspector would not approve. Jeanne sat next to me on the opposite side from Caleb, LaVona watched Caleb’s activities with the same interest that people probably showed in Michaelangelo’s work on the Sistine ceiling, and Alisha—who sees and does this sort of thing every day—headed to the other room with Stephanie, the office manager, to do some paperwork and pay some bills. After a while, Jeanne and LaVona headed out to experience the wonders of downtown Fort Myers. They invited my brother to join them, but he knew better than to abandon his assigned photography tasks.WIN_20160413_14_07_55_ProWIN_20160413_13_51_37_Pro

 

 

 

 

About two hours in, we took a brief ten-minute break—I got to eat my orange (plus another), take a bathroom break, and was ready to finish this thing up. Caleb noted that it might feel a bit more painful when he started up again. That was an understatement. “FUCK!!!” my internal child yelled as we recommenced. “You’re right, that does hurt a bit more,” my outward philosopher commented. As it turns out, Caleb began to explain, first-time tattoo subjects tend to go through a version of Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief while under the needle—I had spent the first two hours in Denial. But my best manly-man efforts kept me on top of sensations that were beginning to cross the line from annoying to “that fucking hurts.” And Caleb continued to fill Frieda in from the bottom up with his fancy tattoo-by-number instruments as I observed the process upside-down.WIN_20160413_14_26_29_Pro

At about the three-hour mark, Caleb got to Frieda’s left ear—the closest portion of the tattoo to my armpit. Apparently that’s a sensitive area. “HOLY SHIT!!!” my internal child screamed. “Are you using the outlining needle?” my external Stoic calmly asked—he was. Then he revealed that it was likely to get worse. Before long he would be returning to the bottom, coat area of the tattoo to add some shading (apparently the light colors have to be saved for last to avoid discoloration). “Whatever,” I thought—it can’t be any worse than it already is. About this time Jeanne and LaVona returned; after a few minutes of sitting next to me and observing that I was fidgeting more than when she had been there earlier, she helpfully suggested that I should sit still. “I’m doing the best I can!” I replied in a not-so-pleasant tone—Caleb observed that I had now moved from Denial to Anger. Helpfully, Tom Petty started singing “You Don’t Know How It Feels” right about then on the Pandora station Caleb had queued up, so I didn’t have to say any more.WIN_20160413_14_43_19_Pro

As he moved to the shading portion, Caleb reminded me of his warning that “this is not going to feel amazing.” It didn’t. For the first time I started practicing the deep breathing through my nose and my mantra from Psalm 133: “Surely I have set my soul in silence and in peace.” “You can scream, you know,” Jeanne reminded me. “That’s not how I roll,” I thought as I rummaged around for my silence and peace spot.WIN_20160413_15_14_51_Pro

I never fully found it, but got close enough to sort of stay on top of something that had passed from an annoying sting to at least the first circle of descent into pain. “How much longer do we have?” I asked Caleb as I moved from the Anger stage into Bargaining. “Not that much longer,” he replied, helping me skip from Bargaining over Depression into Acceptance.

I interpreted “not that much longer” to mean about five or ten minutes—by the time Caleb finished the shading and added some white highlights, it was about forty-five. In addition to the pain level increasing slowly but steadily, I also got a major left-cheek ass cramp that wouldn’t go away. Pandora gifted us with “Stairway to Heaven,” the greatest rock song ever, and shortly after, it ended.WIN_20160413_15_34_58_Pro

I rolled out of the chair, Caleb wiped the fruits of his labor down with alcohol, and I got to see the finished product in a full-length mirror for the first time. And there was Friedalina, with her “I am superior to you in every way” attitude, looking back at me from my upper left arm. It was worth it—I now have a tattoo immortalizing a dog, who also happens to have been the subject of my very first blog post almost four years ago and of my first short essay attempt at a writer’s conference eight or nine years ago.

Hail Frieda, Full of Grace

From essay to tattoo—there’s something appropriate about that.WIN_20160413_16_04_14_Pro

Bored with Thinking

Many years ago I read a paragraph in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth that was the single most helpful piece of advice I ever received concerning teaching. Brittain writes thattestament of youth

There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be awakened before learning can occur. Most people wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process.

The idea of thinking and learning as being intimately connected to the desire to think and learn has driven my pedagogy for a long time, but perhaps even more important in this passage is Brittain’s claim that wanting to think and learn is a moral issue. In our contemporary world, learning is often understood in terms of processing information and then applying it, usually with a view to becoming a more and more efficient and productive member of society. But how might the cultivation of thought and learning be transformed if we paid close attention to the moral aspects of these foundational human activities?arendt

Hannah Arendt once said that “every year the world is invaded by millions of tiny barbarians. We call them children.” We all know that part of the process of civilizing these little barbarians is equipping them with values and with a moral compass, as well as providing training in how to use these moral tools. If thinking well and being committed to lifetime learning is part of being a moral human being, then muddled and sloppy thinking, as well as the attitude that no further learning is necessary, are moral failings of the same order as lying, cheating, and stealing. We live in a world in which we are in danger of—if we have not already arrived at—cognitive immorality. Not because of the immoral contents of our thoughts, but rather because of our collective unwillingness to commit to the hard work of thinking clearly, work that takes the sort of time and commitment that modern human beings are often loathe to engage with.

I began thinking anew about the moral features of thinking and learning after listening to an interview that Krista Tippett did on her On Being radio program with Maria Popova.brain pickings

Maria Popova: Cartographer of Meaning in a Digital Age

Popova is a bit of social media phenomenon; she is most notable for Brain Pickings, a popular blog that began as a weekly email to seven of her friends. Now a website, Twitter feed and weekly digest, Brain Pickings covers a wide variety of cultural topics: history, current events, and images and texts from the past. In the introduction to their conversation, Tippett called Popova a “cartographer of meaning in a digital age.” Popova observes that

As a culture, we seem somehow bored with thinking. We want to instantly know. We’ve been infected with this kind of pathological impatience that makes us want to have the knowledge but not do the work of claiming it. The true material of knowledge is meaning. And the meaningful is the opposite of the trivial. And the only thing that we have gleaned by skimming and skipping forward is really trivia. The only way to glean knowledge is contemplation. And the road to that is time. There’s nothing else.

I can think of no better contemporary example of this than our current political cycle. The sense I get is not so much that candidates and voters are incapable of thinking. Rather, there appears to be general agreement with violetViolet, Dowager Countess of Downton Abbey, who once quipped that “All this thinking is overrated.” Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders telling us “I will do this” should be enough—why insist on an explanation or account of how this will be done? Most of us remember being told on a middle or high school mathematics exam to “show your work”—no shortcuts allowed, in other words. How then have we come collectively to a place where we cannot be bothered to “show our work” when it comes to some of the most important decisions we will make in the next several years?

During my childhood and adolescent years I was occasionally told, particularly by family members and people who attended our church, that “you think too much.” A corollary was often that “things really aren’t that complicated.” The truth, of course, is that there are very few times in life where more thought is unnecessary, and things really are that complicated. There is a strong tendency in human nature to want things simplified; even more, there is a strong desire to move from premise to conclusion without having to do any of the nasty and time-consuming work in between. Part of moral and cognitive maturity is to move forward with intelligence and conviction through a very complicated and messy world. We would like everything to be reducible to a bumper sticker or sound bite but, as jamesWilliam James reminds us, “Nature is not bound to satisfy our presuppositions. In the great boarding house of nature, the cakes and the butter and the syrup seldom come out so even and leave the plates so clean.”

The moral aspects of teaching often begin with resisting the temptation to deliver a product, to give the customer what she wants. Sometimes, Maria Popova suggests, what people want is the last thing they should get.

Giving people what they want isn’t nearly as powerful as teaching people what they need. There’s always a shortcut available, a way to be a little more ironic, cheaper, more instantly understandable. There’s the chance to play into our desire to be entertained and distracted regardless of the cost. Most of all, there’s the temptation to encourage people to be selfish, afraid, and angry. Or you can dig in, take your time, and invest in a process that helps people see what they truly need.t and f

I try to focus on the importance of “digging in” every time I’m in the classroom. But observing myself outside of the classroom, I find that I have a lot of work to do. I spend time on Twitter, even though communicating in 120 characters or less is hardly an example of in-depth discourse. I quickly block or unfriend Facebook people who clearly hold political views that are radically different from mine. I bristle when someone challenges me in the “Comments” section of this blog. If I am going to call for moral maturity in thinking and learning, that maturation process begins with me.

Robbed by the Kiss Cam

feng shui“Wow, Vance!” my colleague exclaimed as he saw my office in our new philosophy department building several years ago. “Feng Shui!” In my twenty-five years in academia I have found that most faculty offices look like two or three reams of paper have exploded in it or like the bottom of a birdcage—we moved into this building ten years ago and my colleague’s office across the hall still has unpacked boxes piled in the corner. But I love my philosophy department office; since when I’m not on sabbatical I spend almost as many waking hours there as I do at home, I want it to be a place I enjoy inhabiting. WIN_20160201_16_02_58_ProEveryone who sees my office is impressed; unlike most of the other offices in my department, mine looks as if I took more than three minutes putting it together. I have taken great care with organizing my four large bookcases, arranging my diplomas and other framed materials on the wall, and placing my plants strategically so they can get as much of the morning sun that they love through my eastern-facing windows as possible. A large blue recliner sits in one corner—I only use it occasionally since I have never managed to read in it for more than ten minutes without falling asleep.

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Then there’s my eclectic decorating style. Penguins and trolls are scattered throughout the shelves and my desk, along with banana slippers that belonged to my youngest son Justin when he was little and a cheap bust of William Shakespeare. WIN_20160201_16_07_36_ProProminently displayed on the top of my low filing cabinet are two signed basketballs perched as trophies on top of small “Go Friars!” megaphones.  I won the first of these basketballs two years ago when my seat at the Friars-Marquette Golden Eagles basketball game was randomly selected as the “Lucky Seat of the Game.” Microphone man Harry interviewed me briefly during the first official timeout, got a “Go Friars!” out of me, and for the first time in my life I was on a Jumbotron for twelve thousand fans to admire. Me-on-the-Jumbotron-300x225This picture was taken by one of my admiring fans in the History Department. My blog post two weeks later about sitting in the lucky seat of the game and generally being insanely fanatic (I guess that’s oxymoronic) about Friars basketball was one of my most popular posts ever.

Being a Fanatic

My second signed basketball is from last season, a token of one of the greatest days of my life—the day I got to be the honorary faculty coach of the Friars.On court 2 It once again was the Marquette game, a sell-out with over twelve and a half thousand fans showing up to watch me coach. I was recognized at halftime and received my second signed game ball from the Providence College chaplain on the court—all on the Jumbotron once again. My blog post about that experience that I published on my birthday last March received more views in one day than any of the more than five hundred posts in the three-and-a-half-year history of my blog.

Retiring Undefeated

Expecting that an appearance on the Jumbotron will now be an annual event, I went into this season wondering what new Friars experiences might be in store.

Jumbotron opportunities abound at each game. There’s the “Dance Cam,” in which the camera pans the crowd to find someone dancing vigorously during a time out to music blasting so loud as to make one’s ears bleed. Delta DentalThen there’s the Delta Dental “Smile Cam,” where those upon whom the camera randomly lands are required to “show your pearly whites.” Not much chance of my making it onto the screen for either of those. But then there’s the “Kiss Cam.” One of the Friar players shows up on the screen, says “Hey, Friar fans—it’s time for the Kiss Cam! Pucker up!” Each of the half-dozen or so couples the camera person selects is to kiss; whichever couple performs most admirably wins and gets their name entered into a drawing for diamond jewelry to be awarded at a later home game. For most of the twenty-two years that I have had two Friar season tickets I have been accompanied either by my son or no one—so no chances for the Kiss Cam (although my son and I talked frequently about what we would do if the camera ever landed on us).

kiss cam But this year has been different. As the Friars have racked up win after win in what promises to be a season for the ages, Jeanne has come with me to games more often than she has in many years, something at least partially due to my being on sabbatical and her not travelling for work as she has for many of the years that we have been in Providence. Each game as the Kiss Cam opportunity came and went, we would note what we would do if it ever landed on us. Then last week during the Xavier-Friars game, after showing a couple of reluctant young couples on the screen during the Kiss Cam, there we were on the Jumbotron. “Oh my God!” Jeanne yelled as we turned toward each other. And we were good—really good. The best Kiss Cam performance of the season, without a doubt. But then the camera person selected a couple so old that they had to struggle to even turn toward each other. They locked lips, held in place for a moment—“They’re going to win,” I told Jeanne. “They always choose the old couple.” And they did—“Looks like we have a winner!” announced Harry the microphone guy, and it was the geezer couple. Everyone cheered and we were crushed.old people on the kiss cam

A couple of minutes later I got an email on my phone from our Athletic Director.

  • U should have won the Kiss Cam
  • I know, but they always go for the old couple
  • Yea they don’t like the hot young couple. You and Jeanne won

The lovely coupleAs we left the arena after a tough loss (the Friars would have won if they had selected the correct couple as the Kiss Cam winners), several students said “Dr. Morgan you were robbed!” “You guys won!” and other comments intended to help us deal with the injustice of it all. Emboldened by the support, I posted on Facebook the next morningFriar fans who were at the Dunk last night–do you agree that Jeanne and I were robbed on the Kiss Cam? In short order, support rolled in.

  • Absolutely! We thought you two were a lock!
  • Yes!
  • Absolutely!
  • The fix was in! They always go for the old couple, especially when they are shamelessly mugging for the camera!
  • It was a travesty!
  • Shameless!

My colleague Tony from the philosophy department who went with me to the previous game wrote “Thank goodness Jeanne went instead of me! That would have been . . . awkward . . .” Yes it would have been. But the Kiss Cam at the Dunk has never landed on two guys or two women—a blatant example of prejudice against same-sex couples—so Tony and I probably wouldn’t have had anything to worry about.kiss cam guys

It’s now a week later and I’m sort of over having been robbed by the Kiss Cam—at least I made my annual appearance on the Jumbotron. But where the hell is my signed basketball?

Life at Ten Miles per Hour

Following my bike ride the other day, as I frequently do I posted some pictures of my trip—this time to beautiful Lincoln Woods—on Facebook with a brief description of my ride.

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WIN_20150902_085307Over the summer each such post attracted several likes and a few comments about the beauty of where I had ridden, but now classes have started and my unfortunate colleagues who are not on sabbatical may not be entirely appreciative of such posts celebrating sabbatical fun. Sure enough, a good friend and colleague from the philosophy department commented Get to work, Morgan! Given that this particular ride is a challenging fifteen miles with a number of steep hills involved, and knowing that my friend is probably not in the same bike riding shape as I have had the time to develop over the summer, I responded This IS work! Next time I ride here you’re riding with me! I’m sure we will continue this conversation as well as solving the multitude of problems in our department the next time we have a beer. Shortly after our brief exchange, a recently retired colleague and friend from the biology department chimed in on Facebook. “No, no,WIN_20150716_075740 no XXX,” she responded to my critic. “You have it all wrong. Sabbaticals are all about thinking (while riding bikes), then maybe when you get home, you write something down.” That’s the voice of experience speaking—she’s absolutely right. I responded “Very true! Seriously–the first drafts of two chapters of my big sabbatical writing project have been constructed while floating down a bike path.”

Although I have been dedicated to working out at the gym three or four times per week for the past twenty-five years, I have never come to appreciate the virtues of physical exercise to the extent that many reportedly do. I don’t like going to the gym, I don’t enjoy it; my working out habit was established and has been sustained by fear of what I would look like and what maladies might arise if I didn’t exercise regularly. But over the past two months I have experienced first-hand the power of the mind-body connection. WIN_20150701_150246The right kind of physical activity not only can be enjoyable but also can unlock previously clogged up energies and avenues in the mind and soul.

Not that I realized these benefits when I first returned to bicycle riding a couple of months ago after a decade absence. I spent several weeks familiarizing myself with the amazing number of fine bike paths in the tiniest state in the Union; my first ride was twelve miles, and I was inordinately proud of myself. I have incrementally built up to 30-35 miles per ride, rides in which I average about ten miles per hour including the break or two that my almost-sixty-year-old body requires. Not that I should be too proud of that pace, since the world record for running a 26.2 mile marathon is just over two hours flat. In other words, if I raced a world-class marathon runner on my bike for 26.2 miles, the runner would kick my bike-riding ass by roughly a half hour. WIN_20150716_073922I have no problem believing this, since an obviously experienced and fit young runner turned out to be very difficult for me to catch and pass on the East Bay trail the other day.

It wasn’t until about a week or so ago that I noticed I had entered a different riding zone than I had previously experienced. It was Tuesday morning so the bike path was not busy; I rode for several minutes without hearing or seeing anyone. What I experienced was the bicycle equivalent of driving a car for several miles without being consciously aware that one is driving. As I floated silently down the trail, I began to notice my surroundings with a new awareness. I had entered the ten-mile per hour zone. WIN_20150827_083638Several goldfinches in a bush on the right, a flock of geese in the river on the left, the sparkling glint of the sun shimmering on the water. As my consciousness shifted from “I’m riding a bike on this path in the middle of these trees and according to the mile markers painted on the path I am three miles from being halfway through this ride” to seeing the world around me as if I was not the center of attraction, the mental space necessary for new ideas slowly opened. I told Jeanne that evening that, strangely enough, riding my bicycle early in this sabbatical was doing the same sort of thing for me that reciting the psalms and saying prayers with a bunch of Benedictine monks on a daily basis had done for me during my last sabbatical seven years ago. Cobwebs and impediments are being removed by simply finding ways to get centered and discover what’s going on beneath the complicated and pressured surface of things on which all of us skate in our manic day-to-day existence.

This shift in attitude and focus is reaping noticeable dividends already.imagesA2XAF8WFdeer

  • A beautiful male deer with a six-point rack strolled across a North Providence residential street as I was in the late stages of a ride a week or so ago. “Did you see that beautiful deer?” I asked a guy walking his dog just ahead of me. “Yeah, they eat my flowers,” he said. “Nothing but giant urban rats.” Talk about the importance of attitude and focus!
  • On the same road a few days later, I encountered a flock of a dozen or so wild turkeys. I have no spectacular insights about this experience—I’m not that impressed with turkeys. But I’ve been on this road at least a dozen times in the last two months—why a deer and a bunch of turkeys in succession? There’ll probably be penguins there the next time I’m on the street—one can only hope.turkeys
  • On a different trail I met a woman walking her dachshund for its morning constitutional. In a complete violation of the laws of introversion, I stopped and said “We have two of those at home!’ “Oh, I love them!” she said—“they’re so adorable!” 100_0595I got off my bike to check the little guy out—his name is Henry—and he immediately flipped on his back to get a belly rub. Just like my dachshund Winnie would have done.

These are minor events, for sure, but they are examples of what my father would have described as the universe responding to an open heart and mind. The world at ten miles per hour is a different sort of place. Slow enough for things to come to you, and fast enough to be endlessly new.