Examining Assumptions, Part II

I shared in the last blog post that I was examining two assumptions:

  1. You must work hard, suffer even, for “real” progress in health, understanding or enlightenment.
  2. There is an afterlife.

IMG_4411The first assumption is re-enforced every time I get a prescription for antibiotics: you must take every pill even long after you are feeling better. It is the idea of counseling or therapy: you must work through every issue–there are no shortcuts. I have “done the work” in my life. No liquid diet fasts for me. Just exercise and lots-of-work diets.

Then Michael Pollan shared that in the clinical trials treating depressed cancer patients with psychedelic medicines experienced real measurable improvement 80% of the time. This is well beyond the 30% rates of anti-depressants and without the considerable side effects of drugs like Prozac. Only terminal cancer patients were allowed in the studies so it is impossible to know how long the benefits might have lasted or if later side effects might appear. Still, it is remarkable for its potential.

Rather than making me want to take a guided trip, I found it encouraging with regards to my reliance on acupuncture to resolve my chronic pain. I do not understand how acupuncture works but it is dealing with the underlying causes and it manages energy. To me though, it seems relatively easy compared to other therapies, especially ones that require me to relive childhood trauma. Reconsidering my assumption around the requirements of a lasting cure helped me put my faith in the possibility of good to great outcomes from acupuncture.

It also helped me look at the role prayer plays in my healing. I’ve been shy about asking for prayer. I’ve always said I believe the creator of the universe can miraculously heal people if S/He chooses and I pray for this kind of healing for others, and yet I’m reluctant to ask for it for myself. I consider myself one of the undeserving, or that I can only ask after I’ve tried to make every other remedy work. I’m ready to revise my assumptions regarding spiritual healing.

What about the afterlife? Michael Pollan and Ezra Klein both called themselves materialists and as such they believe our brains generate consciousness, thus our selves cease when our body dies. Pollan admitted that some scientists suggest consciousness exists outside of our selves and therefore, it might be possible that subject’s in the clinical trials really did experience mystical or spiritual epiphanies. As a person of faith I do not have much trouble reconciling this.

IMG_4409My qualms about the afterlife is the American Christian culture’s complete fixation with it to the exclusion of asking “how should we live today?” I have been reading Rob Bell‘s What is the Bible? as a kind of devotional. And his chapter on the Good Samaritan rocked my world in a number of ways. And one of those is that when the lawyer asks Jesus, how do we get eternal life? He wasn’t asking about the afterlife. We have somehow twisted “eternal life” from the abundant life God’s people should be experiencing every day while we live here now in relationship with the Divine, to a cushy deal after we die. So much of our faith experience is now simplified to “accepting Jesus Christ as your Savior” and then going back to a judgey, non-loving attitude about our neighbor.

At the suggestion of my friend Rebekah I listened to the Liturgists podcast interview with Rob Bell, when Michael Gungor and the other podcast host who goes by Science Mike ask questions about this book. I’m listening to an intelligent and uplifting conversation when I realize that this men are part of a growing club of people tossed out of Club Evangelical for questioning assumptions about our faith. And yet the gospels are stories after story of Jesus asking and answering questions, sometimes with more questions. These three and others also tossed out are postmodernists, whereas, the older, grayer leaders of the E. movement, such as it is today, are traditionalists or modernists. Don’t question the relatively recent constructs of what it means to be born again and who God loves and doesn’t love or risk being ostracized.

I am realizing that I believe in a consciousness outside of myself and God, and I believe that my soul or conscious goes on in some way beyond death; however, it doesn’t matter so much to me anymore. It pales in importance to the prime directive which is to be a vessel for God’s love in the world–to be living the abundant, spirit-filled life that God offers me. I’m so far from that right now and I’d rather get after that and let the after death question take care of itself.


Staying Curious When You Really Want to be Mad

I was cycling down 18th Street–a quiet, leafy street in Midtown–when I saw another cyclist riding on the sidewalk. This always makes me angry because I feel it gives cyclists a black eye with pedestrians and motorists. Yet I am practicing staying curious instead of rushing to judgement. So when I pulled even with him I called out in as friendly a voice as I could muster, “Hey, why do you ride on the sidewalk?” Equally friendly he replied, “I feel safer.” This led to a dialogue where I shared that I actually feel less visible on the sidewalk, but that I do use them occasionally when I have to go the wrong way on a one-way street for a block. He shared that he often rides on the street too and he joined me on the street until we reached K Street and I turned off to the right. We wished each other a good day.

This was a civil exchange and much more pleasant experience than my fuming silently in anger. This is a very quick exchange and I may never see this neighbor again; however, it is good practice that helps me to continue to stay in this open place.

Listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with sociologist Arlie Hochschild on the Ezra Klein Show podcast (September 13, 2016), I realize that I can stretch to another level. She spent 5 years embedded in Louisiana culture to interview 60 individuals deeply and understand how they think and feel. She wanted to make sense of the gulf in values that are polarizing the USA today.

She intentionally acknowledged the deep stories and therefore her study subjects’ identities with the hope of building an empathy bridge. In her research she is seeking to understand but not necessarily to be understood. She turned off her own alarm system and set aside her own values with the purpose of learning, not convincing.

I have only just downloaded her new book Strangers in Their Own Land. I am curious how you build an empathy bridge and not lose your own moral center. I am sure the woman from Lake Charles, LA that she interviewed is a lovely person with many fine qualities. I had similar experiences when I made friends with conservation colleagues from Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Their hospitality is memorable; yet, I still found it very uncomfortable to visit their hometowns and witness the segregation that remains in their communities and the dominant attitudes that people of color are less than white people that some of them tried to defend.

On a different podcast, Stuff You Missed in History Class, they discussed John Brown’s civil action in Harper’s Ferry and how it influenced the Civil War. Taken together, these podcasts reinforce the idea that we are living through a non-military civil war. Our first civil war was a byproduct of the industrial revolution and the South’s economic dependence on agricultural plantations that could only function with slavery. Now we are going through a similar disruption where the two Coasts are transforming from manufacturing to service and knowledge economies, and the middle and south are being left largely behind.

What then shall be done? Practice patience. Stay curious. Extend compassion and empathy. Respect one another.