Archive for November, 2013

Income in the US

Monday, November 25th, 2013

I’ve become a casual ‘researcher’ of topics of interest. That is, I type in my best effort at a search term, then scan through the first page of a results list. I’m surprised how rarely my interests are directly addressed. How many people feel emotionally satisfied and comfortable? – can’t tell. How many people can afford their own lifestyle? – not easy to say.  Is everybody OK? – maybe not.

Here’s a quick sketch. Half the families in the country live on less than fifty thousand dollars a year. Seventy percent of the people in the country are in those families. You can’t fund a meaningful retirement on fifty thousand dollars a year, so seventy percent of us have no retirement account. Sixty percent of illnesses are directly or indirectly caused by stress, today. Half of us will live past eight-five, almost all subjected to constant financial stress.

This is not news. If I search ‘financial stress’ what I find is advice on how to deal with it: stay outgoing, keep up your friendships, exercise, take positive action. Nobody publishes the headline: ‘3 out of 4 Americans are suffering right now.’

Back in sociology class, one of the wonders explained was how to take a large group of people, subject them to constant discomfort, and persuade them to put up with it. An excellent way is: get them to blame it on themselves.

A note on Karl Marx

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

Karl Marx was a German philosopher who got his name attached to a lot of worker-oriented social movements in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He remains famous in some intellectual circles for a core idea about the consequences of social interaction. His claim was: the physical arrangement of our daily productive lives, and the connections we form to accomplish our required tasks, necessarily determine the way we will govern ourselves. He stated this as a scientific proposition. He thought it was inevitable: if our collective lives are organized in a certain physical arrangement, a predictable type of government will emerge from that. This made it easy to believe the evils of Capitalism were necessarily going to be replaced by the pleasantries of Marxist Socialism, and his name became a rallying cry for millions upon millions of people.

Karl was, of course, right – and perpetually mistaken. Our social expressions are indeed determined by our material arrangements. It’s just that the connection between them is inscrutable. The very act of describing our situation inevitably changes the arrangement itself. The dynamic nature of human perception and response inevitably confounds yesterday’s certainties about today’s likelihoods. Karl wanted to see a revolution. He had a gut urge to change the world. So he declared his science made it inevitable, and he faded into history.

His urge remains: to see so clearly what’s in front we can know from it what will happen next; to be certain of tomorrow because we understand today. And yet, in the moment of our conviction, our fingers slip from the prize and we, too, fade away. How happy those who simply live, right here, with the raindrops on their skin, just – waiting to see.

Book review: Loving What Is

Wednesday, November 13th, 2013

Byron Katie has written a powerful, possibly life-changing book for those of us who suffer. She was rescued, in her own life, from anger, self-loathing, and addiction, by a self-revelation which left her with a simple, remarkably effective approach to living: recognize what is. Her genius is to observe we successfully negotiate our reality every minute, while our stories about it – our regrets, our fears, our tales of resentment – cause us endless discomfort and leave us feeling inescapably trapped. Her approach is to expose the stories as just stories, and ‘turn them around’ into truths about ourselves which set us free to live, and love ourselves, as we are.

Katie does this through a surprisingly simple, not at all mysterious technique. She asks four simple questions about any troubling thought. Is it true? Can we be absolutely certain that it’s true? What does having the thought make us feel like? What would life be like without the thought? Once these four questions are answered (and honestly answering them can be quite an experience), Katie asks us to ‘turn it around’ so we recognize our own thinking as the source of our anxieties. Liberating stuff. A worthwhile exercise at any time.

As a little child I would lie in bed with my skin hot and flushed, my guts icy cold, terrified a man would start beating my mother in the next room, or, in the morning, men would come and make us leave our home. Months became years, and in my hot-cold sweat I was afraid of being kicked out of school, of losing my job, of being rejected by the girl who made me feel like superman. Then I observed, years ago, my emotions preceded their explanations. I noticed I eagerly arranged my circumstances to justify my inchoate intentions, whatever those might be. Angry, I experienced antagonism; sad, I felt everywhere a loss; loving, the world was my generous partner and friend. So as I lay in my bed, at last, I began to relax.

I did this in a way reminiscent of Katie’s ‘Work.’ I opened myself to inwardly experiencing the worst possibilities, and watched as I lived through them. I learned how the language of fear can be heard and disregarded. I formed sentences describing my distress, and announced their opposites as the ‘real’ truth. I discovered how faith in the concrete reality of any moment loosened my body and soothed my mind. I grew up to understand ironic silence, joy in the present, and appreciation of what, simply, is.

There are differences, though. The purpose of my own understanding isn’t obviously about enjoying myself. Katie preaches a method. Religiously practiced, every such method leads to madness. She celebrates the ‘love’ that emerges when negative stories are stripped away, but there’s nothing inherent in its process to prevent using her method in reverse – we could question the thoughts we enjoy and free ourselves from them, as well. I find Katie’s semantics confusing. Self-inquiry is, of course, story-telling at its best, and page after page she re-narrates her students’ lives in ways which could hardly be less fictional, no matter how much more satisfying.  Katie insists nothing exists until I think it, so I respond with her own question: what would I be like without that thought?

It turns out, I, too, prefer the calmly ebullient, mindful generosity of ‘self’ abandonment. Simply, I think it’s just the beginning. I’m sure when I’m seeing clearly, I can see other souls. It’s an indulgence of the comfortable to believe the person in the street is exactly as should be, even when being run over by a bus. Katie promotes excellent self-repair techniques. Her theology leaves me less satisfied.

I worship the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, father of his living son, Jesus Christ – yes, because my people always have. At our finest, we still can’t distinguish between self-inquiry and self-service. I need to place my feet on what for me is solid ground. From here I can love you, not because you are a wonderful story, but because you are real.

The power of Katie’s conviction arises from her discovery none of us can truly know anything. Look at that squarely and you might break a few chains. If you find yourself believing life is nothing but your own thinking about it, please remember: you can’t be absolutely certain that it’s true.


Crisis? What crisis?

Friday, November 8th, 2013

I first thought of opening a sandwich shop years ago. A good sandwich can be hard to find. Also, lots of people eat lunch. But I prize what I call my ‘autonomy.’ I’ve hesitated. Running a small business is a crazy lot of work. The door has to open every morning. And yet, while enjoying my ‘autonomy’ these past twenty years, I’ve been booked solid six days a week. In my ‘free’ autonomous moments, I’ve been bound to studying projects and problems assigned by my career. My autonomy is, in fact, a fiction. It always will be.

The cold truth is I’m going to work for somebody. I think I’d like to work for customers, but it’s scary. I’ve never opened a small shop. I’ve never served food to the public. I don’t really feel like a nice guy. The picture of ‘happy cook’ doesn’t easily come to me.

Still, I do try to be a nice guy. Plenty of people say that I am. I know I need company, and I’m awkward about pursuing it. With a handful of staff and a bunch of customers, I’m pretty sure I’ll have someone to talk to. I care about my work. I want to please. I won’t be selling you a sandwich if it isn’t a good one. And so on and so on.

I could fret like this forever. My current income is just fine. It’s big scary stuff: rearranging everything I do. But of course my skin is wrinkling and my hair is turning gray, and it turns out my ‘fine income’ isn’t being applied to savings. My ‘fine income’ commitments will end in ten years, and Gosh! I’ll have no income at all.

On following advice

Tuesday, November 5th, 2013

It could be, reading through my sorrows and complaints, you suspect I might benefit from a different approach. I agree with you. I doubt I’ll pursue one, though, because I lack the single animating characteristic necessary to change: I don’t want to.

I have friends and relatives who, for many reasons, felt uncomfortable and wished their discomforts would go away. They tried many options, and some perhaps even succeeded. But I, despite all foregoing evidence to the contrary, am not a self-identified suffering person. At the end of the day, I’m not so unhappy with my pain. It’s never lasted all that long, and it’s interesting.

I’ve been quaking in my boots, lately, because I’m fifty-five years old, I have no retirement account, and it occurs to me I may live alone when I’m old. This awareness, somehow, came upon me all at once, and I struggled with it. Notably, though, I did not collapse in a permanent heap. I find myself, as I inevitably do, more or less cheerfully squared off against my fate, and I notice: if you live in the United States, and you’re of a certain age, you very likely share it.

You’ll find endless advice on how to calm your shaking head. I can’t help you there. But I do suggest this: tidy up your affairs and attend to your accounts. There’s no secret about what’s coming.

Me?  I’m planning to open a sandwich shop.