Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Political pet peeve #3

Political pet peeve #3:  Disregarding cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias.

I've written about this before, in case you're interested.  

First prize for cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias goes to the district attorney when a criminal is discovered to have been falsely accused and imprisoned.  Second prize goes to everyone else.  It seems to me that the political process is completely based on our capacity to deceive ourselves in some very specific ways and the worst of the political process depends on it.

Politicians count on us not noticing when they blame the other party for what they themselves are doing. They depend on us looking the other way when they tell us what we want to hear, like throwing red meat to dogs.  They rely on us only trusting the media sources that confirm what we already believe and they demonize the ones that don't.  And of course, they have their own cognitive dissonance and biases to deal with, so that sometimes they even believe what they are saying.

We can't help experiencing the dissonance and the bias.  We can tell the truth about it, though.  We can have enough humility to remember that the more strongly we believe something, the less likely we are to attend to--or even notice--any evidence to the contrary.  We can expose ourselves to dissenting opinions and learn to listen carefully to what they have to say.  We can discipline ourselves to expect complexity and to hold the tension.  We can fully appreciate the value of satire and parody and irony to help expose our biases.  We can avoid being so easily offended.

Or we can just keep indulging it and acting like we alone in all the universe are free of it, except, of course, for all the people who agree with us.  I think that's called a political convention.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Political pet peeve #2

Political pet peeve #2:  Polarization.

This is what couples do when they agree on 90 percent of what they want--at least in principle--but they major on their differences.  It goes like this:  Both mom and dad want their kids to be well-behaved and to feel loved.  But one day, mom makes a comment about needing dad to help discipline the kids more and dad, feeling defensive, attacks her for not being more understanding of them.  She shoots back that the kids are spoiled and it's his fault.  He counters that she is mean and doesn't even really care about the kids.  What is actually true is that both partners want what is best for their children but to listen to them talk, she only cares about punishment and he only cares about permissiveness.  (This is why politics remind me so much of work.)

You don't have to go back very far to remember when a Republican president decided to use his last vestiges of influence to pass immigration reform.  Democrats, who had previously supported most of the ideas contained in the new plan, refused to support it, afraid that credit would go to the wrong team.  It happened again around health care just a couple of years ago, when the current president built most of his original proposals about insurance reform on Republican ideas and Republicans suddenly acted like they had never heard of them before.

 If you only listened to the political pundits and the strategists and the people who call in to talk radio, you would think that Democrats and Republicans have nothing in common, that each side hates everything the other side stands for and that each loves/hates America, depending on which side you're on.  That's what the rhetoric of polarization sounds like and it's killing us as surely as it kills the marriages of the couples who sit in my office.  We have to learn to listen to each other--really listen--and find the places we can agree and then work our butts off to bring change or we will all sink together.

There's another way that polarization shows up, I think, and that is in single-issue voting.  Here's what I think:  if an issue matters enough to you that you sacrificially give money to support it, if you regularly write thoughtful letters to your representatives to influence their thinking on that issue and if you put yourself out there to protest on behalf of that issue and if you just can't help trying to get other people to see the issue your way even in the face of opposition, then maybe you get a free pass to cast your vote solely on how a candidate stands on that issue.

But everybody else?  No.  If you don't care enough about that issue to truly work on its behalf the other three years and 364 days, then you don't get to cast your vote solely on that one issue.  I'm writing this as one who used to do that.  I learned, though, that political thinking requires complexity and hard work.  Do us all a favor and do the work.  There is too much on the line to vote simplistically.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Political pet peeves #1

So here's what's going to happen.  I'm going to write a handful of political posts, mainly about the things that drive me crazy about the election year political process.  That will either calm me down or jack me up--that remains to be seen.  When I'm finished with that, I'm going to post the political essay that I wish I'd written.  Then I'm going to write the book reviews that I promised back in May.  A couple of personal updates and a few musings about life in general . . . that's what you can expect.

So, political pet peeve #1 is pretty easy to identify:  the money game has changed forever.  

First of all, the Citizens United decision has dramatically altered the landscape of campaign finance reform, which is a joke now anyway.  Democrats are in a quandary, having vehemently opposed the Supreme court ruling that gave corporations the status of personhood and relieved nonprofit political groups of the burden of reporting the sources of their contributions.  Now they have to decide whether or not to hold their noses and take the money anyway; meanwhile, many of their donors have decided not to play the game.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are happy to collect the money but that may end up costing them some autonomy and say-so about their policies and platforms.  Do you realize that (at least as of June),  .000063 percent of the US population (196 individuals or companies) have given more than 80 percent of the money that SuperPACs have raked in?  If your individual political contribution ever did matter, it doesn't now.

The other money game--the economy--has changed forever too.  This campaign is echoing Bill Clinton's first presidential election:  "It's the economy, stupid."  The truth is that most Americans--including me--are stupid about the economy.  For one thing, the economy is more complex than any of us can possibly imagine.  When I hear people talk about running the 15 trillion dollar national budget like a household spreadsheet, I want to laugh out loud.  When people talk like the president--any president--has direct control over things like unemployment and gas prices, milk comes out of my nose.

In this global economy, sophisticated computer programs have trouble keeping up with all the permutations of possible outcomes related to any single economic decision.  The economies of small European nations and corrupt Asian countries affect our economy more than we even know.  The deals that Wall Street makes these days are more complicated than  any talk radio caller can even imagine, whether he is sympathetic to the Tea Party or the Occupy movement.  Economists of both parties and neither party tell us that the US economic recovery will happen slowly and that it will take about ten years, start to finish, because that's how these things tend to work, regardless of who is president.

And yet, who knows?  Not me, and not you either, and that's the point.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Calvin Miller 1937-2012

God too stands
often near to
evil--like si-
lent chessmen--
side by side.
Only the color
of the squares
is different.

I was a young teenager, browsing around a college library waiting for my dad to pick me up, when I saw The Singer by Calvin Miller on a shelf.  What about it caught my eye?  Why did I happen to pick it up?  I have no idea.

When Dad dropped me off at the library the next day so that I would be occupied while he taught his class, I had with me a new yellow legal pad I had pilfered from him and a pen.  I went to find the book again, hoping it would still be behind the stack where I had hidden it.  It was.  I sat down at a table and started copying.  It took me all day, but I copied the whole book onto my pad, finishing just before my dad arrived to take us out to eat and back to our hotel for the night.

I had never read anything like it.  It was poetry, but not the kind we read in school.  It was Gospel, but not the kind we learned about in church.  I know it wasn't masterpiece but it changed me as I read, as all good writing does.  It inoculated me against the insipidness of much that would try to pass as Christian in the future.  And it gave me an ear for the poetry of Scripture like VBS never did.

I'm deeply grateful for the life and writing of Calvin Miller and sad to hear of his death yesterday.  I loved some of his books and hated a few.  Unlike some authors that I follow, I didn't buy all of his books but the ones I bought, I will keep forever.  C even got to take classes with him while working on his D.Min. and even got to eat supper at his house one night.  He said Dr. Miller was everything I hoped he was.  I was really glad.

Institutions have a poor safety
record.  The guillotines of
orthodoxy keep a clean blade that
is always honed for heresy.  And
somewhere near the place where
witches die an unseen sign is
posted whose invisible letters
clearly read:
                  --THE MANAGEMENT

Let us pray.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


I heard it again last week, with just a hint of sanctimony:  "If something is really important to you, you'll make time for it."  I had such a strong negative reaction to it that I had to wonder what that was all about.  Of course, I've heard it all my life.  "We make time for what we really value" and all the corollaries.

So I want to ask you:  Do you believe that's really true?

I'm not sure whether to start with all my disclaimers or to save them for the end.  I guess we should just get them out of the way.  Yes, I believe in setting priorities.  Yes, I can waste time with the best of them.  No, I don't always make time for what is most important to me.  No, I don't believe we should live from a place of scarcity.  Yes, I believe that how I structure my time is a good indicator of what I value.

Still.  I can't even imagine having time for everything that is truly important to me.  Even if I quit my job (which, actually, I value a great deal), I wouldn't have time for all the people I love.  See, for me it's not a matter of having time for all the tasks.  It's a matter of having time for all the people.  To really love them well, to give of myself the way I want to, to receive love from them in deep and meaningful ways . . . well,  I'm almost fifty now and I'm aware every single day that there just isn't going to be enough time.

When I expressed that fear to my friend Shawn years ago, she smiled serenely and said, "Well, that's what heaven is for."  Shawn is one of the most relational people I know and also one of the most serene, so I guess she's on to something.  But I'm greedy.  I want it all now.

I know that this reality (yes, I believe it's a reality) causes pain for people in my life.  They experience me as warm and caring and move toward me and then feel hurt when I don't have room in my life for the kind of friendship they have in mind.  Often, I also really like them and want to know them better  and know that my life would be better for it but . . . well, it just isn't possible, not because I don't care about them and not because I don't think they are important but just because it's not possible.

It also causes pain for the people I treasure--my friends and family who love me and who never get enough of me and I never get enough of them.  Sometimes, that's because I've lost track of what's most important and like the saying says, I don't make time for those I really care about.  I watch TV instead of picking up the phone.  I schedule a day at home instead of a day visiting family or friends.  So at those times, I guess the saying is true.  But there are so many other times . . .

This is not to even mention all the people whose lives I want to intersect--people who aren't like me, people who don't live in my world, people who may not even live in my country, people I will never get to know.  At the risk of sounding whiny, I think about those people a lot and wish things were different.  

I want to do a better job of managing time.  That goes without saying.  But no.  I don't think it's true that I can make time for everything I think is important.  And I really hope Shawn is right.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


I love all of Brene Brown's work on vulnerability.  Her TED talks (especially the first one), her blog, her book--I've been immersed in all of it for years now.  I love the stories she tells to show that vulnerability is the core of the human experience and I love the way she invites us to stop posturing to cover up our vulnerability and live courageous and compassionate lives in the face of it.

What I don't love is experiencing my own vulnerability.

I have never been more scared, never felt more helpless, than I did earlier this week, waiting for Mowgli to get home from overseas.  The way he travels--off the grid in remote areas with few or no companions, very little in the way of equipment or supplies, with no phone or itinerary--has often made me feel uncomfortable.  I'm truly fine with him being gone--we believe wholeheartedly in launching the baby birds from the nest.  But knowing that we don't know where he is on any given day and have no way to contact him is just a little disconcerting.  And I deal with that vulnerability the way I deal with most vulnerability:  I just don't think about it.

At least I did, until I couldn't anymore.  I sat in the airport on Monday for hours, waiting for him to get off a plane from India after three months of travel.  The fact that he didn't come through the doors with the rest of his flight didn't bother me since he is usually detained by authorities, either because he looks a little dicey or because he travels to politically sensitive regions, I don't know.  Anyway, I alternated between reading on my iPad and watching the doors to International Arrivals and I was fine.

I was fine until C told me on the phone, "The airline says he didn't get on his flight in Delhi."  I could hardly breathe.  "That was 27 hours ago," I managed.  "I know," C said.  There was nothing else to say.  Soon it hit me that it had actually been 31 hours, because of the delays.  C checked his bank accounts (no activity), talked to the various discount airlines he had booked on (no help),  tried to have him paged at the airport in Delhi (no way), and tried to tell the police on our doorstep that he had been trying to call India, not 911 (no kidding).

I shakily went to the restaurant where our extended family was waiting for his homecoming.  They comforted me, offered plausible explanations for his delay, and I headed out for the four-hour drive home alone.  Although everyone offered me a place to stay, I knew what I couldn't say out loud:  if things got bad, I wanted to be home.  That was a thought I had never had before and the vulnerability in it hurt.

On my way home, falling into C's arms at the front door, lying in bed willing myself not to think, finally giving up and watching TV to avoid the unbidden horrors of my imagination, I felt my vulnerability in every heartbeat.  Even though I said to myself over and over, "It's going to be okay" and even though I really did believe that, I don't have to look beyond my own extended family to know that it sometimes isn't okay.

I felt down deep the reality that there was nothing I could do.  Whatever had happened had happened.  A power failure (in the news)?  A fall from a cliff (plausible)?  A kidnapping (he had talked with me about that possibility before he left)?  A deadly train fire (yes, I was surfing the internet)?  Now it was just time to wait to hear . . . waiting steeped in helplessness and vulnerability.  For the first time in my life, I was aware that there was truly nothing I could do.

The text came about 3 in the morning--"safe" --and relief flooded through me (I really do know now why that cliche is so overused--"flooded" is exactly how it felt).  Even as I felt my own fear recede, I thought briefly about those who don't get the good news, who don't get the text that changes everything, and I was grateful--deeply grateful--not to be in that company, this time anyway.

The story turned out to be about what we expected:  Mowgli's bus to the airport was stuck in a tiny Tibetan town waiting out floodwaters that had washed out the road ahead.  He remembered that he had told us that he would let us know if he missed his flight, so he knew we would be worried, not knowing where he was, but he was stranded in a place outside of technology.  As soon as he got to the airport, he borrowed a German tourist's phone and texted me.

I'm posting two photos here:  one of my happy face (he looks pretty happy too!) when we finally did collect him at the airport and one of him adventuring in faraway places, facing his own vulnerability in the wildness of nature and coming home to tell about it.