Thursday, March 18, 2010

The blessing of average

I had to chuckle on my commute yesterday. At 5 a.m. while it was still dark, I was driving down a highway with a posted speed limit of 50 mph. I was going about 50. It wasn't long before I had to brake for a car in front of me that was going about 35 for no apparent reason. I felt uncomfortable passing at that time, and as my turnoff was just a couple of minutes away, I just continued to creep along behind him. A few seconds later, a pickup truck zoomed up behind me. He too had to slow down, but only for a moment, as he couldn't stand it and passed the both of us. Three drivers, three speeds. I personally was too fast for one, too slow for the other.

This little scenario was a life lesson for me in one minute. There will always be people going slower than we are in life and others going faster. There will always be people smarter than we are and those not so intelligent. There will always be people more attractive, wealthier, talented, and healthier than we are - and the other way around. I can sing better than some folks, but not as good as others. I can quilt tinier stitches than some folks, but not as tiny as others. I can transcribe faster than some, but not as fast as others. This is why we can't constantly compare ourselves with our friends, neighbors, and even strangers. No matter how hard we try, odds are that we will always be somewhere in the middle. Feeling inferior because we don't measure up makes us unnecessarily depressed. Feeling superior because we are ahead of some other person just makes us unbearably vain.

It's not bad being in the middle, and it's not bad being average. Welcome to the club of normal!

By the way, speaking of going fast, I will be going very fast tomorrow as once more I take the remnants of my fear of flying and put them to the test. I am looking forward to flying to Tennessee (with daughter Rachel and 4-year-old Charlotte) to see my mom and my sister and her family, as well as whatever other relatives or friends I can squeeze in. This will be Charlotte's first time on a plane, so I am hoping I can be a good role model for her and put her at ease. I am certainly looking forward to the week ahead! (Tennessee - hold the tornadoes, please. Thanks.)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The State of the World

The world can be a scary place. Every media outlet brings us fresh news daily to affirm this. Violence, pain, injuries, death - poignant stories that make it seem as if the earth and humanity cannot even coexist anymore.

Take natural disasters, for instance. The recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile have just underscored the violence that Nature can have. The victims can be young or old, rich or poor, hardworking folks or bums. There seems to be no discernment (except in the case of richer areas that have built stronger buildings). I’ve heard recent stories of lobstermen who’ve drowned in the ocean, campers lost outside who’ve died from hypothermia, skiers who’ve perished in avalanches. Areas in drought need rain for crops while other regions are overcome with disastrous flooding and mudslides. I know one verse in the Bible that has been interpreted as saying something like all of Nature is standing on tiptoe to see what the children of God will do....and these days I keep thinking that it might be said that all of God’s children are standing on tiptoe to see what the natural world is going to do - for it seems like a losing battle.

Added to the above are the tragedies inflicted by the biological world of our bodies. Disease is everywhere - again, striking no one in particular and everyone in general. From cancer killing young kids who have barely lived, to Alzheimer’s crushing the once vibrant minds of our elderly - there is no sense of fairness or justice. And let’s face it - the tortures of the mind and spirit can be as devastating as the tortures of the body.

Although it is probably true that we have contributed to these tragedies by our choices involving how we treat our planet and our unhealthy lifestyles, the bottom line is that a lot of life consists of unfair calamities beating us to a pulp, unexpected, undeserved, with no meaning whatsoever. This thinking is the origin of the infamous bumper sticker delicately translated as “Crap happens.” No way around it. You can maneuver good to come out of the situation, but you can never explain why it happened in the first place.

All in all, the world is full of strife and suffering. Whether it’s ourselves, our loved ones, or somebody we read about in the newspaper, we’re all affected and despondent. If natural disasters and disease were the only powers trying to bring us to our knees, that would be one thing. But the list does not stop there.

As if there weren’t enough suffering already, we seem to insist on adding to it. I’m one of the most accident-prone person I know. I’ve cut the skin off my finger when peeling potatoes, slipped on an olive-oil spill on the kitchen floor while carrying a pot of pasta in boiling water, “burned my face off” with fire starter and had to be taken to a burn center to be treated - all because I was either moving too fast or wasn’t paying attention. These are called accidents because they aren’t done with purpose or malice - they just happen because we’re not aware of our surroundings or thinking about other things. Some are just inconveniences and others are pure tragedies. I’ve read one too many horrifying stories of parents accidentally running over their own toddlers as the parents backed the car out of the driveway, assuming everyone was accounted for. It’s bad enough to cause an accident for oneself, but I can imagine the heartbreak a careless moment can create if it involves someone else as the victim.

Of course hurting others physically by accident is not the only way we inflict injury. We do the same thing with our words. Because we don’t think of the consequences or because, again, we are just not paying attention, we let words slip that can never be taken back once spoken, and we have unwittingly contributed to the lowering of someone’s self-esteem or said mean or hateful things that it takes a second to say but years to regret. I would bet we have all done this at one time or another.

First, nature’s indiscriminate fury - leaving us feeling helpless. Next, our own accidental contribution to the grief of our world - preventable. Finally, there is the pure evil around us - those who lack some kind of compassion or moral compass or whose greed or hatred or quest for power dominate their lives and they don’t care who gets hurt in the process - also preventable because they are human choices.

As I’ve contemplated the state of the world this week, the word "preventable" kept coming to the forefront of my mind, and my whole spirit is agonizing over what we have contributed as individuals and members of the global society to our own grief and suffering. And, as my favorite prayer states, “Help me to accept the things I cannot change, change the things I can, and have the ability to know the difference,” I want to renew my personal goal of changing what I can - paying more attention, focusing, avoiding mistakes and accidents, being a presence of joy to the world (and myself) rather than bearer of pain, and in this journey I am praying that we all try to cut the preventable suffering in our lives. Lord knows there’s enough we’re stuck with from the get-go.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The difference

One of the goals of simplicity is to be able to find joy in everyday pleasures. One blog I follow recently described the personal satisfaction in using an old-fashioned pen and paper to jot down lists. I responded that to me, a fresh, sharpened wooden pencil is my personal preference. I remember how my son Matt never liked the grainy feel of wooden pencils when he was growing up and he preferred a smooth mechanical pencil. For some, I'm sure, the only simple, satisfying solution would be to forget a writing utensil and paper altogether and quickly type a list on a laptop. My blogger wisely responded:

This is a perfect example of simplicity being different for different people.

A foundational principle of Methodism is something called the quadrilateral. How can various religions and denominations hold one book - the Bible - as sacred, yet firmly believe that it says things quite the opposite of what other religions and denominations believe it says? The difference is all in interpretation. Using what is called "the primacy of Scripture," (the main leg, shall we say), the quadrilateral states there are three other legs to this guiding system of belief - that every individual has to interpret Scripture using tradition, reason, and experience. I have thought for quite a while that these three methods of interpretation can easily apply to other areas of our lives, including the ongoing question of what constitutes simplicity.

As a lover of all things involving history, I fully agree that one's tradition has to be included in this. Tradition, whether owned by cultures or families or churches or other groups, has much to teach us. There is a reason that wisdom from the past has survived generation after generation. The caveat here is that tradition is not a static thing but instead is a living thing. Traditions evolve and adapt. Some old traditions which have lost their meaning morph into newer traditions - trying to honor the past without being chained to it. I definitely think tradition has a place when one is trying to discover what it means to simplify. The wisdom of the ages can teach, instruct, and inspire, certainly. But you cannot stop there. You can't inherit and use a tradition, for instance, that you find personally abhorrent, or one that you think died long ago, or one that you feel bound to just because great-aunt Dorothy said it was so.

Enter reason. Critics say we humans seem to be able to rationalize anything, and I suppose that is true. Sometimes emotional arguments and prejudices can overpower what we know in our hearts and heads is the right thing to do in our personal situations. The beauty of applying simplicity to our lives is the fact that, unlike joining an organization with pages and pages of rules to follow, and unlike joining a specific religious group which says it doesn't matter what you do as long as you believe the appropriate things, simplicity involves simple, reasonable changes in your life. Nutrition experts say that your chosen diet cannot be so extreme that it is impossible to adhere to in the long-term, and in the same way, personal choice to simplify has to be doable and meaningful for you - not your parents or friends or co-workers - but you. Maybe you can't recycle every bottle or cardboard box - but you certainly can try to recycle as many as you can. Maybe you can't afford regular purchases of expensive grass-fed, humanely raised beef - but a carton of cage-free eggs is within your weekly budget. Maybe you watch 20 hours of TV a week and decide to cut it to 10. Maybe you decide you can live with 15 pairs of shoes instead of 50. You can't afford solar panels for your house, but you can change to some energy-efficient light bulbs. For some folks, these changes don't go far enough. But for others, these small simplifying improvements in their lives constitute progress. This we should not belittle, for progress is always relative. With frequent introspection and analysis, you reason out your own life changes, where you want to go and how to get there.

And that brings me to the last foundational leg - experience. This is why each of us has a valid comment to bring to the table of any simplicity discussion. My whole being is made up of the total of all my life experiences - which are different from those of my husband and different from even those people I grew up with. They are unique to me, and they are valid, just as yours are unique and valid. The ugly reaction of intolerance is so many times the result of reluctance to acknowledge and fully grasp this fact. My experience teaches me what works for me, what improvements need to be made for me, what changes are appropriate for me, what priorities should underlie decisions that I make for me. I can accept advice, I can listen to opinions, but in the end, these are my choices based on what I have learned in my life. This is not a selfish thing - it is the only way I can function and be true to myself - and likewise, for you, it is the only way you can function with the same integrity, and Lord knows, to be able to answer the call to simplicity with integrity intact is one more step towards contentment and happiness.

So there you have it - my take on how simplicity is different for different people. We're all in this individually, and we're simultaneously all in this together. My goal is to make my choices based on my tradition, reason, and experience, and if we all work towards the goal of doing this based on what that means for each of us, we will collectively bring a richness to the discussion that can only come from the richness of our differences. And there, my friends, will be immeasurable blessing!