Friday, July 31, 2015

Leaders Who Don't Play The Game

From the peculiar world of online gaming, there came a story this last week that caught my eye.

It was the tale of a battle in the game Eve: Online, the single most massive conflict ever to occur in the virtual world.  Eve: Online, if you're not aware of it, is a science fiction game.  Players construct spacecraft, which then explore, mine and trade...and battle over territory.  It's wildly complex, with a steep learning curve and a deep level of sophistication.  I've been tempted, on and off over the years, to get into it...but it feels like the sort of thing that would disappear me from the real world.

Over 500,000 people play it on a regular basis, and the coupling of in-game currency and real world dollars means that Eve is now a complex economy in and of itself.  The battle in question, which I'd read about last year, was a war over territory that involved four corporate coalitions of gamers.  Meaning, it was a strategically coordinated battle involving upwards of 7,000 individuals, as thousands of ships engaged for close to a day. These ships cost real money in the real world, and the real-economy losses from the Bloodbath of B-R5RB totalled nearly $300,000...enough to merit an article in Forbes.  

This ain't Call of Duty, folks.

One interesting detail emerged from the recounting of this event, though: Eve: Online is dominated by a tyrant.  Not a made up tyrant, either.  A real dictator.  Meaning, there is a single gamer who has risen to a position of political and economic control.  He goes by the in-game name The Mittani (an apparent reference to an obscure ancient Near Eastern empire), and as the leader of the Goonswarm/Cl**terf**kCoalition, he is the single most powerful person in the game.

Meaning he gives orders, and tens of thousands of actual human beings do what he says.  He has a complex communications and administrative apparatus in place to maintain control.  More significantly, he developed a sophisticated intelligence operation, spies and informers and moles in other coalitions, which he uses to dominate and intimidate.  And by the thousands upon thousands, his subjects maintain his empire.  He is a despotic warlord, by every measure of the term.

Some might giggle at this, because, well, shoot, it's a game.

But what the Mittani does is no more or less real than what the CEO of any midsized internet business does.  He maintains control, directs activities, and can...as the battle in the B-R5RB system proved...mobilize millions of dollars worth of resources towards a particular end.

That and motivate close to to twenty thousand people to follow him.

These are real people, choosing to play as subjects of a mildly sociopathic intergalactic overlord.  Choosing it.  Uncoerced, they fight for him, create resources for him, create propaganda for the Goonswarm, spy for him, you name it.

That in and of itself is fascinating, and would seem the kind of thing worthy of study by anthropologists and sociologists.  But having recently gotten a doctorate in leadership dynamics, there was a spin on this tale that I found remarkable:

The Mittani does not actually play the game.
"The Balcony"

Meaning, the real human being who created this character never logs into the game's servers.  He has an account, sure.  But he does not use it.

He can't be directly impacted by actions in Eve: Online.  His systems of command and control exist entirely outside of the game, on websites and forums where he coordinates his rule.  It's metagaming, I suppose, playing the game above the game.

In corporate leadership literature, there is much talk of "being on the balcony," or being able to rise above your organization in order to effectively observe, direct and transform it.  Leaders of this type influence a system, but they are not themselves a part of the system they control.

And what higher balcony could there be than not actually inhabiting the world you control?

Fascinating.



Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Reason, Faith, and the Skeptical Mind

For some reason known only to the dark elder gods of marketing, I regularly get mailings from a magazine called "The Skeptical Inquirer."   As it self-describes, it's a magazine for atheists.  Meaning, it gathers about it the trappings of science and "free-thinking."  It arose, as I understand, from efforts to debunk paranormal thinking late in the last century.  Given most of what they're pitching me, it appears to now be mostly about how stupid religion is and how really smart people--like you, dear potential subscriber!--don't fall for that hoohah.

When the latest mailing came through, promising both a free cup of coffee and an interview with Neal Degrasse-Tyson snarking about faith, I found myself wondering about the relationship between skepticism and rationality.

I tend to carry with me a healthy skepticism about things.  I do not immediately trust what I hear, particularly if something seems exciting or presses a particular button.  Best to hold back, reserve judgment, and give yourself time to reflect before leaping to any conclusions.

Let's use a recent example.  There's a rumbling about something called the EM Drive, a new kind of fuel-less space propulsion, an "impulse engine" right out of Star Trek.  Really.  It seemed a wackadoodle cold-fusion fringe absurdity, but as more tests have been done, there's a slim possibility that may be happening.  And among the folks who follow such things, that creates buzz, because it could mean that interplanetary travel suddenly became a whole bunch easier.  70 days to Mars, for example.

It would be easy to just jump right on that bandwagon, hooting and a-hollerin'.   But for all of the excitement, there's still more experimental work to determine if in fact the inexplicable but replicable results from preliminary tests represent a meaningful finding or are just a repetition of the same error.  I really, really would love it if this was true.  But as of yet, it is not certain.

A healthy analytic skepticism reserves judgment, and seeks more validation.  The pursuit of truth requires the application of doubt.

But it is equally easy to just descend into reflexive rejection, as skepticism becomes an all consuming cynicism.  The goal ceases to be truth, but instead the deconstruction and devaluing of all truth-claims, not reserving judgment, but doubling down on judgment.

And that is a dangerous place for a soul to wander, because it is just as rigid and imprisoning as any other form of absolutism.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Inside/Out and the Dis-Integrated Soul

I finally went and watched Inside/Out this weekend with my wife and my sons.

It's been one of the hits of the summer, a film that landed to essentially universal critical acclaim, and as I sat there watching, I began to wonder what might be wrong with me.

Well, honestly, I know what's wrong with me.  I'm a Presbyterian, and I think too darned much.

It wasn't that I wasn't appreciative of the creative effort, or of the talent that went into it.  It's just that, well, here's a smart movie about emotions, and what I'm feeling is basically nothing.  There was the occasional snicker at a bit of humor, but the pathos just wasn't there.

I did not particularly care about what happened, one way or another.  Oh, sure, it was conceptually interesting, and made for some great conversation amongst the family on the drive home.

But as intelligent as it was, it didn't get to me.  And that impacted my viewing experience, because if you're not deeply emotionally vested, lines like "I'll try, Bing Bong" don't quite carry the same gravitas.  I know I was supposed to be weeping, but I was desperately trying to suppress my inappropriate laughter at that point.  "I'll try, Bing Bong?"  Mon Dieu!  C'est absurde!  I'd missed the emo-bus everyone else in the theatre was riding, clearly.

Here, Pixar, which has been so good at hooking me in...sniffles at the opening of Up, brimming eyes every time I watch the conclusion of Monsters Inc...and I'm not feeling anything at all.

Honestly, I felt about as moved watching Inside/Out as I did watching Monsters University.  This surprised me, particularly given the radiantly positive reviews and the huge box office.

Why, I thought, might that be?

Reflecting on it, I think I realized it was this:  I didn't really connect to Riley.  Here, the putative protagonist, the 11 year old girl whose inner life is the stage for everything we encounter, and I'm not feeling her struggles.

Why is this?  Because she seemed to me to be, well, not really part of most of the film.

Oh, she was animated and voice-acted well enough.  But when we were "inside her head," Riley just disappeared amidst the complex whimsical machinations of her imagined inner life.  Once you got into the mind of Riley, she was no more a part of that process than Jeff Bezos is part of the process on the floor of an Amazon distribution center.

As I reflected on it, I realized that this disappearance was because as the film presented it, her emotions were not her.

She did not suffuse them.  They were not integrated into her.  They were, instead, distinct personalities.  What we saw was not "Riley's Joy."  Not "Riley's Sadness."  Instead, we saw Joy and Sadness, Anger and Disgust and Fear, cast as archetypes, and completely removed from her. An understandable choice, if you want comedy A-Listers doing the voiceovers, but it had an impact on my viewing experience.

This distance was part of her character design and realization.  Unlike every other character in the film whose inner life we encounter--the mom, the dad, other kids, her teacher, animals, you name it--Riley's personified emotions were abstracted from the core of her eleven-year-old personality.

The dad's emotions looked and acted like versions of him.  The mom's?  The same.  The cat's?  Brilliantly, hysterically so.

But for the character who provides our core narrative, her emotions were only part of her in the way that employees are part of a corporation, which meant it did not feel like she was a realized person.

It didn't seem, well, like Riley had a...cough...soul.

Which, when you conceptualize the inner workings of human beings too intently as independent processes, tends to be how things feel.

 And that, I think, is why Inside/Out just didn't quite work for my overthinking Presbyterian self.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Driving On By

It was just a little detail in a tragic little story, part of the great rush of information that flows past us on a daily basis.  It was easily lost, in the buzz and hum.  

Maybe you heard some of it, in passing.  

A young woman was flying with her grandparents in a small private aircraft, when something went very wrong.  The plane went down, crashing into a wooded hill in the middle of nowhere.


She managed to get free, but try as she might, she was unable to rescue her grandparents from the burning plane.  That left her alone and lost in the woods, banged up from the crash, her hands badly burned from her efforts.  

She held it together, remembering something she’d learned from a survival show she’d watched.  Follow the water.  Streams lead to rivers.  Rivers lead to bridges.  And bridges mean people.  So she did just that, bruised and burned and alone, for two days, until finally, wet and hungry and hurt and exhausted, she found a parking lot, where there was a car and no people, which brought her to a road.

Where she tried, soaked and hungry and worn out, to get passing motorists to stop and help her.  

And there, the detail that stuck in my mind.  

No-one would.  Not a soul stopped. For an hour, they just drove on by. She’d survived a plane crash, watched her grandparents burn to death, and stumbled hungry and thirsty through the woods for days. I don't doubt she looked rough.

But having found humanity, humanity didn't bother helping.

Just a wandering meth-addict, they might have thought. Some homeless hitch-hiking girl, out to maybe steal something. Somebody on the run.

Having tried and failed to get help, she wandered back to the parking lot and curled up in the cold, exhausted beyond caring. It was there that another car pulled into the lot, and folks got out, and she was rescued.

And I wonder, honestly, how many of us, sealed away in the comfort of our cars, would pull over.




Friday, July 24, 2015

Donald Trump, Presbyterian

"Oh dear Lord no."

That was my thought, when it was revealed in one of the recent interviews with billionaire gadfly and political candidate Donald Trump that he considers himself a Presbyterian.  Our "brand" has enough troubles as it is, and here The Donald proudly proclaims himself to be one of the Frozen Chosen.

It's not that he's a Republican candidate, honestly.  I disagree with but harbor no animus towards most of the Republican slate.  Jeb Bush is a genuine moderate, Rand Paul a principled libertarian, and Ben Carson seems a decent human being.  Disagree with 'em on many things, but hey, so it goes.

But Trump?  Jesus Mary and Joseph, Trump?  Trump's political rise baffles me almost as much as the idea that he's somehow part of the tradition of Calvin and Knox.  He's so transparently a showman, a carny bamboozler, that the idea that any human being would be stupid enough to willingly support his candidacy boggles my mind.  And yet they're clearly out there, if the polls are to be believed.

What makes him a Presbyterian, I wondered.  I mean, sure, he says he is, and ten billion dollars apparently lets you say you're a lot of things.  Like a presidential candidate, for example.

But really, Presbyterian?  Where does that come from?

I did a little digging about, out of curiosity.  What flavor of Presbyterian is he?

He's not PC(USA), I quickly determined, thank the Maker.  But neither is he the more conservative won't-ordain-wimmen Presbyterian Church in America, or the kind-of-in-between Evangelical Presbyterian Church.  There are other, more fundamentalist/conservative Presbyterian denominations, but he is not part of any of them, either.

The church in which he claims membership is the Marble Collegiate Church in the heart of Manhattan, which is technically kinda sorta Dutch Reformed, or was that way when it was founded.  Meaning, while it's more accurately described as Reformed, it does have an elder-led presbyterian governance structure.  So, technically, "Presbyterian."   Sure.  Fine.

Only, to be honest, that makes things even more baffling.  Because I know Marble Collegiate by reputation, and it is a very, very progressive church, the kind of church that has LGBT support gatherings and art shows celebrating diversity.  It's open, thoughtful, and tolerant...and this is the church of which The Donald is a member?

Here, a candidate makes his name by stoking the fires of lumpenrepublican xenophobia and ignorance, and he openly claims membership in a church that fundamentally opposes every aspect of his bizarre candidacy.  He did say he only goes twice a year, so I guess that might explain it, but still.

It's so odd, yet another incongruity in the brazenly incoherent public identity of this flagrant confidence man.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Feeling Less of the Feels

If my social media feeds are any measure, I have a tendency to connect with sensitive people.  Earnest, intense souls, who feel the injustices and hurts of this world very deeply.  This is true both of those human beings I've befriended in meatspace and those I've encountered only online, and I honestly wouldn't have it any other way.  I like souls who are both compassionate and passionate.

And this would be fine, were it not for the peculiar force-magnifier effect of social media immersion.

What's been happening, more and more lately, is that all of my friends are sharing all of the inputs of all of the new media that has risen up to draw their compassionate passions in.

Taken individually, it might be bearable.  But in its concentrated form, voice after voice after voice, filled with rage/anguish/ woe every moment, it's just too [gosh-danged] much.

Taken together, it's an endless wild, manipulative, hyper-emotional yarp, and mostly what I feel towards it is overwhelmed.  It's the difference between sharing a couple of bottles of a nice hoppy IPA with a friend and being crowd-shamed into chugging two Solo cups full of Everclear.

I have begun editing my social media awareness, blocking and delimiting.  A significant proportion of what I was served up daily had started to feel, honestly, like the intrusive thoughts of some psychotic meta-mind, a raging dissonant paranoiac being that obsessed and ruminated over every perceived offense and anguished over every horror, and was trying to stir me with its alien feelings.

I am not deleting/unfollowing/detaching from human beings, though.  What I do appreciate, and what does move me?  The real life that I encounter because you share it with me.  Here's the child I love, you say, and you show me.  That has meaning.  I am feeling terrible, you say, and I feel that with you.  Show me beauty.  Show me genuine personal sorrow.  Then, I feel it, because I know you.  Meaning, you're not this peculiar abstraction.  You're an individual.  You matter to me.

But the links through to the left and right wing umbrage-machines, the aggregators of outrage?  Those are too much, too much, and the emotional bandwidth they demand is too intense.  That data is still getting through, but filtered down to a manageable volume.

"If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention," goes the countering cry of the net activist, and perhaps there is some truth to that.  But if I am outraged at everything, every day, without exception or variance, then I am simply insane.  And I cannot really claim to be paying attention if I'm always upset, not really.

Because there's always something wrong.  I mean, really, there is and there will be.  Someone is always going to have done something terrible.  An injustice will always have been inflicted on the oppressed.  Someone somewhere will have said something stupid or provocative, or gotten into something with someone.

That will always be true, because there are three hundred and twenty million people in this country, seven point five billion on the planet.  There will always be an anecdote that stirs us, always and inevitably.  And if I give myself to the outrage machines, the aggregators of horror, I will either lose my ability to care or come apart.

We do not have to feel all of the possible feels.  We really don't.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Process, Emergence, and the Multiverse


There it's been, resurfacing over the last couple of weeks.

First, in a conversation with the pastor of the church where I grew up, as we sat and caught up about life and faith.  "How does that play against process theology," he asked, as I recounted my reflections on the nexus between faith and the multiverse.

Process theology, in the event that line of God-thinking hasn't crossed your path, is the idea that God is made manifest in the processes of our time and space.  Meaning, it is God, evolving, living, growing, and becoming more aware.  "The world creates God, just as God creates the world," or so the concept tends to be expressed.  It rises out of the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead, one of the most incomprehensibly brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century.

The second, in a blog post by one of the more...er...interesting sorts within my denomination, a pastor who tells everyone and anyone who will listen about how atheistic he is.  God's just made up!  Jesus is mostly a fictional fabrication!  Belief is something we should all outgrow!  Sigh.  It's good to have a niche, I suppose.

What struck me, in glancing at a short post, was that he was dabbling with the idea of an "emergent" god, one that rises out of human experience.  The idea of an "emergent" God is a recent prog-Christian phenomenon, a kind of anthropocentric process-theology-lite.  God is the best possibility of human beings, which is being made more and more manifest.  Therefore God--defined in that way--must exist.

Huh, I thought.  There it is again.

To each of these lines of thinking, a multiversal creation adds an interesting spin.  For the theologies arising out of Whitehead's process philosophy, the multiverse resolves several of the more pointed rebuttals.  Casting process theology out into a multiverse eliminates any conflation of God with one linear time or space.  God is in process, sure.  But that process is complete, and that process is just starting, and that process includes all processes that could ever possibly be processed.

And as a Presbyterian, all this thought of process almost gets me excited.  Almost.

It also eliminates the moral helplessness of the God of process theology.   If there is just one time and space, then a God that is delimited to our timeline is justifiably condemnable for moral horrors.  Holocausts and killing fields are a little hard to justify, if they are the only thing a fumbling, nascent deity can manage.  Such a being would be conceptually interesting, sure.  But it's hardly worthy of worship, or of being the focus of a transformational faith.

But the God that includes all possibility, that can tell every story, that is both emergent and complete?  That being is suitably awesome.

For the shallow anthropocentrism of "emergent" understandings of God, multiversality provides a gentle but pointed nudge out of the parochial boundaries of our selfishness.  Sure, human beings carry within themselves the seeds of the divine.  Quakers have been on that one for years.  That was the whole foundation of Stoic philosophy, if you bother studying the history of faith.

But the "I am the god that is being born" schtick needs to take into account the reality of other sentient life.   Because sure you are, honey, but so is every other living thing.  I'd expect cetaceans are more on top of that "being the god you can be" thing that we are.

And what of the life that must inevitably exist on other worlds in our vast space-time?  There must be...must be...beings of deeper awareness and perfection in this thirteen point eight billion year old, 28 gigaparsec-and-expanding universe.

If one understands the divine in terms of emergence, they are more divine than thee, puny human.

And further, cast out into the infinite churning yarp of the inflationary, quantum-branching multiverse?  There must be...must be, by probabilistic necessity...a being of such indescribable perfection that it's "emergence" is functionally complete.

It's not that either process or emergent thought are wrong.  It's that they need to go bigger, and go deeper, if they're to keep pace with the new metaphysics implicit in the multiverse.









Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Maggot Theodicy

It was part of the cycle of errands of the afternoon, the first stop in a circuit of stops. First, recycling.  Then, the Salvation Army to drop off bags of outgrown clothes and a servicable old bicycle.  Then Harris Teeter.  Then home.  It was a hot Virginia summer day, and our old van's air-conditioning is on the fritz, but so it goes.  Windows down, the smell of outgassing dash vinyl and sweat, and it's just as summer should be.

The old rust-speckled van was full of stuff as I pulled into the bulk recycling station, bearing stacks of cardboard and paper products, the oversized consumer packaging detritus of six months of American life.  I popped open the van's rear hatch, and began to unload it, breaking down boxes and depositing them in the slot-maw of the recycling bin.  It's a satisfying task.

But then the stench hit, an overpowering odor of rot and decay.  It was the smell of death, of long dead flesh in the throes of decomposition.

I looked around for the source, expecting to see a dead animal, a raccoon or possum or squirrel.

It was none of those.  It wasn't anything I could identify, just a blackened, seething mass of what might once have been a hunk of meat wrapped in butcher's paper.  And seething it was, a roiling mass of maggots, the offspring of the flies that must have found this--thing--days before.  They tumbled from the sickly-rich decay by the dozens as I watched, dropping by their ones and twos onto the asphalt.

And I realized that all around where I was standing, there on the asphalt of the recycling center, there were hundreds upon hundreds of maggots, all writhing in wild agitation.  They were all dying.  It was a hot day, the height of a hot Southern summer day, and the asphalt was burning.  I could feel the heat of it through the soles of my shoes.  There they were, these tiny white-meat grains, shuddering and flailing and casting about madly in every direction.

But it was a large lot, and there was no shade to be found.  So they were roasting alive, these little fat glistening pale flecks of life.  Not that they were aware of the cause of their plight or the scope of their lives, not of anything other than a moment of pain followed by another.  They could not curse their fate, because such things are beyond them.  They just struggled for life, and died.

I watched for a while, pondering their banal, pointless suffering.  I could, I suppose, have picked them up, one after another, cupping a mass of squirming mealy flesh in my hand and carrying them to the shaded dirt ten yards to my right.

Why aren't you helping them, queried my internal Voight-Kampff tester, and I considered it for a moment.  I have been known to help worms off of hot sidewalks, because, well, I do.

There were too many, just too many of them.  It would have taken time and methodical patience, and to get to some, I'd have had to step on others.  What was to say that the dirt would not be filled with ants, for whom the maggots would make a quick meal?  And the world does not lack for flies.  It was just carnage, the carnage of random senseless striving.

But in that suffering, I could not help but see a reflection of our own human struggles, which on a cosmic scale are really not so much larger and more significant.  Should I shake my fist at the heavens for these dying creatures, and their dim brief lives?  Should I raise my voice like Job, asking what these beings had done to deserve such calamity?

"Look at this," I would cry, pointing to the throes.  "Have you seen this horror?  Have you seen this injustice?"

This, I would shout, to the Maker of all things?  Who not only formed and shaped all being and possibility, but also stands in unmediated encounter with reality?  This, I would shout, to the God whose knowledge of those beings and their momentary pain is complete, who is not just omniscient, but omnipassionate?

What an absurd thought.

When we cry out like Job, we should expect the same answer he received.

Monday, July 13, 2015

People, Planks and Platforms

I was in a good conversation with a fellow writer, a gifted musician and pastor.  She and I were talking about books, manuscripts, and social media.

Things drifted to the dreaded "P" word, the word that is the bane of anyone trying to get into nonfiction publishing.

That word, in case it is not seared into your consciousness by the hot fires of failure and rejection:  "Platform."

In this desperate, scrambling, retrenching era for publishing, there ain't nobody willing to lay down resources unless you've got a platform.

A "platform" simply means that people know who you are.  Lots of people.  They also know that you are an expert, a name in your field.  This means that if a publisher prints up your definitive treatise about the mating dances of the long extinct North American Giant Wombat, they can be assured that the tens of thousands of amateur paleowombatologists who look breathlessly to your every new missive on the subject will slurp that book up lickity-splittish.

That's the idea behind platform, and it has a definite logic to it.  Makes total sense, if you're in that industry and want to stay in business.

It's also a self-devouring ouroboros serpent of a concept, because well-regarded books establish platform, but to publish a well-regarded book, you need to first have platform.

This creates another, peculiar dynamic, as authors scramble to hammer together platforms.  This used to be done primarily by attending conferences and meetings and gatherings, and by publishing in smaller venues.  Now, though, in this social media era, it's done by tweeting and Instabooking and Facegramming.

Gather enough followers and friends and regular eyeballs and affirmations, and lo and behold, you have a platform.

This strange dynamic was part of our conversation, because it does peculiar things to online conversations.  Every tweet and post becomes part of the anxious cycle of self-promotion.  Hey!  Here's my latest post!  Follow me!  Here's a link to the one blog post I wrote that went super-viral!  Like it and share it!  Here's a link to my latest self-published book, which you really need to read and like and review!  Five stars or nothing, please!

Hey!  Look at me!  Like me!  Love me!

It becomes tempting, oh so tempting, to start seeing the mediated relationships of online interaction through that lens.  You gather friends, you gather followers, and they can feel like objects.  They're not people that you know, not really.  They're just another plank in your ever-growing platform, crudely nailed together into an indiscriminate mass upon which you can clamber, stand and be noticed.

This is dangerous, in a soul-danger kind of way.  Whenever we view others not as fellow human beings, as creator-beloved-sparks-of-sentience, but as means to our particular ends, we kill a little bit of our own spirit.

Platforms, if we are not careful, can be the end of us.






Monday, July 6, 2015

On How to Love America

It was the third of July, and I was in the Grand Ole Opry, listening to Country music.  Enjoying it, even, though it's not generally my thing.

In the last set, a new singer was brought out, a little coltish dude with a breakout hit single about boats and trucks and beer, whose guitar hung down like an oversided decorative necklace.  He started in with the obligatory opening crowd-connect patter by uttering the words, "I love America."

No context, no build up, no lead-in, no explanation as to why, just "I love America."  There was much hooting and hollerin', it being America and all.

That got me to thinking, as I drove the ten hours back from Nashville through the heart of the deep South on the Fourth of July, about what it means to love your country.

I mean, seriously think about it, because Lord, did I have some time on my hands.

And as I thought, I reflected on love of country through the lens I'd bring to all other forms of love, and with the the things I'd say to a couple in relationship counseling.  Because while most Americans will *say* they love America, that love may not be the healthiest of loves.

Love, you see, requires you to love the whole person in front of you.  The actual person, the real, complicated, messy and imperfect person.  We do not want to do this.

Some of us would rather love the person who once was.  We want to love that person we fell in big dreamy love with ten years ago, and not the less dreamy person who's standing in front of us right now.  We want to love the one who lived for us and us alone, our best friend and lover, and not this harried distant soul who's juggling a million responsibilities and the weight of life.  We want to love that little angel-baby who never cried and never got sick, our selective memory of big eyes and cheeks and heart-melting smiles.  We do not want to love the frustrating fourteen year old who is sitting and furtively snapchatting to their friends about what a [expletive deleted] we are.

When the person we love is a person they no longer are, and maybe never were, then we do not love them.

This is how conservatives do not love America.

Then there's the love of what might be.  "I love you for who you're going to be," we say to our lover, "once I've remade you."  "You're just so messed up," we say to them.  "But I just know I can save you and make you who you need to be."  Oh Lord, if someone ever says this to you, you need to run like H-E-double toothpicks.   Because tempting as it is to be the white knight, the one who comes in and fixes and saves and makes it all right, that ain't love.  What we love then is the sense of power that tearing down gives us.  We love deconstructing for the sake of deconstructing, and that leads us to seek out faults rather than possibilities, flaws rather than living hopes.

When the person we love is only the person we want to make them into, we do not love them.

This is how progressives do not love America.

To love a person, you need to love the whole of who they are.  That means their past, their whole-truth story to date, with all of its triumph and tragedy, all of its success and mess.  You have to love their potential, which rises from the grace notes of that story in all of its complexity.

And you have to love them right now, in that ephemeral place where the told and the yet-untold meet.

That's how we love people, if we really love them.  And that love, truth be told, is the love that heals and transforms for the better.

I'm reasonably sure love of country ain't so different.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Of Pride and Probability

I find myself, for a few days, in the heart of Tennessee, in the deep south.  It's an interesting time to be here, it is, as I noted as I crossed the border between Virginia and Tennessee.

There, right along I-81, where all south-bound Yankees are meant to notice, a tall flagpole.  At the top of it, fluttering proud in the wind, the Flag.

Not the flag of the great state of Tennessee, which is all kinds of awesome, truth be told.  But the Confederate Battle Flag, the flag that's at the heart of one of our current grumpinesses.  My passengers took pictures, and noted that, yeah, we were really in the South now.

In my reflections on that over the last few days, as I've wandered around in Nashville, I've wondered about that flag, and about pride.

Let's say, for the sake of argument, that flying the Confederate Battle Flag is not about race, not about race or slavery at all.  We'll set that aside, and look straight on at the counterstatement: This flag is only about Southern pride.

The Confederate Battle Flag is about pride.  That, in and of itself, is a thing worth examining.

Because pride, well, pride is a complicated thing.

Sometimes pride is fine.  That strong fierce joy when your child has accomplished something, or when a friend succeeds, or when excellence or goodness manifests itself?  That 's a fine sort of pride.  Or when you realize that you've been bullied into a controlling shame, and manage to let that shame go and find confidence in yourself?  Self-confidence can be good, too.

And other times, pride justifies its prominent place among the Seven Deadlies.  Pride causes cruelty, and belittling of the other.  Pride cares only for itself, seeing nothing but its own egoness.  Pride is blind to the harm it causes to itself and others, because, dang, son, it's pride.  Everything it does is right, and nothing it does is wrong, not ever, not so far as it's concerned.  That's what pride does.

So the question, I suppose, has to do with proportions and probabilities.  If pride can be both good and bad, what's the percentage?  What is the probability that my pride is a bit messed up and a danger to my soul?  Given that I'm writing this in the heart of the Bible Belt and I'm a pastor, I figure, why not use Scripture for my metric?

I ran down every time the words "pride" and "proud" surface in my primary working translation of the Bible.  "Pride" surfaces forty-nine times.  "Proud," thirty-nine times.

Taken in context of the passages and verses it occurs, "pride" has positive connotations eight times.  "Proud" has positive connotations once.  Typically, those occurrences relate to pride as a source of strength and integrity in a time of oppression.

Twice, pride is essentially neutral, with both references in the Book of Job, talking about the "pride" of animals and nature.

And forty-one times, the cite for pride is negative, indicative of a spiritually catastrophic selfishness, one that creates both injustice and blights the soul of the individual.  Thirty six times, the word "proud" is negative, indicating the same fatal run-time error of the soul.  Pride in nation and social status are, if the Bible is to be believed, particularly dangerous.

So, taken in the context of this particular metric from my particular faith tradition, as we feel pride, there is an eleven point four percent chance that's a good thing.  Eighty eight point six percent of the time, it's probably a sign of a spirit-blight, the kind of self-deception that goes before a fall.

Or perhaps--because existence is not binary--the pride we feel is some admixture of the both, but tending radically and consistently towards the deepening our shadow selves.