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aging

Lately I’ve been thinking about age and what we make of it, and now we operate with it, through it, despite it. Specifically, I’ve been noticing how people make assumptions of others based on the number of years behind their belt. According to gerontologist Robert Neil Butler, who coined the term in the 1960’s, ageism is “a combination of three connected elements: prejudicial attitudes towards older people, discriminatory practices against older people, and institutional practices and policies that perpetuate stereotypes about elderly people.” Since then the concept has grown into stereotyping and prejudicial attitudes towards any group based on age.

Several months ago my beloved grandfather passed away, and I want to add “at a ripe old age of 91,” but that would just illustrate my point. After a serious case of the shingles, he declined rapidly and died within two months of the onset of the disease. The medical staff attending him, though very considerate and sympathetic, gently (and then not-so-gently) advocated for us to let him go. He had lived a full life and nobody could have asked for more from a man who spent the first 70 years in Russia, fought and survived a world war, and lived on to have children, grand children and great-grand children of his own. My mother was at odds with this idea of letting her father pass quietly, without a fight. She asserted that surely if he was able, he would have wanted to continue living, if he could speak coherently, he would have told us Yes! Keep trying with me! Don’t give up!

For the doctors caring for him, grandpa’s age played the crucial role. The assumption was that he had lived enough. It was a “ripe old age” that most men are not lucky enough to attain. And since he’d reached it, somehow that meant that he should be OK with not living any longer. This line of reasoning started to look odd if you applied it going backwards in time. So if it’s appropriate not to fight for the life of a 91 year old, what about a 90 year old? An 85 year old? An 80 year old? Why do we, healthy, youngish people get to decide when an elderly person has “lived enough?” But the opposite reaction, that of assuming grandpa wanted to continue living at all cost, was perhaps also misdirected. Mama might have been superimposing her preferences on him. A person in their mid-50’s would want to live, so naturally a person in their early 90’s should feel the same…

Ageism is equally maddening and confusing when applied to children. When I took my 10-year old daughter to a gourd weaving class designated for adults, the well-meaning teacher, herself in her 70’s, chuckled and with an exasperated sort of resignation exclaimed, “Well, this’ll be a hoot!” Lo and behold, two hours into the class my daughter proved to be the most attentive, dexterous and successful gourd weaver in the group. The teacher judged her unfairly, which was all the more surprising because at her age, she should have been familiar with the sting of age discrimination.

Children really have it tough. They are always maturing, and adult caregivers and educators never seem to keep up. Talking down to a child as if they were three when they’re ten is akin to talking down to an elderly person as if, by default, they were senile. Both are completely unacceptable, but it seems that the former happens even more often than the latter, and definitely with no consequences for the offending adult. Not only are children treated with less respect than they deserve, they also have fewer rights. They cannot go out and purchase what they want – they do not have buying power. They’re always forced to ask their parents for any of their needs, and forced to justify it. Also, they cannot get places. While we-the-adults can just hop in the car and go wherever we please, children have to plan well in advance, coordinate their drivers, beg, explain, negotiate.

You would think ageism affects only the very young and the very old. Not true. As a 30 something, I come into contact with it regularly as a result of where I work (mostly with older people) and where I serve (mostly with significantly older people). Even when I am with my husband’s friends (who are also 20-30 years older than I am), I feel like I am a little girl at an adults’ gathering. I can be delightful, I can be a fun addition to the ensemble, a welcomed decoration on what would have been quite a dreary table otherwise, but surely when the adults start talking serious, I cannot have any input. At this point it is no longer clear whether the “elders” are emitting a sense of being older, or I have already internalized a sense of being “younger” and therefore frivolous and irrelevant.

And, of course, there is age discrimination on the job: older professionals struggle with finding a new job because younger ones are less likely to have strokes and heart attacks and be a liability, and also because they can be paid less and are assumed to be more adept at grasping new technologies and being “team players.”

Truth is, you can’t get away from it. We as a society cannot ban ageism because, at its root, it is a way for us to classify people, to make general assumptions without which we cannot operate (unless we are ready to get to know each individual personally, fully, before we make any judgement about him or her). But still, it helps to be aware of the snap judgments you make about people, and to hold them in check. It’s what you’d want others to do for you, isn’t it?

miracles2

Recently I came across news that four translators working with Wycliffe Bible Translations were brutally killed somewhere in the Middle East. Tracing the story back to the Wycliffe website, I read the article and came across the following words:

“Two workers died of gunshot wounds. Two other workers laid on top of the lead translator—saved his life—and died deflecting bludgeoning blows from the radicals’ spent weapons.

We praise the Lord that He protected the computer hard drives containing the translation work for eight language projects.”

These paragraphs brought forth an almost physical sense of indignation and outrage. Not at the murderers (because that goes without saying), but at the poor choice of wording and the deeper, underlying conflict of faith that the words elicited. Namely, the text says that the Lord protected the computer hard drives but, I want to ask, He didn’t protect the people? So, while the two translators were being beaten to death by weapons and the lead translator lay underneath them, God did nothing, but when it came time to destroying the computers, then he stepped in and said, “Hey, that’s enough.”?

The Christian response to this seeming contradiction and many others like it is to ascribe all the good to God, and all the bad to chance, evil, “the way things are,” depravity, the inevitable outcome of God’s gift of free choice, etc. I’ve generally accepted this view in the past, but here, with this unfortunate juxtaposition of chance against the direct intervention of God, it becomes really difficult. If God chose to protect the computer, he could have intervened and prevented the nightmarish death of the four translators, who were clearly doing his will in a dangerous setting. Since he did not protect them, my only conclusion must be that he did not intervene with the computers either. To avoid a capricious, irrational and masochistic god, I have to believe in one that is not directly involved.

Cases like this abound. When at church we pray for the healing of two individuals from a terminal illness and one heals and the other doesn’t, what are we to think? That God looked favorably on one, answering our prayers, and was just absent for the other? Inaction is also a choice, and thinking rationally, we cannot help but ascribe it to God. As a result, here too we are forced to think that it wasn’t God that saved the healed person, but that random chance just dealt him a luckier hand.

When I ask God to provide safety for my children, I am immediately affronted with the truth that there are many children whose safety God doesn’t provide. And what makes my prayers different from those of the mothers whose children die of cancer, are hungry, are lost, are perishing? The more I ponder this, the more I am unable to look at “acts of miracle” enthusiastically because, here too, an involved God ends up bearing the responsibility for all of the miracles he left undone, the millions of people he left unsaved, unhealed, unprotected.

One probable, though difficult, explanation is that God isn’t necessarily concerned with mitigating our suffering. He is concerned with gaining us. He wants us to draw closer to him, by whatever means necessary. Since ultimately our suffering will end, this very temporary discomfort is worth the closeness we will acquire with him as we lean heavily on him, pray to him, experience his love through the care of others…assuming that others are expressing their care and we have a God to reach out to. If we don’t, we just suffer, and then we’re back at square one.

No, sometimes I cannot believe in a God that acts directly, out of heaven, in and on our lives, though I very much want to. Yes, he mourns with those who mourn, yes, he rejoices with those who rejoice. But the only miracles in this world are those done by people, through the acts of their spirits which are moved by the spirit of God. If there is another explanation that makes sense out of my quandary, I do welcome it.

The Wycliffe article goes on to say that the survivors decided to stay after the attacks and continue with the work of translating the Bible. To me, that is the real miracle here, and I don’t know how much of it can be ascribed to God and how much to those courageous translators. Or maybe the two are not so easily distinguishable…

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Photo credit: Juniper Spring Photography

Some things you only understand about your parents when you become one.

For example, my mama. She would often start cooking dinner when returning home from work, while still wearing her work clothes. Memories blissfully embedded in my mind have her facing the stove, barefoot but still in her nice business semi-formal, amber earrings, hairdo and all. I would wonder, in my practical, child-like mind, why not just change out first? What is the rush? Won’t Mama get her clothes dirty? Of course, all of us were very glad when dinner was ready, thankful and oblivious to the fact that it took actual time and effort to make it.

Now, all too often, I catch myself putting the water on for the potatoes, lighting the other burner for the fish (and forgetting about it when starting to peel said potatoes), and yelling for the kids to start setting the table all before I’ve even taken off my shoes. Well, maybe I’ll get one of them off. The having and the raising of the progeny has taught me that things always take longer than planned, and that hungry, grumpy kids and hungry, stressed parents make a volatile combination. I am thinking about us, and about them, and about getting something nutritious into the family before it begins convulsing with after-school activities. These last until 7 or 8pm, and only then do I remember to take my work badge off and hang those earrings.

Or, the work-out plan. Mama started going to the gym only when we were mostly grown. But she was always exercising. Doing a few stretches outside before breakfast. Downward Dogging it in the wee hours of the morning. Lifting weights. Forgetting weights on the counter. Feeding cat. Packing lunch for Papa, lifting a couple more times. Doing a couple more stretches. Why not just take half an hour out of the day and do a solid work-out routine, I wondered. It seemed to make sense – more efficient and more productive.

Ha! Somehow it doesn’t work that way with kids. Maybe it’s a learned behavior I’ve inherited from her (the exercising while doing everything else), maybe it’s the only thing left to do? The insight that I have now is that if I don’t do it this way, I won’t do it at all. I’ll wake up, make breakfasts for all, make lunches, sign permission slips, usher our joyful bunch out, drive them to school or rush to work, at work sink into the work things, and then we already know what post-work looks like. So I find myself dragging my medicine ball to the office with me. Leg-lifting while the children are telling me about this and that. Bending down to pick up trash with a straight back and lingering in that position a few extra seconds for the stretch benefit. Ultimately, all the body parts get a workout, only differently.

The truth of the matter is that, as children, we see our parents as two-dimensional care providers. They are fun, and strict, and warm, and comforting. They are the centers of our world, but we remain egocentric, and as such, we only see them in relation to ourselves. At some point, if we are the thinking types, we realize that parents are actual people, foibles, nose hairs, quirks and all. It seems that the only action following this revelation would be to get to know your parents as people – to ask them personal questions, to probe, to discover. Unfortunately, for us kids, that would mean that we would have to lose the parent, in a way. And unfortunately for the parents, few kids are willing to do this.

anyas

Recently I came across an interesting article on the reemergence of psychedelic treatment for terminally ill patients. The treatment involves administration of controlled doses of psilocybin, the active chemical in psychedelic mushrooms and other hallucinogens of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, to help those facing their end of life to live their last months with a renewed sense of peace and well-being.

The drug provides patients with several hours of an “experience”, as Jimi Hendrix called it, or of a good trip, as everyone else referred to it back in the day. Through this hallucinatory journey, the patient is able to give up the sense of self, and to connect to the rest of the world, to other people, to God. Most of the patients who undergo the treatment come to consider the experience as one of the top most powerful and significant in their lives: it gives them new perspective, a new sense of connection, and an ability to let go.

As this Lenten season comes into full swing, I cannot help but envy the people who get to try this new treatment, just a little. We talk about giving things up for Lent, but how sublime would it be to give up the self?.. The elderly in our church have been able to do so: they look at you and listen, they are not afraid for their fragile egos, they do not perceive everything through the prism of their own selfish ends, but, more and more, through God’s eyes. Oh, to be freed of the ego that gives birth to pride, insecurities, ambition, jealously. To lose inhibitions that arise from a heightened awareness of self, and to meld into the rest of humanity…

The article quotes Katherine MacLean, a former Johns Hopkins psychologist, who says that during a “trip”, “you’re losing everything you know to be real, letting go of your ego and your body, and the process can feel like dying…” Perhaps that’s why the elderly are better at letting their egos go: they are closer to having to let go of everything, and many things have already been taken from them… But also, they have had more time to ponder Paul’s letter to the Romans, which urges us to be dead to ourselves, and alive in Christ.

The crux of the neurology of the life-altering trip lies in the brain’s default-mode network. This is a region of the brain which plays the role of the overseer of the entire system, responsible for monitoring the informational input from various centers, funneling and limiting and controling. It is the physical place where the ego lives. The default-mode network, as the source of self-awareness and the corporate executive which controls all lower impulses, is thought to be evolution’s greatest achievement in molding the human brain. When psilocybin is administered, this is the portion of the brain that it targets, and, once found, successfully puts to sleep.

Now, when the boss is on hiatus, great things can happen. Other portions of the brain are freer. The visual cortex connects with the memory and voila! Hallucinations. Those who are, in daily life, crippled by an excessively authoritarian default-mode network, become released from their obsessions, compulsions, addictions. A mind intensely turned in on itself, as one plagued by depression, is able to losen its grip and turn outwards, once again connecting to others and noticing the world around it. A mind unable to think outside the lines taps into its silenced stores of creativity and imagination.

Curiously, the pinnacle of millions of years of evolution, a consciousness, is perceived by the church as the result of original sin. Once Eve and Adam ate the apple, “the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked” (Genesis 3:7a). Until that moment, they were not aware of themselves. They were also probably closer to God and less prone to depression and self-flagellation.

And so I return back to Lent. And for Lent, I would like to give up my default-mode network. Just for a little while, just until Easter. It is highly effective and well trained. Who wants it?

Anyone?

for the birds
About a week ago I saw in my newsfeed a motivator. It was a picture of a bird on a branch, with a caption underneath: “A bird sitting on a tree is never afraid of the branch breaking, because its trust is not in the branch, but in its own wings.” It seemed like a quaint little fortune cookie nugget of wisdom; an uplifting happy thought admonishing us to “Always trust in yourself.” It should have been harmless, but it sparked in me such a retching knee-jerk exasperation that, seven days later, I have to speak out.

I don’t even know where to start. This quote elegantly outlines the biggest problem with our modern, western culture today: we’re too damn self-reliant. We don’t trust the branches, don’t depend on community, on our family, on our friends. We don’t need anyone but our 401K and our life insurance, and as long I have a plan, I am going to pull myself up by my bootstraps through the glass ceiling and into Total Life Success. Unless, of course, I commit suicide because I feel so alone. Or I die of a drug overdose because I had nobody to turn to, no branches to perch on. I was just relying on my own wings. We suffer from so many diseases born out of our isolation, desperation and depression: obesity, alcoholism, migraines…even our own bodies turn on us as, for the first time in history, millions in first-world countries suffer from auto-immune disorders. Wake up, my friends! We weren’t meant to free-fly indefinitely. The tree is there so we can sit on it. The tree is our safety net, it is what protects us, but more importantly, it is what allows us to live life to the full.

Let me clarify.

When God created Adam, He saw that it was not good for him to be alone. He made him a partner. The veracity of that story is not what matters. Even as an ancient proverb, it bears great wisdom. Now I don’t think Eve’s main purpose was to be a helper. Or to play checkers with Adam, or to join him in a rousing game of cricket under the apple tree. The main reason she was created, I think, was so that Adam, and Eve, could both do the one, most important thing that all of us are created to do: to love.

How are you going to love, if you’re alone? It’s quite problematic, isn’t it? My frustration with the absurdity of the sentiment of that motivator overwhelms my ability to write without sarcasm. But I will try. Not only will we feel sad, lonely, etc., pretending that we’re perching on a branch but really only relying on our own wings, but we will not be able to realize our full potential as lovers of each other. Because love demands vulnerability. And trust.

People! We don’t need our wings. Where are we going to fly? What are we going to do, out there, alone, in the stratosphere?! Man is a social animal – this seems so obvious, it hardly needs proof. Surely we are drawn to one another, surely we feel more joy, more fulfillment, when we are in close community with each other. Statistics on happiness and health testify to this: people in close-knit communities thrive, while those in isolation perish. Sure, it is risky to depend on the branches. They do break sometimes. We might actually fall. But are we really willing to risk the richness of life gained through loving one another for an illusory security? Who are we, after all, that we shouldn’t break a bone once in a while? Since when has my main purpose in life become protecting my precious person from bruises and upsets? Businesses prey on people like us, who are afraid of falling, and use that fear to control our actions, our resources, and ultimately, our lives. I am reminded of Pink Floyd’s Machine: Did you exchange a walk-on part in the war, for a lead role in a cage? A chilling, prophetic question.

So, returning to that ridiculous motivator, I implore us all: let’s take that risk. Let the tree wrap its arms around you. Rely on others and put your weight on those branches. Forget your wings.

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