Monday, November 24, 2008

Held holiday hostage (hell)

Writing will be sparse if at all until after Monday Dec 2. The kids are out of school this entire week, and Connor is off on Monday, too. With kids around I can barely string together two consecutive thoughts. Oh yeah, and to add to the joy Gary is going to Asia on the 1st, to be gone til the 13th.

Coherence won't be my strongest suit.

Witness today, where I've had on the calendar for months Connor's school conference. I signed up for it so long ago that it didn't stand out that I was creating a scheduling conflict when I invited Scott's school friend over to spend the night. I was going to be down at the school for Scott's school conference with Billy anyway, and Levi was going to be in the after-care program, so I offered to bring him home with us. I made the offer in the way that one may consider going to the spouse's high school reunion, Thanksgiving dinner with dubious relatives, or a mammogram. This kid has the most irritating high-pitched voice which grates like fingernails on the black board and if anything is even more hyperactive than Scott. The kids had been begging for a while, so I agreed to it while forgetting about Connor's conference at 7 pm.

Connor has no tolerance for Levi and so I suggested to him that he find himself a place to shelter for the night. I went to Scott's conference and got a call from Connor: his friend couldn't have him for the night, but he could stay at our house. I thought about it and determined that 4 kids might be better than 3 and so agreed to that. Hung up and then remembered Connor's conference.

It's probably a 20 minute conference, but with the 10 minute or so drive to and from the school it would be closer to an hour they'd be without adult supervision.

Connor and Scott I can leave with some peace of mind for an hour or so; Connor, his buddy, Scott and Levi would be foolhardy. I'd probably come home to blood and hair. There's also the element of the friends' parents, especially Levi's, who might be doubtful about their child being left in the 'supervision' of a 10 and 11 year old. And Connor's buddy's parents who may not want their child to be saddled with that responsibility.

It's probably a 20 minute conference, but with the 10 minute or so drive to and from the school it would be closer to an hour they'd be without adult supervision.

What to do:

(What I could NOT do was ask our neighbors across the street. They've already filled in thrice in babysitting emergencies, so they were off limits. I could not face asking them again.)

1) ask my next door neighbor, who is in the middle of a house renovation, to sit with them for an hour, just as an adult Presence in the house

2) ask the school secretary if I could bring all 4 of them and let them be in the school gym while we conferenced

3) reschedule appointment

The next door neighbor was willing, but she has a dinner commitment with the people who have already watched my kids 3 times. She would need to be there at 7:30.

No, the kids can't be alone in the gym.

No, there are no other evening appointments available on another day. Gary really wants to go.

Gary's unhappy at the boys spending the night because he'll be working late into the night to get ready for his trip to Asia.

So...I arranged for Gary to go by himself tonight and scheduled myself an appointment for tomorrow mid-afternoon. I think it'll work. Turns out Connor's friend can't spend the night after all, and if necessary his mom offered to take Connor for a few hours tonight if things are dicey with all four of them.

So far so good though. It's working the way it's supposed to (shhhh!): each boy occupied with his own friend, in largely separate parts of the house.

It's just the temporary nature of this peace, though, that keeps me from settling fully into a blog post that means more to me--in the words of Gen. David Petraeus, the calm is 'fragile and reversible'.

Lawd have mercy.

Friday, November 14, 2008

When religion becomes cruel

I've thought a lot about the nature of reality and read a bit, to the extent that my uneducated mind can comprehend. One of the nuggets I come away with is a sense of scale. We live at a scale where certain physical laws are obeyed, and humans spent centuries decoding them. With the advent of microscopes humankind discovered that our physical presence isn't solid at all, but a collection of cells. These seem to 'obey' the physical laws that govern the macro scale. Humans searched on, to find the nature of those cells, drilled down to molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles. At these scales the 'laws' of physics appear to not apply. It's not gravity that holds the nucleus of an atom together. We see that an atom is mostly empty space, and the location of the electrons around them is a matter of probability.

How can the solid world we experience have its foundation built upon particles that may or may not be there?

When do the physical laws we know cease to apply? Perhaps physicists have already answered this and I don't understand enough to know it.

As I thought about these things, I thought about religion. I thought about the extent to which it is applied. One of the criticisms that the fundamentalist churches have of more liberal churches is that they don't take the Bible literally enough. I suppose the reasoning goes, if you're going to be a Christian, then you need to live in accordance with God's will. And the Bible is that map of God's will. And if we don't apply it literally, well then our (Originally) sinful nature will make excuses to express itself.

As a former fundamentalist I can testify to how crucial a question this is. We firmly believe in Original Sin, which is the reason Christ came to earth to be crucified in order to redeem us. If you're a fundamentalist you believe that your purpose is to live lives that are pleasing to God. You also believe that you're continually locked in a struggle with your "old sin nature" which is wily, tricky, and will assert itself given half a chance. Adhering to the Bible is the antidote to this problem. And once you get started with literal application, there is no logical place to stop.

Lovingkindness is the way that Christianity is supposed to manifest on earth. However, following a logical progression of what it means to take the Bible literally leads to a paradox--it becomes the antithesis of itself. Today I read in a post of a lesbian couple whose son is enrolled in a Christian school. Noticing that one of the partners is frequently at pick-up a teacher asked if they were 'together'. A few days later the boy's mother is called into the school director's office for a 'word'. The director told her that this school has a birthday party policy--that no child can be invited to a party without everyone being invited. However, they were now changing this policy, because some of the parents may not "feel comfortable" with the boy in their homes. A 5 year old boy. They were changing this policy solely on account of this child.

When Jesus made the allegory of straining the gnat and swallowing the camel, it was precisely situations like this he was referring to. I don't know whether to be more floored at the injustice, or at the blindness of this school to what they are doing: they are changing a school policy which is meant to ensure that everyone is included, in order to EXclude a 5 year old boy. They're doing it unaware that they are swallowing the camel. They are acting as an agent of Satan, yet firmly and fervently believe they are acting according to how God would want them to act. Their hearts are hard, and hardened.

I can understand religion as a force for right-behavior, a vehicle for teaching people the kindest way to treat each other. At what point though do the 'laws' that govern Christian behavior cease to have jurisdiction and and different 'laws' apply?

Sadly, looking over Christianity's often bloody history it appears that literal application of the law results in violent ends. And it appears that lesson hasn't been learned yet.

Monday, November 10, 2008

God on Trial

PBS aired this program last night on Masterpiece. I'm struck with the universal themes this revisits, another turn of the wheel on the questions of suffering, good, evil, and how a merciful God can permit it.

The scene is Auschwitz, a present-day memorial, visited by a tour group. As the guide takes them through, she tells them that as new prisoners were brought, others were killed to make room for them. There is a rumor that one such group put God on trial.

As the program begins we are taken to an Auschwitz sometime before the end of World War II. A cell block of men, stripped naked, are paraded before a (presumably) dr who is evaluating them. Some are grouped to the right, some to the left, all given numbers. Half of them will be killed, but they don't know which half.

Returned to their cell block, not knowing who is to die the next morning, they are interrupted when a group of new prisoners, still in the clothing they'd been taken in, still unshaven, are thrust into the barracks. The prisoner in charge of the inmates tells them bitterly that because of the 'efficiency' of the German rails, the prisoners have arrived a day early and will be sharing the already cramped quarters with them that night.

Bitter feelings are expressed toward God, which are denounced by one man, Kuhn, as 'blasphemy'. It's clear that this is personal for him, a macrocosm of his conflict with his son Mordechai who he feels has wandered far from the faith. The rabbi Schmidt states that there is precedent in struggle with God, citing Job and the story of Jacob who was renamed "Israel" after striving with God all night . He gives support to setting up a rabbinical court with himself as Court Father. A German who was a professor of law agrees to be Head of the court and Mordecai insists on being the Dayan, or the Questioner.

First they must come up with a charge, and they decide upon murder, and breach of Covenant: God made a Covenant with the Jewish people, that they were His Chosen People...that God's favor would be upon them and He would "smite" their enemies.

Kuhn insists that Jews have strayed from the teachings of the Torah, have drifted from God and what they are experiencing is the consequence of this. He cites ancient Jewish history when the Jews have 'forsaken' God and been punished; this is the reason for the situation they're in.

Mordechai calls one of the newcomers, a member of a tiny Polish village. He asks if this man's village loved God and stayed true to the Torah. In great sincerity the man said that they did: "In our poverty the Torah was the palace in which we lived in splendor." Yet the Nazis came, killed his mother before him, forced him and the other survivors to bury their dead; forced them to take the rings from their parents' bodies and give them to the Nazis.

Another witness is called who says that God's punishments are not surgical, frequently not proportionate, citing the Flood. He suggests their ordeal is a part of a purification, a sacrifice, where only the best are sacrificed. This brings comfort to the man who had buried his mother.

Another, a Jewish scholar who was among the newcomers, adds that God's actions are not personally directed...that the conditions they find themselves in are not God punishing them personally, that His movements are vast and impersonal in scope. "We may hate the surgeon's knife, the the surgeon's act is an act of love."

"What use is an impersonal god?" asks one. Another retorts, "God is to be of use to us, then?"

At one point the proceedings are interrupted as prison guards flood in and remove the newcomers. They are stripped of their clothing, forcibly shorn, given prison garb and returned to the cell.

The dynamic is very different now. While these man had had the clothes on their back, their spectacles and their fillings, there had still been an illusion they could cling to of some sort of self-determination. There was silence, and then one of the newcomers spoke up and said he would like the trial to continue to conclusion.

Why didn't God intervene on behalf of His people? One man answers that it is on account of God having given humans Free Will. In a rage one prisoner demands that another tell his story of when he was taken, what happened to him. At first the prisoner demurs, but when the angry man says he will tell it regardless, the prisoner says if anyone is to tell his story, it will be him.

He says the children, among them his three sons, the oldest seven, were put on a truck. As it was driving away he ran after it, shouting for it to stop, to give him his sons. The driver did stop, and asked who were his. He said he'd thought the soldier was going to give them to him, and so he identified them. And the soldier told him to choose one. The children heard this, all of them crying, begging him to choose them. Where was his choice? Where was his free will, he asks. (The Head of the Court asked him if he knows what became of his sons. He said that two of his sons were twins, and he'd heard they'd gone to Mengele. He took comfort in this, saying he'd heard that Mengele 'likes' twins...)

I've been sympathetic to the argument of free will. It makes a kind of sense to me that when people exercise their free will and choose evil that this may have consequences for others who do not have might on their side. And God, having resolved that we should have the freedom to choose, is unable to intervene without violating our free will.

However, an impassioned argument at the end gave me pause. This man took over the questioning and asked the scholar: When God delivered the Israelites from Egypt--why were they in Egypt. "There was a famine..." "and God sent the famine? And when God told Moses to tell the Pharaoh to release the Israelites, what happened when the Pharaoh did not? He turned water to blood! He brought plagues, frogs, locusts, mosquitos, rats, and then boils. Did he bring it on just the Pharaoh? No! He brought it upon the entire Egyptian population, leaders and slave alike, except the Israelites. And then what happened?" The scholar, speaking more softly now replied that God had sent an Angel of Death. "And who did this angel slay?" "The firstborn son of every Egyptian." "From the rulers down to the slaves, every firstborn child was slain. NOT the Pharaoh, but the children, infants!"

"And what happened when the Children of Israel left, following Moses? Did the Pharaoh let them go in peace?" "No, he sent an army after them." "And when Moses and his people had crossed the Red Sea, did God let the sea close behind them immediately? No! He waited until the soldiers were in the very middle of the sea in pursuit and then let the waters close over them and drown them all."

The man went on, example after example. God's people being used as God's instrument to punish, to drive prior inhabitants from their lands. Whom God demanded that no mercy be shown, and when Saul, one of Israel's kings did show mercy God punished him. God's punishment to David for his sin with Bathsheba, not to just take the child they had together, but to cause that child to suffer in pain for 7 days before dying.

Powerful examples of where God had intervened, surgically, and personally, contrasted with where He had not. Why then? Why not now? "God is not good!" this man bellowed, "He is only strong. When he told Abraham to kill his only child, Abraham should have told him 'NOOOOOOOOOOOO!' God should learn mercy and justice--from US. Do you know what was on the belt buckles of the men who rounded us up? 'Gott Mit Uns'! We were powerful, when God was on our side. Now He's on someone else's side. He's made a new Covenant--with someone else!"

The guards burst in to take those who were slated to die. They covered their heads, with their hands, to pray.

All the arguments about God's role in the world, in suffering, in evil--in the crucible of a Holocaust prison. All questions we've had too, in the crucible of our own suffering. We're gifted with the ability to reason, yet this seems beyond reason. I'm struck at how we go around and around turning this wheel, and yet how open-ended the Problem of Suffering remains.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Thank you, Mrs. Spit


Read history, thus learn how small a space

You may inhabit, nor inhabit long

In crowding Cosmos — in that confined place

Work boldly; build your flimsy barriers strong;

Turn round and round, make warm your nest; among

The other hunting beasts, keep heart and face, —

Not to betray the doomed and splendid race

You are so proud of, to which you belong.

For trouble comes to all of us: the rat

Has courage, in adversity, to fight;

But what a shining animal is man,

Who knows, when pain subsides, that is not that,

For worse than that must follow — yet can write

Music; can laugh; play tennis; even plan.

Edna St. Vincent Millet

Mrs. Spit may not realize what a rabbit-hole she sent me down when she mused to me about 'the Problem of Suffering.' She articulated a concept that I've experienced, but was never able to find words for. I feel as if I've suddenly been gifted with a new language, one that permits expression of emotion which isn't permitted by my native tongue.

In some sense this absolutely was a test - in the sense that a test is often, at some level, binary in nature. A test is the idea of choosing. And so when I ask "why her, and not me?", it is obviously a test in that I have to accept that I probably would have been a good mum, and she was, at least in the brief moment I saw her, a bad mum. And she had 2 children, and I have none. There is a test in the idea that she has, unjustly what I want.

And that leaves me with a few options. Perhaps it's my political science and philosophy, but I am reminded of the problem of pain, as CS Lewis put it. Pain leaves us in a place where we either have to accept there is no God, because there is pain, There is a God, but he doesn't care about us, and has left off active participation in the universe, and that's why there is pain, or that there is God and there is pain, and the reasons and explanations of how both exist defy my explanation--Mrs. Spit

Instantly I'm reminded of Schrodinger's cat, in Schrodinger's box, where the cat is either alive, or dead. The situation is binary in nature. But...there is that place--before we look, where he either is, or isn't, alive or dead.

I think it's beyond the power of the human mind to conceive. When I contemplate it and try to juxtapose the two, I get a sensation of two like poles of a magnet repelling each other.

It's the collision of 'what is' with 'what should be'. The fact of a Basic Need, denied. By 'basic' I mean inherent: something we are born into this world programmed to expect. Food, water, shelter, touch, intimacy. When these needs are denied, either by being withheld or simple absence, our need doesn't go away. What 'should be' is that humans' basic needs be met. 'What is' is frequently the barrier our needs hurl us against, again and again.

I've met this place, over and over again, in the most mundane of circumstances, to the most profound. How many among us have been stuck on hold on the phone, awaiting answer to a pressing question, loath to hang up and go to the back of the queue, but caught between: "they're never coming back--my call has been dropped" and "They're about to pick up any second and if I hang up now I'll miss it"? For me it can be excruciating to be in that place between.

This place appears in my dreams. I've dreamed about going to Sharon, my counselor, with something important to tell her, and there are people there. I am caught in the space between where it is unacceptable for me to speak intimately in the presence of these people--yet it is unacceptable to leave without sharing these thoughts with her. I've dreamed of being kept waiting in restaurants, where the wait becomes unacceptable yet leaving and finding another restaurant seems futile too. Maybe my turn is next and I'd be leaving just before I'd get what I was waiting for. Very trivial inconveniences in a world of profound losses and suffering--yet what's in common is the tension between a need (on), and the lack of its fulfillment (off).

And perhaps it is this tension, this very suffering that carries the transformative potential. Perhaps this is the place where light hits a lens, and emerges transformed from the other side. A kind of beauty in its splintering. This is where atoms transform into molecules, where the gap is bridged between the two.

It seems to me to be human is to experience this place as a consequence of living. The posts I've been writing about frustration in children are descriptions of this place. We've encountered it early, and often, from the breast that doesn't arrive when we want it, to the toy some other child has just walked away with, to squirming from the discomfort and boredom of being trapped in a long line, and so on.

It occurs to me, that this is the Place that's pivotal to our ability to move on in our development as human beings, to borrow a concept also first posed by Mrs. Spit. She proposed it, and I've been running with it ever since. The usual response to childish frustration is to punish it, patronize it, attempt to gratify it. We learned early that part of growing up is learning to manage the feelings that happen in our bodies when something blocks fulfillment of a heart's desire. Some of us learned that our expressions of pain inconvenienced people who matter, and we were considered to be maturing to the extent that we could keep unpleasant emotions to ourselves and not bother anyone with them.

We are most often left alone in that excruciating place, with no skills to cope with the painful feelings there.

And it occurs to me that this is the place we need someone to abide with us. This is what we need from other human beings, and when we receive it, we grow. We need someone there to model the transformative power of these overwhelming feelings. This is part of the very foundation of our Souls. Incident by incident, having someone to abide with us in that binary place lays down a solid Self from which we emerge and stand; from which we launch ourselves into the world. Without it we still develop and grow, but there is a core hollowness in those bricks that build our infrastructure. Most of us carry this hollowness inside.

Oftentimes people marvel at the Power of having someone abide with them when they are suffering loss, and pain: not trying to fix the pain, or minimize it, but just be there as Witness. It is powerful because it fills a deeper need than Doing ever could.