Alan Watts suggested that belief is stagnant and unyielding to change, whereas faith is open and accepting of what is. I often say I have faith the universe is unfolding just fine no matter what any of us believe. We are such insignificant little tubes of matter, constantly ingesting, inhaling, and absorbing stuff that isn’t us, then exhaling, excreting, and sloughing off that which once was us but is now something else. We exist for a moment, comparatively so brief as to be virtually non-existent to anything but our pitiful little selves. Calm down and enjoy the ride. As Jim Morrison said, “No one gets out of here alive.”
Recently, I came across an article on Axios.com with the title “America is losing its religion.” In the article, the author (Bryan Walsh) opens by saying, “New surveys show Americans’ membership in communities of worship has declined sharply in recent years, with less than 50% of the country belonging to a church, synagogue or mosque.” He goes on to list the Gallup poll results he rests his premise on and concludes with the following thought: “But conventional religion’s power is on the wane, and it might take a miracle for that to change.”
I can’t say I’m bothered in the slightest about this trend. Being an atheist, I have a somewhat dim view of organized religion, especially when it’s used to deny rights to others based on some cockamamie interpretation of words that were uttered thousands of years ago, when life, economics, and society in general were much different than they are now.
On the other hand, I understand, and empathize with, the desire for community that religious observance brings to those who practice, but belief in a supreme intelligence/being that literally created us and watches over us is, IMO, patently absurd. I find acknowledging and appreciating how physics, chemistry, and cosmology (in other words, science) explain where we came from far more compelling and beautiful than anything to be found in any religious text I’ve read. And to be clear, my general attitude toward religion is, “what you believe is none of my business … until you start telling me or others we are required to believe as you do or we’re damned.”
So … here’s the deal. If attending services at a “house of worship” is your cup of tea, and you attend with others who share your beliefs or your faith (however you define those) I say “zei gezunt,” which is Yiddish for “be well” or, as I tend to think of it, and somewhat more ironically “more power to you.” Just keep it to yourself. Don’t bring it to the commons. Enjoy it for you and those who you consider part of your fellowship, but don’t for one minute suppose you can tell others this is the ONLY way. Do that and you will richly deserve to be shunned by others who don’t feel as you do.
PS – You can read the article, which contains a bit more detail than I’m including, here.
I came across this graphic on Facebook today. It struck me, as the concept has struck me for decades, that this should be part of any truly progressive agenda. I have been an “ordained minister” since the late sixties. I have performed approximately 50 weddings, which was the main reason I became “ordained.” It wasn’t to lead a congregation or even to claim tax breaks, and I claim no special relationship with the universe. In fact, I am an atheist.
One thing I learned early on, though, is the State considers a church a business, an organization, with the lone exception (that I can think of) of taxation. By not taxing religious organizations the State is giving them an unfair advantage over any other type of business and is, in my less-than-humble opinion, violating the 1st Amendment to the Constitution by—in fact—making a law respecting an establishment of religion.
Even more egregious is the situation depicted here. Mega churches are nothing more than income sources for their “leaders.” I believe this is Joel Osteen’s “flock,” as well as his home. Why does a follower of Jesus, a poor itinerant, and one who purports to be a spiritual leader, need a house that could probably accommodate the entire village of ancient Bethlehem? If nothing else, these huge and “Osteen”tacious abominations should pay their fair share of taxes on the revenue they get from their “flock.”
There are two books that have had an inordinately large effect on my life. One of them I can remember large parts of and can offer reasonably intelligent analyses of what the author was trying to say. The other one I can hardly recall one thing about, save for the overall message the author was trying to convey. The reason these two come to mind—and have affected me so greatly—is that they’re closely related conceptually and their messages resonate and overlap, at least as I see them and I’m pretty sure that’s about all that counts.
The first of these two books is “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” by Alan Watts. The second of these books is “Passages,” by Gail Sheehy. Without going into any detail, I’ll merely note that each of them speaks to the inexorable rhythms of life and the inevitability of change. They also offer a philosophical approach to dealing with those rhythms and changes that offers one a chance to navigate them with as little friction and pain as possible. I read the book by Watts in my early twenties. At the time I was head-over-heels in love with a young woman, but the relationship wasn’t to be and she broke up with me. I was young, impetuous, and prone to bouts of manic happiness and deep, dark depression.
I somehow found the book; how is lost in the mists of my slowly calcifying synapses. Perhaps it found me. It wasn’t the first book by Watts I had read. That was “The Book: On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are,” which I found quite helpful in navigating the changes I was going through shortly after high school, a short stint in the U.S. Navy, a slightly longer stint as a businessman, a somewhat shorter flirtation with Haight-Ashbury in the Summer of ’67, and a steadily growing antipathy toward the nation’s conduct of the war in Vietnam.
Another thing I thought interesting, and somewhat serendipitous, was the juxtaposition of the release of two Beatles records that coincided with my reading of these two books by Watts. When I read “The Book: …” the Beatles had just released “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” The book was kind of my introduction to Zen Buddhist philosophy and the concept of the dialectic as represented by the Yin-Yang symbol. I was beginning to understand the duality of nature and the essence of all forms of evolution. Some of the lyrics in the song point out that same kind of duality, e.g. “Your inside is out when your outside is in. Your outside is in when your inside is out,” and the title of the song seemed to resonate with Watts’s message that we needed to get in touch with our actual selves (our “inner monkey”) if we were to understand our place in the world and not color it with the expectations of others.
The second song, which coincided with my reading of “The Wisdom of Insecurity,” was “Let It Be” which, as I understood it was the message Watts was conveying about the reality there is no such thing as security, that all things are in a constant state of flux, and the only way to (paradoxically, a very Zen concept) achieve any semblance of security—no matter how ephemeral and transient it may be—was to stop seeking it.
Sheehy’s book, as I recall it (and I only read it once, whereas I’ve read The Wisdom of Insecurity three times) had a similar message, but it was less on a spiritual and philosophical level and more on a practical, everyday “here’s what to expect” kind of approach. She wrote of what she referred to as the “passages” we all go through as we age and gain experience, while everything around us is changing and moving forward.
The reason I’m bringing this up is because I have reached a point (a passage, if you will) in my life where I find far too many reasons to prepare myself for the end. I’ll be 74 years old three months from today. Next month I will be fourteen years older than my father was when he died. I realize I’ve reached an age where I could, conceivably, live another decade or more, but I could also drop dead tomorrow. There sure are a lot of people doing it who are younger than me.
Throw in the reality that I still have two daughters at home, one of whom is a Junior in High School, the other a Freshman in College, and it’s producing a bit of a tension arc that I’m struggling to put behind me.
I’m not trying to be morose, or overly glum. I am, however, attempting to approach what is definitely the autumn (more likely winter) of my life with as much spring in my step and lightness in my heart as I can muster. I need to understand what this passage I’m experiencing is all about (Sheehy did not write about septuagenarians) and position myself to take advantage of all it might offer. If there’s one thing I have learned over the years, it’s that there’s always benefit to be found in nearly every situation, at least until there isn’t (if that makes sense.) I am an optimist, so even when I get deeply (perhaps depressingly) introspective, I usually snap out of it within a few hours or now more than a day or two.
I’m looking forward to what the next stage of my life is going to offer. Both of my girls will be on their own in a few years, God (or whoever’s in charge of these things) willing and the creek don’t rise, and Linda and I will be on our own again. The difference for us, is we won’t be in our early to late fifties, like most people who have their families when they’re no older than their thirties. As long as I know my girls are doing well and taking care of themselves (which is an entirely different story) I’ll be OK with whatever happens. I will say this. Not having to help with high school homework will be deeply enjoyable!
As some of you know, I am working on a couple of memoirs, as well as my autobiography. In doing so, I’ve been slowly going through all my photos and files, culling out items that I can use in these documents. While I am hopeful I can make a little money from these efforts, I’m hardly depending on it and I am mostly working to preserve my memories (which are beginning to fade) for myself and my family, especially my two daughters.
What follows is the funeral service I wrote and gave for my mother, who passed away over 15 years ago. I had not seen this since I recited it that day. It was a little difficult to read. Although I did not give it attribution at the time (I may have mentioned it, though I didn’t write it in the “script”) the first paragraph is the section “On Death,” from The Prophet, by Khalil Gibran.
I am not a religious man, though I believe I am spiritual and have a deep and awesome relationship with the universe as I understand it. I did attend four years of Hebrew school and am bar mitzvah. I am also an ordained minister in the First Church of God The Father. I claim no special connection to, or knowledge of, the infinite and received this ordination in order that I might perform weddings. I have performed around 50 of them. I’ve also done a couple of funerals, but they were all in the family. Here’s the text from one of those funerals:
You would know the secret of death. But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life? If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life. For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun? And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath form its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered? Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing. And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb. And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.
On behalf of Steve and Angela, their daughters Blaire and Erika, Brooke and Paul, Myself and Linda, and our daughter, Aimee, thank you for being here today to honor the memory of our Mother and Grandmother. I must tell you I agonized for a while over using the word “welcome” in the little pamphlet we prepared for this day. I thought “Is it appropriate to welcome someone to what is a sad and solemn occasion?”
However, the more I thought about it, the more it became apparent to me this is a very intimate moment for our family and, in reality, you are more than welcome to be here to share it with us. We are profoundly grateful for the love and respect you show to our mother’s memory by being here today. What I really want to do, what I’m going to try to do, is speak not so much of my mother, though I will certainly be speaking from my experience of her, but more of our mother. I want to try and express just a little of what she meant to all of us.
How does one sum up a life of over 80 years in just a few sentences, especially when ours is so intimately intertwined with hers?
First of all, let me say this will not be a traditional Jewish funeral service, though there are two prayers that will be recited in honor of our mother. For our family, you might say Judaism was like the sun; you didn’t have to believe in it for it to shine its warmth on you. Our early life was filled with a great deal of Jewish observance and celebration. We belonged to the Sun Valley Jewish Community Center, later to be renamed Valley Beth Israel. Mom was, for a time, quite active in the Temple’s Sisterhood and counted many of her friends among the congregation.
She was not, however, (at least in her later years) an observant Jew. Despite this, she held on to her Judaism in certain, small ways which had meaning for her and which gave her comfort. For instance, she always had a mezuzah on her door, and she couldn’t help but utter a Kenahorah (Kayn Aynhoreh – no evil eye), whenever she remarked on something good that happened.
When my maternal grandmother died, my mother took it very hard. I had never seen her so upset and the memory of her distress stayed with me – at times haunted me – for years. As I grew older and began to contemplate the mysteries of life, I felt a need to know that she would grow old gracefully and that she would, when the moment came, be able to peacefully accept and embrace her death.
When the opportunity would arise, I would find a way to discuss death with her, so I could figure out how she saw things. We also talked at times about religion. When I asked her if she believed in God or an afterlife, she always responded with one of two expressions. Either she would just shrug her shoulders and give me a look, as if to say “I don’t know. Who does”, or she would wave her hand dismissively, as if to say “Why bother thinking about those things?”
Most people elicit, at one time or another, virtually every emotion we are capable of, and our mom was no exception. She could be endearing, warm, and comforting, and she could also be tough, uncompromising, and infuriating.
All of us have weaknesses and frailties. If I had to point to one of my mother’s, it would have to have been her bluntness; her habit of telling you exactly what was on her mind. Sometimes, it was hard to remember she was also a kind and thoughtful person, who was capable of giving a great deal of her self for others.
In many ways, her habit of speaking her mind was not necessarily a bad thing. When Stephen’s Sister-in-law, Erika, called the other night to express her condolences, she told me of a conversation she had with her father, Wence, shortly after he had learned of Mom’s death. She said he told her something she had not thought of before. That the one thing you always knew for certain with Annette was where she stood. That she was incapable of artifice or, in many ways, subtlety. What you saw was, indeed, what you got. I believe this honesty of hers caused her a great deal of heartache over the years, but it is, I also believe, a good quality; not a bad quality.
As I think back on my mother’s life, I can point to what I consider to be three wonderful achievements she is responsible for. They are, of course, my brother, my sister, and (I like to think) myself.
To be sure, none of us have become famous or wealthy. But I think each of us has become what she had hoped for us; responsible adults, striving to fulfill our dreams and accomplishing many of the goals we’ve set for ourselves. We couldn’t have reached the point we are at today without the values she instilled in us. We couldn’t have become the people we are today without the lessons we learned through her guidance.
She brought us into this world, and it is now our solemn duty to help her leave it. Her passing marks the end of a large chapter in our family’s life. I, personally, do not believe in an afterlife; at least not in any way that I have learned from the many religions I have studied. Nevertheless, I do believe in some sort of continuation of her life, if only in the hearts and memories of those who she loved, and who loved her. I came across a wonderful quote, which I think concisely states my feelings about this.
Death does not extinguish the light; it merely puts out the lamp because dawn has arrived.
The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: He leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for His name’ sake. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: For thou art with me; Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies; Thou annointest my head with oil; My cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the House of the Lord forever.
Mitzvot (plural of mitzvah) – Shoveling dirt on the casket. This mitzvah is known as hesed shel emet, true loving kindness. Traditionally each person at the graveside, beginning with those closest to the deceased, puts three shovels of dirt into the grave – replacing the shovel in the earth for the next mourner, rather than handing the shovel directly, to avoid “passing on death.” This mitzvah demonstrates our continuing concern for the deceased as we make sure their final journey is completed – some say we should use the back of the shovel to signify this is different than any other use we make of the shovel.
One of the ways I’ve been working on upping my writing game is by paying attention to what people are reading here on my blog so I might get an idea of what moves my readers. I have now posted well over six hundred times and about 90% of these posts are essentially essays regarding my thoughts about various things, e.g. politics, religion, life, the universe, and everything. The other 10% are tests and sharing things I’ve come across but have little to say about. I also occasionally have reason to look back myself, even if no one has recently read a particular post of mine I find interesting.
Because there have been many highly emotional news stories lately, and emotions are high to begin with, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the role of emotions and, especially, how they relate to empathy. Turns out I had written about empathy over eight years ago, long before Donald Trump’s presidency. Since the reality has hit us that he is entirely without empathy, I would like to share a concatenation of the two posts I wrote in late September of 2012. It’s my hope these two are as pertinent today as they were when I wrote them; perhaps more so because I was only writing then about my feelings and now what I wrote seems so pertinent to what we’re all experiencing in the waning days of this disastrous presidency.
The willing suspension of disbelief. What a powerful, magical, and exceedingly frightening thing it can be – at least for me. Not always, though. It’s been quite a while since my last venture into the genre but, a long time ago – in a galaxy far, far away – I read a lot of Science Fiction. Reading it can’t possibly be enjoyable if you aren’t able to suspend your ability to think critically. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hell out of what many an author hated being called Sci-Fi.
I’m normally somewhat cynical and am a fairly skeptical person, so I’m continuously surprised at how easily I can get sucked into a compelling story, especially if the characters are even moderately complex. I think it actually frightens me to realize how deeply I have disappeared into many a television drama.
This tendency has no doubt been exacerbated by my becoming a father at the ripe old age of 55, when my wife and I culminated a decision we had made a couple of years earlier and traveled to the People’s Republic of China to adopt our first child. We repeated the process four years later and, at the tender age of 59, I once again became a new father.
I now find myself immersed in shows where children are involved (it happens far more often than one might think) and I can’t help but identify with the parents, which sometimes brings me to tears – occasionally racking sobs of grief.
It has always been this way. I’ve been told the men in my family – many of them – were blubberers. Though I couldn’t have been older than five or six at the time, I recall the first time I saw my father cry. He had just received news that my Bubbie Jennie, his mother, had died. He hadn’t seen much of her since moving to Southern California. She had remained in Chicago, where both my parents were born. It was eerie, and not a little unsettling to see my father, a young boy’s tower of strength and resolve, break down like that.
It was made more difficult because I had only met her once, when she came to visit for a week, and she was unfamiliar to me. On the other hand, my maternal grandparents lived with us and I felt a strong emotional tie to them I could not summon up for her. She was by Bubbie, though. My mother’s mother was just Grandma.
I frequently ask myself, however, why I am so deeply and painfully drawn into these stories. I’m not entirely certain I have the answer, but I’m pretty sure it’s not so much the story itself as it is the relationship those stories bear to my own life.
Dictionary.com defines empathy as follows: the intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. That seems pretty straight-forward, yes? I am a fairly empathetic person and I tend toward the second part of that definition, i.e. I feel the pain of others vicariously. However, I don’t think this captures the essence of what is happening when I am fully immersed in a story.
Perhaps it’s too fine a point and the distinction isn’t all that great, but it seems to me what’s really happening is I’m overlaying the experience in the story onto my own life. I’m not so much experiencing the feelings of another as I’m experiencing the feelings I would have were I to be in that situation. I don’t think they’re the same. Then again, maybe that’s the mechanism that actually facilitates empathy.
This is a minor conundrum that comes to me most every time it happens and, usually, I forget about it within a minute or two. Lately I decided to try and get a descriptive handle on it and this is my first attempt.
Empathy is a valuable and deeply human trait. It is one of the five traits listed as characteristic of emotional intelligence which, in turn, is seen by many as a valuable business and leadership skill. It’s important to understand and to cultivate in order that we may better understand the people in our lives, whether at work, play, or home.
I want to understand what is moving me when this happens. On some levels it seems patently ridiculous to get so emotionally involved in a fiction story. On the other hand, perhaps it is really what makes us human. I’m wondering if someone with a more classical education than I have knows more of the thinking humans have brought to the subject. I’m sure some in the Arts (especially the Theater Arts) have tackled it. I’ll have to do more research. In the meantime, I’m glad there’s plenty of tissue in the house.
As it turns out, thanks to a friend I discovered an interesting answer through a wonderful TED talk by VS Ramachandran, a Neuroscientist who has studied the functions of mirror neurons. It would seem there is overwhelming evidence we humans are more closely connected than I was hinting at.
In his talk he says, “There is no real independent self, aloof from other human beings, inspecting the world, inspecting other people. You are, in fact, connected not just via Facebook and Internet, you’re actually quite literally connected by your neurons.” I find this resonates in many ways with my understanding of Systems Dynamics, Quantum Theory, and Zen and goes a long way toward answering my question. Frankly I find it a meaningful addition to my understanding, but still find myself wondering why it manifests itself so powerfully in some . . . and not at all in others. After all, the world is filled with people who are anti-social in varying degrees of severity from mild conduct disorders to outright sociopathy or APSD.
Regardless, there is much value in this talk. He speaks of the wonders of the human brain and, with respect to the issues I raised yesterday, uses words like imitation and emulation, ultimately winding his way to empathy. Rather than repeat any of his talk, I urge you to listen to it. There’s at least one very cool surprise a little more than halfway through. At less than eight minutes, it’s really engaging. Here’s the video. I’d love to hear what others think of this:
Another quite simple Photoshop effort, though all this is is a compilation of a quote I’m fond of and a photo of what is referred to as the pillars of creation, located in M16, the Eagle Nebula, over thataway.
If you study cosmology, and you’re not blinded by any particular religious dogma, it becomes clear that our evolution as a species (the human one) draws a gravity-assisted line from the first hydrogen atoms to who we are now. That we have reached a point in our evolution where we have been able to understand how we and our universe came about and developed over billions of years, I find every bit as awesome as the thought of some bearded white dude thinking us up out of nothing. Actually, I find it more awesome.
Understanding cosmological (read, primarily, stellar) as well as biological evolution is, to me, far more beautiful and compelling than anything I’ve learned from all of the world’s religions, including the one I was raised in (Judaism) and the one I was surrounded by (Christianity). I find it far more compelling and reasonable and, again for me, all the proof I need that we don’t need a “God” or “Gods” to explain how we came to be and where we’re headed.
There’s a “tripwire” somewhere Out there, downstream Where . . . I’m not sure
Some discover its presence early For some the revelation is a surprise Everyone’s waiting for it Our entire lives Some wait with dread and trepidation Some with simple resignation Many in anticipation Of what lies on the other side
Are there any who give it no thought? Like our animal brethren Who live their lives on a daily basis, Not as an ongoing saga
Many of us prepare In numerous ways Some useful Some not I know I’ve been waiting For as long as I can remember Now, however, I’m beginning to Sense its presence more acutely I feel its approach Though it’s still amorphous and indistinct
And each time someone younger than me passes I swear I can feel its hot breath on the back of my neck
Amy Coney Barrett considers herself a “Constitutional Originalist.” What, exactly, does that mean? According to Merriam-Webster, it is “a legal philosophy that the words in documents and especially the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as they were understood at the time they were written.” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/originalism)
Think about what that means. If we are to interpret the Constitution based on the realities of the day in the late 18th century, then shouldn’t the only people allowed to vote in national elections be white, property-owning men? What do we make of the 3/5 clause of Article I, Section 2 of the Constitution and how do we reconcile the 14th Amendment (passed in 1868) with the “original” intent of said Article?
In my less than humble opinion, this concept of originalism is as flawed as belief in the Bible being the infallible word of God. Both require one NOT believe in evolution; I don’t here mean biological evolution (which many Bible believers don’t recognize as real) but the natural evolution of society and its economic, political, and general attitudes toward what’s good and just for a people. Our laws, our habits, our customs, our culture, even our morals change over time; sometimes imperceptibly and others rapidly and definitively.
When the Constitution was written, the framers included (Article V) the ability to amend it and, in fact, the first ten amendments—the Bill of Rights—were needed to ensure adoption of the nascent Constitution by some of the States who wanted more guarantees of freedom from unnecessary restrictions on the States and individuals.
Inasmuch as there is a method by which the Constitution can and, in fact, has been amended how can a logical argument be sustained that it must be interpreted in light of the reality of nearly two hundred fifty years ago? This makes absolutely no sense. Two hundred fifty years ago virtually none of the structures, organizations, and technologies we currently enjoy existed. How do we interpret their use and ownership if they weren’t around when the document was written?
Originalism is a sham argument and should be completely ignored. Any jurist taking such a position is, IMLTHO, an intellectually dishonest poseur and should be ignored . . . if not ridiculed. This includes Amy Coney Barrett who, if she had any integrity at all, would not allow this raw power grab and farce of a nomination process to continue.
Since my retirement from Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne in 2010, I have spent quite a bit of energy on developing work as a social media marketer for small business, a business manager for an AI software development firm, and as an editor/proofreader for a number of business books and a couple of novels, as well as a two-year return engagement at Rocketdyne from 2015 to 2017.
I have decided to stop actively pursuing business in these fields and am now positioning myself to be a writer. I have done quite a bit of writing over the years, but I’ve never really attempted to make any money at it; at least not specifically. I’m starting out with a couple of memoirs and, currently, I’m studying the craft, creating a detailed outline and timeline, and honing my skills as a storyteller. Pretty sure I’ll be writing some fiction as well.
The views expressed herein are those of the author. Any opinions regarding the value or worth of particular business processes, tools, or procedures, whether at his former place of employment, at a current client's enterprise, or in general, are his responsibility alone.