Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Generous Trickle Down Theory and Human Dignity

For someone who thinks mainly in religious terms, it may seem that I write about economics too frequently.  You may think it's not my domain and so I should stay out; I don't know what I'm talking about, so shut up, you may also think.  Having that attitude, though, will of course only perpetuate the status quo.  If we never allow anyone to ask the question, "What is the most Christian form of economy possible?" then we may never approach a more compassionate economy and mode of production.  At the end of the day, for Christians or persons of any faith, an economy of compassion is and should be our main concern.  As long as there are people starving, living in dire conditions, and unable to afford basic necessities through no fault of their own even in the most wealthy countries, our thoughts should turn to how we might improve the well-being of our fellow sisters and brothers.

In a couple of fairly recent posts, I tried detailing what might be a Christian approach to economic questions.  There I argued that the concept of socialism/communism, if not also the practice, best fits discipleship of Christ transposed onto economics.  For many Westerners and Americans particularly, that argument may feel like a betrayal of inherited values.  We are taught, appropriately or not, to hold an aversion to socialism because capitalism works.  In a way, certainly, capitalism does work, and so I'd like to expound on my earlier essay, "It's Not the Economy, Stupid," now from the perspective of capitalism.

To do so, I'd like to refer you to the writings of Kurt Vonnegut.  In a number of short stories and novels, Vonnegut includes dystopian elements of communistic thinking.  Taken to an extreme, communistic thinking would result in the strongest people living life carrying around weights; the smartest people having electronic devices implanted on their brains to zap them whenever they have an intelligent thought; the wealthiest people attacked zealously as the scourge of the earth.  Such a world obviously sounds miserable and backward.  Striving for total equality in all ways would reduce everyone to the lowest common denominator and eliminate the greatness of human creativity and potential.  Vonnegut well argues, through irony and sarcasm, for a capitalistic mindset, a mindset that would allow and continue to encourage human ingenuity, art, and progress. 

It should be said that Vonnegut had a compassionate worldview.  He witnessed the WWII Dresden fire-bombings first-hand and considered most, if not all, war and killing as mindless and senseless.  Overall Vonnegut wanted us to love each other, to see each other as fellow human beings meandering through life, and make way for each person to live life to the fullest.  His was not a conservative worldview by any means.  Vonnegut cannot be faulted for using literature for the same neo-conservative purposes as Ayn Rand.  Indeed, in terms of worldview, Vonnegut was decisively liberal and progressive.  Yet at the same time, by artistically and truthfully showing us a world dominated by socialist principles, Vonnegut masterfully upheld the goodness of free capitalistic tendencies. 

Perhaps nowhere is Vonnegut's pro-capitalist but compassionate worldview at work more than his first novel, Player Piano.  In Player Piano, the country and each community are segregated between the engineers and managers, and the laborers.  The engineers and managers operate the machines, manage production, and constantly invent new and more effective machines.  Automation has become so effective and widespread that labor is hardly necessary any more.  We catch glimpses of large construction crews idling for hours beside a single pothole because if they finish the work too quickly, they won't have anything else to do.  Everyone receives a basic universal income that provides for all their wants and needs, enough to even supply them with the newest models of laundry machine, dishwasher, and stovetop/microwave that so reduce the need for manual labor that there is nothing left to do at home except sit in front of the TV.  Player pianos, even, have become so effective and beautiful that there's no longer any need for musicians.  Orchestras are so rare that the new form of card shark is to memorize what song orchestras are playing on TV simply by watching the hand motions and then challenging newcomers to guess what song is playing with no sound.  Socialism has run amok.  The means of production are effective enough to provide a universal income effective enough that each human life has been reduced to a blob of nothingness.  Human dignity, in the form of work and purpose, has been completely erased. 

The plot of the novel is a member of the engineer/manager class wanting to return to the land, to re-build human dignity by giving humans work to do.  Essentially, the engineer/manager wants to return to a purely capitalist society where a person needs to work hard by the sweat of the brow to earn an income and thus have meaning and purpose in his or her life.  He therefore joins a revolution amongst the laborers on the other side of the river against the engineer/manager class.  The revolution almost instantly fails for three reasons: the revolution was too aimless in purpose; people had become too much of a blob to care to participate in any revolution; the engineer/manager class had become too powerful and pervasive.  The capitalistic, dignified revolution was doomed, and the dystopia of socialist principles was complete.  It doesn't take a genius to conclude that it is better to avoid such a miserable future by strengthening capitalism and continuing to demand that each person work for their worth, to prove her or his capital through labor.

On the other hand, if you have read Player Piano, you'll have taken issue with my summary of the novel to this point.  The issue in the novel isn't so much with capitalist versus socialist worldviews and principles but with automation.  When human life becomes entirely automated, life is no longer human.  Again, Vonnegut sees real beauty in humanity and in what we're capable of.  Handing over every aspect of life to a machine, including art, destroys the essence of humanity.  The society Vonnegut paints in Player Piano doesn't have issues because of a robust universal income but because that universal income is used, to a person, to do nothing--to watch TV, redecorate our homes every few months, and watch machines create art.  Sixty years before Wall-E, Vonnegut showed us the insides of an entirely technological society, using Jacques Ellul's definition for 'technological'--a society that has found the best, most effective way of doing absolutely everything such that there's nothing left for a human life to do.  And, ironically, this is precisely the nightmare capitalism is gleefully driving toward.  If we're not careful, the end result of socialism and capitalism is the same.

Principally, the concept of socialism/communism states that all people should be given the same universal income so that each person can concentrate on pursuing their natural gifts, talents, and pleasures.  It is a concept of compassion, not wanting any person to work themselves to death in a field or job in which they find no pleasure.  In theory, the concept is attained by increasing the effectiveness of production to such a degree that fewer human laborers and human labor hours are required to provide the basic necessities for every person, thus ensuring that each person can focus on other pursuits.  On the other hand, the concept of capitalism states that each person should be given the freedom to find their own work and increase their own capital in whatever means they can.  It is a concept of liberty, asking and demanding that each person find their own way and own means of success.  In theory, those who have capital will seek to gain even more capital for themselves, and to do so will seek to increase production and the effectiveness of production, which before the age of the machine meant that those with capital would trickle down capital to laborers by creating more jobs to produce more and also increase wagers to encourage greater laborer morale.  Before the age of the machine, the trickle down theory at least made sense and was in contrast to the socialist/communist principle.

After the age of the machine and the coming of a truly technological society a reality, the likes of which Vonnegut portrayed for us, in which humans seek the best and most effective means of doing absolutely everything, capitalism is no longer associated with any trickling down.  Rather, capitalism is concerned with better machines and technique.  The end result of such a capitalistic society is the elimination of human work.  We see this already in almost every field.  The greatest threat to factory jobs in the future is not government policy but capitalism: a capitalistic focus will increase automation to the point where only a few engineers/managers will be needed to sit in front of machines and blinking lights.  Even doctors and nurses are being replaced by automation.  It is more 'effective,' apparently, to plug symptoms and data into a machine and then transmit automated advice and treatment to the patient.  Remember the Roomba?  For some, the automated, hands-free cleaning device was and is nothing more than a silly attempt at robot cleaning.  Yet there is no question that we as a society will seek to improve the technique of cleaning, and eventually we will reach the point of complete automation, in which we no longer need to do any cleaning ourselves.  On one hand that seems like a good thing, but it also means the loss of many jobs.  Almost everything we humans do can be automated and, in capitalism, it is our duty to seek out and implement that automation because it is the most effective and productive and profitable.  Capitalism, therefore, by nature seeks to put people out of work.  It is not unreasonable, then, to predict a Vonnegut-like world in which the only people who have any meaningful work to do are the engineers/managers, a class that comprises a small percentage of the population.  Such is the future of capitalism left unchecked.

And if human work is linked to human purpose, as the principle of capitalism argues, then, again, the natural and extreme result of capitalism is the same as the natural and extreme result of socialism.  Both end in the misery of a human life lived without dignity, without meaning, without purpose.  Capitalism seeks more capital, which seeks profitability, which seeks effectiveness, which seeks automation, which puts people out of work, which erases meaning.  There is no escaping a future of human indignity, it seems. 

If a future of human misery and indignity is inevitable, then we may ask what the better of two evils is.  I think it is rather clear that the worse of two evils is a future in which not only are we miserable but most of us are also destitute, starving, and dying.  The socialist dystopia at least cares for the well-being of the person.  Capitalism also, believe it or not, cares of the well-being of the person, but in the age of the machine, the capitalist dystopia naturally cannot care for the well-being of the person. 

Of course, asking which dystopia we choose is rather pessimistic and, hopefully, unnecessary.  Within Vonnegut's reality may be the hints of an alternative.  Again, the issue in the novel is not the universal income but the meaninglessness of life created by such a universal income.  That meaninglessness, however, is avoidable. 

Combining the effectiveness of capitalism, which sees greater and greater profits through automation, with the compassion, generosity, and purpose of socialism could create a future we'd like to live in.  Since the trickle down theory no longer applies in its original form, now being a complete delusion, we can adjust it to fit the reality of automation.  We can say that with each job lost or limited by greater automation, thanks to capitalism, we can distribute the profits from that effectiveness throughout society in the form of a universal income.  This trickled down universal income would not aim at total equality but instead at an easier life for those most impacted by the negative side of capitalism.  Therein lies the generosity, ensuring the necessities of life through capitalism's inherent success and socialism's inherent compassion. 

At the same time, we can emphasize that, indeed, work of some kind does provide meaning and purpose to human life.  A human life with nothing to do is undignified and miserable.  To ensure that our combination of capitalism and socialism works to the good, we then disassociate capitalism from technological progress.  What I mean by that is that we seek to use capitalism advantageously to increase production and economic effectiveness but no longer seek the best, most effective means of doing everything.  Other than producing life's necessities, society passionately fights for the human in other areas--the 'human' being creative, meaningful, and sometimes ineffective.  We do our own doctoring, cleaning, nursing, kid-raising, preaching, painting, acting, beer-making, and on and on, in the way we enjoy to and we find meaningful. 

Take something as silly and painful as potty-training.  My wife and I are currently discussing potty-training our oldest son.  About a year ago now we tried and failed and then decided to give up until our second son were a little older and more manageable.  Now, my wife feels that she has learned what the one, best form of potty-training is.  How couldn't she, with books upon books building off one another, getting closer and closer to the 'one, best' way?  My wife is not alone. Parents everywhere are searching out that one, best way.  Nothing against my wife, of course, or any other parent, but I wonder why we should concern ourselves with the one, best way.  If we do that, then eventually we might as well hand our kid over to an automated potty-training machine programmed in teaching the one, best way, and we'll have skipped right over Vonnegut's dystopia to Wall-E's dystopia which, if you haven't seen the movie, is truly terrifying but accurate.  Our own programming to find the one, best way ignores the joys of living out the vagaries and vicissitudes of life, and we thus find less meaning and purpose in life, even in such a small, mundane, but painful thing like potty-training.  The stakes are more clear in terms of art, where reality has caught up to Vonnegut and a machine has now taken up painting portraits.  It is instead possible to encourage and develop human creativity, ingenuity, and existential potential, and therein find greater meaning and purpose, but we must be willing to endure ineffective techniques, ineffective living, and constant diversity.

Enduring ineffectiveness--"ew, that painting does nothing for me," or "that doctor doesn't know what he's talking about!"--and diversity--where saying, "why in the world do you put the toilet paper roll on the wrong way!" or, "you know, there's a better way to plant a garden," no longer make sense--will require a significant change in attitude.  This change in attitude, however, is the only solution or cure the future we're heading toward.  Disassociating capitalist production from acquiring the best technique in all areas of life is our only hope.  The means by which we secure such a change in attitude, at least partially is by accepting and ascribing to the generosity and dignity that socialism promotes.

At the end of the day, the socialist universal income that Vonnegut portrays for us is actually quite good.  It would promote health, mentally and physically, and give us plenty of time to pursue life, liberty, and happiness.  And the only way we can do that is by strengthening capitalist production without the capitalist worldview.  It would be a generous trickle down theory guaranteeing universal human dignity.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Christian Disciples and National Elections

For the past couple of weeks, before election day, on my way to my church in Waterbury Center, I drove by a sign that read, "Your Vote Is Your Voice."  That sign terribly bothered me and it felt like a thorn in my side every time I drove past.  Why?  Because your voice is your voice; your life is your voice.  And I don't know about you, but if I had to live two consecutive years without speaking, without using my voice, I'd consider myself in a strange type of hell.  So this little essay is one small piece of an attempt to work out how a disciple of Christ is supposed to approach voting and elections to avoid any strange hells.

First of all, I am glad that I decided to wait until after the election to write this essay.  This morning--the morning after the election--I was bombarded, whether I liked it or not, with news coverage about what the election results mean for the next two years.  It was a perfect example of our obsession with the popular mantra, "one man, one vote."  We should add to that mantra to say, "one man, one vote, one day."  Citizens and media of this country, and probably of many countries, pour countless hours of worry and countless torn hairs into making change and voicing themselves for one day, and are then content or discontent with the results of that one day for years to come.  The media coverage this morning implied that the balance of Democrat or Republican (no mention of 'third' parties, of course) decided yesterday, on the national and state level, will create a static political environment for the next two years.  By 'static' I do not mean that having a Democrat-controlled House of Representatives will not lead to different political outcomes than in the previous two years; I mean that, starting with inauguration in January, day after day for the next two years will be the same. 

Residents of Vermont should know that the story we tell of an election determining political outcomes is false.  We elected a Republican governor in 2016, seemingly stamping out any hope anti-gun legislators had of introducing gun restrictions.  Then came the shootings in Parkland and Texas and our own almost-shooting in Fair Haven.  After all that, Phil Scott described himself as "jolted" (the title of what is now a great podcast about the Fair Haven almost-shooting) and encouraged and then signed bills restricting gun use and ownership.  Life happened.  More than that, the March for Our Lives and student school walk-outs happened, as well as mounting and consistent pressure from students, parents, churches, and others on politicians.  What led to the changed political landscape concerning gun laws here in Vermont was, mostly, the activation and use of people's voices.  No election necessary.  Political outcomes need not be static or determined by one day, one vote, or the balance between Democrats and Republicans.

In fact, political outcomes should not and should never be determined by one day or one vote.  'Politics' is and should be defined as the actions taken by a person to care for the 'polis'--a Greek word meaning a community of people.  At the very least Christians, if not all people of every religion, should be political almost all the time.  Christians should be concerned about the community of people around us.  The entire Bible, and especially the prophets and Jesus himself, make very clear that faith cannot be lived in a vacuum.  Rather, our faith must be lived out in concern for the poor, oppressed, and widows, according to the prophets; and according to Jesus and the New Testament letters, our faith must be lived out as disciples, as disciples of our Teacher and Lord, Jesus, who called on us to love others as he has loved us (John); to be perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect, as in sharing the cloak off our back and offering shelter, food, clothing, and refuge to people as if they are Jesus (Matthew); and to share all things in common in love and service as if we are already living in the kingdom of God (Luke-Acts).  James summarizes all of it well: "by my works I will show you my faith."  At no point is faith in Christ meant to be the end of the story.  We are called, as faithful disciples, to care for the polis.  And God forbid if God intended for our faithfulness to be confined to a day of voting.

Discipleship, care for the polis (politics), should be lived daily.  Obviously we are busy providing the necessities for ourselves and families and discipleship, in terms of politics, may be impossible as a daily task.  Certainly, however, discipleship should be lived publicly, and therefore politically, as often as possible.  Perhaps monthly or bi-weekly would be good standards we can all attain.  That would mean that every other week or once a month we use our lives as our voice, by writing or calling our elected officials on the issues that matter to us or by actually addressing the issues that matter to us.  Putting constant pressure on your elected officials can and will change their minds.  Some politicians are, unfortunately, stereotypically hard-hearted, but most of them, in my experience, will listen to the overwhelming majority of opinion.  Even if they do not firmly believe that they are elected to represent you, at least they will believe that they have to do what the majority wants them to if they hope to be re-elected.  At the state and local levels this is especially true.  Your state and local governments can and do make faster and more effective change, anyway, and those elected officials are always far more accessible and flexible.  You can also use your voice to be your voice with non-elected officials, as well.  Town clerks and administrators, at least in the smaller New England towns that have town administrators, make a lot of decisions on behalf of the Selectboard and other elected officials and will hear you out.

If you are tired of the rambling, useless bickering between Republicans and Democrats, and would like actually new voices and real representation, it is at your state and local level you can start to find it.  Participate on those levels and you'll find that often two things are true: 1) that while party-affiliation does define a person, there is far less partisanship; 2) you are far more likely to elect 'third'-party candidates that are more clear about what their platform is than the vaguely broad platforms of the two major parties.

Whatever you do, then, you can make your voice known in many more impactful ways other than voting or ranting on social media.  Voting is a means of making your voice heard, but it is certainly not the way.  Voting can and does lead to change, but if it is the only tool in our belt then we're significantly handcuffing ourselves.  Ranting on social media, even if done wisely and respectfully, is the worst thing one can do.  It's possible to have civil arguments on social media and possibly change people's minds, and I still engage in that activity, but there is a better way to use social media.

Other than using your voice to be your voice, though, discipleship is best lived by using your life as your political voice.  If social media is your soapbox of choice, then why not use it as a means of building teams and coalitions to practically address the issues that matter most to you?  Rather than saying, "Politicians need to...," why not ask, "Who wants to help me...?"  Let's look at what living your voice as a disciple might mean practically. 

Say affordable housing is your issue of choice.  Politicians love to campaign on this one.  Apparently, whether housing is affordable or not is determined by the politicians and one or other political party.  That's what the "you must vote" machine wants you to believe.  But that's hogwash.  Currently, in Jericho, a group of clergy are looking into how our churches might be able to work together to provide affordable housing.  Think of it.  If our congregations pooled funds together, we could build a small complex with five or six housing units as a ministry, sell or rent those units at extremely low cost because we're doing it as a ministry rather than as a profit-scheme, and maintain some type of lease control over the units of it the owners of the units sell, we ensure that they receive a solid profit to buy a new house without bankrupting the new owners.  Or, if half of the members of our congregations, about a hundred-fifty people, decided to personally invest themselves in discipleship through affordable housing as ministry, we could dream bigger and build a communal living center with a shared church/sanctuary space and affordable housing units in which we also lived.  If members of our community other than our churches jumped in, boy.

Or say the opioid and drug addiction crisis is at the top of your list.  In Swanton, a group of concerned citizens decided to tackle the issue by trying to create (since I have moved, I don't know what has become of this effort) and host neighborhood block parties that would evolve into neighborhood support groups, believing that much of what leads to or contributes to addiction and addiction habits are the feelings of shame, isolation, hopelessness, and worthlessness that a community of loving, non-judgmental friends could alleviate.  Further, the team hoped to host events on spotting signs of addition in loved ones and how to help.  Churches in the area purchased DVDs about the opioid crisis in Franklin County to hand out for free.  Indeed, in the film that amounted to the biggest purchase, recovering addicts shared that they wish they had more people looking out for them, supporting them, and loving them beforehand, which the block parties and neighborhood support groups were meant to address.  The team also hoped to launch and sponsor Anonymous groups that were lacking in the area, like Narcotics Anonymous and Al-Anon. 

Or say the cost of health insurance or mental health care is your main issue, or gun violence (if you believe that gun violence is most related to mental health, which I admit I do not).  Addressing these issues apart from engaging with government and our elected officials is certainly difficult but it can be done.  My home church in Hudson, MA launched a health clinic (again, since moving away I don't know what has become of this) for those without health insurance or without the type of quality health insurance that would allow them to go for a check-up guilt-free.  As far as I recall, that clinic was extremely busy.  Obviously, a free health clinic side steps the issues of health costs and does not help if a person still needs to have an operation done, but plenty of research has showed that preemptive health checks can save the system and clients loads of money and time.  Still worthwhile.  And one idea that has been on my mind of late is the possibility of my church, or in combination with other churches, providing free emotional therapy/counseling and psychiatry on the weekends.  Stigma is probably still the number one deterrent to seeking mental health help, but I imagine that for most cost is truthfully the main factor.  If a mental health evaluation costs $100, then it makes little sense to work through the stigma; but if the evaluation and first contact is completely free, and all the sessions are free, then perhaps working through one's shame and fear of stigma might be worthwhile. 

Here I've given three examples of major political issues that have become major fights in our government because we rely on the two political parties to get stuff done, but that need not be major fights because they need not be left only or primarily to the whims of our elected officials determined on one day of voting.  If we took the time to use our lives as our voice, to be disciples of Christ, and built coalitions of like-minded people, then we could make significant inroads in addressing these three issues.  Not only these three issues, though.  Any issue that we think of can be addressed by us, you and me, right here and now and with every day of our lives. 

Relying on our vote rather than our lives, rather than living out our faith and discipleship--or philosophy and willpower, if we are not religious--is the height of laziness and indifference.  If all we do is vote, we may think that we care about the polis, about our brothers and sisters in community, but we don't.  If we truly care, we'd do something before, during, and after an election, with that vote and election as side concerns.  It's also, clearly, lazy, saying to the world, "Oh, someone else can do it.  Let the politicians do it."  In 1 Samuel 8, the Israelites say to God, "We're tired of trying to be holy on our own.  Give us a king so they can do it."  God is not pleased.  The act of discipleship and the life of a disciple should be the individual's responsibility and should not be delegated to one person or a handful of people.  A republic--which is what we have, with representative democracy--can achieve political goals, but the most effective means to achieving political goals is for the polis to take care of itself. 

I'd add that relying on our vote rather than our lives, rather than living out our faith and discipleship, also seems to be a means of state control.  If we are convinced that our vote is the most important aspect of our political life, then we are also convinced that the state and our elected officials are our only hope and that there's no sense doing anything other than state-sponsored forms of politics.  I'm not suggesting a conspiracy of any sort here but I am saying that the worst fear of any state/government is a mobilized polis controlling its own fate apart from the mechanisms of the state.  It makes sense for the state/government to urge its citizens only to vote, but it doesn't make sense for those same citizens to buy the argument.  If George Orwell were to re-write 1984, I believe he'd emphasize the state's insistence that people vote, vote, vote, because that's the only we can change, change, change, blah blah blah.  Again, I'm not suggesting a conspiracy of state-sponsored mind control to make sure we do nothing but vote, but it is certainly in the interests of those in governmental power to make those arguments, and not at all in our interest.  If we really want politicians to be held accountable, the best thing we can do is to vote and then not rely on that vote. 

Essentially, if we are to be true Christians--in other words, if we are to be true disciples, or people who truly care about the fate of our brothers and sisters in community, we cannot ignore the kingdom of God that is coming and is come.  God's kingdom is ruled by Jesus Christ, of whom we disciple.  That means we must vote in ways that we believe might bring us closer to that kingdom, and most importantly we must at all times and in all ways live according to the principles of that kingdom.  Real Christians, then, do not simply interpret the Bible and their faith into election choices, they interpret the Bible into faithful, dedicated, disciple political living.  Such disciple political living is scary, because we must begin saying, "Oh, shoot, I have to go out and do things," rather than mumbling, "Why can't they do things?" but God promises that through Christ and through the Holy Spirit we will have both the grace and power to do what is scary--and right and holy.

Monday, October 22, 2018

On Life as a Dream

Sometimes life feels like a dream.  Surely everyone can relate to the surprise and confusion Neo feels in The Matrix the first time he spots an instance of deja vu.  In Neo's case, there's a good explanation for deja vu--Trinity tells him that, actually, deja vu occurs when the computer-generated matrix world we live in re-programs or re-writes code--but in our life, unless we subscribe to a real-life matrix philosophy, deja vu and other dream-like qualities are simply confusing, perhaps even frightening or joyous, depending on our perspective.  If we believe in a god who has predestined or fated live events, then good dream-like moments may joyously confirm our belief; if we believe that there's no rhyme or reason for intelligent life, then good and bad dream-like moments may blur together as comical and entirely coincidental, not to be investigated; if we believe in a god who grants free-will or that there's some purpose in living well and spiritually, regardless of any god's existence, then good dream-like moments may serve to encourage us and bad dream-like moments may terrify us out of our belief, may convince us that actually there's no point to living well because the forces of evil are indeed in control.  What we do with the strangest moments in our lives will, then, greatly affect our general outlook on life and, by definition, death as well.  Plenty of reason, then, to explore how life can sometimes feel like a dream, why, and how we should approach that feeling.

An entire book could be written, surely, about one person's experiences in both the good and bad dream-like events categories and then how varying life perspectives and beliefs may react to those events.  Here I do not intend to write a book, thank God, but to clarify, using one instance, how and why life and death themselves are wrapped up in our working through our dream-like moments.  This is the case of a bad dream-like moment which, obviously, could and should be termed as a nightmare.

One of my favorite stories to tell, whether the point is good parenting, how my mother is funny, how I was an idiot kid, or how the woods behind my house growing up are really great, is a story about two of my friends and I, around sixth grade, going into the woods behind my neighborhood and getting lost.  We didn't tell anyone we were going up there.  I mean, obviously, we were kids.  We go out there, walk along a trail or two, and then I recognize a trail from this one time my father took me out to see the stream in the woods.  I convinced my friends that we didn't need to re-trace our steps to get home because we were all of two minutes from my house if we continued down this trail.  Now, one of those two friends of mine lived on the street with me and spent much more time in the woods than I did, and he asked, "Are you sure?"  Damn right I was sure.  Fifteen minutes later we wind up at a pond behind an elementary school, not at my house.  I missed a turn somewhere that I didn't know I should have been looking for.  Once we were there, we decided to play at the pond.  A few minutes after that, the father of the friend who didn't live on the street with us came to pick up his son.  Apparently, and thankfully, he knew that the trails behind my house also led to the pond behind the elementary school and he came found us. 

Imagine for a second that you are a father coming to pick up your son who had been, as far as you knew, innocently playing at a friend's house, only to arrive there to learn that, actually, the other parents had no idea where your son was.  You then frantically visit the house of another kid who lives on the street and learn from that set of parents that, maybe, they think, they heard the three boys trudging off into the woods.  You yell out into the woods and you receive no answer.  The time you were supposed to pick up your son was many minutes ago and you know your son isn't that irresponsible that he'd forget.  We haven't even arrived at the nightmare part of this story and already you're freaking out.  So you leave the mother of your son's friend (that's my mother) who has a bad knee clambering up into the woods while you rush off to the pond behind the elementary school.  It's all a mess.  When you find your son and the other two irresponsible kids who were supposed to know what they were doing in their own woods, you're angry, right?

Wrong.  That father, who had every right to be pissed off at everyone, perhaps including his own son, was extremely patient and kind, though firm, in teaching us all the ways we had messed up and how we could do better in the future.  He didn't want us to feel bad but didn't want us to act so irresponsibly again.  I remember this story well, and I tell it again and again, partly because the image of my mother's climbing up the hill in the woods was funny to me (it shouldn't have been) but mostly because the reaction of my friend's dad was so appropriate that I did feel bad and I never wanted to let him down ever again.  I also remember that story because of the last thing my friend's father said to us: "If you're going to play near water, make sure that everyone can swim or that you can rescue people if necessary.  Did you know that [I'm going to call my friend J] J can't swim?" 

Friendship, especially when you're younger, oscillates through stages.  At that particular time in sixth grade, J and I were particularly close, but it only lasted for a few weeks.  We were in the 'really close' stage of friendship where you hang out a lot and have sleepovers for only a few weeks.  Yet in that time we did have a couple of sleepovers.  At one of those sleepovers, which happened either shortly before or after the woods affair, J randomly asked me what I thought I'd be when I grew up.  To be honest, and I told him this, I had never, to that point, ever thought about what I would be when I grew up.  At least not seriously--I may have on occasion thought about being a professional hockey player, but I knew that was silly.  So after admitting to not having given it any thought, I blurted out something like, "But maybe, I guess, I'll be a pastor."  We talked about why--I had no idea why--for a little while, and then talked about how he was asking because he felt pressure to start figuring out his own life trajectory but didn't know where to start, and then we went to sleep and I forgot about the whole evening... until about ten years later when I first started seriously thinking and praying about going to seminary. 

My decision to go to seminary was, in the context of my sleepover with J, perhaps the first time I considered how similar life is to a dream.  In dreams, oftentimes a story is randomly and inexplicably changed by, say, a purple dinosaur rampaging through your house.  The dream may have been about a tea party with historical celebrities and then in comes a purple dinosaur.  Like an Ionesco play.  Then the rest of your dream concerns running away from or stopping the purple dinosaur and you've forgotten all about the tea party and the historical celebrities, unless one of those celebrities was Dr. Grant from Jurassic Park, because now Grant is running the dinosaur rescue effort because somehow the purple dinosaur is now your friend and is drowning.  Dreams are surprisingly orderly and well-written until they are not, until they are dominated by the random.  Studying to become a pastor felt that way, because it was essentially a random remark made to a friend about what I'd be when I grew up that suddenly dominated who I was becoming.  Either it was random, or God or the universe knew all along where I'd end up, but I didn't want to consider that possibility.  I'm a free-will kind of guy.  Now I wonder differently.  Let us continue telling the nightmare story.

Only a few months into my seminary career I got a random call from J.  I say 'random' because around the time of junior or senior year in high school, I distanced myself from our group of friends for a number of good and stupid personal reasons.  J and I had not spoken for any length of time to each other for at least four years, probably five, when he called me.  So long had it been that we had talked that J had to make sure it was still me who used the phone number he had for me in his directory.  He asked me how I was doing and then asked, "Have you heard about Giselle?"  I instantly knew then that 'life is a dream' can also mean it's a nightmare.

Giselle was a friend J and I both had in elementary school.  In elementary school, Giselle was slightly more than a friend to me, though.  She was a kind of goddess to me.  I wanted to be more than friends with her, but I didn't know what that meant, and I was also slightly intimidated by how confident Giselle was.  But she wasn't a jerk.  She was kind-hearted and loving.  After elementary school, I'm not sure I ever saw Giselle again.  I'm sure that we attended the same schools but for some reason I didn't see her and therefore my feelings slowly dwindled and eventually I forgot about her. 

Until seminary.  I received a Facebook friend request from Giselle a couple of months before seminary, which I obviously accepted, and then about a month into seminary her posts started appearing on my Facebook home page.  At first they were posts of relief and freedom, as she shared with the world that she had ended an unhealthy and abusive relationship.  Then her posts turned sour as Giselle shared some fear that she might be in danger.  My first inclination was to send her a message and offer her to come and stay with me at my dorm, hours away and certainly safe.  I decided not to send that message because, I figured, someone else closer would certainly be better suited to helping and protecting her, and surely that someone else would step forward.  It was only a few days after that decision that I got the call from J.  So I knew what he was going to tell me: Giselle had been murdered by her ex-boyfriend. 

Suddenly life was surreal, and not in a good way.  I wondered then as I do know if our brains transform moments that are either too glorious or devastating into surrealism as a survival technique; if our feeling like life is a dream isn't because life is a dream but because we can't handle life's vicissitudes without some power, even if it's our own mind, working to protect us.

Regardless, J knew that I had a strange relationship with Giselle and he didn't want to leave me in shock.  To end the conversation on a better note, he asked me what I was up to.  I told him, and he said, "Oh, that's awesome, so you're really doing what you thought you might be.  That's really cool."  Now the darkness of life's dreaminess combined with the goodness of life's dreaminess, because I couldn't quite believe J would remember from one off-hand remark I didn't even mean or understand at the time that I 'wanted' to be a pastor.  It felt good to me to know that not only did J remember but that his memory proved that I was on the right path for me.  The only other person in my life who has ever said or suggested that I am doing what they always thought I should or would, or reminded me that I myself said I might, I married. 

Fast forward time again, about eight years this time, to the present day, to the next time I hear someone call me and ask if I had heard about a person close to me in the distant past.  Only a couple of weeks ago my mother called, which is strange because I'm usually the one who calls her, and she asked, "Have you heard about J?"  Perhaps you know where this nightmare is going.

J, I learned, got married and was on his honeymoon when he and his new wife were swept up by a flash flood.  His wife was able to swim out and survive but J did not.  "Did you know J can't swim?" 

Of course, being able to swim may not help when caught by a flash flood, especially if you're in a car, as it seems they were.  I'm also, surely, not the only person who was told J couldn't swim and most definitely not the only person mourning his passing.  J was a great guy.  But the nightmare isn't merely about J's unfortunate and tragic death.  The nightmare is how the story has unfolded, how we got to this point and the memories that life, or my mind, or something, has emphasized over time and recently: from J's dad's comments and question, to the sleepover and random question and my random answer, to my strangely following through on my random answer, to J's memory of that answer while also ruining the happy dream by telling me about the Giselle nightmare, and then full circle with my mother's phone call.  In my head, as soon as I hung up after my mother's phone call, the pieces fit together like a dream, like a nightmare, well-ordered yet tragically random at the same time.

You could now be saying to yourself that this essay reads more like a journal entry than a thoughtful essay.  I understand that.  And since I've given myself an opening for a tangent, I'll take it: I want to make clear that I in no way mean to distract from the very real grief that many are experiencing right now about J's passing if you knew him (which I am experiencing, too, and why I am not using his full name or more details about his death).  But from where I'm standing, this nightmare has taught me two things.  Well, more than two, but my wife only allows me a certain amount of time each week to myself for writing and I want to make sure I finish this.

1.  I don't know why other people use the phrase, seriously or not, "life is a dream."  I do not know why we sing, "row, row, row your boat..." or why de la Barca wrote a landmark play, "Life is a Dream," hundreds of years ago.  I do know, however, that, like in de la Barca's play, the phrase sums up well the mystery and strangeness of life.  Even if we believe in a Creator God, which would, seemingly, nullify the idea of life as a dream, we must still reckon with the concept because there's no question our hearts and minds process life itself like we dream.

Psychologists are rather clear on the fact that dreams are our minds' attempts to process our memories and thoughts.  Mystics would agree, I'm sure, though they may add that dreams are also our attempt to process the more grand spiritual forces, especially in terms of prophecy, at work in our lives.  Whatever the case, the fact that our minds are able to weave all of our most and least pressing thoughts and memories into a story that we can make some amount of sense of night after night is truly amazing.  Dreams are memorable not because of what we process but because of how we process.

How we process our thoughts, feelings, and memories at night is also, clearly, how we process when awake, too.  As soon as I hung up the phone with my mother, my mind had drawn a story-line through all of my experiences with J that made sense of his death.  In my story, in my nightmare, it made absolute sense that he would have died in water, on his honeymoon, and that I found out by a random phone call, while I myself am questioning my role as a pastor--and not only am I questioning my role as a pastor but the day after I received the call I also was set to fulfill a requirement on the process toward ordination that I've just started embarking on.  It all made sense to me.  Obviously these things happened, and obviously they happened when and how they did.  My mind had pieced together a dream out of my life and interactions with J.

To say that life is a dream, then, is not an escape from whatever meaning or purpose we may have in life, if we have meaning and purpose, but rather a statement of fact: we literally have no other way of processing and understanding the happiest and worst moments of our life, and everything in between, except as a dream.  If we deny life's dreaminess then we deny life itself, we become walking idiots with no vision and no understanding of who we are.  We only develop those traits through reflection and examination, and if we are reflecting and examining then we must admit that life is a dream.

Of course, life can feel like a dream for the opposite reason, that we do no reflecting or examining, no processing, and we are confounded later in life as to how we ended up in an office at 43 Main Street talking about loans at 3:23 p.m. on a Tuesday with a stranger.  But the queer thing, here, is that those who do spend time in reflection and prayer often try to deny that life is anything like a dream.  Life is a dream.  Life can't be anything but a dream.  Otherwise, we are not a person, because we are not processing.  I guess we could say it's a paradox of sorts: in order for life to have meaning, in order for our specific lives to have meaning to ourselves, we must think of life as a dream, as if we were/are sleeping.

de la Barca wrote his play to grapple with questions that we humans have been grappling with since our minds were opened, whether that happened as an evolutionary, random event or as God breathed His spirit into us.  Those questions are: what are we doing here?  How did we get here?  Are we alone?  Are we actually living?  Are we in a computer program?  In someone else's dream?  If eternal life is real, then is mortal life just a dream?  Are we pieces in a game (I think of the final shot at the end of Men-in-Black)?  What is the difference between real and surreal, if there is any difference at all?  To say that life is a dream does not to answer these questions philosophically but it does answer these questions existentially.

In other words, "life is a dream" should not be a philosophy that applies universally.  We cannot know whether others are living their life as a dream, in a dream, as they should.  All we can know is whether we, I, am living this life as a dream.  Am I processing the random and obvious as a dream?  Am I taking the highly emotional, good and bad, the ball of life's mess and unraveling that ball into a dreamy story so that I can move on?  Am I stuck in the emotions of the past, or stuck in an unreflective present with no sense of the future?  If we live life as a dream we protect ourselves from the worst of life's curveballs, because they'll no longer be curveballs but rather part of the dream's story-arc; if we live life as a dream, we are not stuck in the emotions of the past because we have processed them into our dream; if we live life as a dream, we are not a pinball living in the present with no sense of the future, because we will have reflected our life into a story-line moving into the future; if we live life as a dream, life becomes a steady stream of nothingness that, in who we are and who we are becoming, can become an everythingness because of how we process, of how we dream.  Life lived as a dream can both be a survival technique in a crazy world and a technique of becoming, free from emotional strings, as long as we do not succumb to the seeming meaninglessness and nothingness of life to translate "life is a dream" into "whatever, man."

2.  Or, life's dreaminess could be sinister.  Admitting that life is a dream could be only a survival technique in a world that has no hope and no meaning.

Remember that I interpreted J's memory of my throw-away, random comment that I might be a pastor when I grew up as a happy moment.  At the time I interpreted that happy moment to perhaps be like a dream in the sense that a random event then affected my later life, but all the while I was still in control.  What if I was wrong on all counts?  What if, actually, J's memory was a sign that I couldn't do anything other than be a pastor?  What if my 'random' comment at the sleepover was not random and instead the universe's, or God's, way of saying through me that I had no choice in the matter?

Here is where one's perspective and approach matter a great deal.  I have said to my churches and to others that know me that I "could do no other than be a pastor."  I tried for a couple of years but discovered that, actually, nothing will make me happy or fulfilled other than being a pastor.  I have told this to people in a mostly grateful way: God has given me gifts to be a pastor and so my choice to use them will be a meaningful and gratifying choice, yet always my choice.  As originally, it is a good dream.  Yet what if, in actual fact, I really couldn't do anything other than be a pastor?  What if the matter isn't so much about meaning and fulfillment but predestined fate?  Even if the end result is the same, not having a choice in the matter would be a nightmare.  Just as we seem to have little to no choice in the stories our dreams tell, so, too, we'd have no choice in life, making life only dark.  "Whatever, man," would then be our only defense against being meaningless pawns in a dream.

Everything is about interpretation.  We could go on.  In fact, I will go on with this, pointing out that maybe I didn't have a choice in saving, or not saving, Giselle.  Perhaps I want and wanted to be a good person but that's not in the cards for me.  So when that desire came to the fore, the universe, or God, or the evil forces running our dream, suppressed that desire, not just because I shouldn't save Giselle but because she needed to die, like in Final Destination.  In that movie, a guy has a dream that everyone on the plane they've just boarded will blow up, so he causes a ruckus and he and a bunch of others leave the plane, watching it blow up a few minutes later; then the universe comes to kill them in a whole host of ways, in the same order they would have died on the plane.  What if that movie is on to something?  Whenever I tell the story about Giselle, as I still carry significant guilt around with me, usually the first and often the only thing people to say to me as a means of consolation is, "If you had reached out to her, then maybe her ex-boyfriend would have found her anyway and killed not only her but you, too.  Perhaps would have killed anyone in the dorm on the way.  Maybe God wanted to save you for other purposes."  Friends, that is not consolation, because essentially we are then admitting our choices don't matter, that if someone is meant to die at a certain time then they will die, no matter what we do to save them.  If that is true, then it serves no purpose trying to better our natural instincts, trying to make ourselves or others better, trying to offer succor and security and refuge, because in the end, those who are meant to be murdered or swept away in a flood will be and nothing matters.  This is a way to interpret these dream-like events: yes, it's a dream, concocted by the mind of some higher power, and so we're screwed and we better screw everything except trying to enjoy the good moments that come our way.  As far as I see it, that would be truly a nightmare.

Another interpretation is that I simply screwed up with Giselle.  And, rather than J's death being an exclamation point to the end of a chapter in this dream that I cannot control and have no free-will in, J's death is simply a coincidental, random happening that only calls to attention Giselle and the other moments I've shared here as a means of free-will processing so that I can have greater power and grace to act better in the future.

Essentially, the choice is between being caught up in a dream or writing a dream for the purpose of becoming; between having no choice but to f*** it or making sense of our life in a dream-like way to give us greater power to choose in the future; between a nightmare or a dream that has no objective measure of good or bad. 

We could say that somehow or another I knew things I should not have known in sixth grade, that somehow or another I knew that I'd become a pastor and that I knew J would die in a water accident, and that's why I said what I did and remembered that woods affair the way I did.  We could say that either I or my Facebook or Giselle, or whatever combination of factors, knew that Giselle would need help and that I'd be in a position to help, and that's why her posts started showing up on my page, and why J was the one to call me.  We could say the universe somehow knew that the two times I'd hear about someone I cared for in my distant past would be Giselle and J, so the universe had J be the one to call me about Giselle.  We could say that what I have processed as a dream is actually a sign that we able to connect to a higher understanding of some sort.  We could say that, but I'm not sure it would be helpful because at some point we still need to choose.  We need to choose how we are going to interpret life as a dream--as nightmare or as a means of processing for becoming; either we have no choice or the choice to write our dream story.

Currently, it's hard not to perceive life as nightmare in the wake of J's death, particularly because I am unable to attend his wake or service (for other dream-like reasons).  His passing alone is a nightmare.  Adding to it the book-ending of my memories is not necessary but certainly contributes to the nightmare atmosphere.  But it seems rather depressing to me to understand life as a rolling dream down a stream whose path and origin we do not know.  I simply cannot go there.  I would break as a person if I interpreted life as a nightmare leaving me with no control or choice.  I'd rather feel guilt about Giselle and feel the full force of the tragedy around J's passing than think that it was all pre-ordained. 

And in feeling the guilt and tragedy, I can process and unravel the mystery of life in my dream, I can make sense of it, no matter how wrong or right my dream story is, and thus move on into the future.  I think that's what dreams are meant for.  Not merely processing but preparing--preparing us for the new day to come. 

Monday, September 10, 2018

How We Think and Interact: A New Idea?

In college, I took a literature class on utopias and dystopias.  Obviously, one of the texts was Orwell's classic 1984.  Another lesser known work was Zamyatin's We.  Both, you could say, had similar premises: the people did not have appropriate language to help them understand their plight and work towards freedom and liberty.  Orwell's novel is in many ways more terrifying because Big Brother is everywhere but hidden, watching you but without your knowing when or how, and controlling information and language but you don't know how.  Zamyatin's novel, on the other hand, is more overt: there's a tower in the middle of the city from which the government watches you and all the walls are clear, so you can never escape, and most pertinent to this essay, the city was enclosed inside of a wall.  Those inside had no concept of what was outside nor did they have language for speaking about the wall or how to get around or through it or what was on the other side.  For Zamyatin, the Russian, everyone knew they were trapped inside a wall but couldn't actually think about it because they didn't have the language.

The class read We after reading 1984, and I distinctly remember having a question about this language-thought-control well up inside me while reading Orwell and finally understanding it while reading Zamyatin: but why couldn't the people think about the wall and what was outside just because they didn't have the words for it?  I was immediately shot down by the rest of the class and the professor.  They asked me when the last time was that I had a thought without words.  I had no answer, that settled the question.  Except that the question wasn't settled for me.  For years I wrestled with the idea and eventually I realized that my question might have conjured a different response if ventured to and with non-English majors.  Of course English majors, and the English professor, would advocate the primacy of language and words for thought.  Living with my wife, who is far more spiritual than I, and having kids, which requires a lot of silent communication and engenders plenty of anxiety, has taught me that indeed my question was valid.  Ironically, I now have the words to understand why and how.

First of all, we should note the significance of Daniel Goleman's seminal book, Emotional Intelligence.  I remember having my mind-blown the first time I read it.  In the work and reading I do as a pastor, it seems Goleman's ideas penetrate everywhere.  More and more we as a society are recognizing that a person who is not book smart is not necessarily 'dumb' or 'worthless' (especially not worthless, don't ever say that).  Rather, they may simply have an empathetic intelligence, an interpersonal or intrapersonal intelligence that can also benefit the community around them if that intelligence is recognized and nurtured.  Our current cultural climate could, in fact, probably use some more of those forms of intelligences.  What I'm about to say here is closely aligned with Goleman's work and the work of others that has expanded the concept of multiple intelligences.  Indeed, what I'm about to say probably fits better with the many books on education and teaching to the various intelligences.

Okay, so, let's return to the case of living enclosed inside a wall.  The English major and the intellectual, best represented in this case by Descartes, have no way of thinking about the wall or what is outside because they rely on words, on language.  But what about the category of people I'll generously call 'athlete'--athletes may never again be praised the way I will praise them here--how would they think about the wall and what is outside?  Would the athlete be equally dumbfounded by the wall to the point of having a blind spot?  No!  Think about taking a drink of water.  When you are thirsty, do you always say to yourself, with words, "Hmm, I need to get up, walk over to the faucet, grab a glass, turn on the faucet by twisting or lifting up the knob, and then pour water into the glass which I will hold underneath the faucet, then turn off the faucet by twisting it again or pushing it down before the water overflows the glass"?  No!  Don't be silly.  Possibly you think to yourself, every time, "I need a drink of water," but the rest of the thought would either be blank routine or a series of pictures--you see yourself in the future doing the motions required to get yourself a drink of water, and by seeing yourself in the future you have thought.  Or, a better example for why I call this category athlete, think of going on a hike.  If you came to a tricky part of the path where there once was a bridge over a chasm but isn't there any longer, and you can't simply take a walking step over it, what would you do?  I imagine that if you are an athlete, you simply picture yourself taking a running start, jumping on a rock, and leaping over the chasm--or leaping into the abyss to your death, whichever. 

An athlete thinks not via words and language but through pictures, through kinetic imagination.  What is the human body, what is my human body, capable of doing?  What does my human body need to do at this moment and how will it do what it needs?  Athletic thought often happens so quickly that it has no time for words and language.  You could say that athletic thought is based in instinct and I wouldn't disagree, but there's more to athletic thought than merely instinct.  Typically we mean an instantaneous action or reaction talking about instinct, but athletic thought is clearly more than that.  I do not think through the process of leaping over a chasm merely instantaneously or instinctively.  Certainly athletic thought plays a large role, if not the only role, in instinctive reactions, but also plays a large role in any kinetic activity. 

Looking back at Zamyatin's case, the athlete, or anyone capable of athletic thought, can think using pictures of themselves climbing or punching through the wall.  Describing how such a thought process would work is, obviously, impossible in this case without using words.  Using words, the thought process, in pictures, might consist of viewing oneself with a rope, throwing it as high as possible, then climbing furiously hoping no one is watching, and then wondering what might be at the top of the wall.  It is more than possible to think that thought without words or language.  Some people might not be capable of athletic thought but, I imagine, that when our preferred mode of thinking is removed, as in the case with the wall, that most of us would be capable of using another mode of thought.  If you are blind, you depend on your other senses more; if you are can't think about something intellectually, you depend on your other modes of thought.

While all of us are probably capable of athletic thought, and the other modes of thinking I'm about to suggest, I wager that athletes, meaning those who prefer this mode of thinking, are best at communicating silently with their hands.  My wife, sorry to say, is horrible at talking with her hands or understanding others who try.  I suspect it is because she is much more an emotive or spiritual thinker.  I bring it up, though, because we have all, I'm sure, been in situations in which we needed or wanted to speak with our hands.  Perhaps it was a game, perhaps we were in another country, or perhaps our kids were sleeping and we didn't want to wake them up (guilty).  And I bet that you have noticed that some people are better at this than others.  I can tell you that my wife and I will not be winning any Cranium contests any time soon.  It is absolutely critical that we acknowledge that some are better athletic thinkers than others because some are better intellectual thinkers than others.  Intellectual thinking is defined in this case as the mode of thought that uses words and languages in order to build a complex, mental structure of thought and communicate that thought to others.  Such a definition sounds impressive, and we humans should be impressed at our ability to think intellectually, but is intellectual thought necessarily better or more important than athletic thought?  Should we praise our intellectuals more than our athletes and athletic thinkers?  If I had to guess, I'd say I'm 60% an intellectual thinker and 40% an athletic thinker, so I'd like to make the case that intellectual thought is the most important mode to humanity because I partially fit into the category of intellectual, but I can't and won't make that argument.  Athletic thought, and therefore athletic ability, should be considered as an equal or near equal to intellectual thought.

All modes of thought except, perhaps, the last that I'll get to, should be considered as equals or near equals.  Essentially, each mode of thought represents an expression of what it is to be human.  Whether you believe we have been created by God or not, we are an incredible breed.  We are capable of a great deal that is awe-inspiring, amazing, and wondrous.  Each mode of thought expresses that potential in some way.  More than that, each mode of thought can also optimize the experience of life if used well.  So when we encounter greatness in a mode of thought that we struggle to use, we should not despise or tear down that greatness but be thankful we are human.

Now, athletic thought, emotive thought, and spiritual thought, as I'll get to, could all be considered inferior to intellectual thought.  The intellectuals out there, like Orwell and Zamyatin, have made that case.  But athletic, emotive, and spiritual thought could also be considered superior to intellectual thought.  The reason is simple: intellectual thought is clearly secondary.  Descartes was, essentially, wrong.  We do not know our existence because we think intellectually.  We know we exist, as Sartre might say, simply because we exist--and Kierkegaard before him would have said, perhaps, that we know we exist because here we are living before God.  Human history did not begin when we developed the ability to communicate with ourselves or with others through language-thought.

At the beginning of human history, perhaps dating back to the beginning of Neanderthals, who were not as stupid as we have made them out to be, thinking surely happened.  Who we are as humans has not fundamentally changed.  Our technology, including language, as changed and improved, so our thinking (intellectual) has developed technological layers, but the ability to think has existed as long as we have existed.  Which means, if we take a moment to reflect commonsensically, that intellectual thought is derivative and athletic, emotive, and spiritual thought are fundamental.  Our ancestor humans had to be able to think through the process of creating fire, hunting animals, and even communicating knowledge.  For instance, if our ancestors learned that a certain berry is good to eat but another berry is poisonous, they had to be able to tell others which one to eat and which one to avoid.  Before we invented language and intellectual thought, a form of athletic thought would have been necessary.  Otherwise, we would not have survived.  No species anywhere, probably, would survive without some form of athletic thought.  The fundamental modes of thought were all we needed to survive.  Intellectual thought is only needed to thrive, or at least to try to.

William Golding has a great novel entitled, The Inheritors.  It's about a troop or family of Neanderthals around the time our own species started roaming the planet an destroying non-humans, and everything else.  I highly recommend it.  For now, I point to it as a fictional example of what I'm arguing: it must have been possible for our ancestors to think and communicate prior to language and intellectual thought. 

One of the more prominent themes of Golding's novel is that the Neanderthals must have been capable of emotive thought.  By this I more than emotional intelligence or multiple intelligences and here, if I haven't already, is where I think I am definitively positing a new and unique idea.  Theories of emotional intelligence and multiple intelligences focus almost solely, as far as I am aware, on education, learning, self-improvement, and community organization.  The intelligences are ways people learn and organize thoughts that are then translated into intellectual thought.  A person with interpersonal intelligence, for instance, would be able to think through the appropriate and best means of handling community conflict.  Those 'means,' however, are always attained and then communicated through intellectual thought.  Even kinetic intelligence, in my research, tends to focus on a person's learning or processing intellectually through movement.  For instance, kinetic intelligence is that intelligence that might help someone learn physics by playing baseball, rather than just by reading a book; or learning the hideousness of the Middle Passage by actually cramping into a slave ship, rather than hearing a presentation.  It should be clear that while athletic thought, by my definition, and kinetic intelligence are related, they are by no means the same.  Kinetic intelligence is a subsidiary of intellectual thought and athletic thought is a subsidiary of, well, nothing.  The same is true of emotive thought. 

Emotive thought is also, therefore, more than simply compassion or empathy or the ability to feel.  Emotive thought is, fundamentally, the process by which we attribute value via our emotions.  An easy example is that we value members of our family, as Golding's troop does, because we have an emotional connection.  We could describe that connection without emotive thought, yes, and we could feel that connection without emotive thought.  As such, please excuse a necessary tangent.

Another strike against Orwell and Zamyatin is that we can certainly feel love without having a word for it.  The feeling is the same with or without the word because we are still human.  English has one word for love and yet, when we use the word, we know the difference between the variety of loves.  Orwell and Zamyatin are right, however, in line with Derrida and the deconstructionists, in that we humans have a compulsion to understand the world around us intellectually and so we must ascribe meaning, words, to objects and feelings.  Those words, those meanings, only have meaning because we have invented the technology for them to have meaning, namely language, which itself is based on the idea that words have meaning only because they are not other words that have meaning.  So knowing the word love does not pre-date the ability to feel love, since the word has no real meaning anyway, and yet the world love, at the same time, controls our understanding of it.  While English speakers can differentiate the various meanings of love when the word is used, we have grown wary of using the word in certain legitimate instances because we've forgotten all the meanings.  For instance, I love my friend Rob.  I feel that love, but unlike the Greeks we do not have a word for brotherly/sisterly love, and so I struggle to say that I love him.  To say that I love him would mean that I am gay.  "Am I gay?  Well now I'm starting to question, but I don't think I am, so I can't love him."  See how that goes.  Frodo and Sam are often accused of being gay (though, even if they are suppose to be, being gay shouldn't be an accusation) simply because we do not have a word for brotherly love and have failed to maintain its residence in the catch-all 'love.'  Our desire to understand thus leads to inventing word-meanings that then indeed control how we live.  Another example is that if we only meant 'love' to mean 'lust,' as is now the case for many, then to love someone would only mean that we wanted to bed that person.  Our genuine feeling of love, as it should be understood, would then be mistranslated as compassion or adoration, which bring with it entirely different actions and behaviors.  We do not bed or marry those we adore or sympathize with.  Here, then, is the chain: we can feel emotions and act on them, like love, without knowing the word; we humans have been gifted, and perhaps cursed, with the gift of intellectual thought, so we want to put words to our feelings; we give words certain meanings; those words then have those meanings, sometimes changing over time; we feel emotions; we match our emotion with a word that we have assigned a meaning; we then act according to those intellectually assigned meanings.  The end result is that, while we can feel emotions without words, eventually our words, our intellectual thought of layering invented meanings in order to communicate complex thoughts to ourselves and others, then control our behaviors.  If this is all we mean by emotive thinking, then I have failed miserably because we end up in the same place.

Instead, emotive thinking is the ability not only to feel emotions without words, not only to act on those feelings and do so still without words, but to process a range of values as well as future behaviors according to our emotions that we feel now and might feel in the future without using any other meaning symbols.  Emotive thinking isn't, then, merely having emotions pre-language.  Feeling and acting on our emotions pre-language, or without the benefit of language, reduces us to instinct.  Yet we are more than instinctive beings.  So emotive thinking is, by comparison, the same as intellectual thinking but without the need or desire to put words to our emotions now or in the future.  Emotive thinking actively does not use intellectual thought that is controlled by language, and is a step above instinctive feeling.

Return again to the chasm in the woods while hiking.  If only that bridge had stayed aloft I wouldn't have any examples and you wouldn't have to read this.  When we get to the chasm, prior to our using athletic thought, we probably would take a moment to think emotively.  Does crossing the chasm, and possibly falling to certain death, create in us anxiety?  fear?  exhilaration?  pride?  We may use intellectual, language-thought at that moment, "If I do this and fail, I may fall, and I may die, which is bad.  If I do this and make it, though, I'll live and be awesome."  We may.  But we can and would have those thoughts with or without such intellectual thinking.  We could and would think emotively, to weigh the options and decide which option to take.  Is it worth risking fear for the sake of pride? 

Some people, that I would jokingly call maniacs, might get to the chasm and not think emotively.  These folk may jump immediately to athletic thought, of how to cross the chasm in the safest or, for the real maniac, the most dangerous way possible.  We all know these people that don't seem capable of feeling fear or anxiety.  I argue that there is a large difference between not feeling an emotion versus not thinking through our emotions.  If one of those athletic-only thinkers jumped, didn't make it, and started falling to certain death, I bet a million dollars that he or she would feel fear; she or he just didn't think about that fear ahead of time.  Obviously, if a person truly can't feel emotions--and I know there are people for whom emotions are literally and always will be foreign--then that person won't think emotively, either, but generally thinking emotively is a choice and feeling emotions is an instinctive reaction.  Put in that way, we start to see we can choose which modes of thought we prefer to develop and use--though, to be clear, this does not mean that we are particularly gifted in all or any of our chosen modes of thought, even if we develop and use them as much as possible.  It is more by habit that a person would approach a chasm in the woods without thinking emotively and only thinking athletically than because they are incapable of feeling. 

The last positive mode of thought that we can choose to develop and use is spiritual.  My wife is one of those people that you may be familiar with.  You ask her how she knows God exists and she'll say, "Uhh, I just know."  As an intellectual-athletic thinker, that isn't good enough for me.  I build layers of logic to come to the conclusion of God's existence or see that He exists, both of which are methods that inevitably leave some doubt.  But my wife knows.  It's annoying.  And admirable and representative of spiritual thinkers.  Forget those people who say they are spiritual but not religious as an excuse for not being either.  I'm talking here about the people who seem to jump to conclusions without any rational steps and are then, not surprisingly, unable to tell you how or why they think or believe what they do.  The reason they are unable to communicate their thoughts and beliefs is that we often demand that intellectual thought be the medium, rather than the spiritual thought by which they did their thinking.  Again, forget those people who can't back up thoughts and beliefs with rational, factual, and logical thinking or statements because they choose not to reflect on themselves or their beliefs, perhaps even choosing to live in a false reality of their own making--an ever too common personality these days.  Let's think only of those people who are genuinely able to and often do think spiritually. 

Stick with my wife for a moment here and she can further show us what genuine spiritual thinking looks like.  My wife, her name is Danielle, by the way, is a Master Reiki practitioner.  To her, Reiki is absolutely the practice originating in the East but it is also, to her, a channel for the ancient practice and gift of healing through the Holy Spirit.  Reiki is simply a spiritual language through which Danielle understands her own Christian faith and spiritual gift.  According to Reiki practitioners, there are seven chakras related to various goings-on in our lives, bodies, minds, and souls.  According to Danielle, she can actually feel those chakras, if not also see them, especially when there's something off-balance in a person's life or body.  Indeed, after one session, Danielle told a client of hers that she felt a particular chakra out of whack and what that might mean, and the client then reeled off a bunch of life events and attitudes exactly related to what Danielle just told her.  While I often give my wife grief, seriously joking that Reiki and essential oils are not the solution to all of life's ills, there comes a time when we have to admit that she and others are truly capable of thinking in a different, spiritual way. 

Again I want to point out that though we can choose which modes of thought we develop and use, we aren't necessarily going to be gifted in all or any.  Take my mother as an example.  She is a level 1 practitioner of Reiki.  Maybe one day she'll become a Master, too, but whether she does or not doesn't matter.  My perception of my mother is that she won't be able to think spiritually as well as my wife can.  I know my mother wants to live and think spiritually but I don't know that she can, at least not well.  This isn't a slight.  My mother is certainly capable of thinking emotively.  It's simply a truth that choosing to develop and use a mode of thought doesn't necessarily mean much will come of it.  The reverse is also true: we might not choose to develop or use a mode of thought with which we are or could be gifted.    For fun I once told Danielle to think of a number between 1 and 20 because I wanted to impress her with my spiritual capability.  I told her that I would think real hard for a few moments about what number she had on her mind.  So as not to embarrass myself or let her cheat, I had her tell me the number and, honestly, I would tell her if it was the same number that came to me.  And, honestly, I got it right about fifteen consecutive times.  Then I got cocky, failed a few times, and gave up.  The really funny part is that Danielle couldn't do the same with me at all.  So while Danielle is clearly able to think spiritually, I can hold it over her for the rest of our lives that I am more capable of thinking spiritually, I just choose not to.

Spiritual thinking is perhaps the most primitive form of thought.  By 'primitive' we shouldn't understand simple or outdated.  Rather, we should understand it as a foundational part of what constitutes human living.  Rudolf Otto, in the book The Idea of the Holy, an essentially comparative religion work, describes how all religions developed out of a sense that all humans have of what he calls the 'numinous.'  Further, the sense and experience of the numinous in every case leads to a description of the numinous as a 'mysterium tremendum.'  The Latin shouldn't be too hard to decipher.  While Otto, as I said, was writing a work in a field we call comparative religions, trying to boil down the source and origin of religion, ultimately what is most crucial to his work, I believe, is the necessary implication of spiritual thinking.  At some point in human history spiritual thinking turned into religious thinking, which, according to Nietzsche, was and is the process by which the powerful consolidate and justify power over the common people in institutionalizing a priesthood.  But before that transition occurred--if it occurred, because of course we may disagree with Nietzsche's analysis--Otto's thesis requires that humans were thinking about the spiritual senses and experiences they had in a uniquely human way.  Other mammals, we know now, are capable of complex communication and self-awareness, but are they capable of reflecting on the possibility of an unseen, not seeable being or sense?  Not only did humans reflect on the sense and being but we determined that the being is mysteriously great and terrible.  More than mere reflection on a possibility, more than mere faith in the possibility, we thought about and analyzed our senses and experiences and then made conclusions.  Otto takes his thesis yet further and argues that it is because of the conclusions based in our spiritual thought that we organized and structured our societies and our living the way we did and have.  I would wager that because our organizations and structures are well-defined and have been for quite a few centuries, we have somewhat lost the concept of spiritual thinking.  We have had no need for spiritual thought because it has been done for us.  It is thus hard to describe more than I have what spiritual thinking is or may be.

Before I talk about why any of this matters, I want to say that I think there is another mode of thought.  Those who think primarily intellectually find those who primarily think in this way particularly annoying.  It is possible to think blankly.  Our mode of thought is completely blank.  Not only a clean slate but no slate at all.  To some extent all of us have thought, and probably continue to think, in each mode, and there's no exception here. 

Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, makes a case for how and why.  I admit that I do not find much of Dawkins's work convincing--not because I'm a Christian and he's anti-religion--but the idea at the end of the book is at least a start to understanding the blank mode of thought.  Dawkins argues that not only are our genes selfish, but ideas are selfish, too.  Somehow, ideas work themselves out in the ether of conceptualization and in the re-telling and re-sharing so that they will spread.  You can think of a meme here if you're familiar with what those are.  Memes seem to be designed simply to spread far and wide with no actual attached value.  And if the meme does not spread far and wide, then the originator of the meme, or some other interested party, might tweak the meme--perhaps by adding more cute cats--so that more people will like and share the meme on social media.  Since the meme has no actual attached value, we like and share for no reason at all except that the meme is, somehow, likeable and shareable.  So, too, goes Dawkins's argument, with ideas: we spread ideas not because they are good or bad, or have any value whatsoever, but because they are, somehow, spreadable.  And if an idea isn't spreadable, then somehow the idea modifies itself so that it will be spreadable. 

A self-controlling, selfish idea is not my idea of convincing.  With that said, however, Dawkins may have been on to something.  I have certainly experienced, and you may have, too, people who seem easily persuaded.  One man in particular I think of.  In conversation he would support one idea.  Then, after a few minutes of polite debate, he will have seamlessly switched to another viewpoint that someone else shared without ever admitting that other person was right or that he had changed opinions.  His mind apparently simply accepted this new idea without any transition.  There are other people I know who have changed their entirely personalities based on who they were dating or hanging out with and they never realized they were making a change.  This is not the same as keeping an open mind.  Keeping an open mind means that you hold one viewpoint but are willing to hear and consider other viewpoints as valid, and if some other viewpoint were seen as more true or convincing, then you'd make a concerted mental effort to re-work your thoughts.  But blank thinking is quietly and, without any thought whatsoever, being possessed by a new idea.  One should beware this type of thinking and instead keep an open mind.

We've reached the end of detailing the modes of thinking, at least the ones I've discovered thus far in my life.  Two questions deserve answers.  First, to again distinguish between multiple intelligences and these different modes of thought and, then, how or why any of this matters.

To answer the first question, I admit to being inferior to the task.  I am confident nonetheless that what I'm arguing here is not old business.  Instead, what I'm arguing here proposes a sort of disunity to forms of human thought, while the multiple intelligences and forms of learning suggest a unity to forms of human thought.  There is a limit to the use and meaning of words here because, ultimately, you are either an emotive thinker and understand or you're not.  But when it comes to multiple intelligences and various ways of learning, we are all able to grasp the same idea, just in our particular way.

If I were to run for elected office with a platform of love and hope, spiritually and financially, for the least and lost, then, based on the work of Goleman and many others studied and expounded upon to date, I would spread my message in different ways and utilize staffers who can operate in the different intelligences.  My staff would have to act and behave lovingly toward one another, and thus prove my message interpersonally; I would be honest about my own life and the ways I've experienced love and hope, thus proving my message intrapersonally; I would travel my district with a tour bus that doubled as a soup kitchen, thus proving my message kinetically; I would write eloquent and convincing position papers, thus proving my message aurally; I would have one-on-one town halls to listen, and have empathetic staffers with me, to thus prove my message emotionally; et cetera.  The message, the thought, is the same.  We are intelligent in different ways and therefore receiving the message, the thought, in different ways, but it is the same thought.  My staff and I may have different skills and intelligences in spreading the message, but it is the same thought.  Intellectually, the thought remains static.  Intellectually, we think the same way.

Picture a diagram.  I would draw the diagram for you except that I do not know how to do that here.  The diagram is this: one circle in the middle with a variety of outer circles all with arrows pointing to the middle circle.  That middle circle is our intellectual thought, or message.  The outer circles are the ways that we receive or apply that thought. 

Now what I am saying is that, actually, we should picture five different circles, each with their own outer circles.  One of those five, central circles is the same as above, the intellectual circle.  But the other four are the athletic, emotive, spiritual, and blank modes of thought.  Each of them will have the outer circles of the multiple intelligences because we will still receive and apply each mode of thought according to our given intelligences.  Most likely, our intelligences partly determine which modes of thought we prefer, so we might imagine that the outer circles connected to each central circle are not all the same size for each of the five modes of thought.  The kinetic intelligence circle may be largest for athletic thinking, for example.  To be sure, though, the evolution of our societal thinking, and what our society approves as proper thought, has tilted towards emphasizing intellectual thought to the exclusion of the others.  It's therefore hard for us to imagine that, in truth, not only are we receiving and applying ideas differently, but we are having different ideas and, based on which mode of thinking we're using, are capable of different ideas.  I'm not saying that we simply have one idea when using one mode of thought and another, different idea when using another mode of thought, but rather something more radical: the very nature of the ideas arrived at using one mode of thought are entirely unrecognizable to the ideas arrived at using another mode of thought.  Each mode of thought can and will produce a variety of different thoughts, so people thinking emotively can still disagree passionately but at least they understand one another, whereas an athletic thinker wouldn't even understand the disagreement.  The intellectual mode of thought in Zamyatin's hell-hole wouldn't recognize the athletic thoughts.  Or the emotive or spiritual thoughts which, in that example, may be more perceptive about how living inside of a wall determines our personality and understanding of God and humanity, generally, than the other modes of thought.  Through the different modes of thought, we have different thoughts, yes; but more than that, through the different modes of thought, we process and conclude about life in ways unrecognizable to all other modes of thought.  Therein is the difference between what has been studied and written about before and what I am putting forth.

And therein is the reason why it is important to venture into this territory.  Surely you have had the experience in which you are conversing with someone and they say or do something that, to you, makes no sense.  No sense whatsoever.  Or perhaps someone else said that you were making no sense to them.  No sense whatsoever.  Then even after explaining for a minute, or five, or ten, or for a lifetime, confusion continues to abound.  You may even throw out the word 'illogical.'  Indeed what you're railing against may be illogical.  But no matter how well you explain what would be logical through words, diagrams, presentations, movies, role playing, or anything else, the other person insists that what you are saying makes no sense.  By no means should we ignore the possibility that some people are not smart and not logical no matter what intelligence or mode of thought we're inhabiting.  At the same time, we should recognize that choosing different modes of thought may actually make it impossible to communicate with and understand one another.

I remember hiking with my father in woods around the White Mountains one spring when the river water levels were rather high.  On one trail, the path ran straight through the river.  Whether there was supposed to be a bridge there or not, I do not know, but there should have been a bridge.  Without a bridge, there was no way to cross.  My father suggested that we perhaps had gone off the trail, which was not well-marked, and that we should turn around and confirm our location.  I was confident we were still on the trail, though, and, partially being an athletic thinker, I swiftly envisioned a plan to cross by jumping onto a rock from which we could climb up a fallen tree and shift our way along to where there was another big rock near the other shore high enough that we could then jump to dry land.  My father, to whom athletic thinking is probably foreign (again, not an insult, because his intellectual thinking is the definition of excellence), said to me, "John, we can't do that.  What are you talking about?  That's not a plan.  I don't see it."  And so on.  My father literally could not understand what I was talking about until I went ahead and did it.  He followed my every move across and, still, didn't quite understand how we made it or how I thought up the plan.  That experience was a clear exhibition of the incoherence of one mode of thought to another. 

Another example comes from seminary.  A girl I was interested in, but too afraid to say anything to, came to visit me once.  As a tangent, you'd think that her coming to visit is a sign she's waiting for me to say something, but alas.  During the visit my friend, for that's all she'd ever be, said that she believed each of the religions are actually true.  I responded with near vehemence.  Only one religion could possibly be true.  Maybe Christianity is wrong, fine, but it doesn't make any logical sense for all of them to be true all at once, especially when a few of the religions explicitly exclude any others.  She told me, patiently, that it does make sense from a certain perspective.  She said no more and I was too chicken to tour around Boston with her, so I knew any possible relationship was over before it started and there was no point in arguing.  Since then, I have begun to wonder if she's right.  Perhaps my intellectual/athletic modes of thinking, which are both focused on singular, universal truths that we can either know or see, were and are incapable of sharing her spiritual perspective and mode of thinking, regardless of what intelligences I possessed. 

The crux to my interaction with that charming woman is that I simply do not know how she made sense of her statement.  Or how she processed her thoughts to make the statement.  I do not know because, as I've said, I choose not to think spiritually.  Why I make that choice, I also do not know, but I know at least that I do.  With this theory in tow, however, we can start to make sense of what seems to us like nonsense.  Take, for instance, the many devout Trump supporters who are hurt by his policies and/or his rhetoric.  It seems like nonsense that they would still support him.  Of course, we still cannot ignore legitimate stupidity or nonsense, but perhaps it is not a nonsense position.  Maybe, instead, these Trump supporters are blank or emotive thinkers at work.  Unless we are blank or emotive thinkers, it's impossible to say if they are indeed nonsensical.  Our exclusive emphasis on intellectual thought blinds many of us to the possibility that, indeed, they make sense after all, and perhaps many of them are rebelling against the very concept of being pushed out of conceptions of authentic thought.

A clear consequence of this theory, and my point in arguing for it, is that we must engage with ourselves and with one another in a more spiritual way.  We must come to this conclusion for two reasons.  In detailing those reasons we'll understand what I mean by engaging in a more spiritual way.

First, there's a real danger that we accept alternative truths that are not true at all.  It is entirely possible that what makes logical, clear sense, that what is true in one mode of thought is not sensible, and thereby apparently not true, in another mode of thought.  As I argued to my lady friend, that sounds like the definition of relative truth--what is true for me may not be true for you, and that's okay, we don't need to work it out.  If you and I witness a murder, and I saw person a did it, and you say person b did it, we can't both be right.  One of our testimonies will be absolutely and resolutely false.  Relative truth really doesn't make sense in a world of facts.  There is no such thing as alternative truth or alternative facts.  Whatever mode of thought we use, truth is still truth.  We cannot make up our truth out of falsehood, out of mere desire, control, power, or evil, and claim it's true and that no one can tell us otherwise.  Truth doesn't work that way and we need to avoid that danger.

Perhaps, however, we can understand the relationship between relative and universal truth in a more holistic, primitive way.  Perhaps universal truth is the only way of expressing facts of our existence, the world around us and how we came to be.  But perhaps deeper truths about what human life is about, why we came to be here, and to what ends and how we are supposed to strive, are only understood through our own persons.  Since we have and use different modes of thought, we come to unrecognizably different conclusions.  That does not mean that the truth has changed for each of us but, as long as we think within a particular mode, we cannot express to one another what the truth is we've arrived at.

Most importantly, since all but the now emphasized intellectual mode of thought are primitive, as in original to our being and existing as human, and the intellectual mode of thought has been layered on top of the others, if we are going to understand one another then we must do so by primitive means.  We cannot argue with one another and force agreement.  Indeed, intellectual thought itself is, in a way, fabricated, so any explicit agreement we come to must be confirmed by other modes of thought in the first place.  Since all but the intellectual mode of thought are primitive, original to who we are, then to come to true, sympathetic agreements and understanding, we must dig deep inside of ourselves and learn, again, how to think in the ways primitively and spiritually human.  Language will be of little help to us.  If we are going to understand one another, and God, and ourselves, then we must first connect, spiritually--distinct from thinking spiritually--with our natural, created state.  In so doing we will deepen our ability to think well in the different modes and thereby come to understand how truth is expressed in those modes. 

After understanding one another better, we will still have the ultimate decision to make: which mode of thought best expresses truth, including the truth about who we are and why we are.  We will also have to decide which mode of thought best enables good living for ourselves.  At least, though, we will have found that what we perceive as relative truth is not, in all cases, exactly relative; at least we will have found that not only do people not all act the same but also that not all even think the same; at least, and crucially, we will have found how to engage with one another on a deeper, spiritual, and primitive way that encourages inter and self-connectedness in a original, free way not controlled by structured language and intellectual thought.