Category Archives: Time

Crisis Update for Summer of 2017

It is going on two years ago that I posted here about my emergency heart surgery and my brush with my own mortality in the late summer of 2015. Since then I’ve physically recovered better than would have been expected in most ways, but in all honesty I’m still struggling to find the new, post-operation “normal” in my life. Over the past year in particular I’ve been facing various forms of existential crises that in some ways have been more difficult for me than the heart surgery recovery itself. This was crystalized for me in the realization this spring that in 2016 I was actually conned out of more money than I was able to earn during the course of the year!

I’m not talking about paying more for little treats for myself than what I should have paid; I’m talking about being tricked into paying for something essentially useless, that quite literally cost me significantly more than my year’s salary. This has led to some significant stress handling difficulties for me, and it has forced me to re-evaluate the direction of what’s left of my life. For those who have been tracking on my life and ideas here –– friends, family, regular readers and those who are otherwise in the habit of praying for me –– as I did following the surgery a couple years ago, I feel I should explain this in a bit more detail.

For 18 years now –– basically the last third of my life –– my primary employer has been the City of Espoo’s municipal board of education. I got into the business of being a school teacher two years before that, teaching philosophy at an adult high school, and based on recommendations by friends and colleagues who were impressed with my work, Espoo’s Etelä Tapiolan lukio (South Tapiola High School) hired me to teach the  same subject area.

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My primary subjects to start with there were philosophy and religious education, and in addition to those I was asked to teach psychology as well. Working with the basic background I had in the subject from my studies in theology, and with a bit of help from my friends, I managed to teach myself enough of that subject to bluff my way through teaching it to teenagers fairly well also. In my second year at Etelä Tapiola they started offering a modified international version of the British secondary school diploma system, as designed by Cambridge University, known as the AICE Programme. Within that system I began teaching sociology as an “AS-level” examination subject. That soon became one of the school’s most popular courses, and I found it very interesting and rewarding to teach it. The following year I was asked to start teaching the required “value subjects” –– religious education and ethics –– at the middle school level, in the English-speaking classes at Pohjois Tapiolan yläaste (North Tapiola Middle School): the primary “feeder school” for the English-speaking line at Etelä Tapiola at the time. This line at “Pohjis” eventually evolved into what is now Espoo International School. I had some reservations about that part of the work to start with –– the idea of trying to get 13-16-year-olds to take religious education seriously, which many of them clearly saw as the academic subject they were required to take which had the least relevance to life as they know it, did not sound like a particularly rewarding career path –– but I ended up making myself quite at home in that aspect of my career as well.

This career opened up for me, I have to admit, not just because I was good at it, but because really no one else wanted it. I can count on the fingers of one hand, without using my thumb, the total number of native English-speaking people in the world who are qualified to teach religious education in Finland, and there are actually many good reasons for that. In fact the biggest challenge I faced over the course of my first seven years teaching in Espoo was my epic struggle to become officially qualified to do the work that I was doing! That is obviously a very long and very painful story that I won’t go into just now. In any case, to start with I was brought in to teach in a program that was being phased out, without any clear indication of what sort of program would follow for those studying in English to get university entrance qualifications through in Espoo’s public school system. Over the course of my career these systems have frequently been in flux, but somehow I’ve managed to keep going with them for a remarkably long time by Espoo standards.

My passion for this work, across all of the subjects that I have taught, has been for getting teenagers engaged in discussions about the very meaning of life: what counts as truth; what counts as “normal”;  what sorts of goals are worth working towards; why should we bother with various sorts of expectations we are faced with; what kinds of things all people should theoretically be entitled to, just because they are people; and how we can constructively relate to those who come from entirely different religious, cultural and ideological backgrounds. Especially while I was struggling for official qualification in the field I wasn’t making much money at this, but I received strong feedback that I was making a difference for some of these kids, and helping all of them to think more carefully about what they were doing with their lives. And then when my sons, who went to an entirely different school in the next city, started to get a bit of extra recognition within their extended peer networks for having a father who was recognized as a rather cool teacher, that made up for a lot of the grief I had to deal with along the way.

But as my sons became adults another major shift happened in my career: Etelä Tapiolan lukio switched over from its improvised combination Finnish-British system to being part of the de facto mainstream in English-speaking international secondary education: it became an International Baccalaureate school. This was helpful for the school in many ways, but one of the side effects was that the subjects that I was most passionate about teaching no longer fit into the school’s curriculum. I could no longer teach philosophy, psychology, sociology or higher level religious education: I was asked to take up the IB “Theory of Knowledge” class, and to do middle school student guidance counselling to fill the gap in my hours and keep me on staff, but these weren’t where my heart was at. Finally, for the 2011-12 school year, I decided to take a sabbatical break, which I spent in Cape Town, South Africa, not really sure if I would be coming back to Espoo from there or not.

I didn’t find any way to permanently settle in there in Cape Town though, and I didn’t find any other alternative employment right away, so in the fall of 2012 I did return to Espoo International school, now as only a part-time teacher of middle school religious education and ethics. The salary for this actually turned out to be less than my sabbatical pay had been, but I had no childcare, alimony or mortgage payments to make any more, so I decided I would just tighten my belt and live with it. To keep myself out of trouble I applied to start working on my PhD at the University of Helsinki and I was accepted directly into that program for the next spring semester. Things looked pretty tolerable at that point.

I won’t go into any details about how things at the middle school have deteriorated for me since then, or how my extended sick leave for emergency heart surgery figured into the big picture. Suffice to say, my salary has progressively decreased, the workplace stress has progressively increased, and the feeling of making a positive difference in those young lives has largely faded away for me. Gradually I came to realize that my long-term unemployed friends here actually, quite literally, have a higher economic standard of living than I do. And then, as frosting on the cake for this stage of burn-out, came the realization that a loan I had arranged, to help some working men in western Kenya start a business providing safe drinking water for people in their region –– for a sum significantly more than what my 2016 salary turned out to be –– was money that I would never see again!

The bulk of that money had gone into buying what was supposed to be a top-of-the-line borehole drilling machine, which in spite of all the hype associated with it, turned out to be an essentially useless piece of equipment in the area where it was intended to be put to use. I have since come to the conclusion that those selling these machines are among the lowest level of con artists.

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I will follow up in a later blog with more details of the con I fell for here, giving more specific warnings to keep others from falling for the same. For now I will simply tell you that machine I was conned into helping my Kenyan friends buy is called The Village Drill (abbreviated hereafter as VD), designed and marketed by a group of Mormon engineers from Utah operating under the generically religious sounding corporate name of WHOlives. I was referred to these people by a former clergyman, who now self-identifies as a “serial entrepreneur” and a “motivational speaker.” That in itself should have set off all sorts of warning lights for me, but I mistakenly believed that I could trust the integrity of this individual I knew from 2/3 of my life ago regardless of his “career shifts.” That has turned out to be the most expensive mistake of my life thus far. When a man who has been through multiple divorces tells you that something else has been his most expensive mistake in life, that should tell you something!

The VD –– in the words of one established expert in the field I have since been talking to –– is essentially “a beefed up version of manual rotary jetting with a little more capacity to drill through clay and soft/weathered rock”. The third column of the chart below indicates what such a machine is best suited for:

In short, there is nothing particularly revolutionary about this machine. It is not at all suited for the sort of geographical conditions found in the area north of the west end of Kenya’s Rift Valley, it is priced at roughly ten times what a diesel or electric powered drill of comparable size and weight goes for, with lower penetrating capabilities than such motorized machines (from which it borrows its basic drilling technology), it has significant maintenance problems, and for all that it comes with no warranty and with seriously deficient customer support.

Consequently the only customers that WHOlives has had for the VD thus far –– according to a report they managed to slip into a peer-reviewed engineering journal last year –– have been “either non-governmental organizations (NGOs) or wealthy individuals in the developed world who donated them for use in developing communities.” In other words they have been trying to go after people with deep enough pockets where they can afford to lose money; and if the poor people of Africa end up not getting as much as promised in the process, “at least they tried.” Of course this report leaves out mention of at least one Kenyan start-up, funded with a loan arranged by a rather gullible school teacher from Finland, but in that regard I will be in touch with the journal in question to suggest corrections and retractions later.

So now what do I do? I’m trying to try to avoid getting too cynical about this mess. My Kenyan connections made their own significant mistakes in this process, but they tried very hard to get this massively overpriced sub-optimal piece of Mormon engineering to work and I really can’t want to blame them for failing at it. I was the one to blame for the biggest mistake in the process: suggesting the damned VD system to begin with! But be that as it may, as things now stand I need to dig myself out of this hole before I can do anything else in Kenya regarding which local people there can say “hakuna matata” when I lose more money. In other words I won’t be able to travel to Kenya this year to further work with pastoral training programs and I won’t be able to make any personal donations to keeping the school lunch program that I helped initiate there running. This grieves me significantly, but there are times that I have to accept that –– largely because of mistakes I have made in terms of misjudging who I can trust –– certain things are just beyond my control.

And part of the problem that losing more than a year’s pay draws my attention to is that I cannot continue on with a career that has such a low level of pay to draw from. Things have come dangerously close to the old adage, “I pretend to work and they pretend to pay me,” being literally true. As one of my cleverer students pointed out in her final exam essay this spring, the primary difference between an employee and a slave is that the employee has the functional possibility of quitting an unsuitable job. I now need to see if I do indeed qualify as an employee in this regard, and if it turns out that I am thought of as a slave, I need to try to find a way to escape!

Under the circumstances I am quite willing to do any honest form of work for which an employer would be ready to take on a man of my age, with my particular set of linguistic and academic abilities, in the sort of health I am in, even if they don’t pay an entirely livable wage for such work. I am not proud or squeamish at this point. But one thing I am not willing to do is continue teaching middle school lessons 2-3 hours per day, every day of the week, to the exclusion of any other occupation, for less than a subsistence wage. And at this point there is no reason for me to expect that the middle school’s administration values my work enough to make the adjustments necessary to keep me working there voluntarily. This is now a matter of mutual understanding between myself and the principal there. So effectively that means that, while I am officially on vacation at the moment, in practice I am unemployed already. I honestly have no idea where my next salary is coming from, and when.

The principal of Etelä Tapiolan lukio, has been kind enough to nominally keep me on staff there to co-teach a class one hour a week, just to keep my foot in the door, so to speak, so I can stay in my employee housing for the time being, but I am very seriously looking whatever work I can find at this point. At the same time of course I am trying to double down on finishing my doctoral studies, however much easier said than done that may be under the circumstances.

Overall though I have to admit, I’m perhaps now more than ever in the position of Kris Kristofferson’s most famous lyric: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.” Though I am a US citizen by birth, I am also a naturalized citizen of a civilized country that actually believes in human rights –– that provides basic health care to all citizens and won’t let me freeze or starve to death, or die for lack of the basic prescription medicines I’m now on, because of my lack of capacity to pay. Beyond that I really don’t own anything that creditors would find it worthwhile to repossess. So in effect I’m confident at least that things really can’t get any worse for me. All I really stand to lose is time –– time during which, under other circumstances, I might have been able to do more good in the world rather than struggling with the uncertainties of my basic subsistence.

Even so, at least for now, life goes on. It remains to be seen where this freedom will lead me, but I’m sure I’ll find out soon enough. For those of you in the habit of praying, please remember to mention me as you do so.

 

 

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Filed under Education, Freedom, Purpose, Time

Fireflies

Over the Easter break I got a chat message from K., one of my fondly remembered students from years past, currently living well on the other side of the world. I’m actually not sure of the state of his own religious beliefs, but K. was telling me that he was recently challenged by a dogmatic atheist who asserted that the ways in which religious people are still trying to penalize homosexuality and prevent same-sex couples from being fully accepted into society is further evidence that religion always does more harm than good in society. So knowing that I am a relatively open-minded and believing sort of person, he wanted to get my take on this question.

My standard brief response on same-sex marriage was that as a committed hetero the status of this legal and cultural innovation isn’t of particular personal importance to me, but as a multiple divorcee myself I believe that I have personally already done more damage to the institution of marriage than any same-sex couple ever will. Beyond that I’m sort of traditionalist still in the sense of believing that ideally children should be raised with positive role models of both sexes at home, but I still see gay couples of either sex raising kids together to be far preferable to a single parent struggling to raise children on his/her own. The main thing is that the child feels loved and secure, and witnesses emotional maturity and adult cooperation between her/his parents. That’s about as far as I’m willing to take a stand on the matter.

K. then wanted to know what I thought of the Bible’s teaching on the matter. I told him that the Old Testament teaching on the subject was basically that sex should always be done in such a way as to potentially make babies –– “be fruitful and multiply” –– and any sexual activity which lacks that capacity is considered sinful. I consider that to have been an important, useful policy relative to the ancient Jews’ and Israelites’ cultural situation back in the day, but not an eternal moral requirement. In my own life I have done my part for the race in terms of producing enough offspring for replacement purposes, but the vast majority of my sexual experience has been of the sort where baby-making was not a possibility. Thus I cannot in good conscience judge others whose sex lives are of non-baby-making varieties.

In terms of the New Testament teaching on the subject the only serious consideration given to homosexuality there was that the Apostle Paul was clearly a bit homophobic in Romans 1, and quite possibly he was a latent homosexual himself and angry at himself regarding his attractions in that direction. If you read his epistles with that in mind it opens up a fascinating new human perspective on things.

K. thanked me for my input and said that he’s been meaning to read more of the Bible for himself sometime, but that he had this nagging feeling that parts of it that just don’t work. He sometimes felt a bit of sympathy with the perspective of the “genius girl” character on the sci-fi series “Firefly” when she wanted to “fix” the preacher’s Bible by trying to take out the parts that didn’t work.book-river-bible

I knew basically what he meant in terms of that urge. It has a long and prestigious cultural history: Thomas Jefferson was one who spent some time with his own version of such a project. Beyond that lately I’ve been reading a book by Chris Hedges in which he says (p. 6), “Christians often fail to acknowledge that there are hateful passages in the Bible that give sacred authority to the rage, self-aggrandizement and intolerance of the Christian Right. Church leaders must denounce the biblical passages that champion apocalyptic violence and hateful political creeds. …Until this happens … these biblical passages will be used by bigots and despots to give sacred authority to their calls to subjugate and eradicate the enemies of God. This literature in the biblical canon keeps alive the virus of hatred, whether dormant or active, and the possibility of apocalyptic terror in the name of God. And the steady refusal by churches to challenge the canonical authority of these passages means that these churches share some of the blame.”

I get what is meant there, but I still basically disagree with the sort of project in question. I don’t think we can go through the Bible censoring out the offensive bits. This might make me sound like an NRA anti-gun control nut, but I don’t believe that scriptures cause genocides; people with tribal mentalities using scriptures as weapons cause genocides. I believe that people need to let go of the idea that through their interpretation of the Bible (or the Qur’an, or the Adi Granth, or the Analects…) they can arrive at perfect and unquestionable certainty about everything in life. Once they set aside their cravings for simple absolutes to use as their epistemological and moral foundations, the scriptures that they turn to for guidance will cease to be a threat to those around them. If they continue craving such simple certainty, however, any moral code that they turn to, no matter how enlightened and inherently benign it might be, will become a deadly weapon in their hands. So for me going through the Bible and blacking out the hateful bits as a means of protecting mankind is a project doomed to failure.

But all that being said, I must confess, I didn’t really know what K. was talking about with his “Firefly” reference, so I had to go and look it up. And given my studious dedication to such matters, over the past week I had to watch the complete series through. (It only had one production season, so it wasn’t that big a task.) I have to admit, it provided me with an interesting perspective on a bunch of different things.

firefly_cast2The series basically lays a thin sci-fi veneer over the 19th century archetype of honorable Confederate soldiers, admitting that they lost the war but never admitting that their cause was not the more just one, forming a sympathetic band of outlaws moving around out on the fringes of  known civilization. This band is made up of  basic assortment of archetypal elements:

  • The captain of the gang, who was a heroic sergeant during the war –– a leader down in the trenches –– who used to be quite a devout Christian but now wants nothing to do with matters of faith 
  • His Stoic and faithful sidekick who quietly and competently takes care of most of the practical details involved in realizing the leader’s strategies (who in this version of the myth happens to be a darker skinned woman) 
  • The crazy wizard of a “wheel man”/driver, capable of getting the gang out of all sorts of scrapes with the law and other menaces through his imaginative maneuvering skills (who in this version of the myth happens to be married to the commander’s faithful sidekick) 
  • The uneducated, unpolished technical genius with a mystical ability to repair and “soup up” just about any machine known to mankind (who here happens to be a “poor white trash” girl) 
  • The simple-minded, high testosterone human killing machine that can never be entirely trusted, but who continuously proves himself to be rather useful in the ever-present gun fight scenarios 
  • The elegant high-end prostitute who relies on the gang’s protection and provides them with an air of refinement at times when they need it, who shares a secret attraction with their commander that neither is willing to admit to anyone 
  • The renegade preacher who has a deep and sincere faith, and lives according to monastic vows, but is fully ready to participate in a righteous battle every now and again (who in this case happens to be black)
  • The young, highly intelligent and highly educated but socially awkward “Yankee” doctor who has his own reasons for running from the law and from his own people, whom the gang keeps on because they find him useful 
  • The doctor’s helpless but gifted little sister, whom the gang band together to protect from the mean, cruel world out there 
  • The outside menaces of “Feds”, hostile tribes, local warlords, chain-gang bosses and the like.

The plot elements in this series, such as they are, are really nothing more than means of exploring the inter-relationships between these archetypal characters, under circumstances that glorify “God, guns and guts” as approaches to greatness. To me the amusing and interesting part of all this is the sheer transparency of the myth being retold in this manner. I’m also fascinated to consider how all this relates to the ear of cultural history which the show falls into just over 10 years ago, in GWB’s first term as president. It came out less than a year after the 9/11 tragedy, and perhaps for that reason it didn’t succeed in building the sort of cult appeal that it was looking for –– that time of exceptional national unity and solidarity in the US was not the ideal time for the telling of a myth of Confederate nostalgia and the honor to be found in resisting the federal government’s encroachment on the lives of heroic southern gentlemen while dreaming that eventually the South can rise again. The writers, producers and directors of this series couldn’t have known when they went into production that such a dramatic change in American consciousness would occur before they would be ready to broadcast. Their tragedy as it turns out: the show never saw a second season.

My guess is that without 9/11 it would have had a much longer run. Or perhaps if it had come out after GWB had succeeded in thoroughly re-dividing the country into “red states” and “blue states”, or after the election of the nation’s first black president brought Confederate nostalgia to its greatest high since the death of the original Civil War veterans, Firefly could have become a long-running cult classic among redneck nerds to rival the status of Lost or Game of Thrones among yuppie nerds. Then again, perhaps the cultural coup of creating a demographic of “redneck nerds” would have been too much to expect of one TV show even under the most ideal political circumstances.

So it remains unclear how much market there might have been for a myth set in a futuristic world where space ships are equipped with rough-sawed hardwood tables and mismatched wicker chairs; where heroes chase down levitating rocket scooters on horseback; where modified six-shooters, pump-action shotguns and 25th century laser cannons are all used in the same gun battles; and where the good guys are once again those who lost their war for independence and are thus forced into submission to a larger federal government, whose powers they continue to resist with the help of guts, guns and perhaps God. Sci-fi/fantasy as a genre has always “pushed the envelope” of seeing how many cultural and scientific impossibilities they can get the audience to overlook. If this one would have succeeded commercially it would have set a new benchmark for enabling an audience to suspend disbelief.  

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Perhaps with a longer run the show could have explored how the commander, having been disillusioned of his faith when he saw that God was not there to help out in the righteous war that they lost, could come again to appreciate the importance of having something transcendent to believe in. There were certainly hints in that direction. Or perhaps once these mythical characters were properly familiar to and respected by the audience, the script could have tossed in more intellectually challenging and stimulating variations on the archetypes and mythical structure in question. Then again, maybe they would have just played it safe and stuck to feel-good themes that rednecks are traditionally comfortable with: the married couple deciding to have children in spite of the continuous struggles they are facing, the educated outsider and the down home poor girl managing to fall in love and get married in spite of their clumsiness and cultural differences, the gallant captain eventually making an “honest woman” out of the pure-hearted call girl, the dumb gorilla eventually developing a sense of honor  in terms of appreciating some values more important than his base hedonistic interests, the captain’s honor continuing to cause him to triumph against impossible odds in spite of his gullible trust in others (exploited by his “wife” and his old army buddy in the first season) …

But from my non-southern perspective there are also significant risks in this sort of mythical world gaining prominence in the national psyche. The more committed people are to a belief that resisting any central government is in their best interest –– materially and spiritually –– the less any honest democratically elected government will be able to do to limit the sociopathic powers of big businesses, protect the environment against unsustainable exploitation, or protect the human rights of those who are seen as “different” against local bigotry. The more that people subscribe to a myth that personal gun toting can solve all of their security concerns, the greater the arms race between neighbors will be and the more people will end up getting killed unnecessarily. The more the idea of a new civil war is glamorized, the greater the risk of some hot-heads succeeding in starting such a war. The more people are ready to believe that God is on their side in their honorable killing sprees (wars), the more intense those killing sprees can get. The more elements of nostalgia people depend on –– particularly nostalgia for the “good old days” before civil rights were federally enforced in the US, or for the “good old days” of Apartheid in South Africa –– the less motivated people will be to confront the abuses of “the good old days” and the need to keep working on building a more truly just society.

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Then again, I admit, maybe I’m just taking a piece of escapist pop culture a bit too seriously.

Whatever the case, though this show did provide me with some hours of amusing distraction this last week, I still think that since the American education system is coming nowhere near equipping kids to critically examine what sort of myths they absorb, it’s probably for the best that Firefly ended up getting cancelled. Then again, if it would have actually succeeded in creating a sub-culture of truly redneck nerds, the sheer entertainment value of watching such creatures trying to function in everyday society might have outweighed the long-term cultural dangers of having the show continue.

My take on a passing trivial matter. Your mileage may vary.

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Filed under Education, Ethics, History, Human Rights, Pop culture, Religion, Sexuality, Time, Tolerance

After Lent

Continuing on with a mini-series here on personal ruminations regarding the significance of seasons, Easter has now passed, and in theory we are now full moving full tilt boogey into spring. It might be appropriate in this regard, however, to note that the extra celebration day taken for Easter here happened to fall on April Fools’ Day. In other words if you believe that spring is coming soon in this part of the world weather-wise, the joke is on you.

The timing for the religious self-deprivation of Lent is no accident. This time of year for giving things up quite conveniently falls in the season where, in a difficult year, you would be starting to run out of the foods and things with which you could properly indulge yourself anyway. Back in the day that last month and a half before spring would actually start properly springing was a pretty sparse time, so why not make a religious ritual out of embracing that sparseness in one way or another? But this year Easter came early, and spring is coming late to the point where the naturally lean season is by no means over yet. So in some ways I’m glad that I didn’t bother ritually giving anything up for Lent this year.

There’s another way in which the agrarian roots of our seasons of celebration and my academic lifestyle don’t really synchronize though: Spring, whenever it eventually arrives, is the season for planting, investing and laying the basic groundwork for the year’s agricultural labors. But in academic life spring is the traditional harvest season for all of the autumn and winter’s planting and cultivation of knowledge and understanding. In other words we are heading into the rush season for final examinations and the evaluation of all of the other sorts of work students have done, on the basis of which grades are given and qualifications are handed out. Here’s where the school teacher’s rush season properly begins.

In any case, for teachers and farmers alike, this is a season of great hope: hope that the ground will soon thaw out enough to accept seed and that once that seed starts to grow the young plants will not be killed off by some vicious sneaky late frost; hope that all those distracted and struggling young minds really will show signs of having absorbed the knowledge and understanding we’ve been trying to pump their direction. Hope is a wonderful thing.

Growing up as an American evangelical Christian, one of the more challenging things to get my head around was the distinction between faith and hope. In fact contemplating that difference over the years is perhaps one of the chief reasons I no longer self-identify as a Christian evangelical.

To some this difference might seem self-evident, or hopelessly abstract, so I should probably unpack what I’m talking about here a bit. Both hope and faith, in the everyday senses of the terms, might be thought of as species of positive thinking. When we talk about having faith in another person we are choosing to believe that they will not betray us. We do trust exercises where we allow ourselves to be at the mercy of the other, believing that the person we are trusting will not let us fall. In some real senses we can’t be rationally sure of that person’s reliability, but we allow ourselves a fairly strong degree of emotional certainty regardless. In this way faith is a matter of choosing to believe what we hope for. As the writer of the New Testament’s book of Hebrews put, “faith is the substance of things hoped for.”

Hope in turn is different from faith because there isn’t the same sense of certainty implied. It is positive thinking which leaves more room for doubt, thus becoming less positive in the process. So the question is, is the only real distinction between these forms of positive thinking a matter of quantity or degree? If so –– if hope is really just a weaker form of faith, and the point of the matter is to strengthen the positive thoughts as far as possible –– shouldn’t we just try to take all that hope stuff and push to turn it into a proper sort of faith? Many evangelicals I know seem to operate on such a premise.

This might sound a bit crazy in some ways, but there are strong tendencies in this direction within all of the world’s mystical traditions, in Christianity within the Pentecostal and Charismatic “faith healing” movements in particular. Within the self-help literature and seminar industry this sort of faith-based pursuit of personal advantage has taken on a new secular form, suggesting that by believing something strongly enough you can change the flow of events and cause desired states of affairs to come about. The archetypical form for this is based on a film called The Secret, which Barbara Ehrenreich does a pretty good job of debunking.

It goes with this understanding of things to say that when Jesus told the woman in Luke 8, for instance, “Your faith has healed you,” he was being quite literal about it. Combining the placebo effect with a bit of divine help brought about through persistent and trusting petition to that power can do all sorts of positive things for us. If you only hope in such matters the effect isn’t nearly as powerful. So why bother with hope at all? The basic evangelical perspective wouldn’t seem to have so much use for hope as such.

But then why does the Bible, especially in the writings of the Apostle Paul, have so much to say on the subject of hope? To start with there is the closing verse of I Corinthians 13, the famous hymn to love: “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love…” Thus it states directly that hope, regardless of its uncertainties, together with faith and love, is an everlasting theological principle; towering above wisdom, courage, benevolence and a host of other virtues. Then in Romans 5 Paul goes on to explain how hope is the precious result of faith enduring suffering, coming by way of hard won experience. Beyond that the expected experiences of the after-life and Christ’s return to earth are not spoken of as matter of faith, but as hope: When it comes right down to it we don’t have any absolutely certain information about what lies on the other side of death, or how the end of the world will play out in practice. So we give ourselves certain uncertain expectations to keep ourselves going, and that’s perfectly as it should be. And then there are all of the various things that Paul and other Bible writers allow themselves to look forward to without basing their faith on such things actually coming about, like getting to visit with old friends at some point, or parcel deliveries of various sorts getting through. These things have a way of giving strength and motivation in day to day affairs, but Paul never contemplated a possibility that such things failing to work out might call into question the foundation of his certainty regarding the deeper principles of faith. So there would seem to be something of a qualitative difference between these two phenomena, not just a quantitative matter of hope being the lesser form of positive thinking.

Hope is a paradoxical business though. It involves the anticipation of something sweet that can be a greater thrill than the arrival of the sweetness itself, but if that sweetness never arrives and the hope gets crushed it can cause all sorts of nasty sensations –– “Hope deferred makes the heart sick” (Proverbs 13:12). So the trick with hope is to extend it out for the maximum possible level of satisfaction from the hope itself without it hitting that breaking point; or to keep a rotating arsenal of lesser hopes on hand so that when some hopes do fail you can always fall back on others.

Some hopes are certainly harder to let go of than others. For the Apostle Paul the biggest hope defining his life, that he eventually had to let go of, was that he would live to see Jesus return to earth with an army of angels to set things right for those who had suffered in his name. For me the hardest hope in life to let go of has been that of having a satisfying and stable marriage and/or family life someday. For Paul and for me this big hope being frustrated was/has been further complicated by its being combined with other smaller disappointments in life; but somehow the assurance of actual faith combined with the realization of a  collection of significant smaller hopes along the way enabled him, and enables me, to keep going in life.

If Paul’s great hope would have been realized, human history would have been over long before I would have been born. I have enjoyed life enough where I still see it as a good thing that Paul didn’t get what he was hoping for then. What grand divine master plan it would have screwed up for whom if my own greater hopes would have been realized is hard for me to speculate about even.  Or maybe it’s simplest and most practical just to think of things in terms of my being a screw up when it comes to following through with romance and leave it at that. Whatever the case, life goes on; and as they say, when there’s life there’s hope.

One of my modest hopes: to see these sights again.

One of my modest hopes: to see these sights again.

The hopes currently on my mind are simple enough: I hope that the kids I am now teaching give me good excuses to give them good final grades this spring. I hope that what they learn in my classes and my colleagues’ classes will be of some lasting value for them in “the real world”. I hope that they will each find their way into suitable and satisfying academic and vocational paths once their compulsory school education is complete. I hope I find some way of paying my rent this summer, given that as a part time teacher I won’t be getting any summer vacation pay. I hope that my sons each succeed in the academic and career targets they have set for themselves for the coming months. I hope that my sons are each eventually more successful in long-term relationship building than I have been. I hope to stay relatively healthy, including not getting myself killed on the bicycle while negotiating all of the ice and slush that remains on the paths I have to ride each day. I hope that even if we don’t get a proper summer in this country this year there will at least be a pleasant spring sometime soon, with flowers in the fields and all of that. I hope that some of the stuff I get written this year, academically and otherwise, will turn out to have lasting value.  I hope to experience many warm moments of friendship and fellowship of various sorts in my own life in the medium-range future.

I figure that if more than half of those hopes come to be realized, whichever ones they turn out to be, 2013 will go down in the history of my life as not having been too bad a year. Meanwhile I’ll keep doing what I can to increase the odds on all of them, realizing that some are less under my control than others.

 

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ADVENTures

Where does time go? I’ve known for a while that being out of working routines leads to a lot of this dimension passing unnoticed at times, but it still surprises me that the Christmas season has snuck up so quickly.

At the moment I’m further from everything that I have associated with Christmas than I have been at any other time in my life: snow, darkening days, carols everywhere, Laplandic culture spin-offs, orgies of commercialism and young children. So it is small wonder that it doesn’t quite feel like Christmas season here at the moment. Then I notice a friend posting a Facebook status of “Hosanna has now been sung” and I realize just how close the holiday is getting.

I went to church last week, acting like something of an ecumenical tourist in the Anglican chapel closest to my apartment. It was mentioned there that it was the last Sunday of the liturgical year, and that all of the Christmas things were coming, but that was sort of overshadowed by other aspects of the service. In particular there was a veteran organist and choir director whose 80th birthday was being commemorated with all sorts of official recognition for his 62 years of service to the denomination in various capacities as a church musician. The officiating priest spoke of having pulled out all of the stops (an appropriate analogy) at getting every possible high church element included.

Besides all of the “smells and bells” then, part of the celebration was to borrow a batch of choir boys from the darker skinned Anglican congregation on the other side of the mountain. And the retired priest who delivered the main sermon –– an old classmate of the honoree for the day –– made a minor key mention of the fact that it was by rights their church where this celebration was being held. It was in the mid sixties that the Apartheid government had declared the area around the harbor of Simon’s Town to be “whites only,” forcibly moving those too dark to deserve respect over to an inland slum ironically named “Ocean View.” As the old priest pointed out, this chapel where the octogenarian musician was being honored was the same place where these young people’s parents had been confirmed and where their grandparents had been married. The implication was that they were quite welcome there as full participants these days, not just as liturgical guest minstrels. Even so, there was sort of an understanding that the status quo of the white retirees there remaining in control would not be disturbed. From a tourist perspective I found all of this fascinating, but I’m still not quite sure how to relate to it.

So what should Christmas mean in this land of slowly healing wounds, where the solar significance of the holiday is entirely reversed in any case? Last year I wrote a piece about the significance of candles in my life as a means of surviving darkness this season. Now I’m living in a land where the darkest times are in June, and even then candles aren’t so critically important. But regardless of the seasonal reversal, there is a strong need here to maintain hope that the light –– in the more figurative sense –– will return soon. But what light might that be?

The concept of Jesus as the light of the world is as relevant here as it is in every other part of the world, but there is probably more fresh and raw scar tissue from nasty things done in Jesus’ name by his professing followers here than in just about any other part of the world. Then again, there has also been much good done by Christians here in terms of encouraging forgiveness rather than vengeance as power has changed hands. But some still ask, has that simply led to the villains going unpunished through their ingenious move of religiously neutralizing their victims’ will to fight back? Under these circumstances what form should the light of the Gospel message take so as to provide genuine hope for the weary and down-trodden?

Part of the question fundamentally becomes, is there some way that we can learn to respect –– even love –– each other without using that as a means or excuse for manipulating each other? History has given us ample reason to be pessimistic about this. Nor do I have a solution worthy of a peace prize for my contributions, but here’s the best I can suggest: The opposite of manipulation is trust, and so the greatest hope that we have is that these people –– who have been conditioned to hate each other while at the same time looking for ways to take advantage of each other –– will some day find a way of learning to trust each other. Of course that’s infinitely easier said than done, but trust does provide us with something of a star to look to in our moral navigation process.

In some senses the easiest way to build trust in another person is by showing them that you are willing to trust them first. Loyalty is a basic instinctive tendency for most psychologically healthy people. OK, people are never as loyal as dogs, but most people are at least somewhat capable of the trait. So if you can show a person that you care about them personally and you mean to do them good, and if you are sincere about it, in the vast majority of cases that person will do good by you as well. Among other displays of this in pop culture we have the transformation in the character played by Eddie Murphy in the film “Trading Places” –– a wild fictional exaggeration, but demonstrating a completely valid point.

When trust building with other people doesn’t work I would attribute it to one of four basic reasons: The first would be that the person you are trying to win over still (perhaps justifiably) sees you as still taking more than you’re offering. This could mean that they suspect you of playing a con game in your attempts to win their trust, but it could also be a matter of simple calculation: If I have been working for you and you have been paying me 30% less than what I’m rightfully entitled to, a 10% Christmas bonus is unlikely to make me start completely trusting your good will towards me.

In the second case though, even if you really are being more than fair with the person you’re trying to win over and you have no ulterior motives for them to suspect, you might fail to win them over because they have been thoroughly conditioned to believe that you cannot be trusted because you are… X. Some believe that they can never trust someone from outside of their own religion, or their own gender, or their own social class, or their own political persuasion, or their generation, or any number of other standards by which the difference between “us” and “them” is operationally defined for them. Some such people are more closed-minded than others. Sometimes this can be overcome with patient personal investment in friendship across such borders, but not always. For some the most important part of their personal identity might be what they see as their strength in standing strong against what “someone like you” represents.

With others the issue might not be a consciously held prejudice against something you represent, but a subconscious wound that they can’t help but associate with you. If a girl has been brutally raped by a man who, for reasons I can do nothing about, I strongly remind her of, it should come as no surprise that she will be highly unlikely to trust me. The same principle applies to any who have been exposed to traumatic violence or dehumanizing humiliation of any sort: If they are personally afraid of me for reasons that are entirely not my fault, I am probably the wrong person to help them through their trust issues.

And then finally there are those who are bona fide sociopaths –– incapable of human caring or loyalty on any level. How large a group this is is a difficult matter to determine, but they are certainly out there. When you find someone in this condition, no amount of kindness will ever earn their trust or make them a trustworthy friend to you in return.

All that being said then, I do recognize that there are at least two groups of people with whom I shouldn’t even try to build trust; with whom the best I can do is to interact cautiously and honorably, but giving them plenty of space. With others though –– and I believe that this includes the vast majority of those in our world with trust issues –– there is a very good chance that through a persistent enough display of kindness and fairness trust can be established. This trust in turn can be contagious, and the more it spreads, the greater our chances are of realizing the Advent message of “peace on Earth, good will towards mankind”.

The best way for me to find the strength to pursue a goal of becoming an instrument of peace is to feel secure in who I am and what I’ve been given. The less I worry about people taking the things I treasure most from me, the more I can allow myself to open up to them and care about them rather than just worrying about myself. I admit that this too is easier said than done, but in all honesty I find the Advent message really helpful here: God is reaching out to me where I am at, making it possible for me to be part of his kingdom in spite of myself, giving my life more significance than I could ever earn for myself by my own merits, and not leaving any of this at up to the whim of whatever religious authorities there are who would want to use this as a means of manipulating me.

What more could I ask for? Well… plenty, but what more could I justifiably demand? Absolutely nothing. And what I have beyond that is a rich life on entirely different terms than I ever would have imagined and a fascinating new adventure taking shape in what remains of my time here on Earth.

So here’s wishing all of my friends in the frozen north and in other still darkening parts of the world a joyous Advent season, and here’s asking that you keep working for peace and keep praying for me as I try to do the same.

 

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The Rapture for Dummies

My timing and rhythm with these blogs has been pretty bad lately. I’ve sort of set myself the task of writing one each weekend, but then lately I’ve missed some here and there or published mid-week instead. If I had been hired to write these for a periodical or something, I probably would have been fired by now. But my bad timing on this is nothing compared to that of people who keep predicting “the Rapture”.

This past week, as an American and religious education teacher in a Finnish public school, I’ve been repeatedly asked by students, “What is the Rapture?” Nor are my current students the only ones wondering about such things. What is all the strange fuss about among these American radical Christians? Is the end of the world supposed to be coming or something? Then some of my students have also seen one of my former acquaintances and “Facebook friends” joining into the chorus of apocalyptic predictions (admittedly without any  May references) giving rise to even more of these questions. Thus I should probably take this time to do some ‘splainin’ here.

I should also insert a basic disclaimer first: what I have to say is based on my own experience of, and readings about, a wide variety of conservative (and not so conservative) Christian movements over the years. I have figuratively had one foot in and one foot out of many of these (I seem to have lots of figurative feet!), but I have no particularly strong alliances with or rights to speak for any of them. Take it for what it’s worth, and if you want to make sure you have the details of their positions straight turn to these groups’ more official messengers. This is just an overview for those who are trying to get some basic handle on what the hell such folks are talking about; and perhaps a bit of helpful perspective for others who, like myself, have seen a lot of Rapture predictions come and go over the years.

The starting point for all this is the fact that Christianity began as a radical, viciously persecuted, underground religion. Nobody liked these “little messiahs” (the literal meaning of the etymological root term for “Christians”) with their weird secret rituals, unorthodox perspectives on the Jewish scriptures and complete lack of political loyalties. The first historical reference that we have to Christians by a non-Christian was from Pliny the Younger, who was asking the emperor Trajan how aggressively he was supposed to be hunting them down. His basic take on Christians was that they seemed to be utterly insane, but basically harmless. That leaves an open question with no solid documentary evidence to answer it as to why they were being hunted down in the first place. But whatever the case, “Christian hunting” remained one of the major pastimes of Roman governors for the next couple of centuries thereafter, hardening the idea of a battle between good and evil, and expectation of divine intervention and deliverance into the basic Christian psyche.

An important part of these early Christians’ understanding of “spiritual warfare” was based on a book that Jews take as general fantasy literature, but Christians consider to be prophetic: the book of Daniel. Daniel is all about the experiences of the Jews as the colonial vassals of the Persian Empire, with Zoroastrianism as their state religion. That religion is all about the battle between spiritual forces loyal to the creator of the universe and forces which have rebelled against the creator; so it seems to be more than coincidence that, after some exposure to Zoroastrian religious influences, Daniel began to write about an awesome battle between supernatural forces of good and supernatural forces of evil as applied to Judaism.

This added a whole new dimension to Jewish mysticism. No longer was their religion merely saying, “We screwed up and we’re being punished, but if we get our act together God will help us out and put things right for us.” Now there was an added element of, “the Devil is trying to stop us from realizing God’s plan for our nation, and for all humanity, but if we join God’s forces in fighting against this cosmic enemy, victory will eventually be ours.” That theme from Daniel was eventually picked up and expanded upon in the last book of the Christian canon: Revelation, the mother of all end-of-the-world tales.

Meanwhile, however, there was the issue of Jesus’ disappearance to take into consideration. A few days after he was brutally tortured to death by the Romans, in a way that left no room for credibly believing that he lapsed into a coma and later recovered, no one could find Jesus’ body. From there many started to claim that they had seen him alive again, but in a form where, even though he could eat normal food and stuff, he could also walk through walls like a ghost. Then after a month and a half of theses kinds of sightings a bunch of his followers said that they had gone up onto a hilltop with him and watched him levitate up into heaven, after which a couple of angels told them, “He’ll be back later. Get busy.” Then another week and a half after that they experienced the mass euphoria of the “Holy Spirit coming,”  and all heaven broke loose.

Diplomacy was never these early Christians’  strong suit, and they soon made a lot of powerful enemies and started getting themselves killed even. But whenever things got really tough for them, they would tell each other, “Don’t worry. He’ll be back soon enough, and when he does come those bastards will be sorry for what they did to us!” That sort of hope and expectation gave them an incredible level of power and confidence to face those who were hunting them.

With this sort of expectation that Jesus would be coming back again, after which they would see a climactic kick-ass showdown between Good and Evil, Christian traditions regarding the apocalypse developed in a number of interesting ways. One particular part of the New Testament which is often referred to as part of this debate is St. Paul’s letters to the Thessalonians. Here in particular, Paul wrote about Christians’ sufferings for their faith being part of a battle between Jesus’ army and Satan’s. He made it perfectly clear that he expected to see Jesus’ return within his lifetime, to give the bad guys what they had coming, but he also wanted to comfort the Thessalonians about those who have died already,  in disappointment at not seeing Jesus come back within their lifetimes. “Don’t worry,” he says, “Jesus will come get those of his believers who have died first, so they’ll be get the front row seats to in heaven to watch this final battle. Then after that he’ll come back to get the rest of us who are still alive at that point” (I Th. 4:13-17, Huisjen paraphrased edition).

But then after that apparently someone was spreading rumors and forging letters in Paul’s name saying that Jesus had in fact returned already, sorry you missed it. So in his second letter to this church Paul tells them not to believe such crap. He makes some veiled references to some secret information he gave them in person about who the real bad guys were and tells them that the wheels leading to the final showdown and the end of history were already in motion. He goes on to tell them evil was already on the rise, but it would have to raise its head just a bit higher before Jesus could come and lop it off. Don’t worry though, he insists, our deliverance is coming real soon.

Paul was part of the late first generation or early second generation of those who ended up dying in disappointment over not being able to witness Jesus’ return to Earth. There have been many more since. And in spite of the fact that things didn’t entirely go down as Paul expected, his words to the Thessalonians –– together with those of old Daniel, “John, the revelator”, the Muslim prophet Muhammed (yes, Muhammed, who had one Christian wife, also talked expectantly about the second coming of Jesus) and Nostradamus –– have been continuously analyzed by various sorts of believers as key to deciding what kind of apocalypse to expect. The essential elements in all of these messages are that A) the world is getting more and more evil all the time, B) eventually the forces of evil will get so strong that God will have to send Jesus back, together with an army of angels, to deal with them, C) this final showdown will be a literal blood bath, and D) after that there will be a long period in which the good guys will be in charge, until the final end of human history, another 1000 years or so later.

One thing that those who take these predictions seriously disagree with each other about, however, is whether or not believers will be involved in that final battle between good and evil. Many interpret the book of I Thessalonians as saying that since this is a matter of God’s judgment on mankind’s evil, and since believers have had their own evil deeds entirely forgiven already, it only makes sense that God would take all of Jesus’ followers out of the picture before this final blast of excrement hits the rotary aerating device. This is known as the “Pre-tribulation Rapture” theory. It has a long history of making people say and do stupid things.

One of the most famous and embarrassing cases of rapture anticipation came in the northeast US in the 1840s. They were called the Millerites. William Miller, a Baptist minister from New York state, calculated that Jesus would be coming to take all of his followers out of the world by the 21st of March in 1844. When that one missed he tried again for a lunar month later: April 18th. After that miss it was actually a colleague of his, Samuel Snow, who made a third try at predicting the Rapture for that year: on October 22nd. For those silly enough to get their hopes up on that October day this became known as “The Great Disappointment”. An appropriate name, don’t you think?

Out of the Millerites came a group of Christians that later became known as the Adventists. They basically calmed down about making predictions about the coming of the Rapture and focused on other radical forms ways of living out their faith, like swearing off all meat and caffeine consumption, or moving the Christian weekly worship day back to Saturday. Other groups, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, took over the Rapture predicting racket. Yet out of this Adventist branch of Christianity we’ve had such phenomena over the years as the “Branch Davidian” movement, with their famous show-down with the FBI in Waco, Texas.

My personal associations with Rapture predictors came about in the mid-1970s, when I was in my early teens. The basic theory among those inclined to look for the climax of history at that time was that the formation of the state of Israel in 1948 related to a coded prophecy given by Jesus in Matthew 24:32. As he was talking about the end of the world and all that there, Jesus said, “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.” That fig tree was seen as an obvious reference to the people of Israel, and its leaves coming out must be in reference to them forming a nation again. So that would mean that all the rest of the stuff Jesus was talking about in the chapter must be right around the corner. And sure enough, two verses later Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.” Since Jesus’ own generation passed away without all those things happening, he must have been talking about the generation in which “the fig tree” would “put out its leaves.”

OK, so how long is a generation? Well, since the Israelites got lost between Egypt and their promised land for 40 years as God’s means of disposing of an unworthy generation, a Biblical generation must be 40 years. So within 40 years of 1948 all the stuff talked about in Matthew 24 should be over and done with. That would include a 7 year period of hell breaking lose that believers aren’t destined to experience, so that would mean that Jesus would be destined to come and take all of his people out of the world by 1981.

Embarrassing as such beliefs are in retrospect, that was what the majority of the people in the church my family was going to at the time believed was about to happen. At the time this was a rather depressing thought for me. I mean heaven was supposed to be cool and all, but I was afraid that I’d never get a chance to get married and have kids and all that, because the end of the world would be coming too soon. But eventually I realized that such speculations were just that, and really nothing to be afraid of. By the time 1982 rolled around and life continued on as normal, I really wasn’t all that surprised. I did become rather cynical about immanent rapture predictions after that though, and these days the most I can muster for such forecasts is a half-hearted pity smile.

I remember in the mid-eighties getting into a ridiculously heated argument with one guy who still insisted that expecting Jesus’ Second Coming within our lifetime should be taken as an essential article of Christian faith. After I shot down all of his major arguments on the matter, his final tack was to challenge the orthodoxy of my faith by saying, “So I suppose that you think I Thessalonians 4 and 5 don’t belong in the Bible.”

“On the contrary,” I replied, “I think that portion is as relevant now as it was when Paul first wrote it.” Now having a bit more than twice as much life experience as I did then, I would no longer bother arguing about it with such an individual, but I still hold to the same sort of belief I had then: I still believe that some day life on Earth will come to an end, and when it does good will triumph over evil. I still believe that having the assurance that our team is destined to win is vitally important for getting through tough times. And I still believe that expecting Jesus’ immanent return to get us out of all the crap we keep getting ourselves into is a rather foolish form of faith for people to keep subscribing to.

The word “rapture” literally means to be raised or lifted out of oneself by divine power. When it’s not being used by religious nuts to talk about their expectations of escaping from history’s final battle though, these days it refers to something very much like ecstasy. “He sat in a state of rapture as he poured over each line of the long-awaited letter from his sweetheart.” That’s really the only kind of rapture I’m anticipating these days: the thrill of enjoying peak moments in life as a gift from God. Even that sort of rapture isn’t a sure thing: Obviously many horrible things have happened to many wonderful people over the years; and obviously, if this life is really all there is, cosmic justice is a pretty screwed up thing to believe in. But even so, hoping for small favors from God in the form of rapturous moments here and there that make life worth living still makes a lot more sense than hoping for Jesus to come and stomp on my enemies right away.

Last week’s predictions that the Rapture was to happen on Saturday then didn’t really even spark my curiosity. If I had seen it as even remotely likely to happen I wouldn’t have paid that parking ticket. If Jesus were to return this year or next I wouldn’t be particularly afraid to face his critique of my life, but nor am I in any big hurry to see him bring everything to an end either. Such an idea may have a lot of appeal to self-righteous, Obama-hating baby boomers; but it would be a bit of a disappointment to my young adult sons, both of whom would like to be fathers themselves some day. But all things considered, I very much doubt that the Second Coming will prevent the boys from getting their chance.

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On Tunnels, Pink Bathrooms and Increasing Light

It occurs to me that I should write something of a follow-up to my piece about candles in the Nordic darkness about 4 months ago already. Seasons change, and the literal and figurative darkness that I myself and people around me where struggling with back then has become a far less daunting enemy. Here in the northern part of the northern hemisphere we’re on the winning side of equinox already. The snow is gradually starting to melt off, thoughfar too gradually for many people’s taste. In some ways that makes for a suitable metaphor for other areas of life as I know it this season: clear experiences of improvement, and clear hope of still better things to come, but many leftover manifestations of the cold dark period we’re coming out of.

Another apt metaphor is traveling by car, bus or train along a route that has a series of tunnels blasted through hillsides. You know the sun is out, you know that you are getting where you have to go, but sometimes there are these passing periods of darkness that you go through. Sometimes these tunnels have openings in their sides or ceilings through which shafts of daylight are able to pass, where you can see the light in a more distant sort of way. But the point is not to get too freaked out by the darkness that you’re passing through. When it comes down to it, 5 minutes of darkness here and there in the course of an otherwise beautiful trip on a cheery spring day mean nothing.

This late winter / early spring for me has been characterized by such moments of daylight interspersed with tunnels along the way, metaphorically speaking. I hesitate to share too many details of my private life here, for obvious reasons, but for those who have followed my references to change here without knowing enough about me to read between the lines I guess I should explain a bit. This winter I have come to the end of a nearly 6 year long co-habiting relationship. Some may be scandalized to think that I could call myself a Christian and live with a woman for so long without getting married. Others may be scandalized that I would let go of a relationship that had gone on for so long without more of a fight to save it. Such is life; scandals come and scandals go. If that gives someone grounds for ad hominem dismissal of my thoughts in moral philosophy, I’ll just have to live with that.

But as it happens, dark as this time of life was in many respects, my need to find new housing corresponded with my younger son’s need to find new housing, and so nowadays for the first time in his life he and I officially live at the same address. This opportunity, together with a set of highly encouraging future prospects elsewhere, have provided me with some much needed “sunlight” during this time when the days have been getting longer otherwise. Our tiny little shared “bachelor pad” is far from perfect, but it allows for some bonding opportunities that I’ve been waiting for for over 18 years.

Even so, among the little details of this apartment that are almost comically inappropriate is it’s bathroom. In one sense it is ingeniously compact: I can’t imagine how any mobile home could squeeze as many functions into as few cubic meters of space as this does. In another sense though it is pathetically claustrophobic. Directly in front of the toilet there is nearly a half meter of leg room, but other than that, with our little washing machine installed, there is no direction in which there is more than 30 cm of open space. Basic washing routines involve taking turns doing the shimmy and the stretch over the 70 cm high ledge into the sit-down bathtub. This is pretty much functional as long as my son and I both remain relatively thin and agile, but only God knows how someone who is obese, pregnant, arthritic or otherwise physically limited could manage with such an arrangement.

And to make it that much more comical, it was apparently a single mother who rented this place before us and who made the decorating decision to paint this bathroom the brightest possible carnation pink. I really cannot imagine a less suitable color for a men’s bathroom.

Like a still more thorough spring cleaning (in terms of giving or throwing away things that no longer are needed and no longer fit into my life) stripping down that bathroom of cabinets, mirrors and appliances and re-painting it to some more neutral, functional color remains one of the top 10 items on my “when I get around to it” list. Will I ever get that done? We’ll see. No matter what we do, next year the whole bathroom will be torn apart to replace the building’s aging plumbing; so in some ways the idea of bothering to repaint feels like bothering to mow the grass at the end of the summer, or bothering to plow the last of the snow as the spring thaw begins.

This too provides a bit of a metaphor: how much energy do I really want to devote to “taking charge” of the irritating little details of my life, or how much do I just want to “go with the flow,” in a Taoist sort of way, towards the seasonal changes that are inevitably coming regardless? And regardless of my efforts, or lack thereof, in some of these silly details of life, things really are getting better. Literally and figuratively speaking, seasons are changing and spring is coming.

So the yard is still full of snow and slush and ice. What of it? Inevitably the sun will take care of that. There’s no point in going out and trying to chop the ice out of the ponds or shoveling the snow off the flower beds. Those things will take care of themselves in their own time. The balance factor is just that, when the time is right, farmers and gardeners need to be ready to spring into action and start planting.

As discouraging as pink walls and April snow storms can be then, it’s important to remember that they are temporary states of affairs. This isn’t about self-hypnosis or self-fulfilling prophecies and all that. This is about drawing strength and keeping ourselves going by recognizing that some things really aren’t worth worrying about, and other things really are worth believing in. Spring really is coming. When you drive through a tunnel it really isn’t worth panicking about the moment of darkness.

But even so, I do still have to decide what is worth doing about those damned pink bathroom walls.

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Filed under Change, Control, Happiness, Priorities, Time

Me and Time

I still haven’t finished with the office cleaning part of my current responsibilities that I gave as a reason for posting a rather brief blog (by my standards) last week, but I’m getting there; and I did get quite a bit of other stuff taken care of this past week, but not entirely enough. So once again I have to make this a short one and get back to all the varieties of “real work” that are waiting for me. There’s just not enough time…

Time is actually pretty funny stuff. Or if I anthropomorphize, time and I have a very complex relationship. I don’t always use what time I am given to the greatest possible advantage, and time doesn’t come to me in the ways I often need it to. It’s ebb and flow never cease to amaze me with their irregularity!

Now of course part of this has to do with being an extreme type P when it comes to the MBTI scale. My blog here is one of many things that I sort of spontaneously make up as it goes along. Many times I try to cram too much into certain periods of time, and of course it comes back to bite me. Then again, sometimes there are things to be done that can make a difference in terms of improving life as we know it, and other times we just have to sit back and not fight the inevitable. Sometimes we are in a position to change our worlds; other times we are not. Ideally I’d like those opportunities and inevitabilities to space themselves just a tad more regularly in my life. Thus my rather complicated relationship with time.

I currently count 5 major project areas in my life which need to be attended to within the next few weeks to keep myself out of trouble in one level of severity or another. That leaves no excuse for solitaire, random web surfing, TV sit-coms and adventure shows and any other customary “waist of time”. Some would count this blog and my on-line interactions with friends around the world as further things I should be cutting back on if not eliminating these days. But then start thinking of other aspects of time: time as a test of what really has importance and what doesn’t. Which of these looming project deadlines involves matters that will ultimately “stand the test of time”? When it comes down to it, I suspect my writing and my on-line friendships are at least as likely to be remembered in the next generation as anything else I need to get done now.

The flow of time, like a river, is an over-used metaphor, but some part of it holds true. I can make some difference in the lives of the students I’m teaching this year, but inevitably they will grow up and move on regardless of what I do. The boxes left un-ticked on their records will only be important if such forms enable them to, or prevent them from being able to, accomplish the great things they are capable of. The rest will inevitably be swept away by the flow of time. The same applies to all of my other current concerns: some relate to things that could significantly affect the world I live in; others far less so. Time is my friend in terms of cleaning up after me continuously, and sweeping away what ultimately doesn’t matter.

But as trivial as some of these things are in the big scheme of things, all things in moderation and with some attempt to maintain a sense of honor and respectability within my current cultural context, I should now sign off here for this time and get back to matters that various others consider to be important. The fact that most of it will be forgotten and irrelevant a year from now does not negate the fact that, as Frost so eloquently put it, “I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go before I sleep.”

Until next time then…

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Filed under Priorities, Purpose, Respectability, Time