“Spiritual therapy”

I have no idea what spiritual therapy is.  I haven’t even consulted Wikipedia.  I do have some idea about physical therapy, however, and I want to approach “spiritual therapy” using that analogy.[1]

Physical Therapy

Here’s what my experience with physical therapy has been like. Some knowledgeable person—I am going to call her a physical advisor, just to prepare the way for the use of a “spiritual advisor”—diagnoses my condition and helps me learn some exercises.  The idea is that some muscle or some connection is too loose or too tight and the exercise will move it back to where it ought to be.

Some of these exercises come to make sense to me.  Those are the ones I want to spend most of our time on.  But there are some that do not.  The exercises they  gave me to deal with my vertigo did not.  I did them as instructed.  They may have helped.  It is hard to say.  One thing for sure is this: I never developed an experience of the therapy that gave me any independent control over it.  It never became something I could “do” when I needed to.

I don’t want to mean too much by “experience.”  If, when the fuzzy vision and the spatialtherapy 5 disorientation occurred, [1]  I had been instructed to look at a large letter A on the wall and to move the focus of my vision back and forth along the crossbar and if the symptoms receded as I did that—then I would be doing it still. That would be an “experience” as I am using the word.   I never quite concluded that the exercises didn’t help me at all.  I was never sure they did.  But most of all, I never had an internal referent for the value of the “therapy” to me so I didn’t continue doing the exercises.

On the other hand, my experience with the treatment of  Greater Trochanteric Bursitis Syndrome (just GTBS among us friends) was different in two important ways and it is those that I would like to use as I move to psychological/spiritual analogies.  The first was that the exercises helped lessen the discomfort.  Not always right away, but distinctly and relatively soon.  The second is that I learned to feel just what muscle the exercise was intended to affect.

I think I see what you mean

That makes a difference that is a little hard to describe, but since it is the central point of the analogy, I’m going to tell you a story that I think clearly illustrates it.  This is my wife, Bette, on our second date.  We were at the mall where the theater was and I had asked if she minded if I took some pictures.  She was fine with that. [2]

On this particuBette Pensive.jpeglar one, I tried to describe how I wanted her to be.  Hands like so, elbows like so.  It was hard to do and I wasn’t doing it very well.  Then she said, “I think I see what you have in mind” and did this.  It was exactly what I had in mind.  That was a very potent experience for me for several reasons, one of which has to do with physical therapy.

Phase I:  The GTBS therapy was a whole different thing, I found.  I am going to break it into four phases so I can keep track of how the analogy would work.  The first phase was the same.  She, my “physical advisor,”  says “Lie like this. [3]  Now keep your leg straight and raise it up to here 20 times.  Now bend your knee.  No, no; don’t roll over backwards on your hip like that.  You need to be angled forward.”

Phase II:  That brings me to the second phase.  When I am careful to roll forward on the hip, I can feel that it affects different muscles.  At this stage, I don’t know which particular muscles, nor do I know whether doing it one way or the other will help.  I can feel the difference, though.

Phase III:  Then, in the third phase, I can identify which muscle exactly that exercise affects.  And that means I can tell whether I have rolled forward “not enough” or “too much” or “just right.”  I can tell that myself.  At the clinic, she was eyeballing my posture and judging that I might not be far enough.  But if I know what it is supposed to feel like when I am doing it right, I can make that judgment myself and make it much more accurately (I have better data) than she can.  This is the crucial phase.  It is the one I know I am going to stumble over as I try to apply it to “spiritual things.”

Phase IV:  Finally, in the fourth phase, I do the exercises; I feel the stress on those muscles in particular; the bursitis (GTBS) recedes and then disappears.  I am now well.

The bursitis therapy is now a skill I “have.”  And I know what I am doing and why it works and what “too much” feels like.  The therapist said, “Be sure not to overstretch it,” but I didn’t know at the beginning what that meant.  I didn’t know what it felt like.  Now that I know, I am in charge of it.

Spiritual Therapy

If there were a “spiritual therapy” that worked in the same ways, by analogy, as physical therapy, what would it be like?  Let me point out that that long and seemingly pointless description of my physical therapy will now help us.  

Here is how it will do that.  First, I do not have to identify anything as “spiritual pain.” I can presume it as the basis for the analogy  And that is good, because the notion of “spiritual pain,” is not really a clear concept to me.

Second, I do not have to choose among “kinds” of spiritual advisers.  As a practical matter the array of therapy I would be directed toward is very broad if I call the problem I am experiencing “psychological” and even broader if I call it “spiritual.” [4]  By means of this analogy, I am presuming that both of those issues have been dealt with and I am working on the next step.

So I get to start the analogy with “doing the things my spiritual adviser tells me to do.”  This is naive obedience.  It is like Phase I of the physical therapy.  I have nothing to go on but my confidence in her abilities, or maybe only her reputation.  I have no experience of my own and no way to assess and evaluate the experience I will have.  So I do what I am told.

Therapy 1What might I be told to do?  I might be told to meditate.  I might be told to pray in a particular way.  I might be told that there is really no difference between prayer and meditation.  I might be told to take certain actions and not others because “spiritual therapy” is really “reflection on action.”  It is a reflection on practices.  I might be told that how I am feeling—exalted, depressed, fearful, gregarious—is the crucial thing to know and that each feeling is a clue to my “spiritual state” and I should pursue each feeling; I should lean into each one because that is how it will become clarified for me.  The array of things my spiritual advisor might tell me by contrast to what a physical advisor might tell me is strikingly large and I have no way, other than personal preferences, of choosing among them.  That is why it is confusing and why I am trying to follow the analogy.

Even worse, I might be told that it is the exercise of my personal preferences that is causing the pain in the first place.

Nevertheless, there has to be, in this way of making the analogy, a time when either: a) I experience some relief  (Phase IV) or b) I experience directly the effect of the prescribed therapy (Phase III).  Each of those leads to a kind of reflection.

If I experience the relief (Phase IV), my immediate concern is to figure out what caused it.  The relief is not the end of the story for me.  I need to know what I did that caused that relief.  I am presuming here that the relief is part of the spiritual therapy and that what I am doing naively at my advisor’s direction, is “the right thing.”

If I experience only the immediate effect of the therapy, (Phase III) my interest will be in whether that feeling is going to make my problem go away.  I now know how to do it correctly.  But will it solve the problem?  It’s an issue either way.  It’s a coin with two sides.

I am going to introduce “prayer therapy” in a little while.  I’m not proposing it or denigrating it.  I just want something as much like physical therapy as I can manage.

But before we get to this hypothetical “prayer therapy,” let’s look at what happens intherapy 3 Phase III of the spiritual therapy.  The spiritual advisor says what I should be doing (or thinking or feeling) and I try it and “feel” something distinctive that I can associate with the therapy.  At this point, I am in the position Bette was in when she said, “I think I see what you are getting at.”  Some part of my self is affected directly when I do what the therapist says to do.  I have not yet determined that it is going to be helpful.  I’ll have to do it a while before I find that out, but I do now have “control” over the nexus between the therapeutic intervention and the feeling I have.  If the spiritual advisor said, “Practice doing that this week,” I would know what she meant.

Or, in Phase IV, I can feel a very good effect from something.  I presume it is an effect of the spiritual exercises I have been doing.  But I need to know what it was.  If I don’t know that, I can’t do it again when the pain returns.  And continuing to do it without that understanding is just superstition.  So I am grateful for the relief, but I need to understand the mechanism.

The back door

Now, if you have any hesitation at all about this analogy, you are probably inching away from the whole project.  There is, indeed, a great deal that raises concerns and that includes me.  Physical pain is what it feels like, even if the source of it might not be obvious.  “Spiritual pain” is another kind of thing entirely. 

  • Is it the pain you get as a side effect of training? 
  • Is it the kind that “refines you” and “burns out the impurities.” 
  • Is pain, as C. S. Lewis said, “God’s megaphone” making clear a message that pleasure only obscured? “Spiritual pain” is just not clear to me as a notion.

And not only that, but I am an entirely satisfactory judge of whether the trochanteric bursa is hurting me.  I am not at all reliable in determining whether the values I hold  are the source of the problem or my hope for solution.  I don’t know and can’t know those things, yet who else will decide if the spiritual therapy is “working” or even what “working” means?

So let’s imagine that I have concluded that I am experiencing the psychological/spiritual analog of “pain” and that I have contacted a spiritual adviser, largely on the grounds that I had such good luck with my physical adviser.  The spiritual adviser gives me exercises to do and I do them in naive trust.  This very likely means that I am doing them poorly.  Since there is no beneficial effect at all, I am sustained entirely by my faith in the advisor.  

That isn’t going to last.  I will decide eventually that I am not good at this or that she is not good at it.  “It,” in any case, is not “working” and I will either try to adjust myself to a life with this level of spiritual pain or I keep on searching for another advisor.

The one thing that would save me from this round is the sense that I know what this exercise is supposed to do.  That is the point of the analogy with physical therapy.  When I directly experience the effect of the spiritual exercise, I can adjust it (more frequently, less frequently, more social contact, less social contact, etc.) so that I experience “the effect” more directly.  Then, when that happens,  I can take that part of the exercise—the part that I have determined to be associated with “success”—and focus on the effects it has.

Once I know what it is and why it works, I can recommend it to other people, telling them the first effects I experienced and then the first relief I got and encouraging them to adjust that account to their own lives.  “It” I will say, “works” but you have to learn to adapt it to yourself, just as I did.

So…a long trip.  Worth taking?  I think so.  I understand better now just what function is fulfilled by understanding “what worked.”  And I know I have come very near to claiming whatever gift God might grant [5] as the result of my own work.    That’s not really what I mean.  That’s an artifact of the analogy with physical therapy.  I do think that there is a time for naive obedience in my own spiritual life as well as a time for discernment and choice.  What this metaphor does for me, I think, is to pry those two moments a little further apart than they were and I like that.

[1]  That’s the way I experienced my vertigo; I understand it is different for other people.

[2]  This date with Bette was the end of my “dating experience” and I had had several times asked my date for the evening if she would mind if I took some pictures.  No one was happy about the prospect.  It made one in particular, angry.  Bette said, “Sure,” as if she could easily imagine why I would want to have a picture and/or to share it with friends.

[3]  Physical advisors as a rule, I have concluded, say “lay” when they mean “lie.”  It’s a really unfortunate verb to get wrong if you use it as much as physical advisors use it.

[4]  I am leaving resolutely alone the question, “What is it really?”

[5]  That would be the ultimate source of any relief I felt in my own picture of how the world works.

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Staying Busy

This is a COVID—19 sort of speculation. [1] The COVID pandemic and our plan to bend the curve of new infections downward has led to a lot of urging that people stay home. To help us stay home, the management of Holladay Park Plaza, the CCRC where Bette and I live, is offering residents lots of things to do, all of which can be done in the apartments. I don’t object at all. I think it’s really nice of them.

Except that when you think of it, “keeping busy” is a pretty thin way to live a life. It is a good way to buy compliance during a pandemic, but it is not, as it stands, a good rationale for choices. Keeping busy at what?” Keeping busy in what way?

junk foodWhen you come to the question of rationale, the urgency of the question “Why am I doing this?” comes immediately to mind. A famous experiment which I ran across in grad school, had students performing a meaningless task turning pegs on a board. Some are paid a little for doing it; others are not. When they are asked to come back to the lab and do it again, voluntarily this time and without pay, some said yes and some said no.

Oddly, it was the ones who had not been paid the first time who said yes. As the experimenters interpreted that response, every student when asked to come back had to provide some internally persuasive reason why they did it the first time. No problem for the ones who got paid. They knew why and knew to say no next time. But for the ones who did it for free the first time, they must have reasoned that they did it because they liked it and, given that, doing it again was perfectly reasonable. Hence, the power of the question, “Why am I doing this?”

I think the emphasis on “keeping busy,” as understandable as it is in the context of as Senior Center, is not very good advice as a rule. It is like telling a child to keep his stomach full all the time. “Full of what?” the child says. [2] Oh…whatever. Junk food is as good an nutritious food if the goal is keeping the stomach full and it is readily available. It is as readily available as junk TV. A balanced diet will not keep your stomach more full that junk food. Questions of how much fat, how much protein, how much fiber, and all that, recede into the background if the goal is to get full and stay full.

So I was thinking of a “time budget” as a kind of “diet.” [3] What do you want to fill your time with? [4] You could fill your budget with junk activities with no regard at all to the kind of effect they would have on you. We know that our diet ought to have, for instance, enough fiber. We have a rough idea of what the effects on our life will be if we do not get enough fiber. But what is a good analogy to “fiber” in our choice of activities?”

junk food 4When I first thought of this, I got as far as “junk activities” as analogous to “junk food.” But now that I am into it a little, I think it might be worthwhile to pursue further questions. What activities have the effect of providing energy, like proteins do? What activities help us dispose of waste products like fibers do? What activities have the effect of helping us build and maintain tissues? [5]

Fiber is a particularly good example because I am so dependent on routines. I will try to explain that connection. There is a good reason, at the time, for adding one routine or another, but it would take real vigilance to drop those parts of my routines that no longer serve me. The cost of that kind of vigilance is high. On the other hand, a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic forces the end of a lot of routines all at once. It gives you a chance to ask the crucial question: how do these routines serve me? In that way, like fiber, they give me the chance to rid myself of waste products.

Carbohydrates give me energy as do a lot of the activities I choose to do. If I had a life in which most of the things I did drained energy from me, I would have to find some way to cope with it, but as it is, there are lots of things I could choose to do that (usually) energize me and I can think of them as the “carbohydrates” of my time budget.

So I like the idea of “keeping busy” as an aid to “maintaining social distance.” More generally, however, “keeping busy” doesn’t point to some really important distinctions, such as, what is it that the activities you are choosing are going to do for you? That is not a “how much” question like how nearly full are you. It is a “what value” question like what contribution will this choice make to your life.

I know that sounds spartan and severe. I don’t mean it that way. A certain amount of “wasting time” feels really good and is probably good for you. Still, as Ray Bradbury is known for saying, “Too much of anything isn’t good for anyone.”

[1] “Except not really.” That’s the kind of line Aaron Sorkin provides to his characters, one show after another. We’ve been watching The West Wing again because it is part of Holladay Park Plaza’s plan to keep the residents “busy” and in their apartments. Watching it all again, I see that Toby, Sam, and Josh all use that formula.
[2] I don’t know if that is what your child would have said, but three out of my three children would and did.
[3] Interestingly enough, the English word “diet,” (the noun, not the verb) derives from a Greek word diaitasthai, meaning “to lead one’s life,” That is exactly the meaning I stumbled into in this essay.  A “budget,” on the other hand is nothing but a bag.
[4] You could say, of course, that you don’t really want your schedule to be full so you program some “not doing anything time” into it. And then it is full again. You really do have to spend all the time there is. Spending less time is not a possibility
[5] I am taking “tissues” to be everything above and beyond the skeleton. That’s probably not wildly wrong, so far as physiology is concerned, and it fits nicely with my sense of what the “skeleton” of my daily life is.

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The two logics

So let’s see. There is a competitive logic. Whoever is best prepared and works the hardest wins and everybody else loses. Fair is fair. You knew that when you signed up for the race.

And then there is a communitarian logic. We’re all in this together. It’s going to take all of us to achieve this goal (often a wartime slogan) or to ward off this threat.

Both of these work when they are evoked in an era that is appropriate to them. But youcompete 3 wouldn’t think they would work at the same time with the same people, would you? Or that you could cycle back and forth quickly between one kind of appeal and the other?

And the problem is worse than that, really, because the “life as a competition” theme, because it has so many losers, has to be policed all the time. What if the losers don’t like being losers AND they have the means to do something about it?

Let’s take a simple example. Poor people rely on public parks disproportionately. If the city is trying to keep some distance between the citizens, closing the places where they congregate is a very sensible thing to do. And that rationale for it is ready to hand: “We’re all in this together.”

Imagine now that COVID-19 is around and that the consequences of noncompliance are not just unauthorized people in the parks, but a geometrically expanding bubble of disease and death? As a poor person who spends a lot of time in public space, just what motivation do I have to comply? Were we “all in it together” yesterday when I had to go to the bathroom and there were none available because they were all reserved for people who had money to spend? Were we all in it together then my cell phone battery was exhausted and no one would share an electrical outlet? Were we all in it together when I tried to ride a bus, just to be somewhere warm and dry for a little while and the driver threw me off because I had not bought a ticket?

Those did not feel like “all in it together” experiences. And now I have an illness that Icompete 4 could inflict not just on THEM, the people who are denying me and ordering me around, but on THEM, the people who are posting notices that we are all in this together. There just might be something that felt very good about that?

I’ve had it up to here with the communal logic when in fact I am not treated as a member of the community. I am treated like a “customer” who has no way to buy anything. I am treated that way in offices large and small, public and private. And I’m angry about it. And now you want me to wear a mask (I don’t have one) and to stay six feel apart (really hard on the bus) and wash my hands frequently (in what?).

I don’t think so. I can’t think why I suddenly owe you the debt of common citizenship (the communitarian presupposition) when you have treated me exclusively as a customer who cannot consume and as an undesirable who is asked only to “move along.”

So I don’t think I will. I think I will defy their hypocritical demands and spread my infection among others like myself. I would like to spread it among the professional class, but I don’t have much access to them, so I will just spread it among the people I do live with.

And when I get really sick, having infected God knows how many of my neighbors, they will have to take me into a hospital and treat me at public expense. So I win.

Ugly isn’t it? Maybe we really can’t shift rationales back and forth as efficiently as we once could.

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Viewing the virus

You get such a different sense of just what the virus means when you look at it generally than when you look at it locally,  And, of course, you get a different sense entirely when you focus on what it feels like than you do when you pay attention to what it looks like.

I’d like to reflect today on what the pandemic looks like as if I were looking at it from different heights. [1]  The numbers are not entirely random because I want to end at six feet (my current height, alas; I have lost an entire inch), so I am just choosing 600 feet, 6000 feet, and 60,000 feet as approximations.

You see something like this at 60,000 feet.  Regardless of where it started or why, it is virus 1going to spread most rapidly to the places who do not have the resources to defend their populations against it and to the places who do have the resources but are slow in deploying them.

On the first measure, you could superimpose a map of the COVID-19 infections on a map of extreme global poverty and see what you expect to see. [2]  On the second measure, you could look at the deaths in Italy, a very slow responder, and in Germany, a very fast responder.

At 6,000 feet you see a lot of Portland.  Governor Brown was quick to put all of Oregon on lockdown.  She very likely saved a lot of lives by doing that, but she eviscerated the local economy and that is what is easiest to see as you walk around.  Portland is a ghost town in many ways.  On the other hand, the homeless camps look pretty busy and the number of homeless who ride the light rail cars in order to get warm are still high.  I judge that from the outside of the cars because I can afford to be prudent and not ride the light rail.  Real poverty seems to diminish “prudence.”

virus 5On the other hand, you still see people out walking, most with face masks on and there in an undeniable camaraderie that reminds me of World War II.  None of the people in my little town in Ohio chose to go to war, but the war was the context of our lives then.  There was no denying that “there was a war on,” as it was said, and everyone was expected to make some sacrifices.

At 600 feet I can see Holladay Park Plaza (HPP) , where I live.  We are one of fourteen Continuing Care Retirement Centers (CCRCs) administered by Pacific Retirement Services (PRS) and the whole “family” of PRS centers went on lockdown early.  Our Executive Director at HPP has been marvelous in directing a lot of unpopular actions and showing at the same time a clear compassion for the residents who are caught up it all this.   It isn’t convenient, I can tell you, but there have been no positive tests for the virus at all among the 280+ residents and that is something to say for a place full of compromised immune systems.

Here at HPP we are doing without most of the social contact for which we are justly virus 6famous.  We are using the elevators one at a time.  Face masks are everywhere, as are the seamsters and seamstresses who provide them. [3]  We are having a lot of “meetings” by using social conferencing apps no one had heard of a month ago. [4]  I will begin a Bible study on Genesis 1—3 today, working from the dining room table and seeing the faces of my fellow residents on the screen.  On Monday, a group which has been working on revising the HPP Bylaws, will “meet” virtually to continue our work.

I would expect that tempers will begin to fray as the weather gets good and the stresses of confinement grow, but in the absence of anyone to blame, I think patience and good manners will carry us through.

The six foot view is about managing my own life under the circumstances.  Beyond being diligent about getting my exercise, I am trying to stay attached to things to do—“projects” is the name I use for such things [5]—and to the people I do them with.  I am being pretty aggressive (for me) in participating in Zoom-mediated meetings and I have the sense of really being “with” people that way.  My Starbucks group has been meeting virtually for weeks now and, although no one would think it as good as the original, it is vastly better than not seeing these good friends at all.

Finally, I do hope that I will remember some of the things we were forced to invent.  I love my routines.  They keep my mind free to think about other things.  But it would be ridiculous to think that the routines I happened on or chose without much thought are the best ones I could have.  The virus has forced me into new routines and some of them are going to be better than the old ones.  I hope I will have the wit to notice them and the good judgment to keep them even when I am no longer forced to do so.

The virus is a stressor.  It is too much in some places and too little in others.  Responding well to the stress level we experience (the 60,000, 6000, 600, and 6 foot levels) will serve us all in the long run.

[1]I owe the metaphor to David Christian’s lectures on “Big History.”He uses an ant exploring one of the creases in the ear of an elephant.Eventually the ant goes up in a helicopter and gets an entirely unexpected view of the elephant and possibly…maybe…a look at the crease where he and all his forebears has spent their whole lives.

[2]  It doesn’t always show what you expect because rich countries have so much more travel than poor ones and living is sparsely populated lands minimizes the spread of the disease.

[3]  Just having fun with seamsters.  It’s an era of gender equality, after all.

[4]  Zoom has been the most common one here.

[5]I “throw myself forward” (pro = forward, attached to jacere, “to throw”) into these “things to do” and it keeps me conscious that being “diverted” or “entertained” is not the way I want to life my life.

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What keeps me up at night

It’s not just worrying about things. I get roused out of sleep by new ideas, too. And I don’t really mind that. I wish I got more sleep, but I would hate to miss out on the ideas.

I’m better about worrying about things than I used to be. During the time my wife, Marilyn, was experiencing so much pain as a result of her cancer, I learned to be emotionally alert to her situation on the one hand and to be physically disconnected from it on the other. “Be a body,” I would say to myself, and manage to rest enough that I could do all the things for her that I needed to do the next day. That was how I learned that emotional awareness of a loved one’s pain does not require the physical tension that wears your body out.  They are two things; not one thing, as I first experienced them.

I’m not as good at that as I was back then. I think I could get better at it again if I practiced, but it is hard to want to practice and I am very grateful that circumstances have not forced it on me.

On the other hand, I am just as emotionally open, in the middle of the night, to ideas that are exciting. I stumble onto questions from time to time that are new to me and that engage me immediately. Currently, during the COVID—19 pandemic, I am reading a lot about loneliness. Why are people lonely?


Well…loneliness is a deficit of some sort. Is it a lack of company? Not to the people who write about “being lonely in a crowd?” Is it a lack of meaning? Not to people who encourage more and better distractions as a good solution.  Is it any one thing at all? Not to people who want to define loneliness by their experience of it.

lonely 1But that is not what I want to do. I want to build a model of human functioning that makes sense to me and that I can use. So I need some premises about human functioning and then I need some observations that test and affirm the premises. [1] I plug the day’s observations, the reading I do, the conversations I have, into the system and up pops new idea—sometimes a really intriguing idea. Take loneliness, for instance.

Am I experiencing “loneliness” when I say I am experiencing loneliness? Of course not. I am experiencing something and it is an “instance” of the category I put it in. I could have exactly the same sensation on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and call it loneliness and then on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, I call it “low self esteem.”

Like everyone else I know, I have had experiences I call “being lonely,” but I have also had times—sometimes long periods of time—when I do not have those experiences. When I am engaged in a project so intensely that time just goes away and sometimes even hunger, I don’t feel lonely. I don’t really feel anything at all. I am living in the project somewhere.

So are lonely people “project poor?”

I have also lost the sense of being lonely when I am working on a project with a colleague. [2] I don’t have that sense of total immersion, the kind of thing Mihaly Csikszentmihaly called “flow,”when I am cooperating with a colleague. I couldn’t afford it under those circumstances and I really don’t need it. I value him for his contributions to the project and I invest myself in the project counting on him to do what he does. [3]

So are lonely people “colleague poor?”

I have also lost the sense of being lonely when I am engaged in a relationship where I amlonely 4 receiving what feels like an unedited flow of self-expression from an intimate other and am allowing that same kind of unedited flow to come from myself. There is nothing particularly erotic about this exchange, although there is no reason it could not involve erotic commitment. We hunger, I think, to know who another person really is and at the same time, we know that society simply can’t operate that way. Society—civil association—requires that we play our parts and do our jobs and relate to each other with the psychic surplus. And that is why we hunger to know who another person really is.

We don’t just “be” with each other. We have to actively remove the playacting that allows us to live together in groups and come closer and closer to that intimately perceived unity that we call “myself.” It’s an active thing. And I can lead or you can lead but whoever leads may call out a corresponding relaxation of the personal editing we do so that we move from one level of trust and consequent candor to another, to another.

Are lonely people “intimacy poor?”

There is also a kind of evaluation of myself—of my behavior, principally—that helps protect me. [4] For many years not, I have taken seriously the spectare = to see part of the word “respect.” That’s how it is different from self-esteem. “Esteem” is based on a sense of who you are, of your innate worth. Respect is based on an assessment of what you have done and are doing. “The respect of others” is variable because the standards of valuation are variable and even my respect for myself varies. It varies not only because I behave better some times and worse at other times, but because the standard I use to evaluate my work varies from one time to another.

But when I am challenged and have the clear sense that I could respond in the better way or the worse way and choose, at whatever cost, the better way, my respect for myself is bolstered. And when my respect for myself—my self-respect—is strong, I simply don’t experience loneliness. [5]

So are lonely people people who don’t respect themselves?

Deaths of Despair

This has been on my mind recently because I have been reading about the sharp increase in “deaths of despair,” particularly in the United States. A lot of people are concluding that “it” is just not worth it and kill themselves quickly (suicide) or slowly (drug and alcohol abuse). Despair is not the same as loneliness, but all these despairing people are lonely. That’s why I’ve been thinking about it.

And people who look at this problem is a practical way—that’s not me; I am looking at it in a theoretical way—wonder what to do to help people feel less lonely. They recommend more physical activity and more socializing and more entertainment. But if loneliness is the kind of thing I’ve been speculating about, none of those things is going to help much and the kinds of things that will help are the things the lonely people will do, the effect of which will be to protect themselves from those feelings.

lonely 5I don’t object to the things that are being proposed, but I also don’t see any connection between those proposals and the kinds of things I think—using the system I have derived for my own use—actually help people. So I see those proposals and I wave them away. Yeah, fine. But when I am pressed to adopt or support them, I am forced to say that I don’t think they will help. And when I am pushed to say why I think that, I trot out my own set of presuppositions and the observations that are consistent with them. That is often not received well.

But…just to finish out with the sleep reference, what would happen if the “deaths of despair” hypothesis, which has been swishing into my brain and back out again like a tide, suddenly acquires the missing piece. Some new conceptual tool or some new study or some new phrase that locks together a lot of the things I have been thinking about? Wouldn’t that be exciting? And if it happened in the middle of the night—which it does, sometimes—wouldn’t it keep me up?

Of course it would. And I would be grateful for the privilege. But the next day, I would need a nap.

[1] None of this should be confused with scientific inquiry, of course. I don’t control the flow of data, the level of awareness, or the precise standards by which I categorize my experiences. And we won’t even think about a control group.
[2] I don’t have very high standards for the use of the word “colleague.” If we are chosen or sent—we get that part of the word from the Latin verb legare = to send as a deputy—to the same task or at the same time, then we are “in league with each other.”
[3] And if that sounds like C. S. Lewis’s reflections on philia, I have done it right. That is where I first encountered this idea and I have experienced it myself many times over the years.
[4] The reverse side of this is that when I disapprove of my choices and my behavior it doesn’t protect me. It doesn’t lead me toward loneliness, however. Guilt and shame are my weak points, not sociability.
[5] My “self-esteem,” by contrast, is based on my celebration of who I am or on the support of others who esteem me highly. I have no confidence at all in my estimate of my innate worth. For me, that is a theological question. And I have no confidence in the stability of the assessment of me by others. That comes and goes like clouds come and go, having no sense at all of whether you need to see the sun.

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Foul is Fair

Why do we keep falling for this? Is it because we don’t understand anything at all about symbolism? Is it that we so dearly love making fun of the nation’s Chief Buffoon that we are willing to hand him the election as a gift?  Surely we can do better.  Let’s back up and try again.

President Trump said he would like to see churches packed on Easter Sunday. Fine. synbols 2Wouldn’t we all.?  Why wouldn’t we wish that we were not afflicted at all by COVID-19 and that we could go about our business? There are two elements here. One is context: there is a health crisis for which we are woefully unprepared. We need to get serious about taking the measures necessary to contain it. The other is religious symbolism. “Easter” is a prominent marker in the church year. Having “the churches filled” evokes a long-ago America when most people identified as Christians and where church attendance statistics were eye-poppingly large.

Two elements.

One is directly connected to the question of who will win the presidency in November. The other is distantly, if at all, connected. President Trump chose the direct connection. I understand that completely. The man’s a genius.  [1]  He knows where the blood is.

What I don’t understand is why his worst opponents want to cooperate with him. Liberals can say, if they want, that “filling the churches by April 12 (liberals wouldn’t refer to Easter directly if they didn’t have to) is medically irresponsible.” And that is what we have said and we are right.

But I asked that we back up a little and think of the symbolism first. So President Trump symbols3wants to talk about religion and his hopes for it. We want to talk about illness, disease, and public responsibility. He wants to align himself with the hopes of one of his core constituencies. We want to bring the news of deprivation and disease. And not only do we want to do that, we also want to condemn him for his reference to Easter, as if we didn’t understand that every complaint establishes him more firmly in the pro-religion camp and ourselves in the anti-religion camp.

But wait! you say. That’s not fair! No it isn’t, but as Mr. Dooley said a very long time ago, “Politics ain’t beanbag.” We can align ourselves with the hopes of the faithful or we can ignore those hopes and celebrate the shuttered churches, mosques, and synagogues. Symbolically, those are our choices.

When President Trump chooses Easter as a symbol (rather than April 12, which you will agree is a very poor symbol) he is clothing himself in the mantle of religion. When we revile him for being unrealistic, we are clothing ourselves in the mantle of anti-religion.

Trump sets the categories—two-valued, as he most often does—and invites us to choose the wrong one. The category is religion: he is for it. In our criticisms of him, we keep the category—we are still talking about religion—and we, by being against him, are against religion.

There are two ways to do better than we are currently doing. The first is to change the category. The other is to change the flavor, the charge, from negative to positive.

Changing the category is going to be hard. Here is President Trump is a public setting where he can express himself freely and emotionally without any real oversight. To change the category in that setting, we would have to point out the real life effects of packing the churches with infected people. In that new setting, President Trump would be forced to backtrack and say something prudent.

synboils 1Please note that this is not a press conference where there could be follow-up questions. It is not a CDC briefing. It is more like a public appearance byAndrea Ramirez, (seen at the left) the acting executive director of the Center for Faith and Opportunity Initiatives at the U.S. Department of Education. She is a low level (compared to the President) employee and you could require her to say that she, herself, does not hope for the churches to be filled with infectious Christians on Easter. There can be hundreds of such interviews without touching the public appearances of President Trump at all.

So…I do have the beginnings of another solution. The one I have presented here—change the topic or change the charge—is really really hard. If I go back to this, I know I will have to come up with something better.


[1]  OK, he’s an evil genius.

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A Non-conversation about the COVID-19 Virus

In today’s New York Times (March 26), Nicholas Kristof and Russell Moore had a non-conversation about the COVID-19 virus.  

moore 2Kristof, with co-author Stuart Thompson and with the help of some statistical model builders, published an interactive graph on the spread of the virus.  It shows the effect of different lengths of “intervention.” [1]  It is the kind of information we need to decide what “we”—crucial term—should do in the present crisis.

Russell Moore wrote that we should not sacrifice anyone.  Dr. Moore does not want to talk public policy.  It looks from a suitable distance that Moore and Kristof are talking about the same thing, but I don’t think they are.  Let’s look at why not by allowing each to critique the other.

Kristof says that setting the level of intervention at X will cost Y million lives.  If the intervention lasts until Easter (17 days from now) the model forecasts 30 million infected, 10 million hospitalized, and 1 million dead. If we continue the intervention for 40 days—I picked that number because I thought Dr. Moore would enjoy it—we would have 8 million infected (instead of 30) 1 million hospitalized (instead of 10 million), and maybe 100,000 dead (instead of 1 million). [2]

That is what good public policy work should tell us.  What is the difference in lives lostmoore 1 between X and X+1?  Policy cannot be made on any other basis.  It treats every member of the population equally; everyone is a check mark.  In approaching it this way, we have, according the Moore, “lost our humanity.”

Dr. Moore says that every life is sacred because we are made in the image of God.  For reasons he does not specify, the most vulnerable are the most valuable.  If Moore were to organize a chart like Kristof’s, to which he is ethically opposed, he would organize it by social class, giving priority to those who are most likely to die from the disease and sacrificing those least likely to die.

Moore has good theological grounds for his ethical urgings, but they don’t help anyone who must make the kinds of decisions he is talking about.  He argues, for instance, that we should not “pass by on the other side of the road.”  The phrasing comes from the story of the Good Samaritan, but in public policy there is no “other side” of the road.  Public policy is responsible to consider both sides of the road and there is nowhere for people like Moore to hide.

OK, those are the two critiques.  Now let’s look at the reality.  Every additional day of “intervention” will come at great cost in human values and in human lives.  It is nonsense to say that protecting the economy is a different thing from protecting human lives unless you have some particular human lives and some particular measure of economic health in mind.  As I see it, Moore does have particular ones in mind and Kristof does not.

An older version of this dilemma is setting speed limits.  If every five mile per hour reduction saves X lives, how can you argue against reducing the limit.  Is “getting there faster” really worth the cost of the human lives that will be lost?  Well…yes.  There is a point at which, given the speed capabilities of cars both ancient and modern, you must simply balance the need for speed against the loss of life.  I know that sounds heartless, but imagine 15 mile and hour speed limits.  Dr. Moore argues against balance.

Would it help us at all to consider where we get a word like “vulnerable”?  English gets the word from the Latin vulnus, “wound.”  We distance ourselves from the realities of our society by using a word like “vulnerable,” which means “able to be wounded,” or perhaps, “more likely than some others to be wounded.”  Perhaps it would help us to use “wounded” of the people most likely to die from this virus, rather than “able to be wounded.”

Those who are already wounded are most likely to die from an epidemic.  If we are aggressive in our social policy, we will save many lives, but those who are already wounded will still die disproportionately.  If we are casual in our social policy, as President Trump is proposing, the wounded will still die disproportionately, but many more of them will die.

In other words, Dr. Moore’s advice does not help.  I think it would do less damage in a sermon.  I really wish the New York Times had not published it.  It offers only moral condemnation on the people who have the hard job of allocating lifesaving equipment here but not there, and continuing the intervention from X to X +1.  

[1]  Business closures and social distancing

[2]  Rough estimates based on reading a small interactive chart.  The numbers are proportionately correct.

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