Confessions of a She-Geek

May 30, 2016

Obi-Wan Kenobi; Spin Doctor Extraordinaire

Filed under: Media — Teresa @ 11:17 pm

In accordance with my proposed Rules of Online Engagement, let me begin by saying this is an opinion piece, based on my observations. I do cite some sources, but a lot of what follows is my own attempt to unsnarl some very snarled stuff.

Now that the 2016 Presidential campaigns are in full swing, we’re being treated to a veritable plethora of highly-focused pot-stirring pretty much everywhere we turn. This is understandable when you take into account that campaigning is basically a form of marketing, intended to convince voters to “buy” a “product”.

Political marketing is its own industry. There are businesses devoted to helping people “sell” politicians, providing consultation, tools, and resources which are all geared toward identifying a target demographic, then using various tactics to win votes. Like all marketing, campaigning involves a fair amount of filtering, drawing the audience’s attention to some things, while distracting the audience from others. It’s advertising 101, and it’s highly effective. It’s also manipulative and (in my opinion) if not outright dishonest, then at the very least, disingenuous.

Here’s the problem: while the goal of campaigning may be to win the majority of votes, voting is fundamentally an exercise in trust. If a political campaign is successful, the candidate is elected. At that point the campaign is done, and the voters have to live with what comes next. More often than not, what comes next is the harsh glare of reality, rather than the carefully-filtered version of the world presented by in the campaign.

Trust is broken as the filters are removed. Voters become frustrated and angry, but it’s easy enough for a politician to put the blame on his (or her) opponents, rather than to acknowledge a much simpler (yet infinitely more complicated) truth: reality is messy. Things are inter-connected. Whether it’s Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious, the physics of string theory, chaos theory’s butterfly effect, religious traditions such as Pantheism or Christianity, or even the Force, across multiple disciplines, faiths, and cultures, people recognize this.

This applies to politics, too. What is done to address one issue, will have an impact in others. Some connections are easy enough to see: increased funding to the military means decreased funding elsewhere. Education reforms will impact how well-prepared the work force will be 20 years from now. Changes in environmental policy will effect industries which benefit from the current environmental policy.

But other connections are there, as well. As an example, increased military funding would mean more military gear and weapons will be made (domestic economic growth, which is good), but producing the materials needed to make the gear opens the door to other issues. Mining/smelting will increase pollution. Health issues stem not only from the hazards of mining and production, but also the soldiers who are wounded in combat. This leads to increased demand for affordable health care, as well as a need for veterans’ benefits and dealing with disabilities. Increased military funding would also have a political price in terms of international relations/diplomacy. And so on, and so forth. The devil is in the details, and politicians are hoping that no one is reading the fine print.

How do politicians deal with this? By trying to put themselves in the most favorable light possible, while effectively demonizing their opponents. The politicians (and all to frequently, media) focus attention on one perspective, while carefully discounting any other interpretations. They do their best to spin the situation to their own advantage.

And spinning isn’t new by any means. It’s been around for a long, long time. Heck, even one of pop culture’s best-known good guys, Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi, wasn’t above it. As part of a recruitment pitch, Obi-Wan tells Luke Skywalker that Luke’s father was a Jedi who was betrayed and murdered by evil despot Darth Vader.

In fact, Darth Vader actually was Luke’s father (spoiler alert!) and the truth was – as it so often is – more complicated. Vader began life as Anakin Skywalker. It’s true that Anakin became a Jedi, but it’s also true that he was impulsive and impatient. His abilities as a Jedi impressed someone who exploited Anakin’s frustration, and later his fear and anger, to convince Anakin to betray the Jedi order. Ultimately Obi-Wan and Anakin dueled, and Anakin was injured so badly in the process that he spent the rest of his life in body armor that doubled as a life-support system.

When Luke learns that Vader actually is his father, Luke confronts Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan’s response was that the good man he’d known as Anakin died the day that Anakin betrayed the Jedi, and that what Obi-Wan originally told Luke was the truth – from a certain point of view. The question is, why did Obi-Wan choose to lie?

It was never fully explained, and there are a lot of fan theories out there. Personally, I think the lie had several purposes:

  • To motivate Luke accompany Obi-Wan on the upcoming mission
  • To introduce Luke to the concept of the Force
  • To indicate that the Force ran in Luke’s blood (literally)
  • To persuade Luke that he was destined to become a Jedi.

It was definitely manipulative, but I don’t think it was selfish.

The cynic in me insists that our politicians’ spinning is being done for purely selfish reasons. The politician is trying to ingratiate himself (or herself) to various lobbyists and special interest groups, or to assist in accumulating power/influence in his (or her) political party, or to obtain increased campaign funding, or something along those lines. The motivation to spin is not to help other people, but to protect his (or her) own interests.

And in the process, the short-sighted approach to fixing one thing while breaking several others continues. I, for one, have had it. The proverbial emperor has no clothes, and I’m calling him (all politicians, as well as political pundits) out. If you want to change one thing, be prepared to adjust the others as necessary, as well. If you want to ban abortion, then provide the necessary resources to sustain a human being: education, health care, affordable housing, equal opportunity in the workplace – the whole shebang. If you want to fight against gun control, then be prepared to increase funding to the legal and penal systems, parolee programs, police force, and workforce training. If you want to cut education funding, be prepared for an increase in crime, poverty, and public assistance.

Things do not happen in isolation, and we cannot keep pretending that they do. That approach just creates this weird push-pull where nothing is really fixed, because fixing one thing breaks others. And if the true goal is to actually fix things and make life better, then this has to stop.

We can’t lay all the blame on the politicians (or the media), either. We have to stop indulging this ridiculous stalemate. If a politician says he (or she) will do certain things if elected, doesn’t do them, blames the opposition for the lack of progress, and swears that things would work out perfectly if only the opposition weren’t re-elected, then he (or she) is part of the problem. Stop re-electing these people! Stop listening to the same old song and dance, then letting yourselves be convinced that it’s not the politician’s fault (oh, no); it’s everyone around the politician who is wrecking things. If everyone else is wrecking things, then “everyone else” (in other words, all politicians who indulge in this nonsense) shouldn’t be left in a position where they can wreck things.

We need to break the cycle and apply some critical thinking to the situation. We need to stop relying on carefully-crafted sound bytes and messages and start looking at the actual facts of situations (not some political pundit’s biased explanation of events). We need to stop buying into the wisdom of the bumper sticker and Internet meme, resist the impulse to boil complex situations to a single sentence, and actively work to understand the complexities.

Then maybe we can break the stalemate.

September 19, 2015

It’s a Fan’s World

Filed under: Media — Teresa @ 5:35 pm
Tags: , , , , , ,

Given my on-screen name, it should come as no surprise that I am, and have been for most of my life, a lover of sci-fi, fantasy, and (to a somewhat lesser degree) comics. When I was a kid, the word most frequently used to describe my main focus/interest (aside from “geek” or “nerd”) was Trekkie – although I was into other things, as well. These days my genre-based enthusiasms would likely have me labeled more as a fangirl (which is fine by me).

The advent of social media has brought with it a fairly standard set of fandom… traits? Tools? Avenues? These aren’t all new things by any means, but the scope has expanded. These traits/tools/avenues include on-line discussions hosted on pop-culture sites like The AV Club and Previously.TV; Twitter feeds, fan art/blogs/crafts/fiction/pages/videos, and fan conventions. People who share interest in the same things, can find one another and build a community virtually overnight. And these communities can be amazingly well-organized. As a fangirl (and borderline-Type A), I approve.

I also approve of the emerging trend that channels all this creative energy and enthusiasm into a force for positive change in the world. In an earlier post I mentioned how actor Misha Collins co-founded a charity called RandomActs.org, which is accomplishing some very impressive things, both large and small. What I didn’t mention is that this charity’s growing visibility is largely thanks to the fan base of a tv show on the CW network, called Supernatural. If the stories are to be believed, Mr. Collins started a Twitter account several years ago at the behest of the network executives, as a way of connecting to and increasing the fan base. He realized fairly quickly that the fandom was a huge, but largely-untapped, resource – and (if you’ll pardon the expression), tapped it.

He’s far from the only celebrity to do this. YouTube vloggers John and Hank Green created DFTBA out of the fan community that sprung up around their YouTube channel. Actor Zachary Levi (from genre shows Chuck and the Heroes reboot) donates the proceeds from the annual fan event, Nerd HQ, to such causes as Operation Smile, and there are many, many other examples out there.

I know this isn’t a new thing: celebrities like Paul Newman have used their fame to found and support charities for a very long time. But those activities are based on the actor; not any specific fandom. I’m talking more about the trend for fandoms to unite not only in their love for a tv show/film franchise/comic book title/book series, but also in their desire to make a positive change in the world. This is a new thing, and one that I absolutely endorse.

September 6, 2015

Rules of (Online) Engagement

Filed under: Media — Teresa @ 4:04 pm
Tags: , , ,

Or, You Might As Well Face It (You’re Addicted to Outrage)

Over the past couple months I’ve participated in a handful of Facebook discussions/debates over some pretty weighty topics, including (but not limited to) abortion, gun control, the welfare state, and censorship. They’ve been equal parts enlightening and frustrating, because at some point it becomes less about exchanging ideas and promoting understanding, and more about sweeping generalizations and hurt feelings. This is not good.

A recent vlog entry by Hank Green does a pretty good job of putting my growing dismay into words. You can view it in its entirety here, but for those who’d rather skip that step, I’ll do my best to summarize.  At one time Hank truly believed that stirring the pot was a necessary first step in spurring people to make positive changes, but over time he’s come to change his mind. As Hank puts it, the state of online discourse suggests that overall, people tend to be more interested in disagreeing (and fueling one another’s sense of outrage) than problem-solving. We allow our own cognitive biases to interfere with our ability to discuss issues in a rational manner.

Based on my own experience, I think Hank is probably right. Too many times I’ve seen people accuse one another of “ignorance” as a substitute for explaining why they believe what they do. This strikes me as a pretty effective show-stopper, based on the assumption that if Person A truly understood Person B’s point of view, then there’s no way that Person B would continue to disagree with Person A. I don’t think it’s that simple. It’s possible to understand another person’s perspective and still not agree with it.

Case in point: capital punishment. I do not support it, but I understand how someone else might. I understand, but I do not agree. I am willing to listen to someone else’s reasons, and consider a different point of view, but if the other point of view boils down to, “Nope. You clearly don’t get what I’m saying, because if you did, you wouldn’t keep arguing”, there’s nowhere the discussion can go. It becomes a battle of wills, in which the “winner” convinces the “loser” that they are wrong.

I think the “I’m right; you’re wrong” mindset is a dangerous one to fall into, because it becomes an exercise in venting and name-calling, rather than a cooperative effort to open a discourse that can lead to positive change. People fall back on cut-and-dried responses which essentially reinforce the status quo, and no progress is actually made.

I realize that at some point the discussion may lead to a dead end due to some fundamental differences of opinion, but if you want to explore a topic, then truly explore it, rather than pulling out well-known arguments that don’t leave room for progress. Maybe a starting point is to develop and adhere to some basic principles of conduct; online rules of engagement, if you will. Here’s my first whack at such a code.

  • State your purpose. Are you there to discuss ideas, or just to vent? If it’s venting, that doesn’t really have a place in a debate beyond, “this really ticks me off”. Stating subjective opinions as objective facts is a discussion-killer.
  • No sweeping generalizations. “Members of group X are always Y” is useless as a point of debate. It brings things to a screeching halt, because the only possible responses are, “Yes, you’re right” or “No, you’re wrong”. It doesn’t further the discourse.
  • Cite your sources. If you’re going to say that studies show/suggest that a statement is true (or false), cite your source with a link to that source. If you can’t find the source, then remember to frame what you’re saying as an opinion; not an objective fact.
  • Stay in your lane. By that, I mean keep the focus of the discussion. This one’s pretty subjective, because by definition discussions can meander pretty far afield. But if the original post is about a specific topic, then the discussion itself should be about that topic. If the discussion veers off into a side discussion, then it’s time to start a separate one.
  • Take things at face value. This is tricky, too, because people tend to interpret things through mental filters. That’s a dangerous precedent, because if you read into someone’s statements things they don’t intend, it will get in the way of understanding what the other person really meant. If you’re not sure, ask.

So, there it is (such as it is). My whack at how to keep online discussions moving forward in a positive manner. Now let’s see how well I can do at actually following it.

August 25, 2014

Depression: Regina George of Mental Illness

Filed under: Media,Mental Health,Movies and TV — Teresa @ 4:54 pm

It’s been a while since I posted anything; real life stepped in while I was busy making other plans, and before I knew it, months had slipped by.

But when I found myself so deeply affected by Robin Williams’ suicide, I felt compelled to post something on Facebook that apparently hit a chord. Once the original post went up, I kept thinking of more that I wanted to say. Rather than adding comments upon comments to my own FB post, I decided to collect my thoughts on the subject and put them all in one place in a proper blog.

With all the news about Robin Williams’ suicide, one major point that seems to keep coming up is his ongoing struggle with depression. I can relate; my heart aches for the pain he must have felt to take such drastic steps. As time went by and more details emerged, we learned that Mr. Williams had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at some point. Whether that was a factor in his choice to end his own life is a matter of speculation. I don’t presume to know what he was thinking when he made that choice; nor do I think it’s any of my business. However, I do feel qualified to speak as someone who’s been living with depression for most of her adult life.

Here’s the thing. When depression sinks its teeth into you, you are not thinking clearly. Your perceptions are skewed and you become your own worst enemy. You lie to yourself, insisting that depression isn’t a “real” problem, that your friends and family don’t want to be bothered with your whining and self-pity, and that they’d probably be better off without you dragging them down. There’s the fear that all your future holds is even more pain. Or worse, that if you talk to someone about it, they won’t care.

If you find yourself thinking that way, please, please tell someone. It’s the depression talking, and depression loved nothing more than trash-talking. Your family and friends want to help you. They do care. Your death would cause your loved ones far more pain than listening to you sharing yours. This hit home for me when someone I love came to me and told me how much he’d been struggling. I knew things weren’t right, but had no idea just how bad it was until he opened up and asked me for help. Words can’t express how deeply grateful I am that this person talked to me. Talking alone didn’t fix the problem, but it was a start and a necessary first step in addressing the issue.

While depression can be caused by many things, believe me when I say that it is not self-pity and it is not whining. It is deep, ongoing pain which could be situational, mucked-up brain chemistry, or some combination thereof. What separates depression from the periodic blue periods that are part of normal human existence is that depression does not leave of its own accord. Frankly, depression is a vicious, spiteful bitch who will mess with your head for kicks. Depression makes Mean Girl Extraordinaire Regina George look like Miss Congeniality by comparison. Depression lies. Depression manipulates. Don’t believe what it tells you.

I’ve come to see living with depression as being much like living with diabetes. It can be deadly, but with the right treatment and self-care, it’s totally do-able. And yes, the right treatment (i.e., what works best for you) may involve medication and/or therapy. Even with treatment, you will most likely still go through some rough patches – but you’ll also be better equipped to weather those storms. Your thinking clears up and you can recognize when depression starts trying to creep back in.

It’s also important to remember that the proper treatment won’t leave you wandering around in a haze of perpetual bliss. It’s not meant to. But when you hit the right combination, you’ll be on a more even keel. Many years ago, I got a pair of snowshoes as a Christmas gift. The first time I tried them out, I couldn’t see much of a differenced between walking with snowshoes and walking without them. It seemed to me that the snowshoes weren’t working, since each step was a good 6 inches deep – until I took one off and promptly sank up to my knee. For me, that’s what treatment is like: it’s snowshoes that keep me from sinking into the really deep snow.

August 21, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

One thing I find interesting about The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is how the author uses her life story more as a framing device for discussing spirituality than an opportunity to talk about herself. I’m not saying that Teresa removes herself from the equation (although I get the sense that if she thought she could get away with it, she would have); more that she picks and chooses anecdotes specifically to illustrate what happens when faith grows and one’s connection to God deepens.

Early in the book Teresa focuses on the fundamental concepts, describing how to lay a solid foundation of faith through prayer. There are several types of prayer, Teresa explains, and people will progress at different speeds and achieve different levels of connections with God. Most people will be able to reach a point of inner calm, where they connect to the Spirit within them. These people will be rewarded with gifts of the Spirit and will happily remain at that point of spiritual development.

A few people, like Teresa, will have deeper, more mystical spiritual experiences. As Teresa’s development progressed, she began to “hear” and “see” God. Teresa says that this doesn’t mean hearing and seeing with physical senses, nor is she referring to the mental “voice” that we hear when we’re thinking. The “hearing” is more like suddenly knowing or understanding something that she would otherwise never have known or understood.

The “seeing” is more like becoming aware of someone whose presence cannot be determined by physical senses: “[One day while I was at prayer] I saw Christ at my side – or, to put it better, I was conscious of Him, for I saw nothing with the eyes of the body or the eyes of the soul… I most clearly felt that He was all the time on my right, and was a witness of everything I was doing.”

She describes invisible light and inaudible sounds, and struggles with finding a way to fully convey the experience to her priest and the other sisters in her order. When her priest asked Teresa how she could be sure that this was real; that it was God’s presence, Teresa could only say that she just knew it somehow. I can imagine that must have been frustrating, but it also makes sense that someone who’d progressed to a point in spiritual development that most people will not reach, would struggle to express what it was like.

It reminds me of the scene in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home where McCoy asks a newly-resurrected Spock to describe the experience. Spock replies that he couldn’t do that because McCoy had no frame of reference, and therefore no words would be able to explain it in a manner that McCoy would grasp. To paraphrase McCoy’s response, McCoy would need to die himself in order to understand Spock’s description.

How do you explain the color blue to someone who is blind from birth? The best you can do is look for a metaphor; something within the listener’s experience that might get the concept across. But when push comes to shove, the only way to see what blue looks like is by seeing it. It seems to me that this was what Teresa ran into. She knew of no words to fully express something that was so far out of most people’s experience, so she used the words see and hear as metaphors in an attempt to make herself understood. But she was frustrated, because these words fell short.

When you consider that Teresa is describing communing with God, is it any wonder that words failed her? That she was unable to explain because she was experiencing God on a deeper, less-filtered level than the average person? According to the Bible, when God manifested to humans, He used different methods. For Moses, it was a burning bush. Other people had different experiences. Was this because the interactions were tailor-made for the humans involved?

One reason I love TV shows like Eli Stone and Joan of Arcadia is because they explore this concept: how different people experience God. In Joan of Arcadia, God puts it this way: “I don’t look like this. I don’t look like anything you’d recognize. You can’t see me. I don’t sound like this. I don’t sound like anything you’d recognize. You see, I’m beyond your experience. I take this form because you’re comfortable with it, it makes sense to you. And if I’m “snippy” it’s because you understand snippy. Do ya get it?”

This actually meshes with Teresa’s account: it’s clear that the people around Teresa experienced God in ways very different from her. Parenting experts say that parents have a different relationship with each of their children. What works with one child will not work with another. And parents will get the best response when they use an approach that fits the child in question. I think the concept translates pretty well to prayer. If prayer is connecting to/communicating with the Father, it makes sense that the Father will interact with each child in a manner that best fits the child.

That’s something to keep in mind.

August 10, 2013

So What’s the Point?

As can be gathered from my posts, a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself is praying and service to God regardless of what you might get out of it. While Teresa never denies that God does reward and bless those who serve him, she emphasizes that this should not be the prime motivator.

I’ve been wrestling with this concept for the past several days, trying to wrap my mind around what that really means for day-to-day existence. What is the point of serving God, really? The obvious response is that we serve because serving God is pleasing to Him, and pleasing God is A Good Thing.

Then I got to thinking, but what does serving God really mean? What form does it take? Prayer and worship, yes – but also providing assistance and comfort to our fellow human beings. Yet the act of helping other people helps us feel better about ourselves and the world in general. And prayer and worship help calm and center us, contributing to our sense of well-being. So while these things are pleasing to God, it seems inevitable that we will benefit as well – whether we plan to or not. We’re blessed despite ourselves, regardless of our intentions.

Yesterday one of my brothers and I were having an e-mail conversation and somehow got on the topic of It’s a Wonderful Life. My brother hates this movie. He sees it as the story of a good man engaged in a life-long struggle to do the right thing and help other people, only to be sucked dry and beaten down in the process. There’s no retribution for the bad guy, and the good guy gets nothing but trouble for his efforts.

I can see where he’s coming from, but since It’s a Wonderful Life is one of my favorite movies of all time, I felt compelled to mount a defense. As I composed my reply, it occurred to me that I’d never really examined my fondness for this film. In trying to articulate my thoughts to my brother, I discovered something surprising.

This film which I’ve cherished for years explores the same theme that I’ve been mulling over: serve God (which much of the time manifests as serving others), and there’s a good chance that you will reap some benefits in the process. Don’t do it for the benefits themselves, but enjoy them.

When the movie opens, we see George Bailey growing up in a small town, wanting nothing more than to get out of what he sees as a confining, stifling environment. He dreams of traveling the world, then going to college and becoming a world-famous architect. Due to events beyond George’s control, he never gets to do these things.

Instead of becoming an architect, George winds up running the savings and loan that his father started. This wasn’t what George wanted, but he did it to honor his father’s wishes. The savings and loan stays because George recognizes that it’s something the townspeople need, even though George would rather be doing something else. Understandably, George isn’t seeing much benefit to himself in all this; he has little to show for all the hard work.

But the benefits are there. They take the form of the loyalty, friendship, and love from the people around George. He doesn’t recognize these benefits, possibly because he’s too close to them, or maybe because they’re not easily seen and measured. But when George is at his darkest time, his friends and loved ones rally around him. They’ve got his back, even though George didn’t realize it. When he needed help, it was there – and likely wouldn’t have been if George hadn’t spent his life helping the people around him. George’s service was rooted in wanting to honor his father’s wishes and to help others. But ultimately the good that George did came back to him.

In thinking this through I can’t help wondering if true altruism is really possible. We seem hard-wired to feel better about ourselves when we help other people, which encourages us to give more help, which adds to the sense of well-being, and so on. It’s an upward spiral. And really, where’s the down side of this? That we feel good about ourselves and help the people around us?

It seems to me that such an arrangement would be very pleasing to God – even a form of service, by building His Kingdom on Earth. Serve God, by helping others, which makes us feel good about ourselves, which encourages us to help others more, which increases the service to God. I’m not sure it matters where in the cycle you start, because in serving others you can’t help but serve God, and in serving God and others, you can’t help but feel good about yourself.

So the initial motivation becomes a moot point, because it’s all going to happen anyway. “Do it because I said so” leads to “hey, this feels pretty good”, which leads to more doing. Oh, that’s tricky.

August 4, 2013

Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble

Humility is a recurring theme in The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself. Teresa describes true humility as being essential in preparing oneself for spiritual development. Self-examination, she says, is crucial to achieving and maintaining this state of humility.

As Dr. Eric Elnes of Darkwood Brew said in a 2012 webcast, “You really can’t  move forward in this whole life of spirituality unless you are also willing to be broken apart.” Although used in a broader context regarding what it is to be a Christian, the sentiment applies here, as well. Knowing who we truly are, faults and all, makes it possible for us to approach God honestly and without self-delusion getting in the way of truth.

At the same time, Teresa says, we must avoid the pitfall of questioning God’s desire to connect with us. While it’s natural to wonder what God could possibly get out of such a relationship, we must not use that as an excuse to avoid working toward a deeper connection with the Maker of All Things.

It put me in mind of an episode of Homicide: Life on the Street where a police detective comments that he can’t figure out what motivation led the suspect to commit the crime being investigated. The detective’s pragmatic partner replies that their ability to work the case is not contingent on understanding why something happened; just knowing what happened, and how. Teresa takes a similar approach to prayer. We don’t need to know why God wants us to draw nearer to Him, or what He gains in the process. It’s enough to know that He wants us.

Once the self-examination is done, and we’re laid bare to ourselves, what comes next? The obvious answer is working toward eliminating our flaws, striving to make ourselves more worthy of the gifts that come as a side effect of prayer. This is an admirable goal, but Teresa also mentions the need to cut oneself some slack: “We should not worry ourselves to death even if we cannot think a single good thought. We are unprofitable servants. So what do we suppose we can do?”

In other words, we should persist in our efforts toward self-improvement, removing those things in ourselves that impede our progress – but we should also keep in mind that spiritual development is a process, not a destination. And the process is not one we’ll ever finish. It’s a lifelong journey in unfamiliar territory, and like most journeys of discovery, it won’t necessarily follow a straight path. Don’t expect it to be a linear progression.

If faith can be defined as a river, keep in mind that rivers may flow in a general direction, but they are also full of eddies and currents. Accept that in some parts of the river you may move more quickly and steadily than others. Don’t expect to be in full control. Do your part, and stop trying to change the river.

Which brings us back to humility – recognizing our limits and shortcomings, and doing the best we can anyway. That is a lot more easily said than done, and also brings up a troubling question: does this humility thing mean we should just be content with where we are and not strive for more?

No, actually. Teresa isn’t saying that we should stop trying to deepen our faith and expand our understanding of God. She’s just saying that once the connection is made, we shouldn’t expect to be in charge of what comes next.

To go back to the metaphor, we are canoes in the river of faith. A canoe in good repair will work much better than one that’s damaged and weighted down with unnecessary junk. We need to make sure the canoe is in good working order. Make repairs when needed. Clean it. Remove the stuff that’s cluttering it up. Once we enter the river, God will control the pace and the direction; we just need to stay in the river to make progress.

July 30, 2013

Spear Carrier #4

Filed under: Books,Faith and Religion — Teresa @ 11:29 pm
Tags: ,

When we were kids, one of my brothers and I got into a disagreement about Watership Down. I maintained that the hero of the story was  Hazel, the de-facto leader of a small band of rabbits who set off to start a new warren after theirs was destroyed. Hazel was smart, cool-headed in a crisis, brave, noble – all the things a hero should be.

My brother insisted the real hero was Hazel’s brother, Fiver. At the time, I thought my brother had a screw loose.

See, Fiver was not a leader; he was quiet, and preferred to stay in the background. Described as a runt, Fiver was also seen as strange, prone to making odd predictions that had an unnerving way of coming true. Hardly the sort to inspire a band of followers. But Hazel loved and trusted Fiver enough to take Fiver’s advice, which saved all of them time and time again. So, while Fiver was not leading the way himself, he was making it possible for Hazel to guide the group to safety.

Looking back, I can see that my brother had a point.

I found myself thinking of this while mulling over something that Teresa of Avila wrote in her autobiography. She discusses the importance of humility in prayer; recognizing that God knows far better than we do what we’re ready for spiritually, and not pushing the growth process. Growth will happen at the appropriate time.

She goes on to explain that humility is also a key factor in serving God, because not everyone is necessarily meant to accomplish great, impressive things. Some of us are meant to help others accomplish great, impressive things.

You know; like Fiver helped Hazel.

So what does this mean for us? What if it turns out that you’re not supposed to take a leading role? What if you’re supposed to be, say, Spear Carrier #4? Do you have the humility to serve God in the role that He assigned you, and to do it to the best of your ability?

Teresa put it this way: “If His Majesty is pleased to promote us to His household or Privy Council, we must go willingly…  God is more careful for us than we are for ourselves, and He knows what each of us is good for.”

While we may know logically that exceptional people are, well, exceptions, and that by definition most people are not, cannot be exceptional, applying this to ourselves can be a rather bitter pill to swallow. It flies in the face of everything this competition-based culture tells us. There are plenty of examples in movies, books, television, and so on. How many stories have we heard where the leading character is the best at what he (or she) does? Even if the protagonist is less than admirable in other ways, his (or her) skill is the redeeming factor, and a source of respect from others, however grudgingly it may be given.

Can we override this ingrained mythos in order to serve God in the manner that pleases Him best, not ourselves? Can we check our egos at the door and follow God’s lead, even if we’re led to someplace far different than we thought we’d be? More important, can we let go of the desire for recognition from others for service well-done?

There’s a saying that integrity is doing the right thing when no one’s looking. I think service may work in the same way. Spear Carrier #4 will probably never get awards for appearing onstage, but it’s the appearing onstage that matters, awards or no. Do it because it’s what God wants, Teresa says, regardless of what’s in it for us, and whether or not we can see the fruits of our labors.

I’ve been pondering this point. For a lot of people, prayer is a source of comfort; of strength. We pray to gain spiritual gifts. What Teresa says suggests that we should pray and serve God and look at the benefits to ourselves as icing on the cake. It’s the prayer and service that count; what pleasure we derive from it is beside the point, should not be expected every time, and should not be the primary motivator.

Then again, if you apply 20th-century psychology to this, intermittent reinforcement is the most effective way to foster persistence. Kinda like God understands the best way for someone to grow spiritually is through prayer and service, and that providing rewards from time to time (but not necessarily every time) will get someone to keep at it. That’s actually pretty sneaky. And effective.

June 27, 2009

Real-Life Superheroes – For Real?

Filed under: Media — Teresa @ 6:17 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

What makes a hero a hero? Usually people who are called heroes have put themselves at risk for a worthy cause. Often this risk is physical. Sometimes it’s financial. And sometimes it involves challenging conventional thought.

We can all come up with real-life examples of heroism in action. Firefighters spend their lives risking their lives for complete strangers. Members of the French Resistance and the Underground Railroad put themselves on the line to put an end to heinous abuses of power. Every day there are accounts of good Samaritans rescuing people from submerged cars or oncoming trains.

Bona fide heroes walk among us. Some of them are recognized for their efforts; others go unacknowledged. On the other hand, some folks who put themselves at risk for other people are branded as fools. The question is, what separates heroism from foolishness?

I read a recent CNN.com article about a growing sub-culture of self-proclaimed superheroes. I’ve been pondering this “foolishness or heroism” question ever since.

Just to be clear: I’m not talking about the sort of fantasy role-playing that happens at events like Comic-Con. I’m talking about real-life people who disguise themselves in home-made costumes and roam the streets of their respective communities, fighting crime and generally trying to help people.

There’s even a World Superhero Registry where these people can go for advice on everything from making costumes to legal issues like how to conduct a citizen’s arrest.

If this superhero movement is a hoax, it’s a particularly elaborate one that’s being perpetrated for no apparent reason. If it’s real, then a number of grown men (and women) have decided for whatever reason to deliberately put themselves at risk for strangers.

Which brings me back to my question. Is this heroism, foolishness, or a little of both? What makes their efforts so different from the random acts of bravery that happen every day? Is it the costumes, which suggest that these people are unable to separate fantasy from reality; that all of this is just play-acting taken too far? What if the costumes were taken out of the mix? Would it still be foolishness if these people were in street clothes, rather than elaborate get-ups?

Organizations like the Guardian Angels serve pretty much the same function; they just don’t call themselves superheroes. Instead, they call themselves a “volunteer organization of unarmed citizen crime patrollers”. Sounds an awful lot like what these real-life superheroes are doing, doesn’t it?

As I’ve been mulling it over, I find myself vacillating between two thoughts:

  • These people are well-meaning nuts who’ll get themselves or someone else killed.
    There’s a reason why police officers undergo such rigorous training; it’s so they’ll have the skills, tools, and knowledge necessary to serve and protect the general public. And even with all that training, police officers still die in the line of duty. How much better will a costumed do-gooder fare – and without backup or legal authority, might I add?
  • Since when is helping strangers foolish?
    If someone’s in danger, and I’m in a position to help them, I’d like to think that I’d have the courage and moral fiber to do it. Laying down your life for a fellow human being is something to be admired, not mocked. Should what one wears while doing it make it any less admirable?

So here’s what I came up with. Is dressing up in costume and deliberately seeking out dangerous situations foolish? I’d have to say yes. It’s one thing for a trained professional who has the gear and skills necessary to do the job as safely as possible. It’s quite another for some random person wearing a goofy outfit to challenge a would-be mugger.

Is helping people, even if it involves putting oneself at risk, heroic? Again, yes. That’s why we revere those who’ve sacrificed themselves in the name of the greater good. You need look no further than the 911 rescue workers who died while attempting to save as many people as possible from the wreckage of the Twin Towers. We call them heroes, even though ultimately, and through no fault of their own, they failed in their attempts. Their courage and selflessness goes to the very heart of heroism, and we rightfully honor their memory.

One might even call them superheroes. Without costumes.

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