Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Right One: Where to Begin

Three people enjoy the summer sky over the Del...Image via Wikipedia
A few years ago, someone came up with the statistics indicating for each one of us there are approximately 168 persons who could be the ideal mate. I don't know how they came up with those figures nor if they are any where near accurate. It's comforting to know, however, there's at least more than one. I mean, it's hard enough finding Ms. or Mr. Right as it is, knowing the odds are increased by the numbers is encouraging.

The question is, where do you start looking? A psychologist once told me, "You need to decide what kind of life you want and then devise the steps necessary to obtain it. Don't expect it to unfold on the basis of luck." If he was right, and I think he was, finding the right person involves first determining what they look like before trying to figure out where they're most likely to be found. If we don't know what we're looking for, how will we know it when we find it?

When introducing someone to amateur astronomy, the best approach is to teach them how to use star charts and visualize with the naked eye, before turning them loose with a telescope. Telescopes present a highly targeted view of a very specific area of the night sky. Stargazing helps us get to know our way around the stellar neighborhood so that, once we begin using that new Celestron beauty, we're less likely to get lost, become frustrated, and donate it to the Salvation Army.

Herein lies the problem with current dating practices, as I see it. People hook up on the premise that you never really know someone until you live with them. A few dates, therefore, leads to moving in and we make the rest up as we go. This is very much like starting out with a telescope before you can tell the difference between a star and a planet (stars twinkle, planets don't). Furthermore, it's a practice based on the false and unconscious assumption that we will find ourselves by looking at our reflection in a partner. Narcissists are extraordinarily adept at making us think we're beautiful, talented, intelligent -- their every dream come true -- but what they reflect is a fantasy intended to mystify and ensnare. What we see is not us, but them as they wish to be seen and what you see is never what you get.

All relationships involve some degree of projection. But once the image of ourselves we have imagined the other person embodying, begins to fade and we realize they are themselves, it's easy to lose interest. We say, "S/he's not who I thought they were," and we're right. It's because we began the relationship not knowing who we are, what are our preferences, our values, and depended on Sue or Bill to help us define them.


Single living is neither a curse nor evidence of undesirability. It's a chance to become comfortable taking care of ourselves, meeting our own needs for self-esteem, and developing as persons who can engage others meaningfully. In other words, it's an opportunity for self-discovery. Lately, however, the statement, "I'm single" is often accompanied by embarrassment, as if it's equivalent to saying, "I screwed up." And that is simply not true. In an environment where coupling is common, it's difficult but necessary to alter one's thinking.

Accordingly, the first thing we have to discover is Planet Self, and that brings us to your homework assignment. You've probably done this before, so it won't seem alien. Take some paper and begin listing your personal traits, strengths and weaknesses, likes and dislikes. Be honest and very specific. And also include a section devoted to what you know about yourself deep down inside, what lies at the core of your being, those things you must have in your life to feel complete. I realize this sounds ABC but there's a reason for doing it. Short of signing up with eHarmony, it helps to have a clearly defined image of you as a person to provide us with a context for including someone else. Until we know what you look like, we have no way of knowing if we've found the right one or just "another" one.
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Friday, January 29, 2010

Red Flags and the Right Man

A stylized representation of a red flag, usefu...

As I mentioned yesterday, I've been working at this series of posts for several weeks. The research doesn't reflect what has been written as much as what has been lived. Traits for helping identify the "right person" are ones I've had to uncover by stepping on a few land mines along the way. As a consequence, I'm writing more as a fellow-struggler, but I think there's some real virtue to be found in this approach. So, with that in mind, what are some of the things I've learned about the right man?

To begin with, he ought to have more than a positive sense of self-esteem: he needs to be able to sustain it by drawing upon his own resources. There is mutuality in relationships and we care for one another, but each partner should be a whole person and that implies the ability to meet one's own psychological and emotional needs. If a man is relying on you for his self-esteem, if he needs your accomplishments to either substitute for or reinforce his own, he's got a problem that usually goes deeper than just behavior. It means he doesn't have an adequate sense of self to draw upon and he's depending on you to make up for his deficits. This is a red flag.

A man should be not only be capable of generating his own self-esteem, he should be generous in the ways he contributes to that of others. The right man is someone around whom people feel appreciated and valued. Confident (not egotistical, there is a difference) in his own self-worth, he gives out of the overflow of what lies within. Men who are driven to transform every single work or social encounter into a game of one-upmanship, who cannot or will not recognize the achievements of others, have problems with adequacy. This is another red flag. True men of achievement seek to raise others up, not put them down.

Now, about his family. The Oedipus Complex describes a process of establishing a unique identity that allows a boy to connect with dad in a way that promotes growth toward maturity. One of the ways to tell whether a guy has done this or not, is to ask how you feel with you're with him and his parents. Is there tension? Do they like each other? Is there freedom in the relationship or do they hold back, as though fearful of saying the wrong thing? Is there a power struggle?

Men who carry Oedipal conflicts into adulthood typically have difficulties making decisions and being responsible. They blame others for their failings and crave nurturing. Spoiled or demanding, they can make you feel more like mother than lover. The absence of an affirming relationship with father leads to approval-seeking from, or competition with, older men, rendering career advancement difficult
. Again, we have red flags.

Finally, how do you avoid the wolf in sheep's clothing? The fellow who showers you with attention and is eager to secure a commitment could be head over heals in love, but he could also be either a closet or arrogant narcissist. It's flattering to have someone say they want you all to themselves, all the time. But no one can be everything to another person. Sooner or later we start feeling emotionally anemic because we run out of us.

Talk to his friends and former girlfriends, if you can find them. If all you get is negative feedback, that's an important piece of information. A man who is inclined to date the "same" woman over and over and/or has similar problems in nearly all his romantic relationships, is someone to avoid, Repetitive patterns can point to an unconscious process. He may not know what's going on, but you need to. More red flags.

The qualities I've mentioned aren't meant to be exhaustive -- there's so much that could be said. All of them, however, are essential for emotional stability and unless we're addicted to turmoil, emotional stability is absolutely critical. There is no substitute for it. No one should have to walk on egg shells for fear of what might happen next.

(Tomorrow's post: practical considerations)

(Public Domain image via Wikipedia)

Finding the Right Woman When Your &%$! Stinks

A few years ago, a friend of mine and I were talking about how to recognize the right woman when or if she came along. It was one of those late evenings when we were sufficiently weary to be brutally honest and honestly, we were at a loss. Then I remembered a piece of advice I'd heard from a fellow minister-graduate student, "Beg, you need to find a woman who loves you when your &%$! stinks." Simple, unarguable, and to the point.

But is that all there is to it? Being loved despite your blemishes? Predictably, I don't think so and I've turned to women I admire for help. I haven't asked for comments as much as I've observed the ways they cope under stress, how they act around men they care for, and listened to them speak candidly. I've particularly noted how they've treated me and how that felt. This is what I think I've discovered.

For men, the experience of
&%$! stinking is related to feeling exposed and vulnerable, though most of the time we're not remotely aware of it. At times like these, loving means taking us seriously, especially if you're the only one who does. When you listen to and reflect on what we have to say while all others have "changed channels," that's really quite something. It tells us we genuinely matter to you.

When you're courageous enough to stand with us, knowing our self-esteem is on the line, and you place yours alongside it, that's absolutely incredible. Not all women can do this, sadly, nor all men. It takes a very special person to take a risk with another when the outcome is uncertain. It requires confidence and a solid, secure sense of self. It tells us we're more important to you than what others may think of you.

Being believed in is huge. We may not always seem like the most insightful of beasts, but generally guys can tell when faith is insincere. If the encouragement we receive is superficial or doesn't cost anything to give, we may not say anything, but we know it. On the other hand, I have a very good friend who used to remind me of her certainty I'd get into medical school. The tone of her voice had the effect of erasing any possibility of doubt. Your faith tells us we won't disappoint you.

If we were having that same late night conversation now, I'd say the right woman is one who believes in and respects you. She has confidence in herself and doesn't need to sacrifice you to reinforce it. She is stable under fire, and possesses depth and integrity. None of this is about age, by the way, because some of the women who've been my role models are much younger than me. I hate to use the word maturity, though it does apply. More appropriate is the word, character. If she's has that, well, what else does she need?

(Note to the reader: tomorrow's post will address the "right man")

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Farmer's Daughter Will Do

Needle in a Haystack
"Serendipity is looking in a haystack for a needle and discovering a farmer's daughter." ~ Julius Conroe

When I was growing up, we had a haystack once. Usually we purchased baled hay -- sometimes bermudagrass and other times alfalfa. Grass bales were heavy, 70-100 lbs., and bound with wire. I had a love-hate relationship with alfalfa. The bales were li
ghter and easier to manage but they were filled with sticky, stabby stems that made them miserable to stack. At the same time, they were bound with twine that I could cut with one swipe of my trusty Schrade-Walden pocket knife.

I saved for weeks to buy that knife, a classic stockman's model with clip, spey, and sheepfoot blades and a four-inch handle that was a perfect fit for my rapidly-growing early teenage hands. I carried it in my left hip pocket, wallet tucked in my right. Schrade knives are no longer made -- sadly, the company closed its doors in 2004 -- but I still have one, purchased while I was in seminary, tucked away in a cigar box, my keeper of memories.

Anyway -- sorry for the digression -- like I was saying, we had a haystack. Conveniently, it was located near a small barn that my mother used as a chicken coop when we first moved to the country. She had the short-lived idea of raising chickens and I have a photo of my light brown and white Collie herding them around the yard. T
he barn roof, however, was the main attraction -- it was perfect for practicing parachuting, leaping with an umbrella into a cushion of hay.

I can't imagine trying to find a needle nestled anywhere in that mass of dried grass. The thought makes my head swim. But that's what writing is like some days, picking away at the chaos of this and that, trying to find the right thing to turn into words. And not just any words, different ones, special ones, maybe even magical ones -- a farmer's daughter will do. When you find them, they pull a fresh page of sketch pad from your mind and compel a reader to pick up charcoal or pencil or pen. When they've finished -- as if we're ever finished -- they hold it at arm's length, pressing the tip of the tongue against a cheek, squinting at lines they've forgotten, and see themselves, perhaps for the first time.

naughty architect via Flickr
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Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Living in Charlotte's Web


Twice in the past four days my cat has given me a present and it's not even my birthday. The first was Saturday morning when he calmly paced into the hallway with a mouse in his mouth and laid it at my feet. No signs of blunt trauma, no blood, just a mouse that expired in the middle of a game of rodent roulette.

The second arrived yesterday while I was pouring my first cup of coffee and munching a muffin. This time, my cat retrieved my "gift" from beneath the cupboard rim and tossed it in the air like a juggler with only one ball. It was another mouse, of course, and I had the distinct impression he was showing me how he plays with it. "See, it's like this, I chase it across the floor and..." That was enough for me and I disposed of it properly.

I don't think I have an infestation; a motel would more accurate. Critters wending their way from the forest to someplace dry, warm, and smells like food. It's like living in Charlotte's Web. I feel badly for the mice but catching them is the cat's job, he finds it fulfilling, and he drives me crazy when he can't find any. If I argued with him, he'd no doubt produce his union card and suggest I call the AFMC (American Federation of Mice Catchers).

Don't trouble yourself looking for a deeper meaning in all of this. I've been writing about weighty topics the past few weeks and just figured we could all use a break. Besides, I have friends studying for an exam in cardiology and if any of them stop by for a read, the last thing they need is to have to think. They've got enough on their plates as it is. In a couple of days they'll be searching for answers with the diligence my cat exemplifies whenever he's convinced the pitter-patter of tiny feet means someone has seen the "Vacancy" sign.

(Creative Commons image by EricMagnuson via Flickr)

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reversing the Timeline

Photo taken by me as an example of a stay at h...

Fatherhood is complicated. I don't if women find it that way, but as a man, I do. I'm sure this is partly because I think about it more than when I was younger. Back then, my father was living, I was busy with graduate school, and there didn't seem to be a reason or need to conceptualize it. I think I took it for granted in some ways. Maybe that stems from being young and having dad around to explain everything.

What I've come to realize is how difficult that must have been for him. Samuel Osherson has suggested it's possible to be feel more comfortable alienated from the father of one's childhood than making real peace with the father of one's adulthood. The reason being, making peace on this level involves becoming intimately acquainted and that doesn't happen without effort. We have to empathize with our fathers and recognize what we share with them is our humanity.

I suppose being inclined to reflect on what my own life is about, I find myself reflecting about my father's, and particularly his later years. In a lot of ways I think he grew into the father he wished he'd been when I was a child. I thought he did a good job, but he felt he could have been better, more sensitive, less preoccupied, more available, more the person he'd become as an older man. The things I didn't know.

I suppose we all grow into parenthood, though truthfully, I sometimes think reversing the timeline wouldn't be a bad idea so that parenting is something we do when we're old enough to be really good at it. I say that because it takes our own growing up to help someone else accomplish the same task. Then again, we're all in process and there's something to be said for that, too. In the meantime, I'll just drop my thoughts in the Cosmic Suggestion Box and we'll see what comes of them.

(GNU Free Distribution Licensed image via Wikipedia)

Monday, January 25, 2010

When There's No Excuse

Jessica Rabbit

Did I ever tell you? I lost my driver's license in high school. I can imagine someone prodding me in the ribs and asking straight faced, "Don't you know you're supposed to keep track of these things?" I wished that had been the case, believe me, but it wasn't. Teenage drivers don't have a lot of leeway where the accumulation of points is concerned and I maximized mine without much trouble.

Like Jessica Rabbit, I really wasn't trying to be bad, though unlike her, I couldn't appeal to the obvious, "I'm just drawn that way." I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time doing precisely what I very well knew I shouldn't have been. Both occasions involved peer pressure and both presented ample opportunity to act differently. There really was no excuse.

My father, as you might expect, "hit the ceiling" each time, but when I received notice of a hearing to suspend my license, he did something I've always appreciated. He went along with me. Some might suggest facing the music alone would be a not-soon-forgotten lesson, but my father didn't see it that way. He said having to walk for six months or a year would give me more than enough time to think about the consequences of my actions; there was no need to "rub it in."

It was one of those formative experiences that you wish you hadn't needed but later on, you're grateful for. I learned I could survive the disapproval of my friends, something that has helped immensely since. More importantly, however, I learned about forgiveness. On the way home following the hearing, my father was genuinely kind. However much my inability to run errands for him would pose an inconvenience, he let it go. All that concerned him was how I felt.

Because of his willingness to forgive and move on, I was eventually able to look at the situation with a great deal less self-blame. I was foolish, yes. I'd failed to trust my own judgment and be assertive. That didn't mean there was something wrong with me or that spending the next nine months (as it turned out) beating myself up was going to make me a better person. In other words, he taught me it was all right to forgive myself, a lesson I try to pass along whenever I have the chance. It's one of those things he did, showing me what it means to be a father, when I didn't even know it.

(Creative Commons image of Jessica Rabbit figurine (Who Framed Roger Rabbit) by San Diego Shooter via Flickr)

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A Fool's Errand

Hong Kong China Disneyland sword in the stone ...
I've never had a vision. You know, one of those stop dead in your tracks, clouds parting, sun rays gleaming through-type things. Not a one. Not even a burning bush. I love the line spoken by Graham Greene in Thunderheart, "A man waits a long time to have a vision and he may go his whole life without having one. Then along comes some instant Indian with a (bleeping) Rolex and a brand new pair of shoes. A (bleeping) FBI to top it all off, and has himself a vision."

Isn't that how it always goes? The last person you expect to be "the One," is. I'm not talking about anything grandiose or messianic like The Matrix. It's simpler than that. It's Wagnerian, if you like. Parsifal revisited, the Grail Legend. Indiana Jones would be licking his lips.

Parsifal was an innocent, a fool, the young boy about whom it was thought, "He won't amount to a hill of beans." He's the fellow who comes along at the critical moment and does what the powerful and influential cannot. In the film Independence Day, Parsifal is a drunken pilot portrayed by Randy Quiad, who has PTSD resulting from alien abduction. Ridiculed as crazy and absolutely the last guy you'd depend on, he arrives on the scene in the final seconds of the final battle to save the day.

These stories blow away our expectations and therein lies their beauty. Massive overpowering might falls victim to hubris and victory comes about when David is sent on a fool's errand to meet Goliath. All the great men of the kingdom were unable to pull Excalibur from the stone, while young Arthur draws it forth effortlessly. Lt. John J. Dunbar, in Dances with Wolves, alone has the insight to view the life of the Lakota without cultural blinders.

All of these characters are plagued with some sort of painful baggage. Either it's a literal wound or the burden of being dismissed as inconsequential. In any case, none of them have experienced the acclamation and affirmation associated with success. Situated on the periphery of their society, they are positioned as transitional figures, in touch with the world we see and the one we can't. To put it another way, they represent the line between conscious and unconscious realms. They simultaneously reflect who we are and what we can become.

Connecting with the inner Parsifal is a spiritual exercise in the sense that it entails letting go of conscious reliance on our strengths and allowing those things we may regard as weaknesses to come to our aid. Admitting powerlessness in the presence of events beyond our control hurts our pride but it saves us from beating our heads against a wall that has no intention of moving. Solutions can come from the oddest of places but to see them we have to call a halt to charging ahead full steam. It may defy reason, but since when is that always a bad idea?

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Saturday, January 23, 2010

True to Yourself

The Big Country
I've wanted to write about the film The Big Country (1958) for a long time. I've hesitated, changed my mind, and delayed because it's an older movie and I try to stay current whenever possible. It just makes communication easier when we're all on the same page. But The Big Country is a psychological page-turner replete with narcissistic old men, young men with unresolved father issues, one young woman as narcissistic as her father, and another exemplifying mature womanhood.

Thrown into the mix is Jim McKay, a ship captain from New England who meets, woos, and plans to wed Pat Terrill while she's visiting the East. Like any self-respecting narcissist, she conceals her true colors until Jim journeys west in order to meet her father. Two thousand miles from home, is he ever in for a surprise. Passions begin to boil as McKay is presented with opportunities to demonstrate his manhood (apparently, being a ship's captain was insufficient proof).

Despite the insistence of his betrothed, McKay refuses to play along, revealing a depth of character Pat, her father, and nearly everyone else in the story finds baffling. Clearly, his function in their relationship is decorative; Pat selected him for one reason, to enhance her self-esteem. Tall, dark, and handsome, he is the ideal "gift" of an adoring daughter to the father she idolizes. She may throw herself into McKay's arms, declaring undying love and affection, but make no mistake, her heart belongs to daddy and it always will. The idea that McKay might have an identity of his own never enters the equation; her narcissism refuses to accept anything other than his "becoming a Terrill." This is an important point because it depicts how narcissists target partners on the basis of their usefulness; Pat wants a trophy, not an equal.

Narcissists crave admiration. When deprived of it, they can easily become enraged, as does Pat when McKay finally breaks their engagement. Switching from sweet to sour, as is common with this personality when not in control, she lashes out, declaring, "I don't know what made me think I loved you anyway. You'll never be half the man Henry Terrill is." Considering her father's ruthlessness, that's a compliment.

What I find so appealing about The Big Country is the way it depicts a person of integrity overcoming pressures exerted by those who would have him be untrue to himself. Pressures not unlike the ones we encounter when dealing with similar individuals. McKay's strength of character is revealed by the ways he acts in accord with his own preferences and assumes responsibility for their outcome. That's what assertiveness is really all about, being true to oneself even when it might be easier to do otherwise.

(Creative Commons image of sound track album cover by kevindooley via Flickr)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Masochism: The Deleted Scenes

My favorite section of a DVD film is the deleted scenes. Well, I take that back. If there's a blooper reel, that's my most favorite part, then come deleted scenes. I always want to know what might have been in the film had the makers more time. That's what this post is, the things that would have been in yesterday's if there had been more space.

For starters, let's go "back" to Back to the Future. No one really knows, definitively, why a person develops one type of personality over another. Genetics is a factor, family upbringing, peer interactions, and our own unique way of blending them all together, are others. As a way of coping with social pressures, George McFly had become masochistic. The irony is, it wasn't working for him. His desire to avoid pain left him wide open to it. In one scene, for example, we see him being kicked repeatedly because someone has played a prank and taped a "Kick Me" sign to his back.

Masochism does not equal pathology. George didn't have a personality disorder; he'd simply come to the unconscious conclusion over time that he was acceptable only if he wasn't a bother. I'm guessing we could trace this to early family influences in which he experienced his parents as unable to cope with the stress of child-rearing, and as children are prone to do, blamed himself. There's something about me that is too demanding; if I'm invisible, things will be okay. This self-perception eventually colored his way of relating to people outside the family.

Enter his son, Marty. Although not a carbon copy of the old man, Marty nevertheless has some of his own masochism to deal with. He's reticent about sending a demo tape of his music to a record producer. Why? Because, he says, "I don't think I could handle that kind of rejection." But he's also developed in his own way and has a friend and role model in Doc Brown who is anything but risk-avoidant. The "Doc" has helped, and will help (in the past and future) Marty overcome a great deal.

Psychologically speaking, Marty's task is to make a man of his father. His plan involves a scenario in which George can pretend to rescue Lorraine (whom George admires) from Marty's inappropriate advances (Freud would love this). Instead, George actually confronts Biff, the narcissistic bully who has mercilessly abused him. This is a critical moment. Biff has rape on his mind and tries to intimidate George, a strategy that's always worked previously. This time, however, George has had enough, and tapping into the rage and resentment he's long held within, slugs Biff, saves Lorraine, and also himself.

I'm not at all suggesting masochistic types need to resort to violence in order to resolve issues like this. Keep in mind, film is metaphorical. Slugging Biff represents George claiming his own power over situations that have dominated him in the past. It represents one small step toward becoming assertive. And to his surprise, it doesn't lead to being rejected by his peers, but rather earns their respect and encouragement to run for class president. (As an aside, Biff isn't assertive; he's terribly insecure, as is George, but he's learned to use domination for his coping style.)

George doesn't "get rid of" his masochism -- he transforms it. And that's the take-home message. His proclivity for self-effacement turns into genuine modesty. At the end of the film, when he has become a published author, we notice that success hasn't "gone to his head." He's a nice guy, loving husband, nurturing father, someone you'd like to know. But now he's confident and capable of standing up for himself because the lessons he learned from his son have had an enduring effect. It's what can happen when we incorporate the "deleted scenes" into the final version of the person we'd like to be.

(Creative Commons Image of Back to the Future poster by Ralph Hogaboom via Flickr)

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Denying Oneself for Love

{{es|1=C-3PO en la Star Wars exhibition, Madri...Image via Wikipedia
We seem to be made to suffer. It's our lot in life. ~ C3PO

Was there ever a masochist like C3PO? Not in the sense that he has some cybernetic obsession with pain -- that's the last thing he wants. Courageous and loyal to a fault, R2D2 wins your heart. 3PO's bemoaning of fate, on the other hand, can grate on my nerves (apologies to the Intergalactic C3PO Fan Club). He doesn't whine, thankfully, but he comes close.

In the language of interpersonal psychology, masochism takes on a different quality than the one we typically ascribe. Rather than pain-seeking, the masochist is pain-avoidant. In essence, s/he says, especially to those perceived as more powerful,"I'm harmless, don't hurt me." George McFly, in the film Back to the Future, is a good example. Fearful that recognition will result in rejection by his teenage peers, he keeps his writing to himself, and in adulthood, is virtually incapable of self-assertion.

Because this type of personality copes with social anxiety by being overly modest and self-deprecating, s/he can be victimized by those who are either covertly or overtly, narcissistic. The narcissist's internal radar is tuned to target persons who appear shy, secretly doubting or uncertain of their abilities, or who will be flattered by a shower of attention.

And narcissists can be flattering, make no mistake, presenting themselves as sensitive and generous. In their dance of deception, they look for partners ready to believe a long-held dream has finally come true. Once the bait has been taken, the trap snaps shut, and the dream, sooner or later, dissolves into an elaborately constructed fantasy. It's hard to see this, however, if one is accustomed to accepting guilt where none is deserved,
blaming oneself for failure, and denying oneself for love.

It may take quite a bit of face-splashing with "sick and tired" to awaken from the enchantment. Little irritants get bigger, being a perpetual resource gets old, and feet ache from dancing to the same tune over and over. Perhaps a person receives some affirmation at work and it not only feels good, but it feels even better when it's not given away to someone who feels entitled to it. Self-deprecation is displaced by honest self-appreciation. This is how recovery begins, with a drop of positive self-esteem, then another until the faucet is flowing full force and no one can tighten the knobs enough to stop it.

(Creative Commons image of C3PO by Alex Slocker via Flickr)

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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Kidney Stones on the Fourth

Up until the moment I found myself throwing up in my aunt's bathroom, it had been a pretty typical Fourth of July. Visiting family on the Western Slope of the Rockies, my uncle and I had spent the day trout fishing on Black Mountain where he and my father grew up (see 11/26/09).

I assumed it was the 24 hour stomach flu rather than food poisoning, because we'd all eaten the same things and I was the only one with his head in the diagonal dimension diver. After doubling over with pain, however, it was time to visit the local hospital. X-Rays revealed a tiny pebble in my left ureter -- the usually fairly flattened fleshy tube that runs from kidney to bladder. Yep, you guessed it, a kidney stone.

Fast forward to February of the following year. I'm back in the hospital, only this time closer to home, with the equivalent of a gravel pit in my left kidney. Two surgeries and 21 days later I was discharged with the rudiments of a scar along my stomach that, when swimming with my Scout Troop, would make the younger boys ask wide-eyed, "Were you wounded in Viet Nam?" Not quite, but it sure felt like it at the time.

There's nothing like being a patient to teach you how to empathize with your patients. Vital signs at 5.30 AM and just as I'm about to get back to sleep, a smiling face says it's time for breakfast. Whoever suggested hospitals were a place of rest ought to have their head examined. The hardest part was having to cough after surgery to clear my lungs of mucus. When you've got a fresh incision in your gut that makes you breathe cautiously to begin with, coughing is pure hell.

It's easy to lose track of time in the hospital. When I went in, it was the dead of winter, when I got out, it felt like early spring. Morphine (the only thing that even touched the pain) not only distorts your perception of time, but also people. I was thoroughly enjoying a visit with a girlfriend one night when I realized she wasn't who I thought she was. No, I didn't tell her my mistake -- I may have been dopey, but not that dopey.

What made all of it bearable and sometimes enjoyable, was the care I received from the staff. They were wonderful, even at the crack of dawn. 21 days is unheard of now, and I was fortunate to have the experience. It's one thing to work with patients every day. It's another to do so having been one myself, knowing how vulnerable a person can feel, and how much difference kindness can make. Maybe that's why hospitals don't feel like institutions to me anymore and instead, feel a little like home.

(Creative Commons Image of kidney stone by Bradley P. Johnson via Flickr)

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Heritage of Sin

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was counting them up last night, the number of generations in my family since the Civil War, and if I had children, there would be six. My great, great grandfather, great grandfather, grandfather, father, my son or daughter, and me. According to our limited records, my great, great grandfather was from Virginia, his ancestors having immigrated from Wales years before. Records indicating much more than that are missing but we know his family did not own slaves.

It's uncertain whether they had abolitionist leanings, but I know I never heard either my grandfather or father refer to African-Americans in any way that suggested they viewed them as anything except equals. Nor have I ever heard them use the N word, in public or in private. The reason, my father explained, was their inclination to regard people on the basis of what they did rather than how they looked. "Looks can be deceiving," he said, "and being white doesn't guarantee anything. Remember that."

You'd think six generations would provide enough time to get past the notion that skin color is a valid determinate of character and personal worth. Obviously, it's not, as evidenced at the very least by the racial issues that surfaced in the last presidential election. Nor have they vanished, given recent comments in the media to the effect that the current President would not have been elected had he been darker and had more pronounced African-American facial features. Not that this remark was intended as a racial slur -- I've heard at least one African-American commentator agree with it. What bothers me is its possible, if not probable, truth.

I realize it's only been forty-six years since the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but it's been 147 since the Emancipation Proclamation. It's enough to make a person wonder if there isn't something to the idea of "fallen-ness," after all. If being human doesn't entail an inherent character flaw that renders one susceptible to prejudice, in spite of education, economic, or environmental influences. I suspect we'd like to think we're more evolved than that, though not everyone behaves like it, particularly when old wounds are probed and scabs torn away in the passion of national debate.

Martin Luther King was a preacher and I feel certain he was very familiar with the verse that describes how the sins of the fathers may carry over for up to seven generations. The meaning is obvious: our actions may have far more than immediate consequences. I don't see how it's even remotely possible for one people to enslave another without having powerful and tragic ongoing effects. Taken literally, my grandchildren would be that seventh generation. I'd like to see us overcome our "heritage of sin" well before then.

(Public Domain Image of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. via Wikipedia)

Monday, January 18, 2010

Other People's Paintings

Artist's Point 1

"I used to paint," she said, "but I gave it up. I mean, it took up so much time and my boyfriend felt neglected."

"And you did this for the sake of your relationship?"

"I guess so. I like art and drew a lot as a child. At first, it was kind of like 'therapy.' I kept most of my work or gave it away to family and friends. I hadn't planned on ever selling any paintings, but they insisted I should try, so I put a few in a local gallery. They sold faster than I expected, and I decided to keep at it. I was just beginning to build a clientele when my boyfriend said it took too much time away from us. Now I've got a job in the same gallery, selling other people's paintings," she said with a sigh.

"Was it worth it?" I asked.

"I don't know. I used to think painting made me a better person -- I was definitely more affectionate toward my boyfriend, that's for sure. Now, I'm wondering if I made a huge mistake."

There was a great deal more to the conversation, but the core issue revolved around her self-esteem. Even though she was developing as an artist, when presented with relationship pressures, she gave up her art rather than work toward a compromise. In the course of her therapy, she admitted having done similarly in other relationships. Eventually, she realized she'd established a pattern of frustrating her own needs as a person.

Ironically, as became evident in subsequent couples sessions, her boyfriend wasn't jealous or envious of her success, he was simply insecure and didn't understand how essential her painting was to her sense of well-being. His own history reflected a series of relationships in which attachment was more akin to mutual absorption, and his fears of independence rendered him equally fearful of it in his girlfriend. Working through her tendency for self-sabotage and his fears of abandonment took some time, but they eventually came to appreciate one another in new ways.

A few months after our therapy had ended, I received a package in the mail. Inside was a note that read, "Thanks for everything. I know you can't accept gifts over a certain value, but since you could call this a 'work in progress,' I think it will be okay." Beneath the note was an unframed oil painting depicting a mountain scene with two people standing hand in hand in front of an artist's easel. I thought they would have an even better chance of being okay.

(Creative Commons Image by m.toyama via Flickr)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

No Lollipop for You

Dr. Schreiber of San Augustine giving a typhoi...
Have you ever had one of those days when you wish you could run away and join a circus? Or run off anywhere and do anything besides what you're supposed to? Throw responsibility to the wind and be a ski bum, beach bum, or just sit around on your bum. Today has been like that. I got up late because I've been trying to overcome the aftereffects of my H1N1 vaccination.

Say that too loudly and it's like shouting "fire" in a crowded theater. Before you know it, everyone is up in arms. Vaccination bad, flu good. And this, despite the fact that in modern history, vaccines have contributed mightily to the control of serious illness. When was the last time you heard of someone having polio? Or small pox? These diseases didn't just wear out their welcome.

In any case, I received the killed vaccine, which renders it highly unlikely that I've had a mini version of swine flu. Instead, it was probably an overreaction by my own immune system. When we receive a vaccination into the muscle, it slowly gets absorbed into circulation, introducing our white blood cells to viral antigens (bits and pieces of the virus) so they can recognize the real thing when it comes along. Once in a while, absorption occurs rapidly enough that white blood cells presume we're under viral attack. "Warning, warning, Will Robinson, alien approaching."

The internal sirens having gone off, various chemicals are released, resulting in head and muscle aches, malaise (the blahs), we feel crummy for a couple of days, and then it all goes away. As irritating as it is, it sure beats the flu. The worst part of it, though, hasn't been the reaction. Nor was it the news that I'd have to get an injection, though that was bad enough, especially after I did my best to negotiate with the nurse (I hate shots and she wasn't interested in a bribe). No, the worst part of it all was, after rolling up my sleeve and being as brave as I could, I didn't even get a lollipop. Darn.

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Saturday, January 16, 2010

Omega Thinking

Chi Rho and alpha omega
In response to yesterday's post, one reader wrote she was glad I had decided the ministry would always be a part of my identity. I responded by saying, it's taken a while to grow into those shoes, and I'd like to expand on that idea this morning.

Unlike some who've made mid-life course corrections, for me, attending medical school hasn't been a matter of disconnecting from one career path to assume another. Lately, I've been thinking about it using the image of the Greek capital letter omega that you see on the right of the Chi-Rho symbol in the photo. The left leg represents my younger self taking a relatively direct route toward adulthood. At some point, I don't know where or when, I didn't necessarily get off track, but certainly took a left turn.

"Left," according to depth psychology, much like "downstairs" in dream imagery, represents a movement toward the unconscious. If you're left-handed, the right one would work similarly for you. By shifting attention away from dominance, i.e. reliance on our conscious strengths, we become more familiar with what is hidden or unexplored. This is not to say I saw the intersection approaching and switched on the turn signal. I didn't even know I'd changed direction at the time; it's something I've learned in retrospect.

For the past few years I've been moving around the loop, assuming I knew where I was going. It's safe to say I was completely unaware that, when I arrived, I'd be so close to where I started, but that's how omega thinking operates. It brings you back around to face yourself, albeit a somewhat older self, as represented by the space between the left and right legs of the omega.

Cosmologists theorize as we approach the speed of light, time slows down and finally begins to reverse itself. Coming to the end of the loop and setting off on the right leg seems like that in a sense. Some of the issues I face now are very much the same as my classmates. I think about residency, getting established as a professional, repaying student loans, and so forth. My perspective is somewhat different because I've been "around the loop," but that doesn't alter the fact. I don't mind; it actually feels appropriate. Turning right suggests a more conscious approach to life that encompasses and embraces what's gone before.

Integration is the term we use to describe the process of bringing conscious and unconscious together forming a functional whole. How peaceful and satisfied we are about who we are depends a lot on how well we do integration. This is not usually something we pay attention to at earlier life stages (though it can help a great deal if we do) but as we mature, it gains in importance.

I used to describe medicine and the ministry as wearing two hats instead of one. Now, I think of them as the same hat. The reason lies not in the nature of the hat but the person wearing it. If I was doing pastoral counseling I'd be a lot more clinical in my approach as a consequence of working in psychiatry. In medical settings, I tend to be more aware of issues related to meaning and purpose as a result of being a minister. One informs the other and I'm comfortable with that.

It comes down to being as opposed to doing. Both/and rather than either/or permits me to be myself. Instead of draining energy trying to maintain an artificial distinction between the two halves of my "coin," I can use that energy to be more attentive to patients, viewing them as persons in the process of becoming, even as I am. Even as we all are. It will make me a better doctor and it definitely makes me a happier person. And that's not a bad place to find yourself, no matter where you've come from.

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Friday, January 15, 2010

Not From A Distance

Anderson Cooper at Qualcomm Stadium during the...
I've never personally experienced anything that I can compare this to; I have no context for it. The scenes I've seen on television from Haiti. I'm not even sure I can put it into words. When asked how he determined where to begin each day's reporting, Anderson Cooper of CNN said, the story was all around him, he could begin anywhere. And yet, this is only one piece in a puzzle of suffering that is global.

At the same instant recovery teams are trying to dig survivors out of the devastation, a soldier from Maine is on duty in Afghanistan. In the company of her unit, she left husband and children, and shoulders a weapon in a place where winter would make the hardiest of Mainers shiver. She cannot help a Haitian child trapped in the rubble, nor can she help her own with their homework. She's busy, on the other side of the world.

Beggar, you're a minister, or you used to be, what do you make of all this? Well, although I don't fill the role actively in a church, I still am one and it will always be a part of what I do. For me, theology is incarnational and has been, ever since that night in Bethlehem. In a very real sense, this means I'm not looking for God high up and far away in some ethereal spirituality that has little or nothing to do with where I live. If I'm going to find him anywhere, it's right here.

I'm not even going to begin to try to explain what happened in Haiti because I have no idea. And, as I've said in other posts, even if I did know why, it wouldn't change anything. So, if someone wished to know where I see the presence of God in something like this, my response is, look at the people. I see it in the eyes of a correspondent who hasn't slept in two days. If any meaning is to come out of this, it will have to involve the stories of individuals and their community being told, and it's his job to try telling them. I see it in a doctor who has to decide which patients he can help, who has no morphine to ease the dying of those he can't. I see it in the faces of Haitians parading through the street at midnight, singing and chanting encouragement to anyone within earshot.

Not watching from a distance, but imminent, engaged, present in every sense of the word. That's where I see it. It's the only place I can.


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Thursday, January 14, 2010

No Longer Castaways

Cast Away

What is it about the idea of being "lost" that we love? And not just fans of the reality show, either. This one goes waaay back in one form or another. Odysseus and his men, attempting to return home from the Trojan War, find themselves trapped in a Greek myth replete with a Cyclops and entrancing Sirens who lead men to disaster. Freed from Egyptian captivity, the Israelites wander in the wilderness for forty years. More recently, Castaway washes Tom Hanks up on an unmarked island like Robinson Crusoe, only his man Friday is a soccer ball named Wilson.

Obviously, we enjoy seeing characters placed in extreme situations which they manage to overcome. It tells us come hell or high water, by hook or by crook, we're going to make it. But that in itself suggests we somehow identify with the experience of being lost, otherwise what's the point?

What makes Hank's character so appealing is the fact that he holds nothing back. Civilized at first, he cooks the fish he catches. Later on, he ceases to bother and tears the flesh with his fingers, eating it raw. Eventually, he decides life isn't worth the effort if there's nothing more to it than survival. And, of course, that's when he realizes he has to go on living, taking each day for what it is, whether he has reason to hope or not.

"Lost" has to be a metaphor for what many of us feel. In whatever ways we've tried to establish a life, we find ourselves "lost and alone on some forgotten highway, traveled by many, remembered by few." We may not use those terms and the feeling itself may even lie beyond words at the rim of consciousness, but it's there nonetheless. It's there because we exit the theater as uncertain as Hanks, standing at that West Texas crossroads in the final scene. Choices, always choices. Does he chase down the gal in the pickup truck or what? We don't know because it's his choice to make and we have ours.

The idea of being lost scares us and what we learn from Hanks is, we don't have to be. When life gets stripped down to its essential elements, when we're no longer distracted by all the extraneous litter that accumulates around us -- this can be the place were things finally become clear. We are going to go on living whether we feel alone or not, we're going to make things work, we're going to make things better, and somehow, we're going to find a way off this damned island and back to the real world, even if we have to swim for it.

(Low resolution image of poster for the film Castaway used to provide ready identification of the film and subject matter under discussion. No comparable free images are available. Copyright presumed to be held by Twentieth Century Fox, 2000, image via Wikipedia)

(Sweet Surrender, words and music by John Denver, copyright 1974)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Limits of Hercules

Hercules killing the hydra

Perhaps wounded healers are effective because they are more able to empathize with the wounds of the patient; perhaps it is because they participate more deeply and personally in the healing process. ~ Irvin Yalom

One of the largest steps a medical student learns to take is the one toward losing, for want of a better word, their sense of invincibility. From the outset of our education, we're confronted with a series of tasks that mirror the labors of Hercules. First, there's a matter of obtaining admission, no small feat in itself. Then there's the issue of surviving the onslaught of information in the first two years. Once in clinical rotations, the stress diminishes somewhat but there is still pressure from the drive to perform and perform well.

Getting over one hurdle after another leaves a person feeling they've accomplished something tremendous and that is absolutely true. In the clinical setting, however, we begin to discover a great deal that is anything but black and white. People refuse to fall into neatly circumscribed categories and it sometimes feels like ambiguity is omnipresent. The excitement of learning can easily be coupled with a gnawing nervousness over the magnitude of what we've gotten ourselves into.

From the standpoint of practicing the art of medicine, the awareness of weakness has an importance that transcends the awareness of strength. Empathy grows best in soil that has known pain. And it hurts to recognize when we're less than capable, when our natural abilities let us down. But that's critical because it creates within us a basis for understanding the people we wish to help.

To some, it makes no sense at all that woundedness, wherever it comes from, has the power to render us more grounded, and therefore more approachable to persons in distress. It certainly is ironic, when you think about it. From the standpoint of our national consciousness, as represented by my childhood cinematic hero, John Wayne, we should expect persons to be drawn to our strength. And that may work in the political spotlight, but in the care of persons, the opposite is the case. At its most profound level, capability is a matter of character. And character comes out of the experience of being honest with ourselves and true to what we find when we are.

(Creative Commons image of Hercules and the Hydra by ἀλέξ via Flickr; Citation from The Gift of Therapy, by Irvin Yalom, Harper Collins Publishers, 2002, p. 107)

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Practice Makes Perfect

It's like walking a high wire without a safety net or climbing a rock face without a rope, except that one false move doesn't mean it's curtains. I'm talking about the art of patient care and make no mistake about it, it's definitely an art, and not one that can be learned by attending the medical equivalent of the Art Institute of America. It's kind of like falling in love. You can read all the Harlequin romance novels you want, but sooner or later, you have to take the leap.

My Mom just fwd'ed me this long-lost Family Fe...

Right now, we're in what I'm fond of calling The Family Feud era of medical practice. You've seen the show, right? Two families pair off, the host asks each one the same question that has been posed to a larger population, and the members guess at the answer. When it's time to find out the correct one, he calls out, "Survey says..." The family who arrives at the closest approximation, gets the point, and so on until a winner is decided.

While clinicians don't quite work in the same manner, there is a trend that suggests we should rely on evidence that has been gathered by empirical testing to provide an informed basis for decision-making. There's no doubt this is a valid approach and it is certainly in keeping with the science of medicine. We want to know what research has revealed and whether its results have any applicability in a given situation. But what applies to 500 persons may be irrelevant for one, and becoming competent at the level of the individual is every bit an artistic endeavor.

At it's best, medicine is a dynamic relationship between persons who are genuine with one another. It's unrealistic for me to expect patients to be open and responsive if I come across as opaque and unfeeling. This is not to say I have to wear my personal life on the sleeve of my white coat, but it does no good to pretend I don't have one.

How much to reveal of oneself and when, is something we learn over time. Becoming sensitive to the interpersonal aspects of what we do and growing in our understanding of people takes time. Developing good judgment and knowing intuitively how to rely on it when dealing with the intrinsic complexities of another person takes time. We have to practice, fall on our faces once in a while, get up and try again because that's how we become artists and practice, as they say, makes perfect.

(Creative Commons Image by dpstyles™ via Flickr)

Monday, January 11, 2010

It's Not About Explanations

For the portion of my career when I was a graduate student, I spent a lot of time writing about what other people thought. I guess that's to be expected, since graduate school is supposed to develop expertise in a particular subject and what better way to do that than become familiar with what other experts have said. In what often seemed like an ocean of term papers, I learned to amass references and synthesize arguments.
In retrospect, it was like being a minor character in Ayn Rand's novel, The Fountainhead. Without going into detail, Rand's hero, Howard Roark, is an architect who wished to design and build following his own ideas. The prevailing opinion, however, insists Greek and Roman architecture represents the pinnacle of architectural achievement and the best we can do is learn and imitate their principles.

My Howard Roark was a professor I met at Southern Methodist University
who said of my first seminar paper, "This is fine, now what's your argument?" I was at a loss because, frankly, not only did I not have one, I had no idea how to begin making one. I was good at cataloging but as far as having an original idea and using the reading material to support it, in the immortal words of my father, I was up the creek without a paddle.

It took several years, in fact, for Dr. Roark's wisdom to sink in. It's very easy to feel inadequate and fall back to the safe position of being "just a student." But throwing ideas onto the table is how we transition from being a gatherer of information to a participant in the argumentative process.

And that brings us back to my topic of the past two days. When it comes to explaining and resolving the presence of evil in the world, I don't have a definitive solution. Or let's put it this way, I don't have one that covers every point in a logically consistent manner. But neither does anyone else, as far as I can see, so I'm in good company.

What I've learned in some thirty years of pastoral ministry, psychotherapy, and dealing with people in daily life is, most of the time such solutions don't really matter. When an avalanche sweeps a husband against the side of a mountain, burying him in literally tons of snow and ice (see post of 11/12/09), no one cares how you solve the problem of evil. They ask why does this happen, how could God let it happen, what have we done to deserve this. Even if you or I were God-like enough to know, that's not what they want to hear.

What they want -- what we all want -- is for suffering to be meaningful. Where meaning is not readily apparent, we have to find it for ourselves by wrestling with suffering and draining every ounce of significance from the experience. Whether individually or collectively, it's really not about explanations, especially in those situations where there are none to be found. Instead, we want to feel our suffering is worthwhile and something good will come of it. There's nothing theoretical about that.

Rodrigo Paoletti via Flickr)
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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Reprogramming God's Computer

From a theological perspective, the problem of evil is usually expressed like this: how can an all-powerful God permit evil and suffering to exist? The presumption being that since evil and suffering are counter to the nature of God's goodness, it only makes sense that such a being would wish to eliminate them at every opportunity. Given the presence of genuine evil in the world, either God doesn't have the power to do anything about it, in which case he's not God, or he's not willing, in which case he's not good.

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. There are probably as many ways of addressing this issue as there are theologians who've dared to try. It reminds me of the Kobayashi Maru, the no-win scenario from Star Trek, and I have the sneaking suspicion, like James T. Kirk, God has somehow reprogrammed the computer. That he did so without telling anyone is an inside joke. And, I think leaving us to clean up the mess, just may be the punchline.

I know, that sounds like I'm suggesting God is playing games with us, but truthfully, I'm not. There are some things we need to struggle with, over and over, in order to arrive at a measure of maturity as human beings, responsible for each other and the planet we live on. And evil is one of the biggies. Those who would dismiss the problem by denying the presence of evil or blaming God for refusing to make things easier, miss the point. We're supposed to do it because we become better in the process.

When I was in junior high school, my wood shop instructor taught us to submit a bill of materials before beginning work on our class projects. We had to make a drawing of whatever it was we planned to build, determine which tools and how much wood we'd need, then write up a list and get his approval. If we apply this to the question of evil, we have a number of tools to choose from, and the ones we select will have considerable influence on the appearance of our "project" when we're finished.

For instance, if we were to take one of the traditional theological ones, we could say evil results from the exercise of free will and since God isn't willing to violate our freedom, we make our own bed, so to speak. Then again, we might eliminate God from the equation entirely, and say, along with some of the existentialists, that evil is a consequence of living, and since life has no intrinsic meaning, neither does suffering. That's kind of bleak, but it's one solution, nevertheless.

We can build our house out of anything if we try hard enough. The question is, which of the three little pigs are we going to emulate? Ultimately, the solution we come up with has to provide a way of making ethical decisions that we can live with. And that's the rub. Conscience makes cowards of us all, said Hamlet. We can say one thing in the classroom but when confronted with flesh and blood, feel compelled to do another. Maybe it all does comes down to conscience after all, because suffering is personal, no matter how we formulate it.

(Creative Commons image of Star Trek 2009 cast by
Las Valley 702 via Flickr)

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Shadow Knows

the shadow knows!

Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? So began the 1930s mystery radio drama, The Shadow, and eighty years later, it's still a good question. You might think psychiatry is tailor-made to provide an answer since evil is often talked about in connection with certain kinds of psychopathology. By assuming cruelty represents sickness, we try to make sense out of senselessness.

I'm just not entirely certain that's true. I mean, yes, psychopathology can help explain why one person mistreats another. It doesn't settle the issue of whether or to what extent, there is such a thing as evil, something without which the world would be clearly better off. At this point, psychiatry generally defers to theologians and philosophers. When dealing with patients, we want to bracket moral judgment in favor of providing treatment because caring for people is what we do.

Approaching evil as a moral issue, however, is not as straightforward as it sounds, because we quickly find ourselves confronted by conflicting principles. This isn't easy even for religion and philosophy to unravel. When someone hijacks a plane and crashes it into a building intending to destroy the infidels, we've left Kansas far behind.

Well, isn't that why we have laws? asks one. The problem is, the rule of law can reflect moral concerns, bringing us back to having to decide whose morality will carry the day. Whoever has the most power makes the law, answers another. That's all well and good, but this country was founded on the idea that the voice of minorities should be heard. We don't write laws on the grounds that might makes right. We need to establish a broader basis for deciding what constitutes evil because, in a pluralistic world, morality is not necessarily unilateral.

So, how do we do that? I think we have to start by asking whether there is something much more fundamental that can serve as a kind of baseline. Something that creates the conditions of possibility for asking questions of right and wrong in the first place.

In medicine, we have the oft-quoted phrase, First of all, do no harm. In other words, before we even think of prescribing treatment, we are committed to refraining from doing anything intentionally harmful to a patient. Consequently, thoughtless, careless, unnecessary "harm" constitutes an evil because it violates the essential value we place upon human life.

And this is what I mean. We begin by establishing where our values lie. Not with what might be morally superior or inferior, but with what is important, what we're willing to stand by and stake our lives upon. Decisions about good and evil are utterly dependent upon identifying what truly matters to us. Once we've done that, then, like the Shadow, we'll be in a position to recognize evil when it shows its face.

(Creative Commons image by lamont_cranston via Flickr)
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