Keep Your Words in Your Own Mouth, Please!

churchsign2If you have nothing nice to say,
then don’t say anything at all.

– My mother
(and millions more just like her)

So…I just got back from a conference in Pasadena, CA, at which I presented a paper on social media, and the ways in which they affect our ability to engage one another in meaningful dialogue. One of the topics I discussed, by chance, was the Internet meme. The presentation went rather well, I think, and I was going to write a follow-up post for my bloggy thingy here. And then, I got a forward from my father-in-law, well-meaning spreader of whatever rumor floats his way on the wings of cyberspace, fact-check free:

church sign

Dearborn, Michigan–out to kill us all!!!!! Except…wait a minute…that sign looks a whole lot like this one:

demosign09Exactly like it, in fact! Could it be that someone completely fabricated the “Kill America!” message, and then spread it, knowingly and maliciously, around the Internet as if it were the truth, the whole truth, and…well, you get the idea? Unheard of, right? Who would do such a thing?

After five seconds of research and a very helpful Snopes.com page, followed by a moment of righteous indignation at the intellectual and moral dishonesty of the person who did this…I remembered something. Something I’d seen on the blog of a friend who, supposedly, has taken it upon herself to expose the lies told to the masses by organized religion:

baptist-church-sign

And that looks a hell of a lot like this:

demosign1Before my father-in-law’s forward, I had no idea that “Church Sign Maker” even existed. And, having spent a few years in the church sign business myself, I’ve seen my share of ridiculous messages in front of church buildings. So, I bit. Hard. I even laughed at some that I saw on fellow bloggers’ pages…like this one:

7cfdd7bb76566d7413b2b863281e4681

Which, once again, looks a whole lot like this:

demosign3Now, I know that these last two images are not exactly the same (the one above has a larger foreground, etc.), but they are obviously images of the same sign. And that’s the point: who knows which one, if either, is real? That’s what the meme does, people. It bends the truth, even when based on a partial truth, to the point that it’s no longer distinguishable from the lie.

Now, I should have known, me and my tirades about memes and what they do to our ability to relate to one another. But, you see, I trust the person on whose page I saw these things. Trusted, anyway. Now, how am I supposed to know what is real, what is true, in her ongoing crusade against religious “untruth”? My father always told me: Two wrongs do not make a right. What of that? In fighting a lie, is it acceptable to use a lie?

Because, at the end of the day, that’s what these things are: lies. Inventions. Like the “Dearborn sign,” and equally harmful. We can use memes to put our words into the mouths of anyone we want, anyone we don’t like, in a way that creates an illusion of truth and makes them responsible to the masses for something they never even said. And it cuts every which way. Welcome to the world of digital propaganda! We don’t need to discover evidence and expose the truth. We can simply create the truth out of whole cloth.

It’s amazing how our “enemies” conform to our expectations when we’re the ones crafting their narrative for them…

So, next time you try and tell me, my friend, that Christians are the problem, that they’re the ones obstructing productive dialogue, spreading a harmful false message and preying upon the gullibility of the masses, check yourself.

Who’s obstructing whom?

FTup

Sometimes we stick our feet in it
and squish it all around;
sometimes we fall head-first in it
and that is where we’re found,

facedown, grasping blindly
for someone who will kindly pull us
from this hole, wayward moles in need of
vision (self-derision, maybe mental
circumcision) and direction. What’s perfection
but chimeric brain pollution?

In ablution lies salvation, washed
clean
of frustration, of encrusted expectation:
make a mess, clean it up–
I confess…
I fucked up.

Disclaimer

I feel it necessary to address the tendency of people today to take offence at pretty much anything. It seems that everything from a sonnet to a sneeze must these days be accompanied with a declaration of the issuer’s non-participation in the opinion thus expressed. “The views I express in my own words in no way reflect my own views or opinions, and anything in my views or opinions which resembles my own views or opinions must be taken as nothing more than pure coincidence.”

If I like vanilla, but you like chocolate, you take offence. If I am a Republican and you are a Democrat, you take offence. If I’m a dog person and you are a cat person, you take offence. If you’re in the street and I hit you with my car…well, a pattern emerges. I mean, seriously, people–is there no end to the cycle of indignation?

I long for a forum in which honest debate is not only welcomed but encouraged, where opposing viewpoints are taken as helpful contributions rather than personal attacks. Where the conversation proceeds along lines other than: “You suck!” “No, you suck!” A forum in which we can tell each other the ever-lovin’ truth, for Pete’s sake!

Orthodoxy is the refuge of complacency and intellectual cowardice. Answers are to be found not in constant, rote agreement, but in the midst of sharp disagreement; not in the isolation and segregation of the like-minded, but in the collision of disparate worldviews; not in unanimity of opinion, but in unanimity of purpose.

In any case, the answers are not what define us. What defines us is how we deal with the questions.

But you didn’t hear that from me…

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Right to Remain?

Freedom of speech is easy to
Preach,
Harder to learn.
The world turns on turn of phrase:
Rhetorical flourish, meaning malnourished,
Pundits ablaze with long-distance courage.
And somewhere inside, where
Sincerity hides, the heart opens wide,
Screaming in silence, and
Truth
Breathes its last, its moment
Long past.

Dots, Connected

This space between
Feels
Insurmountable–
Unaccountable as it may seem,
I see your face in every dream,
In every ray of dancing light
Glancing from each dreary surface
And racing toward some foggy distance
Not yet reached by sight or speech.

A thought that leeches flesh from bone
And turns the hottest blood to stone;
Shout of joy made moan of longing
As demons of displacement, thronging,
Gather cloudy ’round my heart and keep us
Ever
Far apart.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

“I love the stoic elegance of bare trees.”

Victoria N℮ür☼N☮☂℮ṧ

How Much Do You Really Want To Know? (Redux)

Recently, I wrote a piece on that paragon of insincerity, the “How are you?” routine. I received a number of different responses, ranging from the “well said” to the “seek help” ends of the spectrum. I’ve even been told that, emotionally disturbed as I apparently am, it’s a good thing I don’t want kids, ’cause God knows what lunacy I might pass on to them if I did. Yes, it seems that my imbalance may well be contagious…

I fear, consequently, that some clarification is in order.

My purpose in writing the bit in question was not to elicit sympathy from the teeming masses. It was not a cry for attention. I was not out to be patted on the head and clucked at in a soothing manner. I am not in need of a tender rendition of “Soft Kitty,” or anything at all like that, anymore than anyone else. (Although, to those who did express encouragement or support, I extend many sincere thanks.)

Yes, I did use myself as an example, but that is simply because my own mind is the only one I can come anywhere close to actually knowing. The things I shared were the scary little tidbits I rarely allow out of their cages because there’s a very good chance that if I do, they will turn on me and swallow me whole. We all have them, and we all keep them hidden. Because, after all, who wants a visit from the white lab coats? Who wants to be that box in the far corner of the moving van that nobody touches, because it’s marked “Fragile” and looks like it’s two prods from falling apart?

My goal was not to highlight my own issues; it was to point out that this tendency toward “stuffing,” as they call it, is very much a part of the unspoken social contract by which we regulate our lives in community. It is strong in all of us, all the time. It fools us into thinking we’re healthy and strong, when, by very virtue of accepting the status quo of silence, we are rendered sickly and weak. We are less than we can be because we share less than all of our selves.

But it goes even further than that: Our deathly fear of interpersonal honesty often causes us to forget how to be honest even with ourselves. We don’t ask life’s important questions because we’re afraid to admit their legitimacy. We don’t shine our inner flashlights into that particular nook or cranny because that’s where the real shadows are, and they’re best left alone. Like children, we pull the covers up over our heads in the desperate hope that what we can’t see can’t hurt us. If we stay still, maybe the lions will go away.

The range of responses I’ve received since my original post shows that, out of practice as we are, not only do we often not know how to be honest, we also often have no clue how to deal with honesty when it comes our way. Suddenly, we’re missionaries stuck on Bourbon Street: we will snap our own necks trying to look anywhere but at the peepshow in progress. Which is an apt metaphor because, as it is understood, the act of revealing one’s true self–pain, problems, and all–is tantamount to removing one’s clothing in public. We become spectacle at best, public nuisance at worst. And there’s a good chance we’ll be taken into custody and tossed in a cage somewhere, if not for our own good, then at least so no one else has to deal with us anymore.

I come out of the Christian tradition which is, if anything, more coercive than society at large in the vow of silence it enforces among its adherents. Because, you see, things can’t be wrong without the entire foundation of the tradition collapsing around itself. Things can go wrong, mind you; but even then they cannot be wrong, since everything happens according to divine plan. That being the case, any acknowledgment of dismay is transmogrified into “whining” or “complaining” or, worse still, “questioning the will of God.” And how dare we do that?

In this scheme of things, honesty becomes not only difficult but downright suspect. Perhaps your faith is weak, Grasshopper. The Force is not strong in this one. Suddenly all interpersonal communication turns into a Twila Paris song (which, like much CCM material, seems on the surface deep and meaningful, but turns out on closer inspection to actually say little or nothing). And all of this is designed, not to provide a solution to the problem at hand, but to serve as a distraction from it.

In this sense, at least, Karl Marx was right: Religion is the opium of the people, and the supposed heart of a heartless world. We are, all of us, caught up in what is broadly termed “the human condition,” and religion (in this case, Christianity) is often set up as the only viable outlet, the only feasible response to a situation beyond our control. We can’t stop this craziness; surely there’s Someone out there who can. In seeing through the pretensions of religious thought, Marx also understood that we have another option. What is structural can be demolished and redesigned, rebuilt. It can be replaced. His genius lay not necessarily in his specific solution–socialism–but in his general point: the true solution to the human condition is a reimagining of community. We have, if nothing else, each other. It is not religion, but we, who are the true heart of a heartless world.

We all have baggage, a nice array of Samsonite we carry with us as we move from experience to experience, cradle to grave. Life is about what we do with those pieces of luggage: we can conceal them in our closets, locked and impenetrable, or we can open them, lay out the contents, and deal with the jumble. Life is about what we do with where we’ve come from. But in order to do this, we need to be free to air all that dirty laundry conventional wisdom encourages us to pretend we don’t have; we need to be free to strip our selves bare for all to see, to be the broken toys we all become, to one degree or another, as life plays with us through the years. We need the freedom to be weak, because in vulnerability we will find strength, if not in the eyes of others, at least in our own.

Weakness lies not in admitting the painful nature of life; weakness lies in pretending we are strong; weakness lies in not having the courage to face our pain head-on. Life is not just a flesh-wound. It is a gaping, bleeding, oozing GSW to the chest, and we need each other like an assault victim needs a paramedic. So, instead of hiding our struggles and whispering them at the sky, we need to take a look at our fellow travelers (I mean this not as a political label, but as a genetic one). We need to talk to one another, freely and openly, and listen to one another in the same way.

Perhaps this is pie in the sky, but it has to beat the idea that there actually is pie in the sky, and nowhere else…

How Much Do You Really Want To Know?

Every day, they ask us: “How are you?”

What if we told them the truth? What if we let our guard down just once, and let them see what sort of darkness lurks silently inside, behind the plastered smile, behind the cheerfully (and artfully) concocted reply? What if we told them just how fine we’re not, just how much pain we’re in, just how miserable we feel?

What would they say? Would they stick around to say anything, or would they take the first opportunity to pull a Houdini and disappear, abandoning us to the next poor sap who bothers to show superficial interest in our state of being? Would they call the medics, a shrink, a priest, a cop?

Some days, I’m being perfectly honest when I tell people I’m doing “pretty good,” but lately, more often than not, my words reek of bullshit. Complete and total. They taste like it, too, even as I speak them, and the reality of the deception, and its inevitability, drag me down even farther into the slough. I begin to wonder whether anyone really cares about my actual condition, or if they just want to be allowed to think everything’s good with me, because then they are reassured that, maybe, really, everything’s good with them, too.

We cannot be honest with one another, because by doing so, we cull ourselves from the herd, and we threaten to drag those with whom we’re open and forthcoming down with us. And everyone knows what happens to the weak and the old: the lions get them. And we mustn’t fool ourselves: we’re surrounded by lions, everywhere and all the time. And when we’re not, generally we’re the lions surrounding somebody else. And we will all eat each other if given the chance.

How much do you really want to know, O ye caring multitudes? Do you want to know me, or do you want me to let you think you know me? Do you want to see into my shadows, or would you rather pretend that I have none so that your own don’t frighten you too much? How much do you really want to know?

Do you want to know that on most days, thanks to this irritable bowel thing I’ve got, I’m uncomfortable at best and in terrible pain at worst? Do you want to know that sometimes the entire tenor of my day comes down to whether or not I’m able to successfully take a crap? Do you want to know these things, or is it too much for you?

Do you want to know that, at 35, I feel like my life is stalling out? That I feel an unrelenting, frustrated, blind anger at the sheer amount wasted on student loans for graduate school, so that I can sit at a desk doing work for which only a high school education is required? That this lack of fulfillment often becomes so overwhelming that even the greatest of successes feel like monumental failures? That I want to punch all the shiny, happy faces who tell me to buck up, that “this too shall pass,” to “be happy with what I have,” never stopping to realize how hard it is for people who have what they want to understand those who don’t? Or is that too much information, as they say?

Do you want to know that everything I said in the last paragraph makes me sick at myself? That I hate how selfish it is to be unhappy with my job when so many people don’t have work at all? That I can’t stand how I feel about my life situation when I’m so well off compared to many? That I detest the lack of gratitude I show on a daily basis, and that I detest even more the thought that others might detest it, too? And that in spite of all this self-awareness, I can’t seem to break out of this cycle of ingratitude and unhappiness? Do you want to know, or have I gone too far?

Do you want to know that for a long time now, I’ve felt friendless and family-less, and all because I’ve tried to be honest with others about who I am? That it kills me that more people seem to care about my whereabouts on a Sunday morning than my ideas and principles and everything else that makes me Me? That I’m afraid of revealing myself too openly to people I once thought as close as family, because I don’t know how they’ll respond? That, deep inside, I’m furious at the people who are disappointed in me because they’ve never stopped to consider that maybe I’m disappointed right back? That I’m saddened at accusations of having “changed,” because they prove that some of my closest friends never really knew me at all? Have I stepped over the line yet?

Do you want to know that in the scheme of things all this barely scratches the surface, that there are fathoms of darkness left in me to explore? Do you want to know any of this, or do you just want me to help you feel secure by pretending that I’m secure, too?

Even as I write this, I shrink from the way my words may be received–words like crybaby, wimp, and panty-waist come to mind. It turns out that what I’m most afraid of is people finding out who I really am, even people such as you wonderful blog-fellows whom I will probably never physically meet. I am terrified of honesty. Like Pinocchio before me, I long to be a real boy…but I’m afraid of the consequences. I’m afraid of being hung out to dry, of being written off the page, of being discarded as second rate. Even more, I’m afraid of being ignored. I’m afraid of taking that step, of opening up and being completely, nakedly real, only to have no one notice at all. Of being silenced before I’m even able to speak.

But never mind all that. I’m fine.

How are you?