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?

Falling

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The sky is falling…
Well, maybe just a speck of dust, but
still–

Pill swallowed; now
Mellow: yellow snow is just as
cold as white. By night,
who can tell the difference?

Close the door; turn on all the
lights.
Bar the windows; lock them
tight.
Keep the bogey in the dark.
You’ve had your lark. Time to get

Serious

Find, and You Shall Seek

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When ignorance is overturned, it transmutes into enlightenment. It is like melting ice into water; it is not something apart and does not come from elsewhere. All is contained in a single moment of mind.

– Chih-i

I seek a single moment of mind. And I find it, every single time, right where I left it. Right here. With me, in me, behind me, ahead of me, beckoning, waiting, answering and asking at once.

A single moment of mind, leading to single moments of mind, pointing to single moments of mind. Moments of mind that, collectively, constitute my self, intermingled with your self, and scattered amongst the infinity of Self itself.

The third of the Four Great Vows of the bodhisattva says: “Dharma gates are boundless, I vow to enter them.” Or, as Thomas Cleary interprets it, it is the vow “to study all truths” (Cleary, Glossary to Stopping & Seeing, 1997). Of the four, this is the one that most clearly resonates with me: the search for Truth within all truth, the quest to ask all the answers through learning all the questions. My questions, your questions, their questions, today, tomorrow, and yesterday. The questions go on, they are continuous; how can the answers be other than the questions through which they are sought?

Chih-i also wrote: “Temporary expedients do not contain the true; it is the true that contains temporary expedients.” In other words, whereas we often envision answers as endpoints, in reality they are mere waystations in an ongoing journey. Today’s answer, properly understood, becomes tomorrow’s question. And so on. Infinitely. We always find, so we never arrive. And this is life. And life is enlightenment.

Another quote, from Stargate SG-1: “If you immediately know the candlelight is fire, then the meal was cooked long ago.” To assume I have the answers is to miss the point of the questions asked: it is to choose a solution before hearing the problem; it is to decide my fate before knowing who I am. It is to abandon the journey before it ever begins.

The path to Truth is not linear, although we often believe it so. The path to Truth is not even really a path. We stand simultaneously at the beginning and the end; the beginning is the end. The path to Truth is not a path. Truth is the path, and the path is truth: no more and no less. It is not ahead; it is not behind; it is not outside of us. Truth is not a destination, it is a realization.

We are never really there, because we are already here. We never really arrive, because, in truth, we never really left.

Fathers and Sons

245Father, sometimes you and I
are like a three-legged horse
who can’t get across the finish line
no matter how hard he tries and tries and tries

– Jim Boyd

I am my father, and my father was me.

A little over two years ago, I sat down with my parents in the living room of their Lacy Lakeview rental house, and told them about my journey away from the Christian faith so dear to them. Former Southern Baptist missionaries to Argentina, their first response, understandably, was self-recrimination: where did we go wrong? Why was I abandoning a worldview to which they had dedicated so much of their own lives, and which they had tried so hard to instill in mine?

Was this their doing?

Well, in a way, yes–but not in the way they feared. Theirs was no failure, at least not as I see it; theirs was a resounding success.

The photo above was taken in 1989. My dad and I had just finished climbing Cerro Uritorco, Córdoba Province, for the first time. It was my birthday; I was 12 years old. My dad was the same age then that I am now. This was a big moment for us, the start of an annual tradition: every year, on or around my birthday, we would climb that mountain together.

As with all fathers and sons, my relationship with my father has had its ups and downs. We have been climbing mountains, of one sort or another, my whole life. Both of us possess a quick and violent temper, and as a teenager I learned to push his buttons, and he mine. Both of us are by nature stubborn, and fairly convinced of the superiority of our own processes, which have rarely ever been the same, which fact also caused a decent amount of conflict back in the day. And then there’s the old “man-child” dilemma: in his eyes (and to a certain extent, in my own), I will forever be the young’un, in need of guidance and correction, with ideas in formation but not yet fully formed. This makes adult communication difficult. We have bridged this divide a bit in the last few years, but I suspect it is one that is never quite overcome between fathers and their sons.

I inherited many negative characteristics from my father. We all do. In the past I have, to my discredit, tended to focus on those. Ironically, it wasn’t until I turned from his dearly held beliefs that I truly began to appreciate the gifts this Christian man had given me. This is, by the way, why I take so personally the generalizing negative comments about Christian folk when I come across them on the blogs: I no longer embrace my father’s worldview, but this does not blind me to the fact that he is a good man, not in spite of his faith but because of it. And, although I no longer share that faith, I am who I am in large measure because of it, as well.

Whatever love I have for my fellow human beings, I have because my parents taught me that the needs and pain of others are always more important than my own. They lived that out, giving up their own plans to go to a foreign place and work for others. I may not agree with how they did it, but I have to honor why they did it.

My father gave me my sense of humor, and that sense of humor has gotten me through any number of tough situations. He taught me that no monster can kill you when you can tickle its belly and make it laugh.

My love of reading comes from him. He gave me Dickens, and Twain, and Dumas: I loved them well before the age when high school students learn to hate them. And with a love of reading comes a love of words, and of ideas. My father taught me the importance of using words correctly and well, and of respecting the ideas of others without letting them get in the way of forming my own.

As a child, he took me out of my comfort zone and, by doing so, literally gave me the world. If my perspective is broad, it is because of the places he took me, and if I have been many places, it is because he encouraged me to go.

Above all else, like ol’ Polonius, he taught me to be true to myself, and he taught me to love truth. And here I am. I may not have chosen his truth, but I would not have arrived (and be arriving) at my own truth if not for his. If not for the Christian man who taught me to stand for what I believe, whatever that may be. Without him, the Toad would never have been born. If I am a good man, it is because it takes one to make one.

One might argue that, in all this, I went out the back door to get to the front yard. This is most definitely not what either one of us expected when we stood together on that mountaintop 26 years ago. We could see a long way from up there, but we couldn’t see forever. But this is what counts: no matter how many mountains I summit in my life, no matter how many different paths I take, I’ll never be alone. We’ll be standing there, together, and I’ll be the stronger for it.

So, yes, Dad. You did this. And for that I am eternally grateful.

The You-Turn

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA…But is it in your conscience that you’re after
another glimpse of the madman across the water?

– Elton John

The way I see it, we have two choices in life:

1) We keep ourselves under wraps, we counterfeit (to borrow a term from a fellow blogger) our feelings, we censor our identities. And we live a half-life at best.

–or–

2) We come out of the shadows and we takes our lumps. And we set ourselves free to be who we are. We live authentically.

But disaster looms. Coming out of the closet–any closet–promises to reach into one’s life and unravel it, thread by delicate thread. It is bridge burning taken to new levels, and it is arson by one’s own hand. We wonder if the precarious structure we call identity will be able to withstand the ensuant tremors as we begin to plumb the fault lines of our existence. And we hesitate, one foot off the precipice, one foot on, hugging the edge for all we’re worth.

These are the moments in which purpose is forged. Not in any teleological sense: no one can see into infinity. Farragut had no assurances of victory when he uttered his famous words at Mobile Bay. But he knew he would accomplish nothing by simply remaining where he was, and he knew better than to think he could go back and maintain any shred of self-respect. So he damned the torpedoes–as we all must do at some point–and leapt into the fray.

Purpose is simply this: movement. Movement that reflects who you are. Movement that honors who you want to be. We cannot know what is out there, but we can set out to meet it. On our own terms. In our own way.

But movement is, by definition, away from something, and toward something else. It implies leaving things behind: the static things, the things we can’t carry. In some cases, the people or the places. The safe. The certain. The comfortable.

It may mean cutting ties. There are relationships in this world that lift you up, and relationships that hold you back. You will know them by their deeds. The ones that lift you up also let you go, give you your head. Reluctantly, possibly, at first, but faithfully throughout. They let you explore, become, grow. They let you Be.

The ones that hold you back will strangle the life out of you, if you let them. On a deeper level, they are not real relationships in the first place, because you are not really part of them. Not really. Only the part the other allows you to reveal, just a shadow, an outline. Hollow; shallow; false.

But they feel real. And it hurts when they fall away. Which is why it is so hard to leave them behind. They are the training wheels to our bicycles, the nets to our tightropes. But these things only blight our vision. Their sole purpose is to obviate our need for wings. They anchor us to the ground; they mock our dreams of flight. They whisper to us, cajole us–this is as far as you can go, so stay. Here in the darkness, where it is safe.

Which will it be: the shadow, or the light?

 

By and By

What must I do
to escape being you?
The lies I hold true because
you once told them, and oh,
how you sold them! A bill of
ill goods, black to the core: I
ate my fill and came back for more.396280_10100316678480673_951323144_n

I put them in baskets set aside for
the winter, a wine so malign it
betrays its own vintner. And when
my eyes opened and witnessed
new light, how desperate you were
to chain me to night. And how you
delight in making me squirm, in
stealing my pudding and feeding me worms.

You promise high heaven and then
slam the gate; make off with the key while
I stand and wait, cold and alone, trampled
by rain, a chill you’ve told me is for my own gain.
And yet, there you are, happy and warm,
inside with your cocoa, while I drown in the storm…

Tea and Sympathy

Tea goes well with sympathy
(or else you could not spell it),
and also with sincerity,
or else you could not sell it.

The world as seen
through jaded eyes
is just a pack of faded lies,
a long list of belated tries by
moral midgets cut to size.

When media’s the meaning-maker;
when life resides in pepper-shakers
and spoutless teapots fill the papers:
then all of life’s become the taper
atop the crumbs of maddened bakers.

Tea and sympathy will mix,
no matter how you frame it;
but tea may also leave a stain–
and, really, who can blame it?