Try these two statements on for size:
I know I will never be able to breathe underwater without scuba gear (or other help.)
I know I will never lie to my partner.
I think it’s interesting how we feel pretty sure about both, but if we stop and think about, the second one could actually happen, even though right now we “know” it couldn’t. It is not impossible to imagine some potential (if not likely) scenario where lying to my partner might be the best thing. For example, someone grabs me on the street, pulls me into an alley. My partner, seeing I’ve vanished, calls out to me. The assailant with his guns to me whispers for me to tell her I’m fine and not to come into the alley, which I do, partly because a guy with a gun is telling me to and partly because I want to make sure she doesn’t come over and become endangered too. I’ve just lied to her.
To be sure, it was utterly justified, but nevertheless, that what separates the two sentences above.
It has to do with the mind and with the heart. The minds thinks and the heart feels.
What happens when we alter the two sentences to be more precise:
I think that I will never be able to breathe underwater without scuba gear (or other help.)
I feel that I will never lie to my partner.
The fact of the word “know” is it can mean either. And that’s very bad™ when it comes to communicating accurately about whether you have good reason to make a statement, or are simply articulating what you feel.
It goes the other way too. If a something is claimed factually true – like life after death – that’s for the mind to determine – the heart has nothing to add about whether or not there is justification for such a claim. Oh, the heart can speak all about how much we want or hope it is true, or how much we feel in our bones that it is – but neither of those apply to whether or not a secular claim is justified, and so are not relevant to that determination.
Likewise, the mind can present facts, pros and cons, but the heart ultimately has to make the decision on what it wants. Do you embrace or resist smoking? The mind can present facts about the truth of the dangers of smoking and the costs, but none of that makes the decision for you – ultimately it’s about whether the pleasure of the act outweighs your dislike of its consequences – a matter of feeling and heart, as there is no objective measure that X amount of downside is worth Y amount of reward. Each person has to look for that answer within themselves, and the balance point is at least somewhat different for each of us.
So next time someone tells you they know something – or uses similar words that could mean either thinking or feeling – ask them if it’s with their heart or with their mind. Then you can determine if they’ve broken the Covenant or not – and whether to take them seriously.
We’ve talked quite a bit about the Covenant, about how ignoring it is perilous and leads us either on the one side to confusing our beliefs about reality with facts about reality – a very dangerous situation – or on the other side to turning a blind eye to or even invalidating our very real experiences and convictions as meaningless. Embracing the Covenant fixes all that. The Covenant is critical and vital, the first step without which the rest are pointless.
But it is not enough.
What the Covenant does is, if you will, set up the board and pieces properly in the game of life. It lets us start off on the right foot. However, the Covenant alone merely frames our conversations and endeavors. It provides space for our values, but does not suggest which values to embrace. It carves out a place for us to assign meaning to our experiences, but does not endorse any particular meaning. All the Covenant does by itself is inspire us to keep the factual stuff on the secular side and the contextual stuff on the spiritual side – but alone it does not even hint what sort of context we should use.
That’s what our spirit is for.
The Covenant does not tells us that these choices are healthy, good, or worthy of us, and those choices are not.
That’s what our specific chosen Spirituality is for.
To put another way, I believe it’s clear that the Covenant is a necessary fundamental part of any set of rational beliefs. But it is only a part, not the whole – without more than just the Covenant, a belief structure will be incomplete. And that’s where each of us come in.
Spiritualities come in all kinds of forms. Take a recent social development – the acceptance (or lack thereof) of humans with sexual orientations other than heterosexual – normally called LGBT for (I think) lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender.
Some Spiritualities find this unacceptable and claim it as a moral duty to oppose LGBT in all forms. Others preach tolerance or even embracement. Both sides could claim to be utterly Covenant compatible if both sides were committed to not mixing up their facts and their feelings.
And while it is true that from my perspective I see more contra-Covenant actions on the anti-LGBT side, there’s nothing about the Covenant by itself that is pro-LGBT. So long as the difference between fact and feeling is respected and observed, one could be utterly in accordance with the Covenant while still preaching that LGBT is “morally wrong” or “a sin”. (Although, the idea that it is a fact that sinning can get you sent to hell for real is utterly not compatible with the Covenant, since that claim is not justifiable by reason alone – i.e., it is not scientifically supportable. But so long as a “sin” is a spiritual concept and not considered factual, one doesn’t run afoul of the Covenant.)
Now, I myself am utterly pro LGBT. Just because I’m attracted to the opposite gender shouldn’t put any obligation on anyone else to be like me, is what I believe. Even further, I will admit to being repelled by the sight of seeing two guys lovingly kissing – to me it’s icky – but it’s not wrong and my discomfort should have zero impact on the choices of the LGBT unless I am willing to live my life under the same rules, unless I am willing to limit my actions to those that make no one elseuncomfortable. And my hope is that the more widespread LGBT acceptance is, the fewer people will grow up with the visceral reactions I have, and it won’t even be an issue.
These are my values. Not because the Covenant tells me to have them, but because my heart and spirit do. All the Covenant can do is frame the question of what we value, what we believe in, and what values we want to strive against, but it cannot answer those questions. We have to.
So please do not think that in promoting the Covenant I think that (were everyone to embrace it) peace and harmony would follow and people would no longer disagree. I simply think that what the Covenant helps us do is to have conversations about our differing values honestly and productively.
I hold the Covenant sacred, and I am pro-LGBT. Someone else may also hold the Covenant equally sacred, but be anti-LGBT. But at least the two of us would be able to speak the same language as we each tried to pursue our values. At least we would both would have to admit that neither value is more “real” or “valid” than the other impartially. We would be able to admit that the fundamental question and task of convincing ourselves, each other, and everyone else that our values are “good” or “healthy” or any other spiritual (but not secular) truth is our burden or calling if we choose.
Those who contravene the Covenant do create fundamentally irrational, broken belief systems. But embracing the Covenant is not enough, you still have to commit yourself to pursuing and embracing the good – and you need to find a spiritual path to figuring out what that “good” is, because for that, the Covenant alone is not enough.
It’s been said before, from time to time, that each of us are different people. That our true self is a combination of the various people we are. The thinker. The worker. The husband, wife, brother, sister. The day-to-day superficial us. The deeper, mostly hidden us. All these and more combine to make the whole person that each of us is.
One of the questions I’ve been returning to from time to time is, “what is the difference between having an ordinary experience and having a spiritual one?” What is the quality that being moved to tears by grief, love, or joy has that simply enjoying a party, a nice glass of wine, or a back rub, doesn’t?
I don’t think we can isolate and capture the answer to that question – this isn’t science. I’m not asking a psychological or neurological question here, I’m asking a spiritual one. And while we’re on that subject, while the scientific answer to that question may be absolutely correct in its own way and worth knowing, you can’t answer a spiritual question with a scientific answer, or vice versa. It’s really about whether we’re looking for the “external” answer or the “internal” one. Since it’s the “internal” answers I seek, we will leave the external one for someone else for now.
I think the spiritual answer that makes sense to me to this question of the difference between the profound and the ordinary comes down to the people that we are. I think that there is a deep self within all of us – perhaps even a deepest self. Though a rare few live with that self on top – people like perhaps the Dalai Lama – most of us live with our deep self buried deep under all the other people we think we are.
Yet in special moments our other selves move aside and our deep self is brought up into us. Moments of clarity and moments of resonance. Our joyous moments, loving moments, even our despairing moments. Times when we don’t just feel, we feel. When we are pierced through, whether we are lifted or broken by the experience.
So maybe that’s the answer – or at least all the answer that we need. There may be many selves within us, but it’s our deep self that is the core of our heart and spirit. The rest of the cacophony in our heads may be useful or an obstacle, depending on the voice and the occasion.
But I’d wager that recognizing and embracing our deep self is the first step in “getting right” with the cosmos – and with ourselves. And that in so doing, we put our foot firmly on our spiritual path.
I look forward to embracing the idea of the deep self further, and I am excited to see where it takes us.
We human beings have a lot of ways to connect with each other and communicate. A wry smile, a slumped posture, a playful tickle, and avoiding eye contact all communicate different things to those around us. Obviously, seeing someone bouncily putting the dishes away as they whistle a sprightly tune sends a whole different message than someone who is scowling while moving in sharp jerky motions and slamming drawers.
But in spite of these many avenues, language remains the base method to interact with each other, to share ideas, to wrangle through our differences and find common ground. These words I’m typing are full proof of that.
However, language may be the best tool we have, but it still has issues. There are many ways for us to miscommunicate. Of all the ways in which we fail to accurately communicate, the most common mistake in my experience is the scourge of Ambiguity – an embracement of imprecision or fuzzy thinking, sometimes accidental, sometimes lazy, sometimes quite on purpose.
You see, we all know that many of the words we use have different meanings. “Dust”, for example, can mean to remove dust, as in “the maid dusted the bannister”, but it can also mean to add dust or powder, as in “the chef dusted the cookies with sugar”. Although it would be hard for us to confuse those two, there are many other words with multiple meanings that are a lot less easily distinguished, but are nonetheless not at all the same.
Take the word “wet”. Even when only considering the descriptive uses of that word, there are many close but different ways to use “wet” to describe something. Here are just a few examples of the thirteen I found looking up “wet” as an adjective:
- moistened, covered, or soaked with water or some other liquid: His hands were wet.
- in a liquid form or state: The paint was still wet.
- allowing or favoring the sale of alcoholic beverages: Since Jackson was a wet town, he went there to buy beer.
…and so on.
Usually we instinctively try to figure out which “wet” people mean from the context, but if I told you the bench was “wet”, would I mean that it was recently painted or that it had simply rained recently?
When it comes to deep and nuanced conversations – such as all those we have when talking about things like values, spirituality, meaning, and truth – we run into this problem all the time! Many (perhaps even most) of these complex words have multiple meanings, each shaded slightly but significantly differently.
As a very brief example, let’s just scratch the surface of the multiple ways to use the word “faith”. There are many very different meanings for that word in any dictionary.
Let’s say there’s a fellow who wants to chuck the Covenant and get as many people as he can agreeing with him that it’s a good thing to believe whatever you like, regardless of whether it’s rational. This zealous fellow asks, “Isn’t faith a good thing? After all, don’t we have faith in each other, and in our community? Don’t we have faith that the sun will rise tomorrow? Faith is the natural response of humankind – so my faith that Zeus will carry me to Olympus when I die is perfectly fine, right?”
This is the scourge of Ambiguity in full attack. Because one of the meanings of “faith” is trust, and because we of course want to trust our fellow humans, we tend to react positively to the use of that word.
However, one other use of the word is “belief that is not based on proof”. So if we aren’t paying attention, we just got conned into agreeing that faith-belief is good practice simply because we think that faith-trust is!
This isn’t always done on purpose. The fellow above trying to defend his faith that Zeus is real? He may not even be aware that he is pushing Ambiguity at all – he may just think it makes sense to him. Thus even those who use and push Ambiguity don’t necessarily know that that is what they are doing!
It happens all the time, with all manner of high-impact words that many people use in significantly different ways – “good”, “justice”, “honorable”, “common”, “freedom” just to name a tiny few.
Perhaps this post wasn’t directly on the topic of spirituality, but it was smack dab center on the topic of avoiding miscommunication. Nothing turns a conversation into a tragedy faster than Ambiguity, especially when it passes undetected – that just means it blows up later, or worse yet, instead of exploding, it quietly poisons one’s thoughts with imprecision and flawed thinking.
The connections and interactions amongst us and our conversations are key to the core of spirituality I believe. Guarding against this most common and most dangerous of scourges is paramount if we value clarity – or each other. So let’s embrace precision in what we say, and demand precision in what others say as well. It’s up to us to pay enough attention to our conversations to be able to root out the hidden Ambiguities before they are abused, accidentally or not.
And always, always, always make sure that no such pitfalls are hidden in your conversations – because even if all participants are sincere, sometimes the language isn’t!
I was going to write about something else for this post. I was going to delve into the way people so easily accuse each other of “disrespecting” them and how as far as I can see, making that accusation is itself nothing less than the attack of one person on another.
I think the Christians have a saying – or maybe it’s the Jews – that man plans, and god laughs. While that is a bit of a cruel vision, perhaps that’s what makes it so ironically appropriate.
I think one measure of our humanity is our (for lack of a better word) vulnerability. Our ability to be touched. I’m not saying that you have to weep at the drop of a hat or be always on the edge of a nervous breakdown to be a human being – but I think our humanity is about what cuts through everything else and touches our soul.
I had two such moments this morning, for no particular reason other than they just happened.
I was waking up, and some stray thought made me think of the musical Man of La Mancha. Being a huge fan of that particular musical, I lounged in bed this morn and revisited via the ‘net it’s songs and story.
Everyone who reads these words, I do believe, should see this – either again or for the first time. If you can’t see it performed live, there is at least one film version I know of. The centerpiece of the epic is the song “To Dream the Impossible Dream” – and it’s this impossible dream that has the power to tranform (in the story) a wretched and abused prostitute into the lady she always was, and a hopeless mob of vicious prisoners into an inspired band of comrades. And the story doesn’t hand wave over these transformations, it earns them.
The musical and film have touched me deeply. They do not provide me answers – in many ways, they challenge a lot that I hold dear. But their truth is too obvious, too personal to be ignored or devalued. Watching either the film or the musical brings me at several points to tears. And even just recalling the experience, the musical’s truth this morning brought me to tears as well.
That’s true power. Not the faux machismo of strutting and pretending to be invulnerable. The musical’s power to force us to feel it’s truth – and my power to be willing to in that moment let it consume me with it’s pain and hope, to let it break me and remake me, to surrender to it and weep.
My second moment followed on the first moment closely. Honestly, the connection may not have been profound – it may have been the sounds of Man of La Mancha (which, by the way, I never played outside of my head this morn) that led me to another powerful experience that I think many people know. I’m speaking of the song “Fix You” by Coldplay.
“Fix You” has beauty and grace, and it’s too obvious to just say that and move on, that truth should be dwelled on for a moment. The story is that Chris Martin wrote it for his partner Gwyneth Paltrow (the actress) when upon the death of her father, he was at a loss on how he could console her.
But that’s just why it was written. The best songs and stories aren’t just about what the author intends, they are about what the listener hears. I saw one person say that what they got from the song was 9/11 and it’s aftermath – comparing the killing of Bin Laden as getting what we want, but not what we need.
Perhaps the the essential truths of these human pinnacles, these songs, musical, stories, is that they are true for each of us in our own way while connecting us universally at the same time.
All I know is that for the second time this morning, I was again racked with sadness and tears.
It’s not (I think) that I am depressed – I’m not elated, but at this moment, I am not down in general – the cloudburst of these two moments was immediately followed by a calm stillness and the sun returned. Nor do I think I am particularly overly emotional (ask my family that and they might laugh!), although to the folks pretending to be as untouchable as stone perhaps I seem so. And I don’t think it’s just manipulative chords and verbal melodrama – this wasn’t fake profundity, unless it’s all fake profundity, and I cannot believe that.
I think what touches me the deepest is how things like these speak to the shared plight of the fragile human condition. I think that’s ultimately what’s going on here – empathy and meaningful sentiment. Being open to the pain of others, to our own pain, to the pain of all – and in a way, that’s what our saints and saviors do – they take all our pain into themselves, to try to lessen ours – or at least share it if lessening is not possible.
Our shared plight – and everyone I believe shares in the plight of being human. I will never say that we privileged first world citizens have it anywhere near as badly as the truly destitute and abandoned across the planet. But that does not take from even the most privileged their pain and hurt, their feelings of being alone or afraid. So even though we can appreciate that there’s someone out there that has it much worse than we do, than our friends and family do, that doesn’t subtract one iota of loss or suffering that any of us feel.
Pain is real, even if we scoff at it’s source. We shouldn’t. It doesn’t matter that we think that the teenager who says her heart is broken has it so much better than a kid the same age in Asia, working in a sweatshop every day. Everyone’s suffering is real – as attested by the countless numbers of teens who “had it so much better” that still kill themselves.
Maybe in the end, if we focus on our shared plight, and not on who deserves to be permitted to feel pain, we will be the better people we were supposed to be.
All I know is I remembered Man of La Mancha – and the memory brought me briefly to tears. And a little later I listened to Fix You, and was touched again.
If we could all have, from time to time, moments of vulnerable compassion and empathy, and chose to surrender to feeling deeply, we could begin to build a world and be a people that we truly deserve.
Don’t you agree?