The Examined Life in Practice, Step 1: Examine Your Community

So what if one starts to "question everything" and to "think for yourself"?

How do you stay mentally healthy and keep effectively pursuing joy?

I will look at these steps:

1) look at the way the individuals and groups that form your intimate and social circles affect you.
2) begin the process of deliberately building healthy, safe relationships.
3) start from where you are and who you are.
4) build healthy daily habits.
5) let yourself imagine a better tomorrow.
6) walk forward with continuity and kindness toward that better tomorrow.

Step One: 

We are social creatures and creatures of habit -- and these characteristics are both the characteristics that allow us to fall so easily into the unexamined life and that allow us to escape it permanently and with an effective impact on a healthier today and tomorrow.

We are manipulated by our connections with others and by our need for approval and by the pain rejection causes.  We can allow those characteristics to push us into choices and habits that play out poorly, or we can choose to focus on the people in our lives who support us both in questioning everything and in making active choices to set a course away from the crowd. 

It is easy to make the mistake of thinking that changing from one ideology to another (in faith, politics, culture, etc.) will accomplish the changes we are after.  This is only true to the extent that the people around you in your new community are healthy people themselves, rather than just enforcers of a new ideology by the same old social norming techniques.  

It is not nearly as important that you agree with the people you allow to surround you and build you as it is that they are capable of allowing you to grow and change even when they disagree wth you.

So how can you tell if the people around you are helping you to question everything, think for yourself, and build the kind of world you want for future generations?

Ask these questions about individuals and groups in your world:

1) do they only seek to teach me and train me, or are they open to being taught by me?

2) do they use shame to punish me when I do things differently than they think is best?

3) what shared values connect me to these people?

4) how do they support me in those shared values?

5) how do they treat people who have different values?

6) are they actually after our stated goals, or do they care more about ego gratification, control, maintaining the status quo, or their own sense of safety?

If you conclude that they are not as healthy as you want to be, it is not necessary to change them or confront them or lose them.  You can be kind and supportive while you look for ways to build a community that includes healthier people too.

My next post in this series will consider how to build that new network of safe, healthy people and groups.

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The Unexamined Life is not worth living

If the unexamined life is not worth living, why not?

The unexamined life is a life where a person is carried along by their appetites and their caregivers, internalizing the values others teach that person through their need for food, shelter, safety, a sense of purpose, and a sense of social connection.

The unexamined life is not worth living because it ignores the deeper-but-less-immediate human needs: 

1) to examine reality as perceived by that particular individual, 
2) to examine an individual's own ability to make a valuable contribution based on the individual's own perception of self and of the rest of reality,
3) to examine dissonance between one's own perceptions and the perceptions of others,
4) to adjust course and adjust world view based on ongoing perceptions,
5) to build and affect a shared sense of reality (a social construct) with the circles of friends, family, acquaintances, and larger society around an individual,
6) to imagine the best world possible and to take steps to leave the world more like that for future generations.

The funny thing about those who do a good job at meeting those needs individually is that they often leave a culture that teaches the group to suppress and penalize those who question the latest social construct.

So, to build a healthy social construct, a person must deliberately teach oneself and those impacted by oneself to think for themselves and to question everything.

Think for yourself.

Question everything.

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Pursuing Peace

Two white middle-class girls -- around eight or nine years old -- were walking home from school one day in the early 1970s in Omaha, Nebraska. They lived just around the corner from each other and were best friends.  It was a beautiful day and only a half-mile walk in a safe neighborhood.  

They heard a voice and turned to see a little black girl rushing to join them.  Amy was five or six and very bright and very friendly.  She assumed she would be welcomed to walk with the older girls, as she had been other days.

This was Missy's and Sally's time to chat and have fun.  They tried to be friendly but then hint that Amy should let them walk on without her.

Amy just kept on walking with them and chatting at them.  No hint could break through her enthusiasm to be part of their little circle.

The walk was short and they had almost reached Missy's house; the older girls were frustrated.  Were they going to have to give up their daily talk to accommodate this annoying little chatterbox every single day?

As they reached her house, Missy told the little girl that she couldn't walk home with them anymore.

Sally walked a few houses further and went into her house too, and Amy went home and cried.  

A few minutes later, Missy's mom answered the phone.

"Really?  I am so sorry!  Just a minute."
"Missy, come here."
"Yes, Mom?"
"We're you and Sally rude to Amy Williams just now?  Her mom is on the phone, and she says Amy is crying."
"Well, no ... not really."
"So why is she crying?"
"She was bugging us; so we told her we don't want her to walk with us."
"You can't not walk with her; that's not nice!"
"But, Mom, she uses bad words!"
"Like what?!"
"She said f@<%!

Then, into the phone,
"She says Amy said f@<% so they told her they don't want to walk with her anymore."
"Yes, I'm sorry.  Yes. Goodbye."

Missy went back to the book she had been reading, and forgot all about Amy.  

The next months were Amy-free, and Missy enjoyed her walks home each day.  She doesn't remember if she ever told Sally the whole story.

Missy's family was Christian, and she had been raised to pray to Jesus as she went to bed each night, and had prayed to ask Jesus into her heart when she was younger.  Just a year or so earlier, Missy had had her first real personal experience of faith, praying alone to Jesus to try to "do the things he said to do and not do the things he said not to do" after her first time of opening a Bible to the gospels all by herself and reading the words and story of Jesus all by herself.  

It had been an emotional experience for her, and she believed it was real and important.  It made her feel happy and safe to read the Bible and pray at bedtime most nights.

But the little lie she had told about Amy gradually snuffed out her sense of connection to Jesus.  She tried to pray at bedtime, but it stopped feeling like anyone was really listening.  It felt like the sun had gone out, and left her cold and alone.

Finally, many months later, Missy tried to pray in a bed in her grandmother's house at Christmastime.  She knew what she had to do in the morning.  Maybe that would fix the coldness inside her and let her feel Jesus again.

The next day Missy told her mom the truth, and asked her to tell Amy's mom for her.  When they got back to Omaha, Missy's mom did call Amy's mom and tell her. Missy was not punished, and her mom thanked her for telling her the truth, and said that Amy's mom was extremely appreciative of the phone call.

Missy felt happy again, and she could talk to Jesus again.  And she kept talking to Jesus -- all the way to now.

I do not tell this story to sell Jesus.  You may be turned off by her faith, or identify with it, or just explain it away.  None of that is my point here.

My point here is that even children can learn a way of living that keeps joy and hope going, even after joy and hope get squashed.

Missy's actions taught her four things:  

1) when she hurt someone else, it hurt her, too;
2) she couldn't feel okay again until she did something to try to fix what she did to hurt someone else;
3) all of her reasons for keeping silent so long were unreasonable in light of her pain;
4) telling the truth and asking for help to fix things did fix things.

I believe this story is also a story of racism.  If Missy was being racist, it was not conscious; she was just annoyed by a little girl intruding on her routine and on her friendship.  But to Amy, it had to add another layer to the layer-upon-layer experience of being left out.  And to Missy's mom and to Amy's mom, the lie about language likely had a whole different meaning than it would have had if Amy had been a little white girl.

And so I believe this story goes beyond personal life skills to cultural life skills. Tiny stories add up to mountains of injustice, and although we do need to respond to the mountains of injustice with big systematic changes, we also need to address each tiny layer, one by one.

This starts with telling the truth about each instance in our personal stories and in our history, and understanding that an intent to be racist is not the point.  

A better tomorrow starts today, by tasting it -- at least in our imaginations -- and then by teaching ourselves and our kids that we can tell the truth and endure pain to get something better than we have now.

As you go through your day, take time to imagine a world that offers peace and joy and hope to everyone.  Take time to feel the places that you hurt and to see where others have been hurt.  Let yourself come to a resolve to tell the truth and to ask for help to fix one broken thing.  Then do it again, tomorrow.


The Native American Christian

In the very early 1800s, when Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa were still the wild west, a young Native American maiden named Maw Waiquoi woke up from her sleep having dreamt of the handsome white man she had encountered near the trappers' settlement near her village.  The men there were mostly Frenchmen, but this man was Scottish.  From her dream, she knew he would be her husband; so she went to him and a few days later they were married.

Her husband was a surgeon, trained at the medical college in Edinburgh, Scotland before emigrating to America.  He was still in his mid-twenties, and fearless.  Maw Waiquoi was in her mid-teens, and her dream had made her fearless too, even though she knew that marrying a white man meant, to her people, she was no longer a member of the tribe.  Now she was one of the white settlers, as far as the Sak and Fox were concerned.

Maw Waiquoi adopted the name "Sophia Muir", and she bore two children to Dr. Samuel Muir before he was conscripted by the American army and taken south to fight in the Americans' war.  Although Sophia was no longer a member of her tribe, she also was not considered by American law or American society to be a member of their tribe.  She and her children not only had no legal rights; they were considered a reason for treason by the military, who had ordered all soldiers to abandon their Native American families and have no further contact.  So Sophia was alone with two little ones, with no way to feed them and with no tribe to care for her.

Sophia had a canoe, and she was not ready to let her children die.  She could scavenge berries, and she could fish.  She took supplies, the children, and her canoe, and she pursued her husband.  She traveled 800 miles over many months, and she reached him.  Her children were strong and healthy, but she was a walking skeleton.  She had fed her children well, but had not been able to feed herself more than enough to survive.

Dr. Samuel Muir vowed never again to be separated from Sophia and his children.  He left the army, and he was one of the founding community of Galena, Illinois, and built a home and life near Keokuk, Iowa.  They had two or three more children, and they were happy.  The women of Galena respected Sophia and did their best to be welcoming, although she never really fit in.  Sophia embraced Christianity, and raised her children to follow Jesus.

In 1832, Dr Samuel Muir took ill and died.  Their home of many years was taken away from Sophia and their children.  Sophia appealed to the governor of Illinois for the lives of her two youngest children who were still dependent upon her, and he granted her the relief of turning them over to the custody of one of the leading women in Galena, who would care for them.  Sophia took the children to the meeting place, but was late, and found the woman had left Galena without the children.

Sophia had no resources and no welcome in American society without her husband, and the Black Hawk War had destroyed her people.  Desperate to save her children, she again gathered what she could to provide for her children on a journey, and pursued the remaining Sac and Fox tribes.  She had Jesus, and she had hope and love and survival skills.

Sometime that cold winter, American settlers found the bodies of Sophia and her youngest two children, in the snow of what is now the upper MidWest.

Sophia is my hero.  She did what the best of us do:  she made her path through the realities she encountered as best as she could, with perseverance, grace, and hope.

In my imagination, Sophia calls me to do the same, but also to widen the path for others, and to heal the broken places in our world that make survival so difficult for those who are not fortunate enough to be born into the right family.

She missed being killed by American soldiers at the Battle of Bad Ax on August 2nd the year her husband died of cholera at their home on the banks of the Mississippi.  She successfully raised her two older children who grew up remembering her mad dash to save them and reunite with their father.  And she held her youngest two children as they froze to death in her arms over a decade later.

Our big question is not "Does God exist?", nor is it "Is Jesus my Savior and Lord?".  I personally answer both of those questions affirmatively, as did Sophia; I believe Sophia is present with Jesus now, and I believe I will be too, once I reach my end.  

I believe Jesus was with Sophia in her most terrifying and final moments; it was Christians who were not.  And so, to me, THAT is our big question: "How do I respond to real needs around me today, both to help individuals and to fix broken systems that oppress or abandon the people of today."

In all of Jesus' teaching, He called us to meet real needs of real people: our brethren, or enemies, and the strangers and outcasts.

Sophia echoes the teaching of her Savior:   Do not just teach what is true.  Live it.

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On Massacres And Victories

On August 1st and 2nd, 1832, we killed babies and women and children and weak old men, after the Sac Indian leaders (Black Hawk and a few remaining warriors) commanded his people to surrender to the US army while he and his few living men fled to the north.  He thought the army would spare the women and children, but that they would have killed the Sac warriors.  He thought wrong, because the US army massacred his people, lied about it (even to this day, although history has plenty of truth-tellers that have carried the real news report forward from that day to this), and then captured the warriors and kept them alive as trophies of victory.

I first became aware of this story when I was reading an early history of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Iowa as part of my interest in my own family history, and read the author's horrified contemporary account of the whole Black Hawk war from her perspective as a founding settler of Galena, Illinois.  She told a compelling story, and it caused me to look up the Black Hawk War and the Battle of Bad Ax on Google.  What I read did not match her account; so I have been digging deeper ever since.  I even visited some of the battle sites, and drove to "Victory, Wisconsin" where the final massacre occurred.

I found it fascinating that two opposing stories of the war have carried down through all these years:  the official army version and the truth as relayed by early settlers and discovered by later settlers (they found mass graves with babies and little children) and memorialized by honorable writers who felt it was a tale that had to be told.

One of the most interesting recent books goes even further, and digs into the written record from the soldiers who committed this massacre.  It finds that the army had been brainwashed quite deliberately into seeing the world through a certain macho and racist filter that glorified the honor in exterminating these "savages" who stood in the way of white people settling safely into these new areas.  They very clearly saw the Sac as something other than real people like them, and very clearly valued male humans over female ones.  They did not see that they were inhumane savages themselves by murdering women and children and lying about the circumstances in which it happened; they were truly the heroes in the events that transpired, as they saw things.

This split view of history is echoed in so many other pieces of our past, from the civil war to other conflicts with Native Americans to Vietnam and Afganistan and Iraq.  It is emotionally important, when you are the aggressor, to have brainwashed yourself into seeing your actions as honorable and right; and in the aftermath it makes no sense emotionally to process guilt and horror if you have the option of maintaining a view where you were the hero in all that happened.  Even so, PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder) has stolen as much productivity, peace, and joy from our nation over these centuries as actual deaths, injuries, and monetary costs have stolen.

And here we are.  

If we want our present and future to be as free of the impact of PTSD as possible, and if we want to move forward in peace and joy and creative engagement with each other and with reality, we need to come to grips with "Victory, Wisconsin" and with all the other horrors of our past.  We need to understand the cognitive dissonance between a valuing of life and peace and a calling to be part of an ideology.  We need to understand our need to be part of a compelling ideological group and how motivating that can be.  We need to understand propaganda and social norming techniques that sell both healthy and abhorrent belief systems.  And, above all, we need to understand our individual responsibility and ability to evaluate ideologies and propaganda and the cultural norming techniques being used by us and on us.

You need to become mindful and informed, and start being the leader in your own story.  Your only alternative is to be led to believe and do things that history will show as the brainwashing of good people to accomplish the wrong things in the wrong way.  You may still make wrong choices and believe lies; but at least you will have attempted to push past that.  And in the end we will have raised kids and created a culture that is harder to fool and that has the skills to do better than the Battle of Bad Ax.

Figure out what matters.  Figure out what is true.  Figure out where you stand and what you should do with your time, energy, and money.  Figure out who you love.  And figure out what you want history to show about what you do today, tomorrow, and to your end.


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My answer to all private and public battles

I finally figured out my answer to all our political and cultural battles, and to the interpersonal conflicts in my own life. It came to me out of a distressing but normal conflict with my seventeen-year-old son. And, of course, I did not think it up. Rather, everything wise women and men and wise faith have been teaching me all my life finally won out in my head and heart, and put to rest my silly notions of “winning” and “losing”.

I will let you see my epiphany as most of you see so much interaction these days: as a series of text messages, written by me to my son after he had treated me poorly because he felt I was “on him” unreasonably, but then he needed a favor some hours later and so acted as if none of it even happened.Here is my response, which was also the written expression of my own eyes opening to my own struggle to communicate my reality in ways that made him (and the world) take it as seriously as his own perspective:

HimI need to … (his words are not mine to share)… so will you … (not mine to share)

MeI love you. My answer is going to be “yes” if you will bear with me and hear me out about this morning.

Me: When we are in community (ie family, coworkers/bosses/employees, students&teachers&staff, members of the same club or church, etc) we are committed together toward accomplishing certain goals and with efficiency and kindness to one another.

Me: In the community of our family, we are committed together toward : 1) providing daily routines that allow us all to be where we need to be when we need to be there with everything we need for our day; 2) planning together how we can each and all best move toward a future that brings us peace and joy; 3) using available resources to do a better job toward the above two things than we did yesterday; AND 4) growing, together and individually, into peacable and passionate (joy-filled) creatures.

Me: If you are not committed to those goals, but instead allow your anger to put you in a place where you work to destroy our ability (and your own ability) to achieve those goals, you do not win

Me: Nor do my goals change.

Me: I still love you.

Me: I still am after the same goals.

Me: I still know you can achieve those goals too, if you decide to do so, once you decide to do so,

Me: But right now you think anger makes destroying progress toward those goals a “win”,

Me: as if you are punishing me.

Me: I do not believe in punishment — not in the sense of retribution anyway. I do believe there are consequences to our choices, but I think life and society impose those consequences, not me.

Me: I think my role (not just as your mom, but as a fellow human being) is to keep my eye on the bigger goals and just keep trying to move toward them.

Me: That is the role of forgiveness:

Me: not some sickly-sweet useless caving in to an angry teenager,

Me: but a choosing to keep my eye on real goals that will bring joy and peace rather than to get pulled into a win/lose game where even the winner loses.

Me: So my answer is “yes”,

Me: But until you learn to use your anger to point you toward all that you actually long for,

Me: you lose.

Me: Because joy and peace and love ARE real

Me: and you are missing out.

Me: So each time one of us frustrates or angers the other, it is not a fight where there will be a winner and a loser.

Me: You ARE growing up. Neither of us can speed that up or slow that down.

Me: Each time we have conflict, it is an opportunity for each of us and for us together

Me: To grow in our ability to stay fixed on peace and joy

Me: and to get there

Me: together or not.

Me: That is all.

We each have our own perspectives and goals, and we cannot control others, and we cannot even set the goals we think those with us in community should be pursuing. They may pursue winning at the expense of everything that lasts.

However, we can choose to pursue peace and joy and love in the context of reality, and practice the forgiveness over and over and over that frees us up to KEEP pursuing peace and joy and love even if it is a lone pursuit.

We cannot avoid the conflict and tragedy that are outside our control, but we CAN each let all that conflict and tragedy direct us back to our ever-stronger pursuit of peace and joy and love.

And in our personal lives we will become amazing and experience full life.

And in our political and cultural conflicts, we will learn to listen and learn to value real progress over time, rather than just valuing the temporary triumph of our own current ideologies or the power to impose our own perspectives on others.

And in our collective life and history, over time, we will become whole and free, with real diversity and with real unity.

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