Monday, June 30, 2008

My spiritual assessment

A few weeks ago a former colleague of mine called me up (he's a data analyst) and said he's working on a study for a company that does spiritual consulting and counseling. The company had been crafting a survey tool that would be used with their clients, and they wanted to test it.

Problem was, most of the people in the company were middle-aged women. They needed some diversity for the survey testing. I am not a middle-aged woman, so I could help diversify things. My colleague asked me to take the spiritual assessment for them, and mentioned that I'd receive a full report in return.

He asked if I was interested in taking the survey. Me? Mr. Introspection? Interested in a new glimpse at my strengths and weaknesses? It was like asking an NFL offensive lineman if he'd be interested in a filet mignon.

I took the survey and received my report. It ranked 20 different spiritual "skills" from 0 to 5. Several of my skills were of course somewhere in the middle. Several others were very high (4 or 5). Some were abysmal. Below I'll list my highest-rated skills and my lowest-rated skills, including text from the report. Then I'll tell you my own take on the results:

Highest-rated spiritual skills

Awareness of Own Worldview (Rating: 5)

Report text: You understand and can explain your own worldview. You know that everyone has a worldview and that every worldview has limitations. This keeps you humble and open to learning. You genuinely value other people's perspectives. You are always willing to learn and update your own worldview to include what you learn. Because of this attitude you come across to others as relaxed, interested, open-hearted and open-minded. People find it easy to discuss beliefs with you. Next step: Keep it up! Maintain your spiritual center so that you can stay in this place.

Complexity of Inner Thought Process (Rating: 5)

Report text: You are not likely to hide behind "rules." You understand that outcomes are rarely guaranteed and decisions must be made even when there isn't enough data. You are able to think through highly complex problems and hold apparent conflicting views as simultaneously true. You can find pleasure in this broad perspective and enjoy stretching you mind. Working within the complexity and ambiguity in life situations is normal for you. This is wonderful! Next step: Bring your heart fully into the decision-making process. Your mind is well-developed and reaching for Wisdom. To attain Wisdom your thinking must be informed by Compassion for the suffering, needs, and joys of others affected by your decisions.

Feeling Interconnected with All Life (Rating: 5)

Report text: You are connected to other life. You can stay in open-hearted awareness when someone is in pain. When an animal suffers, you feel sadness. You understand the connection of ecosystems and all life on earth. You are aware that there is complexity in the interconnections of the world - such that sometimes what looks like a "bad" event leads to good things. You also understand that you play a role in creating the life you experience. You know that the consciousness you hold affects the world around you. You realize that the Universe is intelligent and that all energy, matter, time and space are only a part of the larger story. This is a profound level of understanding. Next step: Stay in your heart and feel love and compassion as much of the time as possible. This will help soften the world around you. You know that thoughts help create reality. Affirm the highest and best outcome - this will help to bring it into being.

Awareness of Limitations of Human Perception(Rating: 4)

Report text: You understand that your 5 physical senses and your intuition give you valuable data…AND that whatever you interpret from this data is inherently limited because of how we must filter, sort and interpret information to make sense of it. What we think we "see" is never exactly equal to what is "real." So to some degree we are always responding to our own projections and interpretations - to an illusion of what is real. Next step: Use your spiritual insight to access the highest, least-filtered way of knowing we are capable of. Learn to connect with your "spiritual sight" (insight) through transcendent moments of profound awareness. Mystical practices of any faith tradition can help here. Secular forms of meditation, chanting, sweat lodges, etc. can help if you are not interested in a faith tradition.

Pretty much nailed me on these, I think.. People who know me probably read the above, rolled their eyes and thought, "Yep. That's Michael".

Now on to the ugly:

Lowest-rated spiritual skills

Awareness of Personal Life Purpose (Rating: 1)

Report text: You are clearly intending to live a life that fulfils your highest purpose (mission). But you cannot yet describe your strengths and/or weaknesses. Next step: Ask yourself if you have any natural talents or abilities. Don't be modest about these! Have you worked to discover and develop your strengths/gifts? Are you aware of your weaknesses as well? If you are unsure consider getting input from others who know you well and care about you. Knowing your talents / strengths and weaknesses can help you to think deeply about how you can best make a difference during your lifetime. These are important clues to your purpose. If you are really good at something, or really passionate about something, how can you use
that in service to yourself and others?

Sustaining Faith During Dark Nights of the Soul(Rating: 1)

Report text: You have some confidence in the existence of a Higher Power or a loving, intelligent Universe. You are able to see possible meanings in the events of your life. This is great. Next step: Develop your ability to focus on the positive things in life…develop an "Attitude of Gratitude." Consider a gratitude journal...write at least 3 things in it each day that you are grateful for...try to come up with new ones each day. And set time aside every day to connect with your Higher Power. A relationship requires time and attention to thrive. Read inspiring or sacred texts, listen to uplifting music, pray or meditate. Ask your Highest Self to connect with the love and wisdom of the Universe/Higher Power. Do something every day to put your focus on that which is highest/deepest/wisest.

Self-Compassion(Rating: 0)

Report text: You answered that you "often" or "consistently" hate yourself for unwise decisions - or that you are rarely or never compassionate toward yourself when you fail. Consider that anger and hatred are not very productive. Self-hate comes from the Ego side of our nature...from a false belief that we have to be perfect or "right" all the time. Consider that since it's not possible to be right all the time - hating ourselves for making mistakes seems irrational. If you can have compassion for others why not for yourself? And if you cannot love and forgive yourself - can you TRULY love and forgive others? Learning to love yourself is a gift to everyone else in your life - since it will expand your heart. Next step: The next time you make a mistake INTERRUPT the ego-voice of self-criticism and hatred. Tell it that everyone makes mistakes and you did your best. Then substitute a positive form of self-talk like "I am a wondrous being! I am courageous enough to try and to learn. I love and forgive myself!"

Dang. Nailed me again.

My take

The report has given me a lot to think about. It was very, very accurate in my opinion. Bottom line:

I have a strong sense of connection with others. I love to think deeply and meditate on complex ideas. I know my own approach to faith, and I enjoy understanding other people's approaches.

And I have no freaking clue what to do with any of that. And that makes me angry with me.

I think I'm early in the phase of finding out what I'm supposed to be doing with my skills. Might take a while longer. I don't think it's the kind of thing that can be rushed!

Monday, June 23, 2008

The vacationer returns, with stories and videos

I'm back! We had a great time on vacation for a full week with extended family. Seventeen people together in a house on the lake!

One quick near-crisis story, then on to the rest of the catch-up:

Shoe-eating monster machine

Me, Jamie and the kids spent our nights at a resort this year, as the lakehouse is a little crowded for our growing family to sleep in. For the most part it worked out great.

On Tuesday after breakfast, we were preparing to leave the resort and go to the lakehouse to be with everybody. Jamie wasn't quite ready yet so I took the kids on a little walk to the resort's big hotel-type lobby. We actually stayed in a cabin so the kids hadn't even seen the lobby yet. It had an escalator. Escalators are awesome to kids -- at least an "8" on the Awesome-Meter. Of course they asked if we could go up and down on them for a while, so I obliged. We had a few minutes to burn.

On our final trip on the "down" escalator, Jack was doing his little Jackie dance that he is always doing. The boy never just stands or sits still, just like any other 3yo boy. Only this time when he kicked his leg back, something went wrong. His flip-flop got wedged into the side of the escalator step. And the flip-flop was getting sucked farther in every second. Jack started to scream.

I saw what was happening and somehow remained fairly level-headed. I could see exactly what needed to be done. First I tried pulling the whole foot/sandal out of the step. No dice. It was really jammed up in there. So far his toes weren't smashed, but they would be in a few more seconds.

Next I tried to get his foot out of the flip-flop. It should've been easy but I couldn't get it! Now my adrenaline was getting ramped up. I twisted and pulled his foot but couldn't remove it from the sandal. Jack was really screaming now. Samantha was too.

Strangely enough, two scenes from Die Hard came to mind at that moment. The first was when John McClaine was on the roof of the Nakatomi building and had tied himself to a fire hose to repel down. It worked, but the the hose came detached from the building and fell, nearly pulling him out a window. He could see exactly how to untie the hose, but couldn't get it loose until the absolute last second.

The second scene was the end when Hans Gruber has a hold of Holly's watch, and he's dangling off the roof. John tries to unclasp the watch, and the simple procedure is made infinitely tougher, and agonizingly slow, due to the pressure of the situation.

That's how I felt. How hard is it to get a kid's foot out of a flip-flop? But I couldn't. Finally I yelled out the loudest S-bomb of my life, belting it out for a good three seconds. That got attention in the lobby, and an employee ran to the emergency button and shut down the escalator.

I got Jack's foot out a millisecond before the shutdown. The toes were rubbed black but no damage was done. The flip-flop was at least halfway disappeared up into the escalator step. Wow, that could've been his foot.

A few more employees came on the scene to ensure we were okay. We were. One guy just had to give me a tip on keeping kids in the middle of the escalator so that this type of thing didn't happen. I refrained from knocking him out, which I'm very proud of.

We never got the flip-flop back. That thing was destroyed.

Other Stuff

On vacation I told a few family members about the "Rise Above This" music video by the band Seether. The lead singer wrote the song for his brother who had been fighting depression and drug addiction for years. Just a few days before he got to show the song to his brother for the first time... it was too late. The singer left all the lyrics the same, hoping to encourage others who are thinking about taking their own life. The video is edited very well:

I also told them about Kid Rock's "Amen". Another interesting one:

And bro, I haven't forgotten about sending you the "Baker Street" music file by the Foo Fighters. I know it's on one of my old MP3 players... I just need to find it!

The deep-thought postings will commence again soon!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Do we really know each other?

Tomorrow I'm leaving town for our annual summer vacation with extended family. Should be fun! Before then, I've got one more post in me.

All of us understand the concept that we don't always say what we think, all the time to all the people around us. There's a sense of responsbility there, that perhaps our thoughts and words might be rude, offensive, misinterpreted or just plain irrelevant.

The lady in front of you at the grocery store who's on the cell phone and ignoring a question from the cashier? Annoying, but I probably wouldn't say anything. The young boy who's being kind of mean, but not dangerously mean, to another kid at the park? Sad, but if he's not my kid, I probably wouldn't say anything. The sweet lady who plainly tells me her political opinion, which happens to be the polar opposite of mine? I'd probably just nod my head, smile and thank her for sharing.

These are times we might just stay quiet and choose not to cause a ruckus. But how far does that go, exactly, before our silence is causing us to be disingeuous? If that silence extends to never telling anyone what we think or how we feel, does anybody really know us at all?

I've been wrestling with this one for a while in regards to my faith. I've shared plenty of things here over the past few years, but that's really just the tip of the iceberg. Most of my journey I'm still holding back, and at times I can't tell if that reluctance is driven by responsibility or fear.

Let's be clear -- we don't need to share everything with everybody. Heck, nobody is closer to me than Jamie, but we have an understanding that on some issues and some ideas we're just not gonna agree. So we don't go there. That's responsible, I think. I guess what I'm saying is that lately it's been hard for me to discern where the line is between responsible avoidance of hot topics, and dishonest keeping of secrets. Does anybody else struggle with this?

It's all coming to a head now because a men's reading group has been formed at our church, and I was asked to be in it. It's a small group, just 10 guys, and half of them are a formal church leader or employee. It's a great group of guys, and our first book assignment was "The Shack", which strangely enough does not really fit into some of our church doctrines. But it fit with me.

Our group isn't able to meet in person so I set up an online group for us, and introduced myself and mentioned that I've never really shared my faith journey of the past few years. The response was strong and immediate -- several of them felt the same way. They said it's very sad that we can't be "real" at church and admit that the answers to life aren't simple. They said it's tragic that we haven't been able to foster a safe environment where people felt like they could really be themselves. They said that all discussion details would stay private within the group, and that we should never feel that we have to stick with what have historically been the church's positions on any topic.

It was partially a breath of fresh air, and partially terrifying. Are they seriously asking for me to share who I really am? Is it that safe? I haven't decided yet. But I'm hopeful.

My dad recently wrote a poem that included this verse:

Will we ever get rid of our preconceived notions,
And our quick answers we think are fast magic potions?
Will we ever see what could have been really be,
Where I take you for you and you take me for me?
Not till we get there.

He's probably right, that we'll never totally accept each other in this life. Perhaps all I can hope for is that soon I can start to test out some of my ideas by sharing them instead of holding them in. And if somebody doesn't like them, perhaps they'll keep it to themselves instead of rocking my boat. :)

Speaking of silence and secrets, have you ever seen the postsecret blog? It's incredible. A mailing address was setup for people to send postcards to, with no return address. On the postcard the sender is supposed to put a secret they've been keeping. It's fascinating to see the types of things people haven't been able to share. Obviously some of them are heartbreaking, but I've been collecting the lighter-hearted or soul-sparking ones.

Here are a few of my favorites. See you in a week!

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Monday, June 09, 2008

Pascal's wager -- my take

Pascal's wager has long been used by some people in Christianity as a way to reach out to unbelievers with an appeal to logic. Blaise Pascal was a 17th Century French philosopher who broke quite a bit of new ground in his approach to philosophy and apologetics (the defense of Christianity). His "wager" was more of a sidenote at the end of one of his writings but it has some serious staying power, still often referenced almost 400 years later!

His idea was to look at the long-term upside/downside of being right or wrong about God's existence. For example, if God doesn't really exist:

--Believing in him costs us nothing -- even though Christians are technically wrong, we'll all just disappear after we die
--Not believing in him doesn't cost us anything either, nor gain us anything. Again, we all just disappear after death.

In this case, it's a wash between believing or not believing. Nobody wins.

However if God does really exist:

--Believing in him gets us into heaven. HUGE reward.
--Not believing gets us into hell. HUGE punishment.

In this case, believing "wins" in a major way.

His logical conclusion is that it's much safer, and smarter, to adopt the Christian faith rather than live as an atheist. Think of it as an eternal insurance policy, just in case heaven/hell are real. I continue to hear Pascal's wager referred to in discussions of faith, and my personal opinion is that this is unfortunate, because I think the wager doesn't really work. At least not for me. And on top of that, I can turn the wager around to justify a totally different approach to faith.

First, the reasons why the wager doesn't work for me:

-- It's entirely uninspirational. Looking at faith as an insurance policy? No thanks. Belief about God is such a deeply personal issue that I have a hard time applying a coldly logical, safety-focused method to determining what I should believe. And even if I applied the logic and decided that it's safer to believe, what kind of life-long behavior will that really motivate? For me, it'd just be going through the motions in the hope that this heaven thing works out.

-- It would seem to lead to extreme legalism. If safety is paramount and should be the top priority, then where do I draw the line on what is "enough" to get into heaven? Maybe belief alone doesn't cut it. Add baptism. And church worship style. And appropriate clothing. And who you marry. And what you eat/drink. You get the picture. Pascal's logic would demand that every single issue, no matter how small, may possibly play out very important in the end, so they all must get large priority.

-- It only works in a Christianity/Atheism context. Bring any other religious options into the mix and it really muddies the waters! How do I pick which option is "safer" in a world with so many religious choices? What if they are mutually exclusive? If I'm a really good Mormon, will that cover me if Islam ends up actually being correct? Would I still get my room in paradise with virgins? Would they be lesser virgins, like a roomful of middle-aged male Star Trek fanatics? Okay, I kid, but the reality of the 21st Century is that not many people are only trying to weigh Christianity/Atheism. There's a lot more to it that would have been difficult to imagine 400 years ago.

I could go on but I don't want to come across as bashing a very accomplished philosopher. He made some great strides for his time, but we live in a different world today.

Now for how I can turn the wager on its head.

Instead of focusing on whether or not we'll receive eternal rewards, how about focusing on how we are viewing God? Pascal's wager demands that we view God as maximally harsh. If we want to be safe, then we must assume that the slightest infraction could merit his wrath. Therefore we should follow the most conservative path to avoid eternal punishment.

On the other hand, my spirit today tells me that God is in fact very loving and very graceful. Jesus said we are to forgive each other without limits, even if they don't ask for it. I figure that if I am to forgive people without end, God does that and more. I assume the very best of God.

The interesting thing is that some Christians look at this as heresy and say that if I think God is too graceful, then his grace won't actually fall on me. Pretty ironic!

So I turn Pascal's wager around. If I am to make an error in judment about who God is, would I rather think of him as too harsh, or too graceful? I'd rather think of him as too graceful. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt, and if I've overestimated his ability to forgive, so be it. I can live with that error.