Secularization is Happening, and Liberals are in Trouble

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A narrow definition of secularization goes like this: “First, modernization induces people to lose faith in God and religion. Then, as religion is no longer meaningful, they stop identifying with it” (Hout & Fischer, 2014). In the mid-twentieth century, this was a common understanding of how the world would become less religious.

The evidence has consistently shown the contrary.

Throughout the twentieth century into the twenty-first, the world did not seem to become any less religious, but regions in South America, Africa, and Asia, became more religious leading some sociologists to argue that Europe’s secularization is an “exceptional case.” But this has left the United States something of a puzzle. There are parts of the country that are less religious while parts of it appear to be more religious, and there has been a sense that political alignment maps to this pattern. At the same time it seems that fewer and fewer Americans are enjoining themselves to any particular religion with each new generation.

In a recent paper, Michael Hout and Claude Fischer conclude that both politics and generational succession have real effects on religious preference and have significantly contributed to why fewer and fewer people are identifying with a particular religion. One-in-five people expressed no religious preference in 2012 compared to one-in-fourteen in 1987. They argue that secularization along the definition they use, did not have an observable effect on this trend which helps to account for the rather stable percentage of people who believe in God without doubt (61%) and life after death (81%). In several statistical models, secularization did not hold.

Religious disaffiliation is explained primarily in two ways. The first is that as one moves from a moderate to a more liberal political stance, they become less religious. This is in part because of the marriage between conservative politics and Christianity caused moderates and liberals to distance themselves from religious organizations, hence, the “backlash.” It’s not a reaction to religion per se, but leaving religion because of its perceived association with conservative politics, in general. The second and greater effect is generational succession. Each generation that replaces the previous has been less affiliated with religion in general, especially among liberal households, and the proportion of unchurched is growing. Moreover, those not raised within a religion are less likely to join one in the future. There was far less a change over time in affiliation among political conservatives who tend to enjoin themselves with conservative religion. However, given the decline in membership in the Southern Baptist Convention, we may be seeing the cracks in the conservative foundation as well.

This looks like a double-whammy for liberal and progressive religious organizations. Not only is there a general distaste for religious organizations among those who identify as liberal or progressive in their political, social, and cultural beliefs, there will be an increasing likelihood that they have never grown up in a religion and therefore see it as having little or no value in their lives. If we push this up against other explanations for secularization, it looks bad for progressive, God centered organizations. Religion is but one means of social bonding among many competing choices that happen on the weekday evenings, weekends, and holidays. Youth sports is one draw even though it has seen a recent decline in participation. It is also part of a wider trend of civic disengagement as argued by Robert Putnam.

Reclaiming the political position of the left might be one vehicle to reverse some of these trends. The position of Trump has caused a new vigor among religious liberals and progressives who feel threatened by right-wing policies and even betrayed by Christian evangelicals who overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump, who is ostensibly the least Christian looking candidate and President in a very long time. Religion used to be an important means to gain social capital in Western and American societies. During presidential campaigns, it has been normal for candidates to enjoin themselves to denominations and traditions because of their influence. Eisenhower joined the Presbyterians for this reason as Trump courted the evangelicals in 2016. We may see a liberal candidate hook up with progressive Christians with the same idea that religion feeds social capital even though the politically progressive have moved away from religion and continue to do so. But even if a reversal of political trend helps galvanize those in religions and attract people to religion, it will not move the downward trend on religious participation all that much. There is still a massive problem with a growing population in the country of people who have never been involved in any religion and are not likely to join one just because it seems to share a few political views and activities with them.

This is why Hout & Fischer’s narrow and linear definition of secularization needs to change. It is true that we have not seen people lose faith and then leave religion. Right now, leaving religion is happening first. Moreover, it might not be just that the modern ideas of reason and scientific progress are enough to dislodge belief in God from young peoples’ worldviews. It might be that with endless war, famine, economic inequality, murder, and oppressive political systems, that any doctrine of God does not come out looking all that loving, powerful, or knowledgeable about human affairs. It could be in the cultural disconnect between ancient texts and societies that look absolutely nothing like them.

Without a regular involvement in a religious community to help make sense of old doctrines and texts utterly alien to the people and events of this world, faith in them will not survive. This is a theological claim made in most Christian traditions where the center of worship is in baptism and communion. These are vehicles to nourish faith and without them, faith dies on the vine. Without these social constructs to nourish faith, we are left with vague spiritualities and temporary communities of interest that rarely gain enough momentum to act as vehicles for lasting spiritual practice. As Hout and Fischer conclude, “Time will tell if personalized religion is sustainable or if belief fades without public profession and community practice.” If this continues to happen, and it looks like it will, what is left to nurture or reinforce the notion of God or spirituality in any shape?

Caught Between Should and Am: Fixing My Writing Problem

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Running and light

Ever since I finished my dissertation, almost 5 years ago, I have been caught in a weird head space where I haven’t figured out my identity as an academic, a professional, and even as a person. I’ve had a few starts on blogging that usually stops after a couple of months. I get distracted by something else and totally lose interest. Why?

At first I thought it had to do with marathon training. Doing this is so time consuming and tiring that I would usually post about starting the process and then do nothing until the result. The fiction that I convinced myself was true is that I can’t write and train at the same time. If I am going to perform at my job, maintain my relationships, and be mentally healthy, I can either run, or write. I have told myself this even though I knew it was total bullshit. Great writers all have parallel obsessive habits from drinking and smoking to running. Telling myself lies to avoid doing something is a deep-seated character flaw. I’ve learned much about how this mechanism works, but this time it had me caught. The real question is not why I stopped writing, but what I was avoiding.

It was last night when I was catching up on Supergirl that a little sisterly advice hit me that freshly out of the closet Alex Danvers gave her sister Kara (Supergirl):

Look… sometimes, you know, in our life, when one part is really confusing, we will pour way more attention than necessary into another.

I started running for very good reasons that still hold. It was to improve mental and physical health. It is still the single best tool I have in my toolkit to maintain mental and physical health and stability and I can’t ever see myself stopping. However, I have poured a lot into it. Challenges are really effective to have in front of you to stay motivated. But at what point do you become obsessed with it to the point that you are avoiding something else? I went from at most running one marathon a year, and last year that was enough. This year I am not only running two marathons, but running 2017 miles which is about 700 more than the previous year, and I want to train to get a Boston Qualifying time which would shave about 5% off of my finishing time this past May. Have I crossed the tipping point where running has gone from healthy activity to obsession I am using to avoid something? I might be there.

I have struggled with my identity as an academic and as a professional since finishing my dissertation in 2013. For a very long time, my religious identity as a person of faith was my central obsession academically, emotionally, and socially. At the time I gave that up, a story I have not yet fully told, running filled the void. I traded one preoccupation with another. But my life as an academic sat hollow. If faith is no longer what I want to be doing, what should I be doing?

I have this theory that confidence in what we do is not something we are born with, but something we learn over time. As we become more competent in something we become more confident in our abilities and that alone builds our desire and drive to do it more. So, if I could just find out what I should be doing and become more competent in it, then I would resolve my confusion.

Well, it didn’t work. The experiment failed because my fundamentals beliefs were wrong. I believed I needed to become competent in what I believed others wanted to read. I focused on what others might find helpful like focusing on life hacks and self-help that I think works. How about something in my professional field that others find interesting? What about lessons I have learned in life that others might find useful? After a few tries, I got bored and stopped. None of that was very fulfilling. That material is all out there written by people who are singularly passionate about it. I am not one of those people. The entire theory of becoming competent got derailed by the one thing that all of these ideas has in common: doing what I think I should do based on what I believe others want. It’s like all that advice from successful writers went right through my head – do what inspires you, not what you think will inspire others.

If I should’t do what I believe I should do, what is it that inspires me or consistently interests me? That’s the real question. My answer has been that no one is interested in any of the stuff that interests me, so who cares? Another lie. Keep running. Today I’d rather run on truth than the bullshit I tell myself. Walking the dog last night, after that little moment from a cheesy TV show that struck me, I found an answer. The question was how these things were related. And they absolutely are.

My academic interests have always been first, in how to teach the whole human subject based on an understanding that it is the relationship between teacher and student that is the most revolutionary and fundamental aspect of human learning and progress. The second is related to it. My dissertation focused on secularization and higher education which is tied to patterns of belief in American society, the policies that both respond to and shape those patterns, and how historians tell that story. Both of these are looking at the dynamic relationship between faith, belief, and knowledge in society and in the student.

My professional interests are about how we can help college and university teachers be better teachers. What habits, programs, and behaviors can we improve as teachers to help students learn more effectively? Right now this is about designing a program of teacher formation through critical reflection to find areas of improvement and to experiment with different online classroom behaviors to help students learn more effectively.

My personal interests have to do with the connection between physical and mental health and supporting pragmatic behaviors that help improve health with scientific evidence. I have many friends who have been in long term recovery from addiction who have thrown themselves into physical activity as an integral part of how they manage their sobriety. I know of runners and other athletes who have traded their obsession for drugs, sex, and body dysmorphia for clean living, even without the aid of prescription drugs.

How are these tied together? Anyone can look at these three areas and find things in common: human progress, the nature of belief, evidence-based living, etc. But those aren’t what hit me as interesting. Instead, it’s this idea:

I am fundamentally interested in how groups of people form relationships that support and cultivate healthy patterns of belief, knowing, and action, and in relationships and ideas that do exactly the opposite.

So… that’s what really interests me and the three ways I look at it. With that, it’s time to stop thinking about what I should write for an imagined group of others out there, and just do what I find interesting. Someone out there has to be interested in this stuff too, right?

Starting Marathon Training…Slowly

I started running in July of 2015 just to lose weight and to give my mental health a needed boost. After I finished my first half marathon that December and signed up for my marathon for May of 2016, I started running just for the sake of running. Today I mostly run because it’s just what I do. Also, if I skip out on it too long my brain gets all squirrely, I get depressed, and get a mild case of the “fuck-its” which neither I nor anyone around me enjoys that much.

I am running the Pittsburgh Marathon again this May and I hope to get in the Marine Corps Marathon this fall. My training program starts on Sunday and now that I think I know what I am doing, I am taking a whole different approach.

Last year, going from couch to marathon in 9 months, my entire goal was to increase mileage as much as possible and at as fast a possible pace. I had no time for base building and was coming off of my third minor injury. For someone who had never run that distance, my training would give me only 12 weeks. That’s way too short a time and most run coaches might dissuade me from doing too much. But I learn from mistakes which means I need to make them. I did not get injured again, but every recovery period was sore, distances were difficult, and I got flu-like bugs twice. I focused far too much on carbs and my protein intake was abysmal. But I completed the marathon in under 4 hours anyway.

After that I decided to work on just building up mileage and pace. I rarely paid attention to heart rate except for when it was too high. My only goal was to get to running 50 miles a week comfortably. I met that goal and did so in good health. I also emphasized carbs less and focused more on meeting protein targets. The result has been a stronger, faster, healthier me. Now I’ve reached a point where I should be far more literal about a training program, work more on strength beyond doing pushups, and run each session with a different goal in mind.

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So what I am doing this time? I wear a Polar m400 (seen at the top) to record all of my workouts. I sync that data to a few other platforms (Strava, Runkeeper, and MapMyRun) for the community and because I am a nerd. The Polar ecosystem has blossomed with each update. Now, Polar will design a training program based on your race goal and over the time period you specify. It mixes up the distances, effort by heart rate, and works in a dozen or so strength and stretching exercises. A feature that I had never used before that I used today is called Zone Lock. By pressing the big “start” button, you can lock in the heart rate zone with which you want to pace yourself and it beeps when you go over or under. You can program it to use a pace lock instead if that’s what you’re after. This is all about becoming more efficient and consistent and little beeps and alarms help a great deal when you are getting used to a new rhythm and relationship between your brain, heart, and feet.

The hard part will be going slowly. I am so adapted to doing everything at a heart rate of 148-165 and at a pace less than 7:50/mile that all of the slower paces just feel weird. But I am also not adapted to push through sprints very well. I need both of those parts of my physiology to improve my time and health for the next marathon. Zone 2 for me, based on age and resting heart rate, is somewhere between 115 and 132 bpm. The hard thing to do will be to keep most of my running time at that heart rate regardless of pace. As you see in the picture at the top, that means running somewhere in the ballpark of 10 minute miles to start. Painfully slow. But I am trusting the science and evidence rather than my feelings. Today was my first shot at it, and I have to say it was enjoyable. Once I got used to the cadence of going slow, I was fine. And after about an hour I was really sweating it out and working hard. that partially because I was running on tired legs at the end of the week, but also because the myth I had that running more slowly was less work was false. It is not less work, it is different work. And different is exactly what my body needs.

So on we go to Pittsburgh. Slow, fast, and everything in between.

From Couch to Marathon

Pittsburgh Marathon RouteWhen I started my running journey last year, there was absolutely no way that anyone could have convinced me that I was going to run a marathon within the next 10 months. I was barely able to put together 3 miles last May and that was with walking. But I kept running. On May 1 not only did I finish my first marathon, but I did it on a challenging course and comfortably under 4 hours. I did this with no athletic experience other than 25% of a wrestling season before I quit. Nor was I ever a runner before July of 2015. I gave it a shot back in 1997 for a maybe three runs and stopped. I did the same pattern in April of last year. But something clicked in July and I stuck with it. Now I am in it for the long haul.

So what did I learn while training for a race I did not think I had any business running just a few months ago? What did I do right and what mistakes did I make? I look at life like a big science experiment. One of the most difficult problems in educational research is that there are so many variables that condition what happens in the teaching and learning process. Gender, socio-economic background, race, family systems, mental illness, personality, and many others are all somewhere in the background affecting things we think are simple to measure. Running is no different. There are dozens of general guidelines, but until you get out there, make some mistakes, identify the causes of problems spots, and then change the variables, you will never make progress. So you want to run your first marathon this year? Here are a few things you might want to think about.

Check Your Shoes When I started, I ran in old-ass shoes because that’s what I had and they were decent enough. When I started to realize I would be doing this as a weekly habit, I switched up to shiny new pair of Asics Gel Cumulus. I thought I had arrived. Until the blisters and shin pain settled in. It took me a few months to accept that I might have the wrong shoes on my feet. Just because a shoe gets rave reviews and costs in excess of 120 bucks does not mean it’s a good shoe for you. One afternoon I stopped in my local running store to get fitted. He watched my gait and told me right off that the shoe I was wearing was not right for my overpronating ways. He put me in a different shoe and I have been golden ever since. It’s not the brand or the prettiness of the shoe, it’s the kind of shoe that fits not just my feet, but my natural cadence. Now I alternate between Asics GT-2000 and Asics Gel Kayano. So get fitted, or get injured.

Find Your Own Groove No matter how many articles, videos, and conversations you consume about proper form, the best roller to use on your sore legs, stretching, strength exercises, mileage, interval training, hills, and nutrition, you have to go out and try on everything until you find what works for you. I tried as much as I could and only after finishing that grandaddy race, do I think I know what works for me. Give yourself freedom and time to make mistakes, but always get back up and run it out as soon as you can. That perseverance is what got me to the finish line.

Form Matters When I did not pay attention to form, I got tibialis anterior tendinosis (like shin splints, but so so much worse), back pain, ITB syndrome, and runner’s knee. Once I shortened my stride by increasing cadence, and paid close attention to my posture while running, all of those problems went away. But they were replaced by others. My hips got really tight and then my back stated to spasm. Everything is related. If you have a sore spot in one place, your body will adapt to it by using other muscle groups and will do so often in ways that those other muscle groups aren’t used to functioning leading to other injuries. If you feel pain, stop, figure out what you’re doing wrong, solve that issue, and then get back out there. Ignoring it will eventually put you on the couch for a few weeks and that will totally mess you up. The solution for me was stretching and using a good foam roller after my runs. But I can do better. If I add more cross training to strengthen my hips and core, I will do myself a world of service. Even though I was doing a lot of pushups every week, I can still do a bit more.

Build Mileage and Be Patient As a new runner, I wanted to get fast and far almost as a way to “get caught up” for lost time. That, more than anything, is probably why I kept hurting myself. Starting to run at age 41 means my body was clueless as to the stresses I was about to put it through. So it rebelled. At mile 22 as I was starting down the hill from East Liberty to the Central Business District of Pittsburgh, I started to cramp hard. It was awful. My quads and hamstrings spasmed and the pain was almost unbearable. Walking and stopping only made it worse. The good news is that I ran through it and crossed the finish line running. That was the goal. The bad news is that it happened. I was hydrated, had eaten three Clif Shot gels with water, and had had a solid taper and carb loading the week before. I cramped because I did not run enough during my training. Because of flu (twice), that back pain, and tight hips, I had to take some 20 days off from the training plan. This meant I had to do a little catch up which every trainer will tell you is a bad idea. However, had I not pushed through some longer runs shortly before the race, I would not have made it. The lesson is that I need to have a more solid foundation of running consistently and that takes time. The general wisdom is to increase no more than about 10-15% each week and for the longest run of the week to be no more than 35% of the total. I did not follow that rule, and I cramped up! This takes time and patience. It means that by the time you hit your first 20 miler during a training sequence, you should have worked yourself up to and adapted to a 50-60 mile week. That’s a lot of miles and a lot of time. A 12 week plan was not enough for my first marathon. I needed at least 16. More ideal would have been an 18 week plan. Beyond that, I am out of range for most of the published plans like Higdon’s or Galloway’s.

Watch Your Protein and Carb Intake I was a good boy with my carb to fat ratio, got my vegetables, and was mostly plant powered for my entire training sequence. I never bonked, rarely cramped, and had the longest stretch of injury-free health in my fledgling life as a runner. And for energy drinks while on the run, Tailwind is the shit. But I also overtrained, ran through a lot of soreness and fatigue, and got sick right after my 20 mile long run. OK…fatigue, soreness and sickness may have come anyway, but was there something I could have done better to help prevent all of those things? Yes! I was good with my vitamins, but missed the part where as my mileage increased, by immunity system would get compromised. That’s when I started taking an extra vitamin C  supplement which I will keep doing. The other part is that because I did not have a gradual enough mileage increase and my training was anything but consistent, even though I was technically under-trained, I put too much stress on my body all at once when I hit the peak weeks and my body basically shut down in viral hell for 12 weeks. Maybe I would have gotten sick anyway, but maybe it would not have been as awful as it was. Then I looked at recommended protein intake and what I was actually getting. Many articles recommend 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. I was only getting about 55 a day and should have been getting closer to 100. My muscles were getting damaged with every run and I was not feeding them what they needed to heal other than loads of rice. So I started protein supplements because I still don’t want to go back to pounds of meat, but I can only take so many beans, lentils, and nuts each day. We’ll see how it pays off in the future, but it can’t hurt.

Even after all of the pain that the last 5 miles of the Pittsburgh Marathon put me through and even after exhaustion as I have ever known, I am driven to get better and follow some of these rules to be a more efficient and less injury prone runner. I want to cross a marathon finish line in good health some day. What it means is better planning for the long haul. Rather than wait for another training sequence to start, why not plan it now while I am still basically resting myself in a post-marathon “holy shit I actually did that” frame of mind. There’s a race in Philadelphia in November. Remember time and patience? It starts now.

I looked all over for plans to help me sort of start over and put into practice everything I have learned, but none of them get me the time and steady increase I am looking for. So I made my own. It lasts 35 weeks and assumes that you are already able to run a solid 25-30 mile week without pain or exhaustion. What I have done is take the best advice from several training programs and plopped it all into one sheet. This sucker will build mileage, let you rest, and will also give you some tempo time and hills to get that heart pounding and muscles toned. The typical pace should be right around conversational for you or a tad faster. This is about building a base and building fitness over a long time. I am also going to be doing pushups on MWF and will also figure out when to work in other exercises like squats a little bit later on. I use a Polar m400 with a heart monitor to see how hard I am working. Their redesigned Flow app includes some killer exercises to supplement a running program. Great for rest days! So here is the new plan. Feel free to download and share. Just cite where you got it if you can. If you want to start it with me, let me know how it is going.

2016 Run Program

You can also download the 2016 Run Program in a PDF.

Happy Running!

Protesting Trump’s Back Door to White Power

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Racist Matthew Heimbach shoves a black woman.

A recent video shows what we now know are members of a white supremacist “white nationalist” group called the Traditionalist Workers Party physically shoving a young African American protester. They are not simply shoving her out of the arena, they are seen giving her extra shots even as others in the mob audience join in. That should evoke our collective ire and disgust. When any man lays his hands on a woman, we should take notice and interrogate what is happening. When it is white men laying hands on a black woman, we need to look closer and demand answers. When it is white supremacists shoving a young black woman, we should demand justice without question. There is no space in a civil society to accept this kind of behavior or to offer any platform in which such beliefs are legitimate.

But this is not how all of the many incidents of people being escorted out of Trump rallies have worked. While some cases looked like this, it is not actually what was happening. The moment Donald Trump got a Secret Service detail as a candidate, his role within our population changed. Where he goes becomes federally restricted ground and that means different rules apply.

Some of the footage of protestors being escorted out is not about about race, but about what happens on “federal restricted buildings or grounds.” According to the H.R. 347, disrupting an event like this can carry fines and/or jail time of up to 10 years. This was a rewrite of a 1971 trespass law in order to give Secret Service a little more freedom to determine what constitutes a trespass. There are a few criteria for those who can be penalized under the law. For example, it is one who:

knowingly, and with intent to impede or disrupt the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions, engages in disorderly or disruptive conduct in, or within such proximity to, any restricted building or grounds when, or so that, such conduct, in fact, impedes or disrupts the orderly conduct of Government business or official functions;

Certainly, we can argue how effective this law is and how well these trespass laws are applied. This includes people who were allowed to protest Barack Obama, the President of the United States, while brandishing weapons. Nonetheless, it means that what we see in a 15 second clip of someone being escorted out of a Trump event by an official, especially the Secret Service, should be measured by what authorities are doing when they are escorting people out of the room. People have been arrested for protesting in these very conditions for decades. Not everyone has an unfettered right to any protected speech at a Trump event, or a Clinton event, or a Sanders event. This is the same when the President is in a designated area or other officials who are federally protected.

I am far less concerned about what Trump has to say on the stage. He is a showman telling people what he believes they want to hear. He says these things to get media coverage, to stay fresh in the news cycle he has mastered over the years, and to convert that spin into votes. His business acumen is up for debate, but his marketing talent is second to none. He is a master of that craft.

My concern is that he does not care who he is fueling with his rhetoric. At this point his failure to immediately disavow any legitimacy towards the support of KKK or David Duke and the significant presence and support he has gathered from the underbelly of American society in its white supremacist and neo-fascist organizations is disturbing. He knows that those votes matter to his campaign. He speaks to angry white men who fear that the minorities and the people of color will steal their property and their power for which there is a significant overlap with white supremacist organizations. Their sole purpose is to reclaim absolute power for the white race and reestablish white power to rule the USA as it did effectively up until 1964. Trump’s protectionism and isolationism support those goals like no other candidate does and as no other candidate has for a long time. When Trump declares “Make America Great Again” they are hearing “Make America White Again.” To give him power gives them power and that is the most dangerous open door to terrorism that might face us if he is in the Oval Office.

Relapse is Not Recovery

Glacial_grooves

Is it a groove or a rut? Glacial grooves take time to form, so do our habits, addictions, and recovery efforts.

You have been biting your nails for years and are tired of it. Your nails are bloody stumps and they hurt all the time. So you decide to make a change. You start with a spray to make your fingers nasty enough that you won’t want to put them in your mouth. Lexapro becomes a regular morning companion at the advice of a doctor. And you start meditating 20 minutes every morning to relax because the main problem is anxiety and nail biting is a symptom. You feel great. Your fingers are feeling wonderful, you are more relaxed, and you look down and thing, “I could be a hand model.”

Then one day it’s raining and cold outside and you have a major deadline at work that day for something you are not sure will get finished. Tired after weeks of hard work you refuse the Lexapro, the spray, and the meditation. When you get home that night, you need bandages because your fingers are bloody stumps because you chewed them to a pulp that afternoon. You take a Lexapro and go to bed, back at Day 1.

Was going back to biting nails part of the recovery process? I have heard some ideas supported that say relapse into the very behaviors that a program of recovery is trying to prevent is part of the process of recovery itself. But that is like saying sitting down is a necessary part of running or that getting into a car accident is a necessary part of driving. Sitting down is highly probably and a car crash is probable but less so, but both are symptoms or consequences of both running and driving. Neither must happen for running or driving to be possible.

It’s a fact that relapse happens. Depending on the strength of one’s addictive patterns of behavior, it might happen more than once. But even if relapse is highly probable or if it is even inevitable in some cases, it does not make it a part of recovery. Highly probable does not mean necessary. Facts are not necessities. So what is relapse?

Relapse is a symptom of addiction, not recovery.

This is important. Nail biting probably won’t kill you. But alcohol, cutting, drugs, and even compulsive eating can. Stopping medication or other important behavioral modifications in illnesses like depression, bipolar, or schizophrenia stir the pot for a suicide soup. Relapse in any of these cases is not part of recovery, it is part of the illness from which you are trying to recover. And it can kill you.

When we have habits that are powerful shapers of our lives and around which our relationships and behaviors seem grounded like some gravitational or magnetic force, escape velocity is really hard to achieve. Like a ball tossed in the air, the tendency of our bodies and minds is to fall back down to the place where “normal” has existed as long as we can remember. But that’s the delusion. That “normal” feeling of being stuck to the addiction is anything but natural. It’s not a natural part of the brain to do things that put our very survival as human beings in danger. The brain is there to keep us alive, not kill us. Yet with many of these strong addictions, the brain turns on us like a bad scene from M. Night Shayamalan’s terrible film The Happening.

Relapse happens because addiction is powerful and change is difficult. Change in order to stop addictive behaviors seems insurmountable because addictive behaviors have formed absurdly deep grooves that our lives seem to automatically follow whether we want them to or not. Getting out of these patterns requires a radical program of behavioral change to fill in those old grooves and make some newer, healthier grooves for our lives to follow. This takes time, patience, and a hell of a lot of hard work and consistent, repeated effort. Relapse shoots us back into those old grooves and when we fall into them, they feel deeper and more impossible than before. For many they are inescapable.

Relapse is not a part of recovery, it is a symptom very addiction that people are trying to recover from. That distinction is important enough to make because it will save lives.

Living Lent Free

ash_nocrossThis is my first year without Lent. For years it was a time for reflection and focus on my spiritual self and to seek out a better union with God. I have fasted, prayed, and read the Bible. I have attended liturgies and fully invested myself in both the Western and Eastern calendars and cycles within the broader Christian community. But not this year.

Lent is not happening not because I have resentments toward religion, God, or Christianity or the people who worship there. It isn’t happening because I have chosen a way to find health and happiness apart from God and it is working. In short, I can’t sit in a pew this year and pretend as if God matters, because God does not. I am approaching a significant marker in my life. In March I will have lived one year without God. As I approach that marker, I will say more. But for now suffice it to say that engaging in a Lent practice where God is not at all part of the picture feels strange to me and lacks integrity. I can’t be authentic and do Lent which is the exact opposite of what Lent is supposed to do.

Other than confiding in a few people about my shift in beliefs, or lack thereof, I had this consistent feeling of guilt and even shame that I was “giving up on God.” That’s not what happened. I did not “give up on God.” What happened is that I decided to stop pretending. There is nothing “wrong with me.” To the contrary. The truth is that I lost faith a very long time ago, but I refused to let go. That refusal is the problem.

I held on for two reasons, both of which are not very healthy. 1) To let go of God means I am letting someone down. I need to have faith because other people expect me to. So therefore I have to believe. 2) Letting go of God means that all of my very hard work to understand my faith is a complete waste and a disappointment. The root of both of these problems has nothing to do with God, but has everything to do with my imagined status before others and a fear of losing them. Doing anything as a response of fear of rejection is a bad way to have a healthy relationship with anyone or anything. I decided a few years ago to move past fear-based thinking and find a better way to live. As I have become less afraid, God has become less important. That is something significant. I decided in March of 2015 to stop ignoring it and accept it for what it was. I needed to let go of the God idea even on a trial basis just to see what would happen. So I did.

What I miss about Lent is the experience of a community seeking the same or at least a similar thing. The rhythms and experiences of a religious community that were so central to my life for many years feel strange not being there. This is punctuated by the various practices friends from my previous religious communities are sharing all over social media this season. Synchronizing yourself in time and space with other people especially in the visceral experience of seeking a higher order and purpose for living is incredibly powerful and rewarding. I love the honesty that Lent is supposed to engender. It is a foundation of practices that one should engage in every day of the year. In many ways Lent is a great reset button for the year. In Orthodoxy, the first Monday of Lent is called Clean Monday for that purpose. The Greeks will clean the house and fly kites to celebrate the journey to personal purity and reconciliation. It’s a beautiful practice.

But this year there is no special calendar marker for this year. Today is Tuesday, it’s freeing rain, my dog refused to poop as we got soaked and cold, and I came to work this morning. I will run on a treadmill later to get in my workout, see a few friends later if the weather permits, and then go home. I will catch up on Scandal with a bowl of popcorn, read, and go to sleep. Then Wednesday will arrive. I am finding my own rhythm now. While part of this journey into authenticity has been a sense of loss, I have gained so much more. Today, I am happier and healthier than I think I ever was when God was such an important focus in my life. I am more in tune with the world and with what is going on inside of me in relation to it. I am more honest and less afraid. If living without God was something of an experiment, it is working for me.