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.

10 Albums That Influenced Me

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Rob Gordon’s autobiographical record collection

A friend on Facebook posted a challenge to list in no particular order 10 influential albums. Now I want to dig a little bit deeper to make that list not so random. There have been albums that influenced me for a short period of time like Michael Jackson’s Thriller (who wasn’t influenced by that in 1983) or even Dokken’s Tooth and Nail (“Straight to the tahhhhppp…”). But they were gone from my life in a few years and never had a lasting impression. Other records have stuck with me for whatever reason.

I don’t think there needs to be a good reason why these albums stuck around. Most did so because of drumming. The records that influenced my playing are ones I listed to over and over again to learn how to do all that crazy shit and stayed there. But for others it was more about the aggression or serenity I thought needed in my life. Most I will pop in and give a play still today while others set me off on a path. In organizing this little list, I am thinking about Rob Gordon (John Cusack) who in the film High Fidelity organizes his immense vinyl collection not alphabetically, nor chronologically, but autobiographically. Brilliant. So here they are with the song that hooked me on each.

Metallica – Ride the Lightning

My musical taste started with metal. The pounding intro to “Fight Fire with Fire” followed by that killer double bass groove is the real origin of my musical legacy. This was trash metal and I got hooked. With the exception of “Fade to Black” which everyone seemed to love, but I thought was full of melodramatic ennui, this is still a kick-ass album. Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth finished out the early phase of my junior high life.

Bad Brains – Bad Brains

If I found my deep-seated need for an aggressive outlet in my youth in metal, the political core of who I am started in hardcore. DC Hardcore was always loaded with aggression and an intelligent fed-up attitude with bourgeois, Reaganized, yuppie culture from Minor Threat and Government Issue and many others who would stick around only for a few months. I was a quiet and pretty sheltered kid so music was my one means to escape a sort of rage I had inside of me. I had a fire and Bad Brains spoke to it. This album still does. I play it regularly as the greatest achievement in hardcore music by the greatest hardcore band.

Rush – Signals

That double bass groove by Lars made me curious about drumming. But that drum intro to “Digital Man” and the wicked 7/8 business of “Subdivisions” baptized my hands and feet forever. Yes, most drummers will look at Moving Pictures as that album that made them drummers. But I must have played “Digital Man” 1000 times just to learn what a drumkit was. I played it horribly to start with nothing but a pair of wooden spoons from the kitchen and some boxes I set up like a New York busker in the Jay St. station. But I got better with practice. Through the blisters, this album made a drummer and prog-rock fan out of me for life.

Primus – Frizzle Fry

It starts with that 5/4 intro to Rush’s “YYZ” on the bell of the ride. Then the groove morphs into something utterly awesome. Tim “Herb” Alexander became a new kind of drumming model for me and “Defy the Laws of Tradition” became my warm up groove for all occasions. It’s to tight, intricate, and feels so good to lay down it hurts. That changed my approach to drumming which would follow its way into Sailing the Seas of Cheese and…

Fishbone – The Reality of My Surroundings

This shit got me the real funk. Fish’s grooves kill so much on this album they stank. I got blisters playing through “So Many Millions” and “Fight the Youth.” Every song cracks with a political lightning bolt that spoke to the problems in L.A., police brutality, and the awful living conditions of black folks living in ghettos constructed with the hands of white racist policies and the movement of segregation from the enforceable laws of the state to the shady practices of property developers, real estate agents, and a fucked-up welfare system designed to keep people poor, violent, and ruled by drug lords. I saw my whiteness through this album for the first time.

Pearl Jam – 10

I became a college student and this marks when I got drunk, I mean really drunk, for the first time. “I’m Still Alive” was something I screamed before I passed out a few times. I put that on a wash/rinse/repeat cycle for a while. I can almost feel hungover when I listen to “Black” even today. Shiver. Through the trajectory of my drinking career took a sharp nosedive when I found Jesus in the form of speaking in tongues and all other manner of strange, mind-bending, pseudo-cultic activities, a few years later, I returned to my home that I found in liquid courage. But this album is like a hanging chad in my existence.

Radiohead – OK Computer

In grad school I finally left the awful prison of Christian contemporary music when I first hear the line, “In the last world war…” What is this?! If there is a perfect album to be heard in existence this is it. I was deep into questioning every damn thing about reality and the technological structures with which we have surrounded ourselves and mediate our senses of self and purpose. In comes this album that transformed and fed my internal dialogue and research mission at the time. “Pull me out of the aircrash…” Who doesn’t resonate with that feeling of being crushed like a bug by forces we cannot control. This is an album about feeling the anxiety of those forces and feeling virtually powerless to do any damn thing about it. It is precisely how I felt at a time when I was comparing my finite existence to the infinite reality of the cosmos. I felt small but burdened with purpose to figure out a means for liberation. Damn, I really was a graduate student of theology in Princeton, wasn’t I. When I heard Fear Factory’s Obsolete, I resonated on the same intellectual frequency, but there was enough anger there to solve the philosophical conundrum. Now OK Computer is just a great album.

Nine Inch Nails – The Fragile

I owed taxes and had no money. I was just rejected from the PhD. program I was “called” to. I was angry. Before that rejection I had decided that I could not be a pastor of a church, the vocation for which I was in an M.Div. program, and I was now totally confused. All that existential muck rose to the top and then this album came out. When Reznor wrote it, he was not in a happy place either. It captured both my existential misery of not knowing what to do with my life and the aggression I wanted to get out of my system. It was something I could scream to in the privacy of my own car. Through Reznor’s “void” I felt a strange comfort as he spoke about it in his lyrics. On a strange level I indeed was “Too fucked up to care anymore…” But I was still young and overthinking everything. I eventually got a scholarship and a fellowship to continue with my studies. But at the same time I felt the first kick in the gut that God was not real and that my entire education in theology was a waste of time and money. I continued with it for another year and another degree getting a job in education shortly after. But this feeling of missed opportunities, misread tea leaves, and a miseducation haunted me.

Helmet – Meantime

This was an album I had for a long time, but never appreciated it until the same year The Fragile was released. I was finding my roots in metal again. But it was Stanier’s tight grooves, high-pitched snare, and that signature stop/start pattern of Page Hamilton’s that reinvigorated my taste and returned me to my musical home for good. I find peace in the heaviness. I bought Betty in 1999 after I returned to Helmet on the old tape I had all but forgotten about. Helmet captures the best of the hardcore growl and rage with the clean and aggressive structures of metal. It’s a controlled kind of crazy. I think that’s how I saw myself emerging at this point in my life. Controlled, but inside there was something crazy. It was a little too prescient perhaps. But since I put this in again at the twilight of the 20th century, I have never really looked back and continue to find my home in the heavy.

Slowdive – Souvlaki

At some point you have kids and things are so chaotic on a normal flow, some semblance of peace is necessary. This was an album and a genre of “shoegaze” I never paid attention to until kids entered the picture. None of their stuff had been in print for a while and I had to illegally download crappy copies of it from Napster for a while. Then legal digital music happened and I got my first iPod. I bought everything of Slowdive’s starting with this album and I have been a total shoegazer for the past 11 years. While the instrumental “Missing You” kind of mesmerized me, the epic sounding swell of “When the Sun Hits” nailed me. Now I want to go back to 1992 at Reading just to be at one of their shows. That wall of sound is something wash over me in all forms of music – including the REIGHNBEAU album I am listening to right now.

Practice Develops Passion

Instead of trying to find complete congruence between our passions and our livelihoods, it is perhaps more productive simply to believe in the possibility of finding opportunities for growth and satisfaction at work, even in the midst of difficulties. – Charlotte Lieberman

500px-Love_Heart_broken.svgMy friend Hugh makes an important distinction between calling, passions, and doing a job. Over and over we read articles that say “do what you love” and while that sounds nice, it is neither realistic nor reasonable. Why this is so is not hearkening back to parents telling people passionate about art to “get a real job” or “music is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills.” Doing what you love is not reasonable is because we often do not know exactly what it is that we love.

Often we think we know what we want, but the truth is that we have not built up any competence in what we love to tell us whether or not we actually love it. While some people find what they love and then do it, it’s not a formula to make most of us happy. The worst thing is to wind up in an endless search for happiness in pursuit of some ideal that will never materialize. So I want to suggest a different direction to this formula.

Becoming competent in something creates passion. To be passionate about something sometimes requires a degree of competence and that means practice even if we aren’t confident about our abilities. So we do a job in order to become more competent and that is where we learn about our passions. The job that you have in order to pay the bills might in itself create competence in an area you were never aware of before and you can find a passion about the world there.

I am no longer a proponent of the idea that any of us was created for a special purpose. There is no evidence that this is true other than one’s own desire and yearning and what other people tell you is your purpose. I wasted many years seeking mine and have watched others do the same and very rarely have this quest produced something that looks like happiness. People have tended to end up miserable and disappointed. When one’s expectations are so high, it becomes impossible for reality to match the vision precisely enough to tell you that you have indeed “arrived.”

The reality is that we are born into or have selected roles in our lives with specific behaviors that we need to exhibit on a daily basis. Living a good life is the accumulation of the choices we make in these roles and performing what we need to do on a daily basis is mostly trial and error and practice. The more competent we become at certain behaviors and skills, the more confident we become and the happier we feel that our fitness with what we are doing is right. I have learned this with running and music. To feel better about running, I need to run more miles and work on methods to help me perform at a higher and healthier level. It means running hills, doing speedwork, and weight training among other things that can be painful in the short term, but have wonderful payoff over time. If I want to play a difficult piece of music I need to decompose it into specific rudiments and skills that take time to perform and then put all of that together. That means hours of messing up, repetition, and patience. Getting better at these things motivates me because I feel better doing them and also have more to offer in the long term.

The payoff is in the achievement of a goal, not in living inside of an idealized passion. The goal is what motivates me, not the achievement of an ideal state of being. Don’t do what you love because you might not even know what that is yet. Establish achievable goals in your life that you are living right now and through trial and error you will find small sets of behaviors that you want to continue to do. Some things you will want to do as an end in themselves and some for the sole purpose of achieving a goal. But a life lived without goals will not produce enough motivation to keep moving and you will never find out what your real passions are.

You can start right now. Write down one thing you want to complete today. Then work on longer term goals. Break them down into one thing you can do every day. Your passion is in there. But you need to practice these behaviors in your life and become more competent in them to find it.

How People Make Ideas Powerful

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What makes an idea powerful? This was a question posed to Marxist geographer David Harvey among others at a recent panel at the London School of Economics. Before launching into the unasked question of why Marx is not covered all that much at the world’s leading schools of economics, he did give a couple of insights. The first is that powerful ideas can and perhaps should be a material force in history. Second, a powerful idea reveals something that you didn’t see before. And finally, that to effect change in the world, regardless of the idea, you also have to transform social relations. This last point is I think the most important and one that was not really discussed all that much.

I was recently trying to figure out why it was that I can’t seem to “take it easy” on a run when I’m supposed to. For some reason I always feel the need to push myself and do something better than I did on the pervious run. I need a more efficient heartrate, a better split time here or there, a better average pace, faster cadence, etc. There is always something to improve and the little Polar device on my wrist records the data I then use it to push myself. I ran tonight for the first time after a month off for the flu and to mend a painful kneecap. And rather than take it easy, I had to seek a certain level of competence.

Part of this obsession with performance is an imagined social pressure. I share my data and want other runners to see how well I think I am doing. I don’t want to appear slow or lazy. I have sort of imagined this club where I need to post certain numbers to be accepted. This is foolish since no such club exists and runners are some of the most open and accepting people I have ever met. That you are running is the thing – not the numbers you post. However, most of this drive is because I am still trying to figure out this body of mine. I was never an athlete and I am just learning about my own limits and capabilities. The numbers do give me a clue as to my relative level of competence in running. They give me a steady stream of data to tweak and improve. No matter what pace others are running, I can always improve my own. It is just me and the numbers and improving my perfomance is my prime motivation.

So what measures competence in ideas? These are trickier. In science some ideas simply work better than others. If yours happens to work the best, the designation of theory might be yours to own. There are objective measures in science to determine this, but no theory exists without a great deal of smart people to confirm them and disseminate the knowledge on behalf of the person who thought the thing up. Science progresses not just from numbers and facts, but in so far as these numbers and facts work through communities of scholars at the right time and place. Just ask Galileo or Bruno about time and place. Who you know is important.

Science and art connect in this social dimension. I have for years fancied myself something of a writer, but unlike the numbers I can improve on a run to improve my performance, art is a far less an objective sort of arena to test one’s competence. I do know many people who had a certain knack for their art who then decided to work very hard at their craft, go to school to become experts, and moved into the world to perform with other musicians and continue to work. Some have done so in the presence of the right people at the right time and have made a career of it now performing with musicians whose music they were playing in high school cover bands. Others are no less competent, but have not found that lightning in a bottle. The point is that there are songs and books sitting on hard drives all over the world that many people will never hear or read. These are pieces that may be just as good or better than the stuff that gets great commercial success. For these ideas to live on in the collective memory of society and have a powerful and lasting impact, the right people at the right time must confer some degree of approval, or those ideas will be lost.

There are two points to all of this. The first is that I am far more comfortable with numbers my body generates that I can manipulate in order to achive competence in running. Working on this with absolutely no requirement for public opinion or approval is an utter joy to me. But this is also why I am something of a coward. I abhor the thought of the public scutinizing my writing with the prospect that I do indeed stink at it after all. I don’t quite have the fortitude to work that out just now. But with that said, it is a fear that I can resolve now that I have named it. It now has an objective reality that I can investigate and change much like I will change my efforts to improve my running numbers when I hit the pavement this weekend.

The second point is that given the social nature of ideas, it is important not only to tell people when they have thought of something good, we must put them into contact with the people who can spread those ideas and enlarge them. This is not only a moral good to build the competence of the creator, but it gives all good ideas a fighting change to take on that material reality and change something in our societies and cultures for the better. The great intangible effect of a solid university education is the network of people you join who can help move your ideas to places where they will flourish. People matter to ideas and the power they can wield. Good ideas deserve to live on in our social conscience rather than gather dust on shelves and in hard drives no one will ever see.

Getting Unstuck

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“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

When I was 12, I learned how to sail at a YMCA camp on the Chesapeake Bay. We learned in these little boats called Sunfish designed for 1 or 2 people. After a week or so, I took a boat out for the first time without a counselor. It didn’t go that well.

It was a windy day and the water was a bit choppy. About 10 minutes into the short trip, I stopped moving. What happened was that the boat was caught “in irons.” This means the boat was headed into the wind, the sail was not catching any air, and the water stopped flowing over the rudder making steering impossible. Two options are available in this situation: wait for the wind to change direction, or push the sail and the rudder perpendicular to the wind.

The previous week I watched someone get popped in the head by a sail swinging across the boat. This is called tacking or coming about. So I did what any emotionally compromised kid with lack of confidence might do: nothing. Then I started to complain about being stuck as if the boat and the wind would apologize for hurting my feelings. I expected my experience to change just because I desired change. But I was unwilling to try something to change it. Eventually an instructor in a motorboat pulled up and hopped in my boat. He pushed the sail and the rudder, caught that magnificent breeze, and we flew across the water.

What I needed to learn that day, but wouldn’t apply it until decades later, was that nothing in my experience of life will change unless I do something different. I can’t feel or think my way into a different life in any way that is something more authentic than a really lucid delusion. I need to act differently in order to have a different life. The alternative is to be stuck, waiting for things to change all the while building a resentment that they are staying the same.

If we want things in life, we need to solve problems and do things in order to get them. Some methods work better than others. If we could each do one thing differently than the day before in order to change one aspect of our lives we want to improve, change is absolutely inevitable. If it doesn’t work, do something else. The one way to be stuck and stay stuck is to do nothing. A belief that the wind will catch your sail won’t get you moving. But moving the sail yourself will.

Sickness and the School

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I set out to write a post every day this year. Then I got a nasty flu bug. For a couple of weeks I have been foggy, tired, and unwilling to probe my mind for an idea worth writing about. That’s because whatever resources I might normally use to think and write have been sucked up by resting and exhaustion. As a result, I’ve missed a few weeks already.

If there is one theme on my mind these days it is what it looks like if I understand the primary function of my body and brain as survival. How I learn, love, and relate to others is rooted in my primary instinct to survive in this world. If sickness does anything, it sends one’s focus inward. I become less observant and less aware of the things around me. This is partially out of a conscious choice. I need to do things like rest to get my body well. But I also think it is more of an automatic defense mechanism that sets in motion. When I’m sick, I’m less aware of the world outside of my body.

The self as an idea our brains create as part of the most complex set of mechanisms that work for the survival of an animal species becomes most clear when the human system is in danger. Whether it’s a flu, a home invader, losing a job, or breaking up with a lover, the shift of focus inward is both automatic and sudden. Maslow understood this in his famous hierarchy of needs.

If we are considering learning, until we meet the basic survival needs of a student, we cannot expect much in the way of mastery of much of anything. The same goes for the general health and progress of a society. We cannot expect hungry and insecure people to make much progress because all of their resources are being used to see that they will simply stay alive. If we are to make progress as a society, we must feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and heal the sick. To expect more out of people such as these is to demand that they go against their nature which is an affordance the privileged never have to imagine in their lives.

Gravity and Death

Gravity is one of the most mysterious phenomena in the universe, and yet we know so much about it. Things are held to the surface of the earth not because of a force, but because the earth is much bigger than the stuff on it. Objects warp the space they are in and objects travel along the curves of that space towards the center of the bigger object. It’s like putting a marble in a funnel or what happens if a much larger person sits next to you on a mattress. The point is that our very presence as physical objects warps the space around us.

We all bend space and time physically and psychically in very tangible and literal ways. Our interactions with others warp their lives in both positive and negative ways. Love, anger, joy – these experiences with each other change our approach to the world and some people like David Bowie, Mother Theresa, or even Donald Trump seem to take up more space and maintain a stronger pull of this gravity around them. So when they die, the space left behind seems to be bigger.

When we die, we create a hole in space and time. Those ripples we have created in the experience of others and in the artifacts of our lives still exist. But the object people expect at the source of all of that stuff is no longer there. What’s left is the outline of a presence, a ghost, and that’s frightening. Often the strength of the relationship we have with that missing person determines the size of the hole in our lives.

I hold the idea that we do not exist in any form other than these ripples, artifacts, and memories after we die. I used to hold on to the idea of an eternal soul, but noy any more. There is no soul that meets God who will judge its fitness for a heavenly realm. We won’t meet past relatives, rock stars, and pets. After we die, we aren’t asleep, we won’t dream, and will never wake up.

Instead, we persist only as these waves dancing through space and time in the memories of others. I used to find this idea terrifying, empty, and horribly depressing. If I am not fundamentally a soul seeking its source in God, what purpose is there for living? But I failed to ask the question, Why do I need an ultimate purpose to be happy?

This isn’t to say I don’t have purposes. I have important functions in the world to my kids, my partner, parents, siblings, job, service, and even my dog. These are all relationships and roles I keep because they make me happy and I think I can help them be happier too. After all, for Epicurus, happiness was rooted in the pursuit of virtue and love through friendship.

Over the past year I have learned to live without a soul or an ultimate purpose. In the process I’ve realized just how important living is. What I do here and now determines the kind of ripples through space and time I will leave behind after I die. Will I contribute to the happiness of those I encounter, or will I participate in their suffering. Every choice I make is pregnant with the binary of happiness or suffering. Life has distilled into this one algorithm. It’s simple, but it’s not easy. It has given me the clearest way to determine my own happiness, and it works.