Walking On: On Walking

I really like walking down the alleys in my neighborhood. Like I mean I really like it.

I’ve become a regular walker, and I suppose I was always bound to be. My mother is someone who people always see walking around town, our teddy bear dog Reggie accompanying her for the last 9 years. I know people see her because I guess that’s the sort of thing people mention in small talk. My older sister, even since diving into the world of fitness, rarely passes up an opportunity to join my mother and Reggie when she’s home from out east. My father used to make a yearly pilgrimage through every street in the city, praying and meditating in his dérive. My younger brother calls home from college on Sunday afternoons as he walks around one of Minnesota’s 10,000 odd lakes.

Like most teens, the idea of walking anywhere sounded like unnecessary tedium, but I learned. I started going for walks in college, and now that I’m in graduate school without a car ambulating has become part and parcel of my existence, along with eating oats, reading literary theory, and pretending to know what I’m doing. I walk into campus for class and work, I make a weekly trip to the grocery store, I walk to church if I don’t have a ride, I wander to one or two coffee shops on the weekends, and I don’t mind stretching my legs to go downtown for some errands of varying urgency. I didn’t know in 2013 how appropriate getting “Galatians 5:16” (“But I say, walk by the spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.”) tattooed on my leg would be in the literal sense. I also didn’t know that lettering tattoos aren’t as cool as they seem to a first-tattoo-getter, but they are safe, and that matters quite a lot to a first-tattoo-getter.

A byproduct of walking by necessity has been walking for fun. I like to walk. I don’t like it if I go a day without walking. Perhaps that’s why I’ve accidentally lost 10 pounds I didn’t know I had.

I’m spending most of my summer in my hometown with a decent amount of free time, so, while teenage me would have just played more video games, I look for excuses to go for walks which transport me well beyond the streets and paths on which I tread.

I used a French word earlier, dérive, a word I know not because I’m taking French classes (which I am) but because I wanted to sound fancy in this one poem I wrote about a black squirrel jumping into a lilac tree. I take liberties with my use of translation, but to me it is a means of travel which allows for reaction, improvisation, and spontaneity between endpoints in a journey.

I like to practice this when I walk the streets of my hometown, which is just as well because, even if there are main roads in Sturgeon Bay, there is rarely such thing as a direct route from one place in the city to another. As a bonus, some neighborhoods, mine included, have a lot of alleys. So, within a short walk from my house to the public library, there’s ample opportunity to let the streets tell me where to go.

Alleys – the thin roads which run between rows of houses in the middle of a block – take me past the reflective facades of houses into the homes themselves. The backyard is where the character of a home really lives, and alleys are the paths to these secret theaters and gardens. Literal gardens, of course – the projects of green thumbs and the overgrown stalks and leaves and petals. It’s beautiful, the way people manage the plant life which so happily springs forth. I admit I’m usually a little disappointed if the yard is nothing but freshly cut grass, even if that’s a better space for frisbee and touch football. Backyards are also where people put secret meeting places, their patios and chairs, their firepits and tables with umbrellas. I see these and I wonder if they’re well-used; I wonder if the grill gets fired up for a friendly gathering or if the chairs sit vacant every day, posing in lonely hopes. Backyards are a view into garages and sheds, the rundown shelters of odds and ends and the vehicles parked on the grass that may or may not be able to run anyway. Clean, well-lighted garages boasting a new set of wheels might seem a more desirable view from the street, but I’m convinced these cluttered, dingy shacks are the natural way for us to keep what doesn’t fit in the house, even if it’s proper to hide it from view.

People can go to great pains to put forward their best self in the front yard and their porches and approaches, but the secret gardens and theaters in the back are where I think most people really live, and alleys are the paths which take me into these places which may or not be intended for me. I love to find new alleys, and I’m frustrated when I see an interesting yard but can’t get to it without trespassing, as well as when I see what looks like an alley emerging from a hedgerow only to find it’s just a long driveway. There are yards back there that I want to see and know and muse about, and it bothers me that I can only window shop instead of getting to see what the owner keeps in the backroom.

Walking – whether through alleys or on streets and sidewalks – gives me an extended look at homes that I would only ever catch a glimpse of from a car window, if at all. I love taking in the character of a home in the few seconds I get with each one. I love how the kitschy yards with faux marble Mother Mary and sassy Packer signs and generic symbols of patriotism somehow balance their gaudiness with the dignity that comes from sincerity. I roll my eyes even as I take mental photos of the expensive houses with their bright white paint and clean-swept porches, brand new SUV in the driveway with stickers for Ivy League schools. I sigh with bliss at the front yards which have been cultivated with great care to explode with flowers like a Kehinde Wiley painting from their professionally landscaped terrain. But my favorites are always the quirky off-beat homes that walk a fine line between artistry and negligence. The front yard is decorated with little rhyme or reason, overgrown with plants and mismatched furniture, and a cobblestone or dirt path leads through a rickety fence into a backyard of chicken coops and mystery. The front porch looks like someplace people might actually use, sitting and smoking pipes surrounded by stone Buddhas and metal birds. I love these houses, and I want to know who lives there and what they’re doing.

But walking helps me to know neighborhoods and the city at large as much as it gives me a view into individual dwellings. A drive along the main roads in Sturgeon Bay will take you past what you’re supposed to see, like the beautiful houses with a view of the bay or the cutesy shops in the downtown area by the bridges. But just a block back from these places the story changes, and for every nice-ass house in this town there are five tiny, tiny homes, and not in the trendy eco-friendly sense. Some of them are spruced up with pride and others look like they’re falling apart. A house that belongs in a magazine is across the street from one that was literally purchased from a Sears catalog. I don’t walk past homeless people in Sturgeon Bay like I do in Corvallis, but some of the homes I see remind me that, despite what comes to mind at the mention of Door County, the fact remains that Sturgeon Bay is a lower-class community, with many citizens living below the poverty line. Those facts can get lost along the waterfront, the site of most of the city’s political tensions about bridges and hotels and historical markers.

E.B. White said that “Everything in life is somewhere else, and you get there in a car,” which is a true fact that limits the ability to know the places we go, even the places we live. Walking – getting on the ground and being present in a space – and looking provide a path to knowing, a path which hides in plain sight.

I’m prompted to wonder how many people get to know the place they live in this way. I see so few people walking when I’m out, and not once have I met another pedestrian in an alley. I imagine I am the only person to walk down certain streets on a given day. Driving is one of the more self-absorbed things we do. Driving is a way to quickly get where we need to go, transported from our home to that place in our quiet bubble of personal space, a soundproof studio which engenders its own type of rage because how dare anyone fuck with that serenity which comes from hurtling through space in a two ton exploding battering ram. Cars let us stay safe from the homeless people panhandling and the sun-baked or puddle-pocked sidewalks covered in stains from who-knows-what. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with driving, and while I don’t own a car I drive all the time (so to speak) and sometimes rather enjoy it, especially if I’m on rural and forested Door County highways. The self-absorption I’m referring to can’t be helped, let alone condemned. It just comes with the territory, and I think the “selfish” act of driving blinds us to things we can only see, experience, know, and feel if we walk.

Walking through my hometown blurs temporal schemes and linear chronology, which serves both to alienate me and ground me here as if I never left. Door County doesn’t really change, which is the way the locals (and especially the natives) like it. Not like Boston, where I walked with my sister and her husband through a harborside area which had sprung up faster than a new line of iPhone. Progress, expansion, and renovation drive buildings skyward as that city, like many others, undergoes rapid change. But if one storefront changes in downtown Sturgeon Bay, I’m going to notice. It doesn’t seem to matter what year it is, so home has remained the same over the years of my returns, even though in the same amount of time entire business districts have sprung up in places like Boston and I have had the most transformative years of my life. Coming back to my childhood home as a young adult makes me feel just a little out of place, like anyone can tell I’m an expatriate, like I can only ever be a visitor. But, at the same time, seeing people I know wherever I go and falling into the same year in, year out rhythm makes me feel as if I never left. I wonder if this is what Gandalf feels like whenever he visits the Shire (I know he’s not from there but you know what I mean (you do know what I mean, right?)).

Slowing down to walk through the streets of my hometown, and not just the streets I’ve grown accustomed to travelling, like the ones to the school and the Y and my church and Culver’s, floods my meditations with little memories. Big memories tend to come up now and then and stay close to mind, but these little memories require more chance recollections, followed by more careful excavation of the fossil. I’ve walked past a local bed and breakfast, and the beautiful historic house brings to mind how we used to go for family walks when I was little and stop by there just to stay hello to the proprietors. They had the most beautiful and friendly Chow Chow, and they made the best damn giant cookies. Or I walk past one of my oldest friend’s houses and remember going to his birthday party and caring so much about how I played in backyard soccer. And then my mind runs through an entire filing cabinet of memories associated with him and with his family, and, for whatever reason, that makes me ponder what would have had to have been different in life for us to have remained closer friends or for me to study zoology.

Is there an inherent value to any of these recollections and musings? Maybe, maybe not, but I think it’s valuable to force ourselves to think about things we don’t normally think about, or to think about something in a different way.

Walking can also evoke big memories and prompt deep thoughts. Literally moving through a day at a walking pace affords the space to ponder and meditate in a way that can be so profound so as to create a sort of new big memory all its own. I had a moment like this just this Spring when I was walking into the marketplace down the street from my apartment complex to buy overpriced bananas and I espied my adult self in the large glass doors as I reached for the part of the door handle I thought might be touched the least. This turned into a very big moment and memory for me, even though it probably seems trivial in comparison to a memory like getting arrested or sex on the beach or getting arrested for sex on the beach. Seeing the reflection of a young man in a dress shirt and tie as I went to buy something I felt like I could eat a couple days after being sick and dehydrated ushered me into the same great gift which walking gives to the mind: awareness. Realities that I had taken for granted – namely, that I was surprisingly adult and living alone in a far away place – snapped into focus in the same way that walking draws the streets of my idyllic little hometown out of the background of tunnel-visioned assumptions. And in that moment I needed awareness more than anyone has ever needed sex on the beach.

What I have written about walking is true in some way about so much more than gallivanting to a coffee shop to write. I tend to resent overt didacticism, but I feel the need to elaborate on these applications, even at the risk of insulting your intelligence or diminishing the independent value of what I’ve said about walking. I care a lot about walking, but I also care a lot about awareness.

No matter which path you choose, you still have to walk it, and I don’t know that they always tell you that. I think our default setting is to coast through life in cars which allow us to ignore what’s around us and become self-absorbed without actually practicing self-examination and metacognition. We check out of the tedium of daily life and drive for the destination at the expense of the little details that matter. We take the quickest way on the widest path, forgetting to consider the possibilities which exist all around us at any given time, and detaching from ourselves in the hope that things might be otherwise.

Some might hear echoes of David Foster Wallace, and you’re not mistaken. It’s a simple but powerful truth: awareness is a life-giving choice.

I needed awareness this Spring. Side effects from a medication aimed at a chronic health problem piled on top of the other shit that comes with being me, which turned molehills into mountains and made for long days of wild thoughts and crippling fear. I could feel it in my chest and my head the moment I woke up each morning. It was almost impossible just to keep the theater of my mind from exploding like the one in Inglorious Basterds.

In the darkest hours, seeing, remembering, and feeling what we hold dear becomes a battle. Our safe havens of truth; knowledge which lights the lamps unto our feet; the humdrum which gives our life rhythm; the sacred love and spirit which act as our sword and shield; these all grow dim as we isolate ourselves in a prison of ignorance and fear.

In that tough time, I was reminded of the sources of strength which give me life. My friends testified to who I am. My mother reminded me of what I’ve done. My father shined a light on the one to whom I belong. His advice in tough times is always to preach to yourself. He sent me Scriptures and told me to “Mine some jewels,” which I thought sounded dope because of Run the Jewels.

I implore you to walk on day after day. I have to remind myself to do this, especially on mornings like this one as my illness feels like a thorn twisting in my side.

Remember and remain aware. Get out of the car and get out of your head. Stop and smell the roses. Seek the secret gardens. See and know your fellow human. Preach to yourself. Don’t ever think you have to go it alone, and don’t ever be afraid to ask for help.

And go for a walk.

 

 

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

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The Problem with Happiness

dope rainbow artwork

Freshness of Cold by Leonid Afremov

“Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” seems pretty straightforward as far as founding documents and stump speeches go. And, in a country where little can be agreed upon, this is a famous statement that anyone can nod along to. However, there are some particular problems with this phrase, and not just the hypocrisy of land-owning white men declaring these things as “unalienable rights” even while maintaining chattel slavery and a firm patriarchy. The one I want to parse out is “the pursuit of happiness,” which, while appearing to be the most obvious and benign of the three rights, may be as revealing of the American imagination as either of the other two. What I mean is, while life and liberty as rights was a newer concept in the world (The Declaration of Independence would heavily influence France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen 13 years later), the pursuit of happiness has also not been something guaranteed, or even available, to the average citizen. But, in 1776, Thomas Jefferson decided to put life and liberty right next to the pursuit of things and activities that make people experience happiness.

In America today, the right to life is, for the most part, taken for granted (although this time the hypocrisy suggests that life is a right only for born persons). We assume that all most people have the right to life. Liberty is the one that gets the most controversy, as doomsayers like Ted Cruz claim that religious Christian liberty is under assault and issues of gender and sexuality become some of the most important new discussions in society. The Libertarian movement suggests that liberty is as important as it is elusive.

But enough about those things. It’s the pursuit of happiness which has come to be America’s real sacred cow. The quality of our life and liberty have come to be predicated on how happy we are. Things and activities that generate happiness have become the very things for which Americans aim, and the rewards that are promised for hours and hours of work.

And this is fine – now that humans don’t have to fend off wild animals and we have medicine to keep us around for more than fifty years, it’s great to fill up spare time with leisure, recreation, and the things from which we derive happiness. But there’s a problem, and this is the thesis to which this overwrought introduction has built:

Happiness is cheap. And the exaltation of this cheap happiness is a road to misery that bypasses fulfillment. I hope to show that, while not having the same ring to it, the pursuit of fulfillment is the thing for which we should aim instead.

I can’t say for sure what Jeffy had in mind when he penned the Declaration – maybe he really envisioned all that I’m about to say. And I can’t really say exactly what my fellow Americans have in mind when they think of the pursuit of happiness. But what I see being sold to us, what I see being pursued, what I see being exalted and protected, is happiness that comes from fun, from thrills, from pleasure, from smiles and sunshine and puppies and rainbows. I don’t mean to be sardonic – I really think that happiness, for so many people, amounts to good food, good drink, good sex, good laughs, and good fun. And when we’re not doing one of those things, it is expected that we should keep a good mood. We should just be happy. If we’re not smiling that must mean something is wrong. And Lady Liberty forbid something should be wrong. The happiness I’m talking about isn’t just another word for materialism, but it’s the mindset that being in a happy state of mind is what makes up our quality of life, our measure of success, and the definition of our purpose.

This isn’t right. This is a distraction. We have greater aims in life than the nice feeling we get from being happy. Happiness is great – I like being happy – but devoting our lives to gaining as much happiness as we can is doomed for failure. C.S. Lewis said, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” I think we might say, for the purposes of this essay, “Aim at fulfillment and you will get happiness thrown in. Aim at happiness and you get neither.”

The song “Injoy,” from Beleaf’s depression-riddled album Red Pills + Black Sugar, presents this tension as Beleaf and his guests rap about the troubles of life but also the pressure they feel to appear happy. Beleaf laments that his “smile is counterfeit” and wishes that he could appear happy while also growing as a person. It’s a pretty good song, but its best moment is the very end, in which Beleaf says, “Yeah I’m supposed to fake it till I make it huh/Yeah I’m supposed to be happy, happy/But this life keeps getting worse/But I just keep smiling and pretend that I’m happy, happy.” It’s unsettling, and it should be. The song is inspired by the second verse of the Book of James, in which Jesus’ brother implores his audience to “Count it all joy when you meet various trials.” What Beleaf reveals in this disconcerting end to an anguished song is that to count it all joy does not mean “don’t worry, be happy.” He is struggling with the Christian belief that Christ is ultimate joy, even while experiencing human suffering.

Despite the call for joy, I don’t think there’s much case to be made that the Bible directs Christians to be “happy” all the time. Was Jesus happy when he wept for Lazarus? Do all of the Psalms end with cheerful assurance of God’s help? On the contrary, the Bible is full of sorrow and even anger (Ephesians 4:26, Jesus clearing the temple, etc). And there’s a very good reason for that – it’s through trials that we grow. Growth doesn’t happen in times of ease and comfort – rather, it happens when the trials are very real. C.H. Spurgeon, who struggled with depression throughout his life despite his spiritual zeal, said that “They who dive in the sea of affliction bring up rare pearls.” Some Christians like to say the world will know them by their love, or by their hope, and neither of those are the same thing as happiness.

I generally approach this sort of topic with a Christian and American framework, but I don’t mean to confine it to that lens, even if Christianity is important for my angle on this in particular. The Tao Te Ching, a spiritual text for which I have great admiration, is also lowkey on happiness. Peace, wisdom, balance, harmony, and humility are some of the things of much greater importance to Lao Tzu and other followers of the Tao.

But this issue can’t be confined to spiritual and religious persons either – I think this plays out for just about any spiritual worldview.

Where else to look first but the song “Pursuit of Happiness,” by Kid Cudi, one of the great secular philosophers of our time? In all seriousness, I don’t care if Cudi makes terrible albums for the rest of his life – Man on the Moon: The End of Day is enough to make him a genius forever. The thirteenth song on that album, “Pursuit of Happiness,” has become an anthem for the party lifestyle, but the song isn’t about celebrating drugs, alcohol, and the other things associated with wealth and fame. Rather, the message is that, no matter how much he pursues happiness through the party lifestyle, he’s left unsatisfied: “I’m on the pursuit of happiness and I know/Everything that shine ain’t always gonna be gold/Hey, I’ll be fine once I get it, I’ll be good.” He knows that there is something higher beyond getting high that will satisfy, but has yet to find it. This is one of the messages of his masterpiece album, summed up in the album’s final poem by fellow rapper Common: “The end is never the end. A new challenge awaits/A test no man could be prepared for/A new hell he must conquer and destroy/A new level of growth he must confront himself/The machine in the ghost within/This is the journey of the man on the moon.”

Of course, you might reject Cudi as an outlier with a troubled psyche and a drug problem, but this sort of pained expression is hardly unique to Cudi. It begins with slave songs and black spirituals, which created the blues, which would become the taproot genre for jazz, rock ‘n roll, R&B, Gospel, and hip-hop. In other words, the pain of slaves eventually evolved into almost all of the most popular genres of American music. It also appears in the written poetics of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and others. This music, this deeply affecting music, does not spring from sunshine and rainbows, but rather comes from the stirring of pained souls longing for something else.

When Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to America in the early 1930’s, he was affected by the mistreatment of black Americans, by the beauty of black spirituals, and by the sound preaching happening in black churches. His time in America moved his theology to theologia crucis, in which the Gospel is hidden and found in suffering. This was a change from his theologia gloriae, which placed God in the presence of a people’s success and well-being, a theology that would have exalted the success of the Third Reich and turned a blind eye to the Jewish people. Finding the Gospel among the oppressed in America helped move Bonhoeffer away from supporting the German government to become a conspirator plotting to overthrow Hitler to save oppressed people from his murderous policies. (ht Reggie Williams, PhD).

I’m not saying that the black experience was bereft of happiness, or that good music and good religion can only come out of prolonged suffering, but these examples illustrate something lasting and something gratifying that exists even when happiness proves difficult to pursue. These examples hint at deeper longings that are more crucial to our well-being than fits of happiness.

This calls to my mind J.R.R. Tolkien’s statement about spiritual longing: “We all long for Eden, and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most human, is still soaked with the sense of exile.” This truism shapes his fiction, and we can see some of the ways in which a longing for something better supersedes our quest for happiness. In Middle-Earth, the hobbits are not materialistic happiness-seekers because they spend their time eating, drinking, and smoking. Hobbits do those things, but that’s because that’s what hobbits do – they’re bucolic beings with a love of growing things, and they are in a state of fulfillment when they are growing plants, eating plants, and, of course, smoking plants. Not because they’re bent on happy feelings, but because they are earthy beings with a love for hearth and home. Likewise, the elves are not somber because they can’t find fun things to do – they’re somber because their time is fading away as connections to the natural world become weaker. They aren’t sad because they don’t have meadows to play yard games in – they’re pained because their natural way of life is fading from the world. In short, the joy found in Tolkien’s world is not based in the pursuit of happiness, but in the glimpses of Eden that drive characters to do what is right – to defend their friends, to fight evil, to take care of the earth.

It is clear that many people – writers, ministers, artists, philosophers – have found their greatest meaning not in happiness, but in fulfillment. Why? Maybe it’s because happiness is fleeting but fulfillment endures.

What can pursuing happiness guarantee other than the insatiable need to pursue more happiness? Food, drink, cars, houses, sex, sports, and things like these brings happiness, but do not secure our position against the storms of life. Trials will come. And we need those trials. But how can we expect to face trials and grow from trials, or how can we even expect to survive trials if we are determined to make happiness our default setting? If we spend our lives running as fast we can away from pain and sadness, what foundation do we have when trouble comes?

I find many of these answers presented by Beautiful Eulogy in their song “Anchor,” which has given me much peace and profound joy, even though it has never made me happy and even though it is not a happy song: “It helps me/To understand that we stand on solid rock not on sinking sand/Through the providence of pain you perfect your plan/Predestined to be tested when the works and the Words of/God cooperate and educate men in the great gift of Grace/And Faith. And even though its obvious when my outlook’s/Ominous you’ve bound my heart and my conscience and gave me a constant calmness.”

Whether you believe in purpose and design, there is a space inside all of us that is reserved for fulfillment, and this space can’t be filled with happiness, no matter how hard we pursue it. As a Christian, I might call this “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” (Philippians 4:7). I expect that a non-Christian would have their own answer for purpose and fulfillment, pre-ordained or otherwise – but I should hope that it recognizes the futility in filling life up with happiness generators rather than the things that lay the foundation of fulfillment and thus provide happiness in turn.

Stop chasing happiness. I don’t think you will ultimately find it. Life is tough and people are fickle. What pleases you today may bore you tomorrow. Pursue fulfillment instead. There are deeper, more beautiful, more worthy things to set your attention on than a comfortable, easy, happy life. The most beautiful roses in life come with unhappy thorns.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter

Travelling the Uncharted Self

This is one of the most pretentious things I’ve ever done as a blogger (although I used to be kind of a jerk in my nascent sports-blogging stages (“Boom! Eat it Merril Hoge! My pick for Offensive ROY just went HAM and chucked for a debut record 422 yards” (I am so embarrassed that I ever wrote something like that (but I’ve done worse (in writing (and real life too (I guess))))))). And, actually, I’m realizing that the pretentious thing could have been using seven parentheses and banking on you continuing to read. Pardon.

No, the pretentious thing I’m going to do is start this blog post with a poem that I wrote sometime last autumn:

Like a River

There’s a space inside a man which
runs like a river through mountains.
It flows from the sidereal heath
and travels a landscape of virile solitude.
It is breathtaking –
what a man finds when he can walk
within himself –
who can find his way into the halcyon valley
and take in the expanse of the starry night.
To see the mountains proud and cold,
to see the mud languishing in the
foul water that pools in ponds of neglect
and feel the sparkling stream steadily wash it clean.
What it must be to see the height and breadth
of this meandering path running from the gleaming void
to the tossing sea
where other rivers
deposit the story of a soul.

Even as I click “copy” and “paste” questions linger about whether or not you care about my poem or if it will help you to see what this post is about. And, even as I write this, I’m not certain of where this post is going – it’s actually one of the most organic posts I’ve done in a long time. I’ve been writing quite a lot, but not material for blogging. So, in a way that I haven’t always, I’m writing a blog because I want to, not because I feel I need to.

But I begin with the poem because I’m finding that, while I still believe everything I put into it, I’ve come to even better understand the pictures that I tried to paint. I’ve lived these truisms in ways I hadn’t when I first translated these ideas into a stanza.

The poem can mean a lot of things, which are not my present intention to demonstrate, but the poem is partially about where, spatially speaking, a human being exists. Yes, the Ship of Theseus that we call the self appears to occupy only one finite location in a physical body at any time – right now my 5’11” frame is seated at my desk. But if you’re reading this, then you know that where you exist is hardly limited to wherever your own Ship of Theseus might be moored, as writing and reading is an act of telepathy (ht Stephen King). In some sense, you’re existing in my mind. Or consider that just as your physical body might stand in line at the DMV until 2:18, you might find yourself in a virtual line for tickets to Hamilton that extends to 2018.

The space we occupy is much more mutable and much less defined than the physical space our bodies occupy. This space that we live in is a view within ourselves but also a boulevard to the spaces we share, metaphysically, with our fellow humans. That’s part of what writing the poem revealed to me, and in the recent months I’ve learned that all the more, and these meditations have been spurred on and guided by a variety of teachers.

First, my physical place in the world for the time being has put me in a rather unusual, and often uncomfortable, sea of consciousness. I graduated in December, and I’m going back to school (somewhere) for a Master’s degree next autumn. But, for the time being, I’m living at home. This unfamiliar territory is an unstable terrain that removes me from parts of my identity that I have grown accustomed to – I am not a student right now, I’m removed from the lives of my closest friends, I’m an “only child” for the first time, I see both my parents every day, the infrequency with which I’m substitute teaching hardly qualifies me as a working person, and, although I have a plan for what I will do next autumn, I have only heard back from one of the eight schools to which I applied, meaning that my future status as a student, friend, son, and employee is in a state of flux.

Mentally and emotionally, this makes me feel much more removed than even my physical state of being would designate. My close friend studying in England feels a world away – my friends at school feel only a little closer. Future schooling and work are so diaphanous even in rose-tinted lenses, as I am employed but hardly working, and in line to enter school but waiting on decisions.

All of this makes this time between schooling a time in which it is challenging to form my identity and just as tough to express it. Which is, I suppose, one reason I’m writing this post.

But there’s a yin to every yang. As my physical state has remained isolated and removed, and as my identity has lost or modified some of its significant traits, I have roamed far and wide among the constellations of the mind. I spend my day with ideas. I read (books, tweets, and online articles) and I observe (talk radio, music, debates, TV events, and the like) and I think and I write. And the space we share mentally, emotionally, and spiritually, can be a breathtaking space with a power to define as strong as our physical location. When I read Quiet by Susan Caine, I connected so directly with what she wrote about introverts that it made me like myself more as a person, and I have such profound gratitude for what she wrote that I almost feel like Susan is one of my friends now. Or, for another example, when I read The Souls of Black Folk, I found Du Bois’ ideas so powerful and so accurate, and so affirming in my interests and studies, it was like he had sent the book from 1903 directly to me to read. Books, TV, and the internet have pooled their resources with my mind, and each day I find myself so much a part of this human experience, removed as I am for the time being. My meditations explore these tributaries and my writing is one way in which my experience is given life.

These uncertain spaces have formed a symbiotic relationship with my spirituality as well, and once again I find the doctrine of election to be one of the most stunning attributes of God (admittedly, it causes me some angst as well, but that is a separate issue for now). I believe that God chose me before I was born (Galatians 1:15) for salvation, but also to have a purpose in life. Whether or not God controls everything I will do, I don’t know, and frankly I think too much ink is spilled pondering human free will. But I am sure, just as God planned for Paul to minister to the Gentiles, that God has a reason for calling me, and a way in which he intends to use me to glorify God and serve my neighbors. As God protected Paul against plots against his life to get him to Jerusalem, I believe God has a way in mind for me to love God and neighbor, and whatever the odds are God will see it done.

Whether you can relate or only imagine, that’s a tremendous thing to believe. But, like most Christian beliefs, it’s not something you can download into your mind like we’re plugged into the Matrix. It takes time to work through and accept. And, like most Christian beliefs, Christians always have some doubts. I’ve said that most Christians (me included) don’t actually believe they will go the heaven when they die – they do, but if they could 100% grasp and believe that they would be in heaven, they would live their lives so very differently on earth, wouldn’t they?

What this means is that living a purpose-driven life is tricky when you haven’t reached a place that seems to fit your idea of a “purpose.” I don’t think what I’m doing right now is my ultimate purpose – rather, I tend to think of “God’s plan for me” as being where I will be in, say, ten years. Then I will be doing God’s work, then I’ll be using my education to make the world a better place and glorify God. But that’s not a particularly comfortable or useful way to think. Because God has a purpose for me now, and tomorrow, and next week, just as much as ten and twenty years from now. But believe me – I wish I was doing what I’ll be doing in ten years now. That’s the work I want to do today. This attitude makes it easy to punt away spiritual work, going days at a time with little thought for God. But I’ve learned over the past couple years that ignoring daily excellence is one of the worst things a person can do (I wrote about this last year and you can follow up on that later if you wish, here).

Recently, I began to think myself very wise in the ways of theology, scripture, and spirituality. I began to think myself quite holy and righteous. But what I started to lose sight of was the way in which we must constantly turn to God, even if it means re-hearing an old truth or re-reading a letter of Paul yet again. But the truth is that, even if the words in the Bible remain the same, the truths evolve – not that they are subject to our understanding, but rather that, at each stage of our lives, the same words may be breathed in and breathed out in a different manner that attends to our situation in life while calling us to be more like Jesus every day. And even if you know everything there is to know, the way to be more like Jesus is going to be different from time to time, depending on where you are on your journey. Thus, I must continue to preach to myself.

Okay, so I know that probably felt tangential, but my musings on the bundled self, identity, and Christian living do all amount to more than an entry in my diary that you may or may not care about.

What I’m seeing is a failure for people to embrace the mutability and connectedness of our existence, choosing instead to label others and label themselves in ways that don’t make sense. When we see our soul flowing from the sidereal heath through our halcyon valleys and into the commingled sea of souls, then we can better understand ourselves and better understand and love each other, and we can move past the things that divide and conquer us.

Concerning Peyton Manning, Dan LeBatard is right: why can’t it all be true that Peyton did horrible things, Peyton is now a good guy, the journalist is not credible, the journalist has an agenda, the story is true, this doesn’t have to be about race, but yet this is about race? Those things can all be true. Why does someone find themselves saying that Peyton is totally absolved and Shaun King is a race-baiting devil?

Concerning Cam Newton’s press conference: It’s true that he should have acted differently, but can’t we all understand why he would act that way? Can’t we be fine with what he did, and try to empathize, yet still say he was wrong?

Concerning Kanye West: why does he have to be a crazy douchebag or a peerless artist? Why one or the other? Can’t we treat him like a person who’s on a journey like all of us, and say that his album, while not a masterpiece, is still pretty damn good? Can’t we appreciate the nuances that come with him and with his work?

Feeling the need to label ourselves and others inevitably leads to incorrect and overbearing labels that unnaturally warp our thinking, and in no place is this more obvious than this thing going on called the 2016 Presidential election. Fam – I fully believe that the two-party system in American politics is one of the most harmful things for our culture, our government, and our society. It creates extremism. Compromise and bipartisanship is a sham – usually when someone says that’s what they want, what they really mean is they want people on the other side of the aisle to agree with them. And this dichotomy of liberal:conservative makes people think some pretty unnatural things.

Conservatives have an overwhelmingly negative response to Beyoncé, Kendrick, DeRay, and just about anything related to race, especially when it comes to #BlackLivesMatter. Somehow it became a part of conservatism, and it is really disturbing to see the ways that conservatives predictably buck against any sort of racial protest or the suggestion that there is systemic racism, even though there is, beyond a shadow of a doubt, a serious race problem in this country. Conservatives find other labels to disparage as well, SOCIALISM being one of the most prominent. So rather than consider the merits of Democratic Socialism, conservatives discredit the ideology altogether, trampling all of the good things liberalism can bring to the social inequality workbench. In short: conservatives contort their minds to oppose things that are new, different, strange, or uncomfortable. And that’s a problem, no?

Liberals aren’t faultless either. Perhaps in particular is the liberal tendency to bash Christianity. Yes, there is a marriage between Christianity and the GOP that makes me uncomfortable, and yes, Christians often conflate religious liberty with religious supremacy. But the caricature that liberals draw up of sexist, homophobic, racist, selfish Christians is unfair, and brings to an end helpful discussions about abortion and what it truly means to be “pro-life,” or what it really means for a Christian to “hate the sin and love the sinner” or how defeating ISIS is different from defeating Islam. Some people say some pretty bold stuff about gay rights and reproductive rights that, I think, upon further review, don’t make sense. But, because someone identifies as “liberal,” they feel the need to turn into a lemming and run off the cliff to get away from being conservative. In short: liberals charge ahead at unsustainable speeds, desperate to be unlike the close-minded people of the past. And that’s risky, no?

Why can’t a conservative support the teacher’s union and environmental protection? Why can’t a liberal be pro-life and opposed to gun control?

Too many people have never learned to think for themselves, and it’s because their insistence on taking sides and fabricating labels clouds their knowledge of the self and sets up roadblocks on our common boulevards of existence. We look to cues from thought leaders and ideologies and trending topics for guidance, forcing ourselves into labels and bending our perception of ourselves and our perception of others into something that is unnatural and unhelpful. You exist someplace that is so much more free than the temporal entrenchment that you’ve assumed.

Since this post of loosely-related parts somewhat resembles The Life of Pablo, I guess I will, 2500 words in, finish with a reflection on a Kanye song. I think these ideas that I’ve been kicking around in this post rather clumsily appear, in some form, in Kanye West’s song “Real Friends.” They’ve been ruthless in keeping that song off of YouTube, but here’s a 30 second preview on Tidal if you haven’t heard it.

People tend to take friends for granted. Or, at least, people don’t think critically about what friendship really means and what it means to be a real friend or have real friends. In our insatiable need for labeling, we find ourselves satisfied with acquiring “friends,” just as we call ourselves a student, spouse, employee, male, female, etc etc. But “How many of us are real friends/To real friends, ’til the reel end/’Til the wheels fall off, ’til the wheels don’t spin,” Kanye asks. But it’s a two-way street: “Who your real friends? We all came from the bottom/I’m always blamin’ you, but what’s sad, you not the problem.” Kanye is questioning whether or not he has real friends, and also whether or not he is a real friend.

What makes this message and this song so potent, besides the stellar production (love the piano sample), is that this comes from the type of introspective and self-deprecating voice that so many people seem to think Kanye doesn’t have. He isn’t bragging about being a deadbeat cousin, hating family reunions, and spilling wine at communion – he’s criticizing himself for it. He’s coming from a dark place on this one, and in that same dark place he voices frustration over his cousin stealing his laptop and holding it for ransom, and laments the loss of friends since becoming famous.

This is one of the things that makes Kanye great – when he puts himself into this metaphyscial space in such an honest and heartfelt way, you find yourself there too, even if you can’t relate to everything he’s talking about. I’m not famous. I’ve never had my laptop stolen. I’ve taken communion many times, but have so far avoided making a scene. But, listening to this song, I can’t help but think about what kind of friend I am, and who my real friends are. I can’t help but think about if I’m a good son and a good brother, and if my family’s always been good to me. It is well to consider those things, and in this case it doesn’t happen if Kanye doesn’t put himself in that space or if I put Kanye in a box he doesn’t belong in or if I deny myself the song based on what I think of that kind of music.

I think what I just said about “Real Friends” makes sense and fits into this post, but to be totally honest I just really wanted to talk about that song because I like it so much.

I’ll leave you with this: seek that place that is removed from your physical position. Do not be bound to a finite location. Challenge what you think you know. Rebel against the labels that society wants to put on you, and be careful which labels you claim for yourself. Your heart and soul and mind exist someplace that your body can never be. Explore that place. Know yourself. And when you find a fellow human there, embrace their journey, knowing their sandals are just as worn as yours.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

The Tao of Christianity

 Seeking faith and wisdom in the writings of Lao Tzu.taijitu

There is a voice on the wind that calls for what someone termed “inter-faith dialogue.” That means different things to different people. For some, it is a cloak and dagger effort for conversion. For others, it is an academic exercise in perspective expansion. There are those who want to use it to water down every belief in the catch-all of universalism. And there are those who are not so much seeking a religious result, but a cultural one, hoping that a sit-down between rabbis and imams will not produce a resolution in theology, but rather a political or cultural shift that brings about peace and prosperity. I’m not sure of everyone’s agenda, but somehow inter-faith dialogue got into the water and there are some people who have put a great amount of importance on it, even if it’s rather unclear what the endgame of it all is.

I suppose I don’t fit into any of the above groups, although I am into academia and I’m all for peace and prosperity. But the problem I run into with this notion is that, as I understand it, inter-faith dialogue asks me to put an inordinate amount of value on common ground, when what really defines religions is how they are different. Put simply, I believe what makes Christianity different is that, while other faiths say “This is the way,” Jesus says “I am the way.” And, while I would like for people of other religions to also put their faith in Jesus Christ, I think there is a silliness to asking religious people to reserve the possibility that they are catastrophically wrong. Religion is important exactly because it is, well, important. Any religious person who believes other religions can also be “the way” are not, in my flawed human opinion, really religious. This doesn’t mean we have to fight wars over disagreements, but I believe religious people should value dearly whatever it is that they believe. In very John Owen-sy style, I’m just going to say that making defenses for all the counter-arguments that surely sprang up with that last statement “is not my present intention to demonstrate.”

But I think that, while still maintaining that the core of my belief system is the correct way of faith, there is still something to be gained from studying other religions. And by study I mean not simply learning that Muhammad was born in such and such year and had a revelation at such and such city. Being able to run down a few facts about major world religions is not of substantial value (although it’s better than nothing). What I mean by study is to actually read a sacred text and consider its teachings. And sometimes this might include talking with someone else about their religious beliefs **INTERFAITH DIALOGUE!**

I was drawn to this idea initially as I pondered a question that I think should unsettle any religious person given enough thought: If my religion is the right one, then why do people of other religions seem to find peace and fulfillment in their religion too?

There are a range of possibilities, but the one that I settled on was this: God’s fingerprints are everywhere, and if someone looks beyond themselves for answers, they may find the comfort that comes even with finding God’s shadow. Yahweh is too great not to be known. The heavens and the earth are his craftsmanship. Cicero is credited with saying that “Nature itself has imprinted on all the idea of god.” While the only true bridge between humanity and God is the god-man Jesus, the greatest revelation of God, perhaps it is possible for people seeking Allah or Vishnu to learn some of the truths of god using the spirit – so to speak – of the natural world as well as some sort of indwelling sense of spirituality.

Around the same time as I was considering this, I also continued to develop my affinity for things Chinese. Seriously, if the 1993 birth class was redrafted, China wouldn’t have passed on me in the millionth round. Physically speaking, my eyes are rather small, but even more remarkably I have scleral melanocytosis (gray spots on the whites of my eyes) that are more commonly found in the Asian population. As far as interests go, Chinese is my favorite kind of food, the erhu is probably my second most-favorite instrument, I like wushu fights and wushu films (Hero is in my top 5), and I just have an overall attraction to the Chinese aesthetic, be it architecture, calligraphy, pandas, dragons, weapons, landscapes, etc. (And, yes, for those of you keeping track of score at home, I think Chinese women are beautiful). Fam, I prefer to pray seated in the lotus position while listening to the guqin. While in the Field Museum’s Hall of China, I recognized the guqin song being played on the speakers. Get the picture?

But, more important than various and sundry interests of mine that are not the topic of discussion at the present time, I found that my worldview is startlingly Chinese. In one of my classes, I took a couple of tests that would assess my perspective dealing with values, social and cultural norms, and the like. My results on both quizzes more closely resembled the composite of answers given by Chinese citizens, not Americans.

So, naturally, I felt that I should look into the Chinese worldview. What is it like to see things from a Chinese perspective?

And I was also finding how Westernized my surroundings are. Not only socially/culturally, but religiously. Most versions of Christianity today are a western tradition, when Christianity started in the Middle East. What might it be like to look at faith and spirituality from an Eastern perspective? How might my Christian beliefs looked if filtered through Eastern philosophy?

All things considered, it shouldn’t surprise you that the text I decided to read twice this summer was the Tao Te Ching, a key Taoist text written by Lao Tzu sometime in the 6th Century BC.

There were two things that struck me about the Tao Te Ching. The first was the profound wisdom found on every page. This is a sacred text for a reason. Passage after passage contains a beautiful meditation on matters ranging from personal virtue to directions for leading a nation. It actually blew my mind. I loved reading it.

But the second thing that struck me was totally unexpected: Taoism is surprisingly Christian. Not in an ethical sense, as pretty much every religion is opposed to murder, rape, theft, etc. But in a theological sense, all the more surprising because because Taoism is generally considered pantheistic (no belief in an anthropomorphic God). Here is one passage from the Bible that will help illustrate one example of this:

“The world was given a beginning by that which could be called the world’s father. To know the father is to know the son, and in understanding the son you in turn keep close to the father.”

But that’s not from the Bible. That’s from Chapter 52 of the Tao Te Ching, only it uses “mother” instead of “father.”

But even more than particulars like this, the similarity lies in the value both texts place on surrender and the greatness of “god.” Throughout the Tao Te Ching, there is an emphasis on knowing oneself by emptying oneself, being a bowl that is ready to be filled, making humility extremely key. All things that are to be known or gained are supposed to come from knowing the Tao, the preeminent force through which all was created, and the Te, the Tao at work in the world. According to the Tao Te Ching, humans have a natural state that they should seek to return to, but instead they seek all sorts of vain pursuits to build themselves up, which causes the world’s problems.

That all sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? Particularly if you are a Christian reader?

However, despite the sheer volume of wisdom and the striking similarities between Taoism and Christianity, the Gospel is still missing. Yes, the state of humanity and its relation to “god” is there, but the solution through the death and resurrection of Jesus is not.

So does that mean I throw the whole thing out?

There are a few good reasons that might persuade me to never read the Tao Te Ching again and move on. First and foremost: it’s a religion of man. At the end of the day, this is still the work of a human being, and is not divinely inspired. And besides this, while I might use the text as a source of wisdom and enlightenment, Proverbs 1:7 tells us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge.” So is there anything that the Tao can teach me that the Bible can’t give me? Shouldn’t I really just read Proverbs and Ecclesiastes and James if I want to sound like a wise man?

Additionally, how can I be sure that all this wisdom even fits into Christian doctrine? There is a pervasive notion of action through inaction in the Tao Te Ching. Balance and moderation are key. I have not yet resolved if this is always helpful for a Christian, as Christians are called to take quite decisive action, actions that are often given violent metaphors. Even something like “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run… So run that you may obtain it” (1 Corinthians 9:24) would never be found in the Tao Te Ching. Isn’t Christianity very much a religion of action?

And, if I am looking for texts outside of the Bible to bolster my theology and doctrine, wouldn’t I be best just reading classics in Christian writing? Just this summer I read On the Mortification of Sin by the Puritan pastor John Owen, and it was life-changing. Are not the perspectives of Augustine, Anselm, Owen, Edwards, Lewis, Bonhoeffer, Piper, Keller, and even Trip Lee the ones that I should seek in order to further my love and understanding of God?

And, quite simply, there’s much ado in the Bible about not serving other gods. Couldn’t too much Taoism get a little dicey?

The above are really quite good reasons to set the Tao Te Ching aside and move on, keeping my Chinophile pursuits on the level of Avatar: The Last Airbender, traditional music, and General Tsao’s chicken.

But I’m not going to. Rather, with all of these reasons in mind, I will continue to come back to the Tao Te Ching, reading a chapter or two every few days (the chapters are really more like paragraphs).

I will do so, for one, because I believe the wisdom there is worth reading. I can’t see anywhere in the Bible that prohibits us from finding good advice from people just because they aren’t quoting the Bible. It turns out that Lao Tzu gives pretty darn good advice. And I’m going to take it.

That being said, I will be sure to compare it to my own scriptures. I will seek to understand how the yin and yang find themselves in the Bible. For they do, I am certain of it (ahem, Lion and the Lamb?). But this will force me to think more closely on both texts, relying on the authority of the Bible but using the Tao Te Ching as a sort of looking glass. Of course I will still hold to sola scriptura, and I will spend much much more time in the Bible, but I will give myself occasional doses of Taoism.

I believe this can help me to understand the Bible and my own theology and doctrine even better. For surely Christianity is not contained in a Western perspective. There is another world of philosophy out there that might temper certain understandings (even though the core of the belief must remain the same). As a result, this will, while increasing my knowledge and appreciation of another religion, actually more firmly establish my own religious views. In a sense I’m using interfaith dialogue to defeat one of the purposes of inter-faith dialogue (a weakening of religious zeal). Basically, by being a sort of Christian-Taoist, I will be even more Christian than I was before, if that makes sense.

And, besides this, keeping the Tao Te Ching, and perhaps some other sacred texts, close to me will further theistic mysticism – which in short is the idea that worship of other gods is preferable to atheism or agnosticism, as it acknowledges the insufficiency of humanity and looks for a solution “out there.” While the Bible spends a lot of time condemning false gods and idols, notably Baal and Asherah, I believe today’s Baal is the self. Humans worship the self and have made the individual a god. While the idols of ancient times were wood and stone, today’s is made of flesh and bone. But perhaps that discussion is for another day.

My final word to you is this: read the Tao Te Ching. Please. It’s quite short – readable in less than an afternoon – and you can find it for free here (although I prefer the Robert Brookes translation that I got for a dollar on Kindle). It will be worth your while.

And I’ll close with this, one of my most favorite passages from the Tao Te Ching, and one that has real similarity to Christian theology. Chapter 50 reads:

“You originate in life, but always return to death.
Three in ten people focus too much on extending life.
Three in ten people focus too much on fearing death.
Three in ten people focus on living life to the fullest
and thus find an early death. Why is this so?
Because such people live to excess.

It is said of the one in ten who successfully preserve their life:
When traveling they do not fear the wild buffalo or the tiger.
When in the battlefield they avoid armour and weapons.

The wild buffalo can find no place to pitch its horns,
the tiger can find no place to sink its claws,
the soldier can find no place to thrust his sword.

Why is this so?
Because he has no place for death in his life.”

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter