A Spiritual Autobiography

I wrote the below spiritual autobiography a dozen years ago as part of a servant leadership study group.  While it definitely needs updating, it serves well as a brief overview of my spiritual history and development over much of my life, particularly my early years.  Fortuitously, my humor remains righteously irreverent and my faith grows.

RUTTS
by Alex Haley
(that’s just my pun name)

The year was 1961. Preceded by John, a child was conceived, fathered by a closeted gay man, in Bethlehem, on the outskirts of the city of brotherly love. In my mother’s womb, I was transported to Haiti, where my parents, as doctor and nurse, were beginning their service as medical missionaries with the Mennonite Central Committee. A dozen (and a half) generations ago my ancestors had fled religious persecution and military conscription in Germany to settle in America. For a new beginning, they were gifted with land from William Penn. This land was some of the most fertile in the world; so fertile, in fact, that even gay men father children there! Though now in Haiti, they were soon to be counted again among the privileged of the world. I was born. And on this journey, Joseph followed. Continuing my heritage as a sojourner in a foreign land, I was born a true child of the 60s.

I have no specific memories of those first couple of years in Haiti. However, only in recent years have I realized my ideal vision of serenity as sleeping without a care late in the morning in a mountain cabin while the rain pounds on the tin roof likely came from memories as a baby (now, if only I can figure out why I have a pleasant association with the smell of skunk!). Also, I am told that I was scared of most white people. Strangely, I am still haunted by white people on occasion.

After a brief stint in Detroit, perhaps explaining my love of urban life, I grew up in a small town in Michigan. The town was Mennonite-free, so I was raised a United Methodist. My childhood was strikingly trauma-free (only striking in retrospect). I knew safety. I knew predictability and caring. Our family always ate meals together, beginning with a prayer too short not to recount here: “God is great. God is good. Let us thank him for our food. Amen.” A lot more theology in that prayer than I usually give credit. Our family participated in worship and church functions regularly. Worship was generally boring. One of my few memories was a teenager with a guitar, singing “Blowing in the wind.” I guess that would have been contemporary music, huh? And that was before Bob Dylan was a Christian. I attended Sunday school, vacation Bible school, and youth group. I only vaguely remember confirmation. I remember good times. Except for a desperately poor matching of gifts by placing me in a children’s choir – my first, and really only, experience with “playing hooky.” I loved summer camp. First there were church camps, then Boy Scout camps. My younger brother and I earned Eagle Scout ranking (the highest in Boy Scouts) in record time. Our scoutmaster was easygoing and playful. Perhaps paradoxically, it was easy to achieve in that environment. If “achievement” had been required of me, I probably wouldn’t have done it, or at least wouldn’t have enjoyed it so much. When we later moved and joined another scout troop, which was probably better organized and certainly more rigid, we dropped out after a while.

My understanding of diversity was child-like. I knew that Catholic families were the ones with five or six kids. Good families to play with. My best friend’s dad was Cuban. He also had two older half-siblings. In retrospect, this was the only somewhat non-traditional family I recall; though I don’t recall giving it much thought.

I was baptized at age eleven. Apparently, I was out of the country at the time such events usually occur. Fortunately, my understanding of baptism was still pretty much that of an infant, so it worked out well. I was confirmed a year later. About this same time, I was in little league baseball. In an attempt to deal with performance anxiety, I kept a pocket-sized New Testament in my back pocket. This crude attempt at spiritual osmosis was discovered by my brothers who with little affection labeled me “Bible boy.” I didn’t like this. I remember that my parent rebuked them.

When we moved to Dearborn, Michigan, before my ninth grade, my parents looked for a church nearby, but had little success – “too suburban” I think. Not surprising, considering we lived in a nice home with a pool, only 100 feet from a golf course. They decided to return to their church from earlier years, Central United Methodist Church in downtown Detroit, 20 minutes away. Central is the oldest Protest-ant church in Michigan, and has been called “the conscience of the city.” Always a leader in social justice, their most widely known pastor preached pacifism before, during and after World War II. I was soon to be raised on 45+ minute sermons, truly epic sermons. A turning point happened to me sometime during my high school years when my mom took me to a peace conference at church. My eyes were opened and my heart would soon follow.

I went to Hope College, a small, private, liberal arts school. It was a Christian College, as were most of its staff and students, mostly Reformed and Christian Reformed. However, it was unlikely that I would ever be Reformed; conservatively speaking that is. My college years began with my father lightly warning me of these Calvinists. I didn’t know what he was talking about. My first roommate and I, who were boyhood friends, unknowingly were matched because we were both Methodists – apparently, a rare breed thereabouts. Early on, I must have been an easy target for an overabundance of evangelism. A friend invited me to Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. I went to what turned out to be a practically diversity-free zone; even ALL of the other persons in my small group were named “Kathy” (though probably a diversity of spellings). Later, when I saw out my dorm room window the friend who invited me, I said, “hello.” She asked me what I thought of the meeting. I shouted from the second floor window something to the effect that it was “too religious.” I did like church, and I went willingly. I even went to chapel services three times a week – religiously. I was also on part-time staff of the campus ministry. Though a biology major, I was frequently mistaken for a political science or philosophy major. Apparently, I was succeeding at the liberal arts (or at least the art of being liberal).

I very soon got involved with a small group of students known as the World Hunger Committee. Being a United Methodist, I must have known that there would be a committee for that! This formally launched my work in social justice, and my personal interest in stewardship, vegetarianism and nutrition. That first year, God brought together this son of a Mennonite with a Hope graduate who was a Mennonite (perhaps the only one). I told him that I was concerned about President Carter re-instituting draft registration. He said, “Why don’t you start a peace group?” I said, “Yes.” Fortunately, I didn’t now what I was doing. So, I helped found “Hope for Peace.”

For my own concerns, I hooked up with a Viet Nam war-era draft counselor. To make a long story short, when President Reagan broke his campaign promise to end draft registration, I was identified in the Detroit News as a non-registrant. Being the only publicly-identified non-registrant in Michigan, I garnered much media attention. Eventually, the Reagan ‘get the government off your back’ regime and his Attorney General, Edwin ‘people are only hungry by choice’ Meese III, saw that out of millions of non-registrants, I was number 13 to be prosecuted. In the end, six years later, after heroically losing half a dozen pre-trial motions (with the help of a volunteer team of legal experts), my older brother dying, graduating from college, getting married, having a son, graduating from graduate school, and getting a job, I defended myself before a jury of my peers (though none of them were subject to the law I was defending myself from). I lost. But what did I win? (that is, beside three months room and board at the taxpayers’ expense) I learned to live in good conscience. I learned to refine my beliefs, even amidst great public scrutiny. I learned about civil disobedience, or as A.J. Muste, a great American pacifist and Hope College graduate would have said, “holy obedience” (in my write mind I say, “wholly obedience). I learned that the U.S. government has the absolute authority to draft any citizen regardless of conscientious objection. Any exception to this is due only to “legislative grace.” I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my government. Actually, I presented my case at the Detroit Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, in conjunction with a resolution to support young men’s consciences who were subject to draft registration laws, whether their conscience led them to register or not. The resolution failed. So, I learned to live by God’s grace even when it exceeds the grace of my denomination.

During college, after guest preaching at my home church in Detroit, someone came up afterwards and said, “I didn’t know that you were in seminary.” Nonetheless, I consider myself a theological mutt. I have drawn from many Christian traditions. I have studied Asian religions, and I am drawn to Buddhism. I am an amateur philosopher (that is, until someone pays me) and I am intrigued by the angst of existentialism. I have experienced a spiritual re-awakening in Alanon, which has given me things that my church could not. I believe that “religionism” may be the ultimate “-ism,” preventing us from experiencing the oneness of God. I may be a leading candidate to be voted, “most likely to be heretical,” by the powers that be. This is my orthodoxy. I believe that paradox lives in the neighbor of truth; and we should love our neighbors. In true Zen-like fashion, I find that irreverence is often the highest form of reverence. Among my heresies is my unabashed appreciation of “The Simpsons” (but, as the Hindus would say, “Don’t have a cow.”).

After an intense summer working for Bread for the World as an organizer, and days before my senior year began, my brother John was killed in an avalanche in Western Canada; but only after dropping out of college while on foreign study, wandering, rock-climbing and working (pretty much in that order) for a couple of years in Africa and the Western U.S. His death has given me a much greater sense of mortality and the preciousness of life each day. I actually find funerals as fruitful opportunities for reflection and renewing my sense of “living in the moment.” I have undervalued such opportunities. One of the few regrets in my life was missing three of four funerals of my grandparents.

My paternal grandparents were particularly religious. Only upon the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary (and doing the math) did I realize that my father was a near-bastard child to a teen mom. Years later, when my sister was pregnant and out-of-wedlock at age 19, my grandfather said, “The sins of the grandfather are being visited upon the granddaughter.” My thought: get over it! Well, at least, I can now understand why my gay father was closeted until his parents were either dead or demented. While I didn’t see healing in my grandparents, I saw that having an understanding of God under construction is a good thing, and sometimes demolition work is required.

That brings me to my marriage. To make a long, and usually happy, story short, my marriage of 11+ years ended 10 years ago. Nonetheless, we were blessed with two wonderful children, Joshua and Kathryn. I love being a parent. It may be the closest I’ve been able to experience what God must feel in His/Her unconditional love for us. Kate’s life is an ongoing miracle since she was born with multiple heart defects. She underwent two heart surgeries, and at one point with surgical complications, a doctor, trying to be optimistic, said, she has at least a 50/50 chance of living. A brush with death. There’s that mortality thing again. Not unlike death, I thought I had no problem with divorce – as long as it was happening to other people. Accepting our divorce was the most difficult thing I have ever dealt with.

Being out of a “relationship” for a number of years helped my re-develop my relationship with myself and with God. This came more through Alanon than church. Now, being in a relationship for eight years with a wise and beautiful woman has taught me to appreciate life as it comes, one day at a time – with both of us half single, half single parent; no longer with in-laws but ex’s. I’ve learned that God makes all things new, and often faster than I want. God never gives me what I want; God always gives me something better!

My career. God brought me to a career in public health, as I savored its roots in social justice. God brought me out of public health, re-naming me “Top Pun,” and appointing me as a jester for peace, where the pun is mightier than the sword, and justice is no yoke. My canvasses are buttons, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and the World Wide Web. My business, by definition, is good – that is, maximizing prophets. My business is exactly on schedule; though I don’t know what the schedule is.

God brought me to Central’s neighborhood, and a few hours later, to Central. Centralites were my kind of people. Some happened to be Christians who were gay. Through my social justice work, not my public health work, God brought me to work in the fight against HIV/AIDS. This opened further opportunities to work with persons who happened to be gay. My dad “came out.” My parents divorced. God had prepared me.

I have issues with money. I aspire to live simply, gracefully facilitated by my recent poverty-level earnings. Living with less financial security has inspired me to give today because I may not be able to give later. Whatever old car I’m driving facilitates my prayer life (of course, no “auto”-biography would be complete without a mention of my car).

I am a mystic at heart, journeying as a gifted rationalist, Caucasian, male, father, lover, businessman, American, etc., etc., yada, yada, yada. While embracing the enigmatic, I hope these few words will offer you a clue as to who I am. Hopefully, these few words will offer you a clue as to who we are. One of my favorite poems is from Muhammad Ali: “Me. We.”

In all, God has never left me; except for an instant in 1981, but that’s another story…

POEM: Annoys Pollution

Every wear but hear
Beeping phones
And nobody at home
Impossible to a tone
Even with wringing personally
With poor timing
Watching volumes
A little too lewd
Mindless won
And awe the artless
With every bell and whistle
Ears unplugged
Irking their responsibility
In all do coarse
As a pester chide for
Every imaginable
Impertinent busyness
Craven for unsound practices
In the face
Of boorish applications
Inane games
Of hashtag
One trivial hi
After another
As drug nowhere fast
My only resort
A pun with a silencer
Putting on
Quiet a show
Only now
As if
Stuck up
Harass
Muted
To match
The best of them
Dumb typists
Trans mitting
Techs massages
Ghostily beyond their reach
Inescapably com posing
As virtual monkeys
Only slightly more
Than shake a spear
Pointing fingers
At key boreds
As some incanting spell
And in such easy fancy
Imagine many fates
Worse than deaf

This poem is about one of my pet peeves: noise pollution.  This is some indication of how wonderful my life is, that such a first world problem lingers near the top of my list. The mental and spiritual pollution of unwanted noise and glaring lights captures my attention far too often.  Free Range Human Being - POLITICAL BUTTONAs a free range human being, I am cell free (exceptions made for civil disobedience).  The long tentacles of Western civilization purport freedom as being wired without wires, in sum sort of civil religion.  Such annoys pollution is closely related to a leading candidate for the biggest myth of modern progress: that multi-tasking improves our lives.  Multi-tasking may make sense if the point is to make a race of better virtual monkey slaves, but multi-taking is the enema of mindfulness and how trying it is to do too much shit.  Perhaps the most useful definition of Zen that I have ever heard is this: do one thing.  When smart phones are employed as multi-tasking machines, such so-called technological progress is analogous to the infamous anarchist slogan: Bigger Cages, Longer Chains - FUNNY POLITICAL BUTTON“Bigger cages, longer chains!”  If this is smart, then I prefer dumb — or perhaps, shut the f__k up!

I wrote this poem while on a long bus ride with plenty of multi-tasking smartphone cyborgs.  I was largely spared of such an invasion due to my sage employment of a low-tech solution called earplugs.  Plus, witnessing people trying to do too much shit provided fertile ground for an even lower tech resolution: writing poetry about whatever issues emerge from my life at the moment.  Or, as poets are apt to say. “It happens.”

POEM: A We Occupation

I get deeply cared away
Buy you being
On the same side as me
Conveniently not paying
A tension
To the under
Lying fact
That there is but
Won side
Which wee occupy

This short poem addresses a theme that underlies much of my poetry, that, in ultimate reality, we are one.  As Martin Luther King, Jr. so eloquently stated: “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.  Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”  The ego, wed to its own independence, over and above interdependence, resists a shared destiny, routinely seeking to carve out its own apparent advantage over larger realities.  After experiencing one’s fair share of unpleasant events, and witnessing the sheer pervasiveness of such events in life, competing to rise above such a fray seems eminently natural — eat or be eaten, kill or be killed.  Only a deep humility and an unbound love for life can transform destruction of selves into self-realization.

Must life feed on life?  Of course, as one, what else could one feed upon?  As a literal example, our food comes from living beings.  Now, some meat-eaters employ this fact as a convenient rationalization that killing is normal, or at least a “necessary” evil, and lazily leap to a mode of thinking (and eating) where killing is of little consequence.  I see enlightenment of living beings gently resting on that thin line between eating and being eaten.  If life must feed on life, is there a way of feeding upon life that enhances life not diminish it?  I believe that life can get bigger or smaller, as a whole, and as a self within the whole.  How big or how small I’m not sure.  Nonetheless, that thin line, our consciousness, is where the expansion or contraction rests.  Is our consciousness, and conscientiousness, confined to our self, our family, our tribe, our species, our planet, or what?  Consciousness may very well be the heart of life itself.  In this case, increasing consciousness increases life and decreasing consciousness decreases life.

One construct of evil would be feeding on death, a level of (un)consciousness that does not recognize or share consciousness with other beings.  Evil consumes consciousness.  In a sense, what evil does share is unconsciousness or contracted consciousness.  Functioning with a shared unconsciousness reduces humans to mere billiard balls, a set, albeit complex set, of cause and effect relationships guided by causes (including others’ wills) outside our self.  In essence, “choosing” unconsciousness or declining to expand consciousness takes us out of the game (the game being enhancing consciousness, life).  Contracted consciousness is a set of relationships (a “contract”) created and maintained by our wills, consciously chosen.  It is these contracts that form the substance and style of our culture, ethical debates, and political fights.  Still, consciousness, and its creative existential force, the will, lies outside any particular set of relationships (material conditions) that can be chosen.  Expanding consciousness will necessarily run into this awareness, that any particular culture, set of social conditions, or ideology, cannot control our conscious free will.  The seemingly obvious exception to this is death, or more specifically, killing, presumably ending conscious free will.  Justified killing is included in most contracts among humans today.  What this often overlooks is that killing particular expressions of conscious free will does not eliminate conscious free will; most bluntly illustrated by the fact that this would require suicide (thus, the fascination of murder-suicide by existentialist writers).  No doubt, killing is a very blunt way of trying to reign in conscious free will.  Of course, many contracted belief systems include an afterlife, the survival of conscious free will.  If this is true, this radically alters the effectiveness of killing.  Unfortunately, sometimes the belief in an afterlife, rather than simply leading to bold living, serves in the rationalization of killing (e.g., “kill them all and let God sort them out”).

Conjoining our consciousnesses seems best served by the most profound precept: love your enemies.  That which is not you — or more aptly put, that which you do not want to be you — must be both transcended and entered into.  Each of us and all of us are best served by manifesting the courage to confront and reconcile both our own inner dark side and the darkness manifest in others.  Back to the eat or be eaten metaphor, the question is begged: what if you were the pray.  The more gently profound precept, have compassion on all living beings, spurs us to walk in another’s shoes and no what it is like for shoeless souls laid bare to the world.  May we all be grounded, and laid to rest, with such compassionate and conscious living.  I deeply appreciate the Zen story of the man encountering another man somewhat boasting in tales about his great relationship and love of animals, to which he interjects, “A fish once saved my life.”  The boaster’s curiosity was peaked to hear such a tale.  To which he was told: “Once I was lost in the woods and perilously hungry.  I found a fish in the stream, and I ate him.”  This signature Zen approach is transcendentally funny and, not coincidentally, enlightening.   He deflated pomposity.  Lauded the fish which saved his life.  Plus, he outflanked even the most compassionate ideology, witnessing to the mystery of mysteries needed to instill life into any chosen ideology.  The Christian take on dietary ideologies is less clever but makes a similar point: “What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.” (Matthew 15:11)

All great philosophies and the mysticism at the heart of all religions recognizes the irreducible, creative freedom present in humans.  The mystery of creation parallels the making of humans in God’s image as co-creators, romping around the created universe.  Creation focuses on the will, the power present in human consciousness, and presumably God’s consciousness.  However, consciousness is the prerequisite to experience itself, whereby meaning arises, even made possible. Consciousness gives rise to (the experience of) the other, the myriad of things, including our body and mind.  Consciousness, sometimes called “The third eye,” is the seat of all seeing, even able to see our mind from a vantage point other than the mind itself, the true “I.”  Consciousness enlivens existence with experience and we can meaningfully participate in the myriad of things (the created world) through our will.  I strongly suspect that the foundational importance of relationships, sharing, and creation spring out of the nature of God.  As I see it, God consciousness and will give rise (create) to the other so it can share the experience of an other.  Maybe God just got tired of self-consciousness (see my poem: An Answer to the Problem of Evil, which is much more playful than the weighty title might connote).  Giving/creating seems to be the foundational nature of sharing present in enlightened beings, which cements the centrality of relationships among others.  I am struck by the tripartite truth of consciousness of self, the palpable created reality in which we experience, and the irascibly creative will from which we add our own touches.  Granted, I may be touched.  Still, there is a spirit within me that will not rest until our created reality is won size fits awe.

 

POEM: Seriously?!

The Zen master was nearly
Finished with his instruction
When he got to non-seriousness
I was greatly relieved
For I was taking nothing
He was saying
Seriously

This short poem gets at one of the great paradoxes of enlightened spirituality: serious playfulness.  Zen Buddhists have a rare reputation among spiritual-religious folks as having a sense of humor inherent in their spiritual practice.  They refer to this as nonseriousness.  Theologians and philosophers are poorly equipped to adequately describe humor in their systems of thought.  This is not an accident.  First of all, there is a seemingly built in seriousness and rigorousness in philosophy and theology that doesn’t play well with humor.  Trying to capture humor in a system of thought leads to our own imprisonment in humor-free zones.  This is analogous to the self-limiting trap of trying to capture spirituality through materialistic methods.  Materialism is literally no joke.  Taking things literally is the limit of science and the beginning of theft, stealing from ourselves as well as others.  Fundamentalism is a disease that routinely infects any ideological project, whether claiming a materialist or spiritual aim.  I have a great respect for the brevity and poetry of the Tao Te Ching as a sacred text. Taoists and Zen Buddhists have a lot in common.  First, the Tao Te Ching begins by stating its fundamental limit — and, in some sense, its blessed futility — by stating that any way which can be described is not the Way, the Tao.  Then, quite laughably, and with utter seriousness, gives its best shot at manifesting the Tao through words.  The Tao Te Ching’s singularly poetic approach to the sacred is unparalleled among major faith traditions.  Surely, other faith traditions have poetic elements, but poetry or obvious metaphor are often relegated to “mystic” subcultures within a dominant and domineering tradition.  The powerful drift toward fundamentalism or militant ideology makes a cruel joke of mystics.  Through the centuries, fundamentalists have taken the lives of mystics literally.

I view mysticism as the heart of spirituality.  Mysticism is simply a view of transcendence, seeing beyond what can be merely grasped by our hands or minds.  This is inherently dangerous to fundamentalism, and virtually any ideology.  That is, dangerous to anything which tries to put the human heart or God in a box and declare “I’ve got it!”  Humor and nonseriousness is perhaps the best way the deflate such puffed up claims.  Of course, humor is infinitely more useful than merely deflating another’s unrightful claims; humor is fun!  Fun is good in and of itself. I think it is safe to say that a life devoid of humor is a life far from fully lived. Humor is a fundamental spiritual experience, playing off the oft experienced reality that paradoxes, apparent contradictions, coexist in everyday human life.  We can wring our hands, rack our brains, and even cry at the vexing nature of this reality; or, we can laugh, recognizing that oneness underlies such fractious appearances.  This lightness of being is consonant with enlightenment and peace or wholeness of mind.  Seemingly paradoxical with such peace is its unmatched counter-cultural power.  The experience and recognition of oneness stirs into any given culture, with its myriad of rules and customs, something that it cannot fully take in.  This is mind-busting and heart expanding.  A sense of arbitrariness of any given culture’s rules can trigger a new-found freedom to exist both within and beyond those rules without being bound by those rules.  This nonseriousness about any given set of rules sets up any culture at any given moment as the “but” of a joke.  What such a transcendent attitude infuses into any human culture at any given time is nothing but life itself, the Tao if you will.

As a student of human culture, I see widespread contradictions and hypocrisy, even amidst our more sane enterprises.  I find an ability to laugh at such realities profoundly therapeutic, especially given that the leading alternative is crying.  In a tip of the hat to seriousness, crying can be a profound emotional manifestation of compassion in a broken world.  Yet, there are other ways.  Freedom is not trapped by seriousness.  Non-seriousness offers a form of salvation to both redeem our experience into something more whole, and to manifest this more whole being attained into the workings of the everyday world.

My poetry is driven by a passionate exploration of human contradictions and unfulfilled humanity.  While the veneer of my poems may seem strikingly cynical at moments, relentlessly pointing out weak spots in humanity, my intent is to juxtapose apparent hopelessness with authentic hopefulness.  To survive such an epic project, I try to remember that we are already won, a wholly laughable proposition!

POEM: The Game of Life

One day
I realized
The game of life
And going back
In the box
Only to find
The rules had been lost
Long a go
And still
The game goes on

This short poem plays with the notion that life is a game.  Of course, there are many different types of games, each with their own set of rules.  Even if there is one monolithic set of rules that defines reality, it appears that there are countless games that can be played within that set of rules.  A wise person realizes that each of these sets of rules, for whatever game chosen (or implied in one’s actions), possesses a certain arbitrariness.  Such arbitrariness lacks a full claim in ultimate reality.  Any such partial claim, when lifted to sacred status, deserves and invites mocking.  Such playfulness and mocking delves into the wondrous paradox that irreverence can be the highest form of reverence in a given situation.  Irreverence playfully invites us to a fuller and more sacred view of reality.  And such playful invitations can harness the awesome character of pointing out high truths without the downer of overzealously demanding obedience.  Such playful invitations abide by a sacred respect for higher truths as demanding obedience in and of themselves, without contrivance or brute force.  In the games of life, there is often a negative connotation with playing in the sense of “games people play” — when we treat other players as objects in the game, not an equal or full players.  I prefer a more positive connotation, as elucidated by Zen Buddhism’s nonseriousness, apparent foolishness under-girded by wisdom:

“There is a certain quality of foolishness in a real wise man. Why? Because a real wise man contains the opposite. He is both together. He is more comprehensive. A wise man who has no foolishness in him will be dry, dead. His juice will not be flowing. He will not be green. He will not be able to laugh; he will be serious; he will be a long face. A wise man who is just wise and in whose being the fool has not been integrated will be very heavy. It will be difficult to live with such a wise man. He will be very boring. He will be boring to you and he will be boring to himself. He will not have any fun; his life will not know any joy. He will be completely unacquainted with laughter. And when laughter is missed, much is missed.

And one can never know God without laughter. One can never know God without joy. One can never know reality just by being wise.

The fool has something to contribute too — the laughter, the joy, the nonseriousness, the quality of fun, delight. The fool can dance, and the fool can dance for any reason whatsoever — any excuse will do. The fool can laugh. And the fool can laugh not only at others, he can laugh at himself.

When the wise man and the fool meet together in a consciousness, then something of tremendous value happens. There are foolish people and there are wise people. The fool is shallow; the wise man is serious. The fool does not know what truth is, and the wise man does not know what joy is. And a truth without joy is worse than a lie. And a joy without truth is not reliable. A joy without truth is momentary, cannot be of the eternal.”

Nonseriousness and humorlessness are linked to fundamentalist religious faith and militancy.  Militancy — including militarism — and violence are anathema to good humor:

The overarching difference is between the mental rigidity of religious faith and the mental flexibility of humor.

1. The first contrast is between the respect for authority in religious faith, and the questioning of authority in humor. In faith-based religions, people believe what they are told, and do they do what they are told, by a leader, typically a patriarchal leader. God himself is pictured as the ultimate patriarchal authority, the Lord, the King of the Universe.

The psychology of humor, by contrast, involves questioning authority. The humorist’s role, from the court jesters of ancient China to today’s standup comedians, has been to think critically about people’s language, about their reasoning, about their actions, and about the relations between all three. From the days of ancient Greek comedy, the creators of humor have looked for discrepancies between what political and religious leaders say and what they do. Aristophanes poked fun not only at political leaders but at intellectual leaders like Socrates, and even at the gods.

2. The second contrast is between the simple, often dualistic, conceptual schemes of religious faith and the more complex conceptual schemes of humor. Faith-based religions offer believers simple concepts with which they can classify everything they experience. Master categories include “good and evil,” and “us and them.” Osama bin Laden’s speeches and George W. Bush’s speeches are full of name-calling based on such simple dualistic categories. As Bush has admitted, he “doesn’t do nuance.”

Comic thinking, on the other hand, is more complex and messy. The world doesn’t separate neatly into a few categories. In comedy, there aren’t any all-good people, nor any all-bad people. Even the best person involved in the best kind of action is likely to be tainted by some selfishness, foolishness, and maybe even hypocrisy. When characters appear in comedy promoting simple conceptual schemes, they are often satirized as fanatics or fools.

3. The third contrast is between the militarism of religious faith and the pacifism of humor. Religions based on faith tend to feel threatened by other world views and so tend to want to eliminate the proponents of those views. And so they often justify violence against “the heathen” or “the infidel,” as General Boykin and Osama bin Laden do.

From the beginning, however, comedy has been suspicious of calls to eliminate those who think differently, and has been suspicious of violence as a way to solve problems. Aristophanes’ comedy Lysistrata satirized the insanity of the constant fighting between the Greek city states. In modern times, the futility of war has been the theme of dozens of comedies, which have lampooned the willingness to kill or die on command. Comic heroes are usually good at talking their way out of conflicts, and when that fails, they are not ashamed to run away. The comic attitude here is captured in the old Irish saying “You’re only a coward for a moment, but you’re dead for the rest of your life.”

4. The fourth contrast is between the single-mindedness of religious faith and the willingness to change one’s mind in humor. The person of faith treats alternative viewpoints as possible sources of doubt, and so something to be suppressed. Once they make a divinely sanctioned choice of action—as in George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, they “stay the course” no matter what happens. They do not look for mistakes they might have made, they do not try to think of how they might proceed differently, and they tend to be defensive when they are challenged. Faith-based religions tout what Conrad Hyers (1996) calls “warrior virtues”: courage, loyalty, duty, honor, indomitable will, unquestioning obedience, stubborn determination, and uncompromising dedication.

In comedy, by contrast, the person who has an idée fixe is portrayed as foolish. Comic heroes do set courses of action, but they are adaptable after that. As situations change, they can too. Their plans are not set in stone but are contingent and reversible. Often, the comic hero has not even determined in advance what will count as success or failure.

5. The fifth contrast is between the idealism of religious faith and the pragmatism of humor. The rhetoric of faith-based religions is full of abstractions like Truth, Faith, and Freedom. On the enemy side are those who love Evil.

Comedy, on the other hand, is based not on abstractions but on concrete things, people, and situations. Comic heroes are concerned not about Truth and Freedom but about their next meal, and getting the one they love to love them in return. Not longing for some utopia, they are at home in the world as it is.

6. The sixth contrast is between the convergent thinking of faith-based religions and the divergent thinking of humor. Convergent thinking aims at reaching the correct answer. In divergent thinking there is no single correct answer, but dozens, maybe hundreds of possible good answers. A standard exercise in divergent thinking is to think of thirty uses for a building brick.

With their simple conceptual schemes and their emphasis on thinking in traditional ways, faith-based religions do not encourage creativity or cleverness. A good example is George W. Bush and his wife Laura. On a TV interview program, Laura Bush was asked if she and the President had pet names for each other. She said, “Oh Yes.” “What is your pet name for him?” the interviewer asked. “Bushie,” she answered. “What is his pet name for you?” “Bushie,” she said again.

Unlike such unimaginative plodders, people with a rich sense of humor are creative. The master skill of the comedian is to look at something familiar in a new way.

7. The seventh contrast is between seriousness and playfulness. Faith-based religious visions of life are paradigms of seriousness, and humor is a paradigm of nonseriousness. It is persons, I take it, who are serious in the basic sense of the word. Issues and problems are called “serious” because they require persons to be serious about them. For us to be serious is to be solemn and given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. It is also for us to be sincere in what we say and do. We say only what we believe, and act only according to our real intentions.

Seriousness is contrasted with playfulness. When we are playful, we are not solemn and are not given to sustained, narrowly focused thought. We are not bound to sincerity in what we say and do. We may say something outlandishly false for the mental jolt it gives us and others. We may impersonate someone, or feign some emotion, just for the fun of it.”

I suspect that an accurate reading of reality would call out for more Irreverends than Reverends.  Religion, institutionalized spirituality, must perpetually wrest with its own laughableness.  For any institution branding itself with any given set of “authoritative” creeds, must be able to laugh at itself, and accept mocking in good humor, to even hope for greater authority — an authority forever lying outside any gaming.  Yet, the show must go on!

POEM: Sound of One Hand Clapping

What is the sound of one hand clapping?
For many, it is a slap of the forehead in exasperation
For some, it is a slap in the face of the asker
Could someone lend a hand on this one
Without doubling the trouble?

This poem is based on the infamous koan.  A koan, such as “what is the sound of one hand clapping,” is a paradox to be meditated upon that is used to train Zen Buddhists to abandon ultimate dependence on reason and to force them into gaining sudden intuitive enlightenment.  I am inspired by Buddhist koans because they help free us from convergent thinking, the belief that there is a single best answer to any question.  Perceiving reality requires holding paradoxes within our consciousness.  A well-lived life requires balance and that balance is dynamic and always in flux.  This flux and movement is well captured by the question: which is more important, breathing in or breathing out?  The answer: It depends on what you have done last.  May you find balance in your life.  Surf the paradox!

POEM: Light ‘n Darkness

To face darkness
Lighten up

Facing darkness is a serious issue.  Nonetheless, the solution is light, or to double the meaning, to lighten up.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’ve been intrigued by the Zen concept of non-seriousness.  A playfulness and certain detachment from difficult realities actually brings a more effective attitude and perspective into play!  I have been known to say: There are only two mistakes you can make in life: one, to be too serious, and two, to not be serious enough.  Perhaps one of the biggest barriers to dealing with difficult situations is fear.  Cultivating an attitude of playfulness is one way to combat fear taking over one’s life and the ability to deal with the difficulties of one’s life.  So, when things seem dark, lighten up.  When things seem heavy, lighten up…or not.