Posts Tagged ‘Young Adults’

The Thinker

Value reprogramming our children

So many of us are raising our children mostly the way our parents raised us. It’s unclear why we do this. Perhaps we assume they did a great job, considering how awesome we turned out. Since we’re so awesome, we figure we’ll simply follow their formula and we’ll have awesome children too.

Or it could be we don’t want to suffer their wrath or disappointment. Parents can hurt us, even when we are in our middle years. Most likely, we don’t analyze our approach to parenting too much; we just do it reflexively. If we were raised Catholic, junior and his sister are raised Catholic. If we played Little League, our sons play in the Little League. If we went to Girl Scouts, our daughter goes to Girl Scouts.

Raising your kid differently than you were raised takes a certain amount of courage. Obviously, it takes less courage if you realize that you were raised wrong. If Dad beat you regularly with a belt, hopefully you won’t do that to your child, although chances are you will. Value programming seems to work this way. Both the good stuff and the bad stuff tend to get passed down from generation to generation. If your father beat up your mother, there’s a good chance if you are a male that you will beat your wife. Stranger still, if you were the daughter, there is a good chance you will be in a marriage where your spouse will beat you up. It’s unclear why this is, but it may be because we unconsciously seek out spouses that have characteristics of our parents. It happened to me: I married a gal from a poor family in Michigan, just like my father. At the time, this coincidence never occurred to me, but it was probably more than coincidence, particularly since my mother and I had issues.

Parenting comes with no rewind button. Instead, parenting is a continuous stream of events and choices applied to situations at the moment. From our children’s birth to our deaths it never really ends, but there is an unofficial end when our adult children finally move out of the house. (There is a good chance they will move back in some years later.) In retrospect, all of us parents wish we could have done some things differently. You do the best you can and try to forgive yourself for your parenting mistakes.

Parenting differently than the way you were parented takes reflection and mindfulness. My parents were not particularly physically affectionate. We got little in the way of hugs and kisses. They weren’t wholly absent; just that they were the exception rather than the rule. Unsurprisingly, I grew up feeling somewhat touch deprived. Also, my parents, although I am sure they loved each other, weren’t great at demonstrating affection with each other or really doing much together, other than dutifully raising us. Since I had about a decade as a bachelor, I had time to reflect on these concerns. I made up my mind that I would not replicate them with my daughter.

So I made a point to be lavish with hugs and kisses. I told her sincerely, and often, that I loved her. When near her I made sure to put an arm over her shoulder or around her waist. I wanted her to know that healthy human relationships should be naturally intimate, and that meant touching liberally. In short, I did not want to transmit what I considered to be a poor way of being raised. I wanted her to feel connection and intimacy. This meant more than words; it meant the constant pleasure and communication of touch. It’s delightful to see her as an adult being still so physically demonstrative with us.

My parents picked up something of a Puritan ethos common from their era. It meant the father made most of the major decisions, the mother’s role was to be supportive and children were supposed to quickly learn their place. It was generally understood that as children we were inexperienced and thus our parents knew best. We were told not just from them, but also from society in general, that our parents were our ultimate guides in life and to trust them implicitly. In general, the boys in our family learned that most emotions were better left bottled up, because we never saw dad cry or even get very upset.

Of course, society is a lot different now compared to then. The United States has more than doubled its population in my lifetime. Values have changed quite a bit as well. In the 1960s I did not know homosexuals existed. Today they have civil rights that were denied them including, increasingly, the right to marry. My country is much more ethnic in general too. I had to figure out how to put all this together in my parenting. It was not always easy and often it was lonely.

I had virtually no sex education, as was true of most of us Baby Boomers. I had to depend on factual books like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex to get some rudimentary education. Reading about sex as opposed to experiencing it, of course, is quite different. Schools now generally teach sex education, but it is largely superficial. Certain topics are frequently off limits. Parents can teach their children sex education, but it is generally an awkward experience. It is better to come from an authoritative but independent source. Mostly, I didn’t want my daughter to start her sex life sexually ignorant. She needed a real grounding, both on the biological facts but on the physical and emotional issues of being a sexual person. I found such a program at my Unitarian Universalist Church: Our Whole Lives, wherein all these topics were discussed candidly but with trained facilitators. There is no question about it: sex is a big, complex and icky topic. But better to make sure she started with a firm foundation than to be ignorant and make the stupid mistakes I did when I became sexually awake.

Sex education is just one area where I deviated from the values I was taught. While many were the same (love, compassion, neighborliness, the importance of education) many were also different. I taught respect for people regardless of sex, race, religion or (the hard one) because they have different beliefs than me. I told her that I was a human being, not a god, and thus I make mistakes. I encouraged those values that helped me succeed, some that worked (reading, debate) and some that did not stick (striving for excellence, exercise and diet). In the end, like me, my daughter had a lot to absorb, analyze and figure out what was right for her.

At least she appreciates the complexity of our modern world. It is far more complex than it was when I was her age. No wonder then that today adolescence seems to extend well into their twenties. It’s quite a brain dump we give our children, and harder than ever for them to structure it in a way that will help them deal with their reality.

At the same time, my daring experience at value reprogramming has been satisfying. My parents did the best they could to set my values with the skills they had at the time. I did my best as well. I am glad I did not simply parrot the way I was raised, but trusted my own judgment instead. I used values that seemed to work (thriftiness, for example) and discarded what did not seem to work (religious orthodoxy).

My daughter says she won’t have a child, but she is toying with the idea of adopting a child when she is self sufficient enough. If that time comes, I hope she is smart enough to do what I did: and discard those things about the way we raised her that did not work, and substitute her own judgment of the modern world as she perceives it.

 
The Thinker

Cutting the apron strings

She took her final exam today, the very last exam for her very last class in a journey that consumed five years (two in community college) and three at Virginia Commonwealth University. “She” would be my daughter, age 23, who now merely needs to wait for the mail to get her diploma for a bachelor’s degree in English. Despite some prodding, she doesn’t want to attend her own graduation.

Which means she is mostly home now and we will continue to pay the rent on what will likely be her empty room in Richmond through the end of July. She needs to find a job but if her experience is like mine it may be a year or two before she finds a “real” job, assuming there are real jobs for people with English degrees. There are a few of them out there, and I am not talking about “do you want fries with that” jobs at the local Burger King. A real job for a while though might be working at a Costco or Wegmans, where they pay a living wage, which would be great because I don’t want her to get too attached to her old bedroom. Rather, it’s time for her to move out once and for all.

It’s hard to say how long that will take but I’ll lay odds somehow a year from now she will still be inhabiting her bedroom. Young adults today are painfully aware of the true cost of living, which is much higher than it was when I was a youth. This may be because so many things are assumed: the car, the smartphone, health insurance, high speed Internet and they are used to mom and dad paying for them. I don’t care if $12 an hour really is a living wage these days; that probably won’t buy you all of the above, even with a roommate or two.

What she wants to do is goof off, sleep late, stay up all night and when not distracted by things on the Internet write the great novel that probably won’t get sold, at least not without a whole lot more pain and suffering. Fortunately she is a bit more realistic now and is sending out random resumes, which suggests intent to find a job but not necessarily serious commitment. She could live a lot cheaper, assuming she lived alone, by settling in Richmond where she just finished her degree. But the jobs would pay a lot less and she seems happy to be home on a more or less full time basis. She actually cleaned her room and removed heaps of trash off her desk the other day. Either she is trying to get her life in order or she is planning to start a new burrow. Time will tell.

We’ve suggested some employers that might hire English majors. A friend at my church works for Motley Fool, and they hire English majors. Except she knows nothing about personal finance other than living on our money and making her allowance stretch until the end of the month. She wants to learn less, although I have provided a couple books on personal finance as a “gift”. The headquarters of Learning Tree in nearby Reston is near us. They teach mostly leading edge technology courses to people whose employers have deep pockets. They need people to write content for their web pages and course curriculum. And I have another friend whose office is always willing to hire college graduates, providing they want to learn the business of making specialized contact lenses. She worked there briefly out of high school and found it didn’t agree with her. I doubt she would want to give it another try.

Still, it is an accomplishment having a degree of any kind, and getting a degree in English is more interesting than it seems. She wrote a thesis on arguably the world’s worst English poet, William McGonagall. She learned a lot about Old English, and obscure Scottish literature. She interned at a Richmond publishing house and worked with female prisoners at a local jail teaching creative writing. Mainly she had the university experience, such as it is today, minus the fun stuff like sororities. She is not social enough for that stuff. She had the usual mixture of brilliant and mediocre professors, ate in the dining halls, learned that parking tickets cost real money, and that you can have really crappy roommates.

We learned that college education today is very expensive. Once we entertained the idea that, as parents with one child, we could send her to a private university. What a crazy idea! Her bachelor’s degree took a year longer than we budgeted. We paid for two cars, only because she wrecked the first one driving home with a homeless kitten. The expenses added up quickly. The nearly final total according to Quicken:  $116,238.05, or $36,238.05 more than the $80,000 I thought we were going to spend. And these are just the direct costs. It’s amazing anyone can afford to get any kind of degree these days. At least she graduates debt free. We were her scholarship fund.

Parenting is not over. Now comes the coaching phase, followed by the nagging and heaping on the guilt phase if necessary. The job hunting is still poor, and bad in particular for English majors with lackluster GPAs. At least here in Northern Virginia the unemployment rate is relatively low, but the mere hassle of commuting around here will probably ensure that she calls someplace far away from here home eventually.

A new adventure called real life awaits her. “What’s it like, dad?” she asked me some weeks ago. “Well, it’s not a lot of fun. But you get used to it.” And really, that’s about the most honest thing you can say about adulthood. I wish you the best, kid, but it’s time for you to cut the apron strings and fully direct your own life. Hopefully, we gave you enough of the tools to make your life meaningful but for the most part the rest will be up to you.

 
The Thinker

She is more like me than I thought

There are children that are a chip off the old block, and then there is my daughter. Physically she has many of the attributes of her father (me). She tends toward being tall, with bigger feet and the proud Roman/English nose sported by my side of the family. However, she has never seemed to take after her dear old dad. Her room and car are usually a mess. Whereas I put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher and clean the kitchen counters after a meal, the best I can hope for is that she washes a pan or two and her plate and silverware end up at the bottom of the sink. Whereas I spend my leisure time reading news online or various political blogs, she is reading reddit.com and LOL Cats. If she shares interests in common with a parent, they seemed to be my wife’s, who is also looking at LOL Cats. My daughter likes most of the same TV shows my wife does. That is because my wife introduced her to them.

But lately there have been some weird signs from daughter-land. The other day I heard the theme music from the TV Series The West Wing emanating from her laptop computer. “Hey Dad! Guess what? I am on Season 1 of The West Wing!” she exclaimed. “And I really like it!” This got us into a deep fan discussion. Who is her favorite character? What episode does she like the best? When she got to the famous Christmas episode in Season 1, perhaps the best show in its entire seven seasons, she was crying at the end, just like me.

All this may have something to do with the fact that she is 23 now, and on the cusp of graduating from her interminably long quest to complete a bachelor’s degree. I was hoping her degree might be in engineering, like her father, but it’s in English. However, in retrospect, maybe she takes after her father here too. My bachelor’s degree was in communications. It wasn’t until the 1990s after ten years of doing IT work that I got a masters degree in engineering like my father.

My daughter and I are both creative writers, as evidenced in me by nearly ten years of writing this blog, and evidenced by her in various stories, none of which have yet been published. But just as I had (for a brief time anyhow) a literary agent about the time I graduated, she has one already, and her agent is reviewing her novel. It may suffer the same fate as my attempts to sell fiction did, but maybe not. For one thing, she is a better writer than I am. Her dream of making a living from writing fiction just might be realized. She promises her mother and I a chalet in Switzerland when she hits the big time, like JK Rowling. Meanwhile, of course, we subsidize her modest lifestyle, which includes tuition at a state university, her rent, her car and her living expenses. She dreams of an apartment and a cat of her own. Right now she has roommates.

Her interest in The West Wing truly surprised me, but it should not have. This is because she has become a politically active creature, just like me. She has not joined the Young Democrats or anything, but she did make a point to vote this year, to the extent that she drove home from Richmond to make sure her vote was cast. She is passionate about gay marriage, health care for all, and most issues of concern to liberal Democrats like me. Of course, her mother is as well. So she gets that from both of us. But my wife will largely ignore the front pages of newspapers. She is delving into the details of current political issues, albeit via reddit.com rather than The Washington Post.

Most surprising of all is her new interest in classical music. Four years ago we took our last family vacation to New England. One night we ended up at Tanglewood to hear the Boston Symphony. It was the first time she had been to a classical music concert. She hated it. Her eyes rolled toward the heavens and could not wait to leave. At university however she is enrolled in a music appreciation course, and has been studying composers even I have not dabbled into, like Bedrich Smetana. However, even before her music appreciation course, she had been online downloading classical music. Maybe she took up my suggestion that it facilitates studying, since there are not usually any lyrics to distract you. I find that we are getting into rather deep conversations about classical music composers and their strengths and weaknesses. I am astounded by how quickly she is mastering this genre. For example, we can contrast Beethoven’s influence on artists like Brahms and Wagner. A couple of weeks ago she even joined us for a concert by the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra, in part because her class required going to a live performance.

For a girl who rarely got A’s in school, we were often frustrated that her natural intelligence rarely translated into high grades. I still have no idea what kind of grades she is getting, but I do see evidence that her natural intelligence is coming out. I see it in her writing, in our conversations, in her term papers, in her ability to handle complex reasoning and exercise critical thinking. In this sense she is more like her mother. She picks up knowledge more indirectly than through studying, and most of it gets filed away for later use.

Her cautious nature may have come from me. Her friendships tend to be relatively few but deep. She mostly keeps her mouth shut in crowds but expounds at length in small groups. She tends to be firm in her opinions and can justify them at length.

On the cusp (we hope) of surviving independently, I still hope that she will embrace financial prudence. So far there is little sign that she will, but I do think it is getting observed and perhaps filed away for future use. She seems to be aware that her education is not just chance, but involved a great deal of planning, mostly by me. The one course she never got, and which is not even required in either school or college, is financial literacy. Trying to engage her on the topic usually leads to rolled eyes. Soon as she tries to make her income as an English major cover her life’s expenses she will have no choice. Toward that end she will find a couple of books under the Christmas tree on financial literacy that might help her. I’m not sure whether she will take the time to read them, but I am hopeful that she will.

Overall, I find myself warming to her more as an adult than I did as a child. I have always loved her of course, but she rarely seemed a person that I could relate to. More recently I am seeing that there is far more of me in her than I suspected, and it is mostly (I hope) the good stuff. I hope it rubs off. Life is far more complicated for her generation than for mine, and she will likely need every bit of her wits and her intelligence to thrive in this resource-competitive 21st century. Maybe I am guilty of wishful thinking, but I think that she eventually will. In time, I expect that I will learn some new tricks from lessons that she will teach me.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 17: In conclusion, it takes a strategy

This is the last of a series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It’s time to sum up this series, since it has spanned sporadic entries over nearly five years. In fifty-four years on the planet I have made plenty of stumbles and encountered many setbacks. I have also had a fair number of successes. To the extent I have succeeded, it was part self-reliance and part because I was reasonably fortunate. I was fortunate to be born middle class in America. This gave me some opportunities to succeed but did not guarantee success. Regardless of whether you came into life as a child of poverty, a child of wealth or somewhere in between, what you have to work with is simply what you possess.

I attribute most of my successes to following strategies and my willingness to change them when needed. Success is not generally achieved by following a formula. You won’t find it in church, from the biases of a political party or from a self help book. The truth is one size does not fit all. It never has and never will. You are guaranteed to be unique on this planet, so any strategy that you follow has to work with you and your predispositions. Essentially, it is up to you to quantify your success and mostly up to you to achieve it.

However, I do believe strategies are critical to achieving success, “success” being something only you can assess. Thus it helps to first have a vision of what a successful life would look or feel like for you. When I graduated college, I was pretty much clueless on how I would spend my life. I knew I wanted to feel passionate about my profession and my life. I knew I wanted to make the world a better place through the skills and creativity that I possessed. Just as companies need a vision, so should you invest some time and thought in creating a personal vision of your future. How do you see your life at age 30, 40, 50 and 60? You may find that what you wanted at age 30 does not fit your feelings when you arrive at age 30. However, by working toward that vision strategically, you will at least come to that understanding, and probably sooner rather than later. My suggestion is to keep the vision achievable. It’s okay to aspire to be a Broadway actress or an NFL quarterback, but keep a backup plan in case that does not pan out. If you realize the vision that you created no longer holds the allure it used to, create a new vision that does. Your vision should be hopeful. It should be feel inspirational and welcome.

The strategies you use to get there will of course vary. Lacking any other resources, a self-help book may have a well-defined path that you can try. At least it will give you something to mull over. Based on my experience, simply having a strategy is critical. You don’t need to always follow the strategy to the letter, but you do need to move in its direction and be reasonably consistent following it. Aimlessness is not a strategy, but an admission that you will allow the universe to direct you rather than yourself.

If following a particular strategy does not work for you, either adapt it to better fit you or find a new strategy. A good example is dieting, or more specifically finding a strategy to have and maintain a healthy weight. Most of us Americans will be overweight or obese in our life and thus probably want to take off extra weight. There are lots of diets (tactics) to take off weight, but most of them do not succeed in the long run because they do not work with a person’s natural tendencies. If following a particular diet does not work for you, consider those aspects that aren’t working for you and find one that better addresses those aspects. A strategy is a means to an end, not an end of itself. It helps you realize your vision for yourself. It must work with your natural proclivities to help you achieve your personal vision. If it does not, it’s not a strategy for you. Once you have a strategy that aligns with your vision and seems to be helping you get there, follow it with as much dogged tenacity as you can.

I do feel it is very important to follow a sound financial strategy. For tactics on this, there are a few other lessons you can real in my Real Life 101 archive. In general, a sound financial strategy will minimize personal debt unless it helps you acquire wealth. There are two general components to a successful financial strategy: living beneath your means and saving the difference. Some corollaries quickly emerge: avoid as much debt as possible and get rid of debt as quickly as is prudent. My own experience indicates that doggedly following these principles works. It is not particularly fun or glamorous. To the extent that you will enjoy your wealth, it will happen later in life. If you do not you may enjoy marginally greater wealth now, but comparatively much worse wealth when you are older. Wealth builds on itself, which is why it is critical to get in the habit of saving and do it regularly. Doing it automatically is preferred. Have an allotment go directly from your paycheck into savings and/or retirement accounts. Always save the same percent of your income and adjust the percentage upward if your income allows. When you do this, you will find that you will naturally live on what’s left.

For myself, I have found that regular charitable giving comes back at you. It has happened so often in my life that it is almost spooky. I would not be surprised if you found this to be true as well. It’s like in doing so you clear a psychic space in front of your future that opens up new opportunities. Perhaps this should not be so strange because in truth we are all connected to one another. It is the law of karma working in your favor.

Okay young adult, you are on your own now. Expect to step on some mines going through life. This happens to all of us but if you follow my strategies you should encounter fewer of them. However, with sound strategies in place, you will find that these setbacks, no matter how horrible they first appear, can fade, often quite quickly. Good luck.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 16: Some random suggestions

This is the sixteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

It’s been a while since I wrote a “Real Life” lesson for young adults. Mostly I believe I have mined the topic, so I suspect there are few posts left in this series. Yet there is still some vein left. Moreover, the series still gets regular hits. Not every post in the series is read every day. At best only a handful are read on a particular day, but it adds up over time. Presumably the series is of use to some people, which I find gratifying.

Most of adult life is learned through living it. Yet I do have a few more suggestions for you to consider as you transition into adulthood that should prove useful.

Read religiously. Reading keeps your mind spry, stimulates new thoughts, reduces boredom and often facilitates rational engagement with the world. It can also be tremendously enjoyable and insightful. Try to always keep a book close to you. Whatever I am reading is usually sitting next to the toilet, because this is a perfect opportunity to engage the mind. You can certainly read online, but most online content is ephemeral. It’s great to get news, weather and sports online, but it is likely that nothing on TMZ.com or similar sites really means anything, because you will purge it within a few days at best. So read mostly books, either paper or electronic, but also quality old fashioned newspaper and magazines. What is so special about a book? It is (generally) structured, edited, thoughtful, focused and comprehensive, as well as well written. This is hard to find online except, maybe, on sites like this one. Get recommendations from friends and don’t be afraid to read outside your comfort zone. You will often get the most insight and personal growth from books you would not normally read.

Listen religiously as well. Listening is a lost art and I will not claim to be an expert in it. Like reading a book, if you have the opportunity to listen, try to make it worth your time, and when someone is sharing something heartfelt, listen compassionately. See if you can paraphrase it either aloud (people like to know they have been listened to) or paraphrase it silently to yourself, so it will carry some weight. If you find yourself driving, skip the pop rock station and tune in NPR or a local news station instead. Keep a stack of audiobooks in your car. You can borrow them for free at your local public library.

Give your mind time to wander. Your mind needs time to wander. This is done by turning off distractions like NPR, not all the time, but periodically while you are driving, or leaving the radio off while you do the dishes. Your brain needs to digest and make inferences about what it has learned. I find that I am most creative and get the best ideas when I deliberately tune out life’s distractions for a spell. Often your brain will find solutions to some of your toughest challenges during such times. Driving is a good time not just to listen to an audiobook, but also to let your mind wander to nothing but the background hum of road noise.

If it sounds ridiculous, it is. We live in modern times where arguably insane and crazy people are getting much of the airtime. Instead, choose to be reality-based, not because it is fun, but because you are much more likely to survive if you choose reality. Here are just some of the bat-shit crazy ideas going around at the moment.

  • Claim: Climate change is not happening.
  • Answer: On average, every year is hotter than the year before it. Are you saying all our thermometers are in error or that all meteorologists are engaged in a massive conspiracy to falsify temperature data?
  • Claim: Businesses create jobs.
  • Answer: When people have more money and use it to buy more things, this stimulates demand. Businesses hire people to keep up with economic demand.
  • Claim: Smaller government and lower taxes creates economic growth.
  • Answer: California has tried this approach for decades yet has gone from a state that had one of the best economies to one of the worst economies. They are letting people out of prison early because they can’t afford to keep them there, for crying out loud! Maybe it happens sometime, but it’s not a silver bullet.
  • Claim: Students don’t learn because of bad teachers.
  • Answer: While there are some bad teachers out there, students choose to learn or not to learn. It is up to them to engage, which can be hard to do when there are problems at home, your neighborhood is rife with gang violence, you come from a single parent household and you can barely afford to eat, let alone afford nutritious food. Maybe serving students breakfast, lunch and a snack while at school, plus making sure they get more exercise while at school will do more to help children learn is the best way to help them learn. Safe neighborhoods would help too.

Be brave and when someone speaks nonsense, speak the truth instead. We only wallow in ignorance because we allow it to go unchallenged.

Do your professional reading. Don’t let your skills atrophy! Stay engaged in your career. Take continuing education courses. (You may be required to do so anyhow.) Consider a certificate from a local college. Subscribe to a couple of trade magazines. In many cases, they are free. As life is about change, the same is true with your profession. I bet that even garbage haulers have journals on the latest in waste management techniques. Doing so helps distinguish you from others in the field and makes you less likely to suffer career misfortunes and, if you do, enhances the likelihood of a quick recovery. In my case, I read IEEE Computer every month, as well as belong to the IEEE itself. I also read some of the most useful information technology websites, and subscribes to RSS feeds for the sources I most respect. It is time well spent, and it keeps me engaged in my career. It’s not coincidence that it’s been 23 years since I had a bout of unemployment. Hint: trade journals make excellent bathroom reading material.

 
The Thinker

Transitions, Part 3

When it gets a little too comfortable or too familiar, life seems to conspire to kick you in the pants. If you are seventeen going on eighteen, this is the time of year when you are about to graduate high school and are thrust, usually with some trepidation, onto a larger and more chaotic adult stage. If you are a civil servant like me, age 54 going on 55 next year, you are pondering a looming transition called “retirement”.

For me, the transition from high school to college was more welcome than scary. Unlike the singer Vitamin C (Colleen Ann Fitzpatrick) whose high school memories must be pretty good, mine were anything but that. My fond memories extend primarily to a few teachers who inspired me. The high school I attended did not. I felt bound for success elsewhere whereas my apathetic classmates seemed bound for a surfboard and lives full of loafing. While I hope they did not turn out that way, thirty-five years later I still cannot be bothered to go to my high school reunions. I’m not sure any of my classmates’ names would even ring a bell.

In my spare time at the church I attend I facilitate a youth group. They are a tight, eclectic and interesting bunch, and one of the few reasons I have to hope for our future. It would be hard to overstate how intelligent, compassionate and interesting they are as near adults. It’s unclear to what extent our church molded them, but as long-term recipients of years of religious education this group of high school students have bonded amazingly well. And yet next month they will be handed diplomas and will likely never see each other again, at least as a group. Before they tackle the world of adulthood, they get to lead a youth service planned for later this month and give the congregation their thoughts on this transition. Tonight, as one of the adult advisors, I get to facilitate planning for the service.

Meanwhile, I get to ponder transitions of my own. I am now a year away from being able to retire. I doubt I will retire the day I turn eligible, but it is strange to be able to count when that date could be in months rather than years. While no one is forced to retire when they are eligible, I am beginning to wonder if I will be nudged, if not shoved in that direction. The federal workforce, already actually quite lean (about 150,000 fewer employees than when Ronald Reagan was president) is likely to get leaner in the years ahead. I will be watching legislation carefully. I suspect Congress will be eyeing our pensions fund for cuts. I doubt I will come out unscathed. I may find it advantageous to retire to avoid pension cuts that might happen if I hung around. My pension may be cut regardless. I sense a job transition is ahead for me and it is likely to be sooner rather than later.

Knowing that my time as a civil servant is likely quite limited, last week I was pondering if I should attend a conference in June. I can go myself or send someone else instead. Perhaps I should go and consider it a perk of the job. On the other hand, if I were to retire within the next few years, the value of my attendance would be diminished. Instead, I should send others further away from retirement instead. This is one small sign of many that another transition is looming for me.

Just like the seniors in our youth group so used to hanging with each other that their pending separation is likely a cause of anxiety, I am having mixed feelings about my retirement. If you are happy with your work, why retire? I work with a wonderful staff of dedicated professionals, we do excellent work and unlike many jobs, the meaning of our work is quite obvious and easily measured. Moreover, I am paid very well to do it. In short, I am in my optimal comfort zone, productive and generally happy to do my work. A transition, even for the alleged comfort zone of “retirement”, is not necessarily comforting.

My office

For I know I would miss certain things, like doing excellent and meaningful work. I would also miss my employees and those who work for me who are all wonderful folk. You cannot help but think of them more as friends than colleagues after a while because you see far more of them than you do of any of your friends, including often your spouse. I would miss my boss, who can retire soon herself, my chain of command and the ancillary support staff who supported me. I would miss chatting with Melissa down in the credit union, the wonderful soups in the cafeteria and the opportunities to regularly travel the country on someone else’s dime. I would miss the view from the fifth floor of my office window. At the same time, I know it is pointless to hold onto these things. The institution I am a part of will change with political winds, which are likely to be harsh. People younger than me with arguably more talent are ready to assume my work, and really should. I know I cannot hold onto this good job indefinitely and even if I did it would not stay the way it is.

What would I do to fill the void it would leave in my life? I know I would keep working, at least part time, but I also know whatever I do next is likely to feel anticlimactic. Professionally, I have peaked. Teaching or whatever next career I pick will probably have its own unique challenges. Like the seniors in our youth group, I too will have to step into my own murky future.

Just like our youth, which get to try to enjoy the ephemeral feeling of a last month together before they step across a one-way threshold, I too sense a one-way threshold ahead of me and I sense I will be taking that step sooner rather than later. Life is mostly about change. It is sometimes good, sometimes bad but most often a mixed experience. It’s about moving outside your comfort zone whether you like it or not if life gets too comfortable and embracing the less comfortable. Ideally retirement is about moving toward a more comfortable zone, but there is also a great deal of comfort from forty years of meaningful work in the workforce. Finding a next job, albeit a part time one will be in some measure a move back toward the comfort of the workforce. My boss will likely be younger than me, my coworkers probably far less fun to be with.

And the comforting view outside my window is definitely going to change.

 
The Thinker

Random thoughts running around my brain, Part 2

It helps to write an occasional topic-less post. Seinfeld was always fun to watch, and it was a show about nothing. So it’s okay to have a post that is the same way from time to time, like this one, where more random thoughts running around my brain make it to electronic paper.

  • Who do I really admire? Those who can refrain from overeating on Thanksgiving. That requires willpower I do not have. All I can do is limit the damage, which means lots of protein (eggs) with breakfast, exercise (a two and a half mile walk, in my case) and try (but not always succeeding) not going for seconds. The best way for me not to succumb to food temptations is to keep them out of my house. On Thanksgiving, like the cornucopia, they overflow in abundance and I am sucked into their vortex.
  • As frequent readers know, my wife and I are now proud owners of a new 2011 Subaru Impreza. It’s my wife’s first “new” car just for her. She can have it. I drove it for the first time yesterday. Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I just don’t like it. She chose a manual transmission. It took a full minute for me to remember how to start the car (press down on the clutch, then turn the key). It’s been at least five years since I drove a stick and it now seems unnatural and bothersome. It did not shift particularly smoothly and because its pistons are mounted horizontally instead of vertically, the car feels like it wiggles sometimes, particularly when shifting to higher gears.
  • Subarus are just so chick cars. I had heard this, but thought it was just a stereotype. It is not. This became clear to me when I spent some time reviewing the glossy Subaru Impreza brochure my wife brought home from the dealer. Every page is meticulously designed to appeal to women, not men. All the photographs and illustrations are ever so carefully arranged photographs to carry a common woman-orient theme. Woman driving Subaru with dog in the window. Happy families. Women in jeans, model thin, in tight blouses running on lawns. Women lounging on the grass in front of their Subarus. Subarus parked in front of art galleries and coffee shops. On every page comforting female words: made to last, affordable, efficient, smart investment, built for living, stability, control, economical (well, maybe not at 23 mpg), agile, dog-friendly. What they won’t say: Subarus are just not sexy cars, they are practical and reliable cars. They ooze ordinary. If this is my wife’s midlife crisis mobile, she should have gone for something sexier rather than a car so relentlessly practical. I tend to buy practical as well, but Subaru make it a fetish.
  • With the purchase of the Subaru Impreza, our oldest car is now just six years old. I think this means my lifestyle is finally catching up with my income. I’m glad to be driving my Honda Civic Hybrid again, instead of a boxy, oversized Honda Odyssey I never liked.
  • Just why was it that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat Democrats? It’s like they have a death wish. Democrats rescued Wall Street, which now vilifies them because of consumer protection laws designed to keep them from doing the same stupid things again. Democrats kept a nation from collapsing into another Great Depression, saved our banks and financial institution, and kept our car industry and the huge ecosystem associated with the car industry. They even gave enormous tax breaks to business, just like Republicans. With friends like Wall Street, who needs enemies? While most Americans are struggling, businesses are enjoying record profits and refusing to use their profits to hire Americans. If Wall Street had any lick of sense, they would be promoting Democrats, not pillorying them. If I were President Obama, I’d say enough is enough and every day call attention to these record profits that are not being used to put Americans back to work. Heck, if they won’t hire Americans, I would campaign to raise taxes for big businesses. A populist campaign would also be a compelling 2012 campaign theme.
  • There’s a new Harry Potter movie out and I just don’t care to go see it, not even in IMAX. In fact, if I do see it, it won’t be in IMAX. My eardrums and neck still hurt from my last IMAX movie experience.
  • I am sick of being middle aged. The cardiologist keeps playing with my heart medications and giving me twenty-four hour Holter monitor tests. In spite of the surgery I had earlier this year, I still have foot and thigh nerve problems. Sitting is a painful endeavor and physical therapy hasn’t really made the problem go away. I cannot stand all day and earn a living. Ouch and more ouch.
  • And speaking of middle age, one scary statistic from this news report jumped out at me: “The poll finds that two in five men between 45 and 65 having problems with sexual functioning. Only 19 percent of female boomers say the same. For both genders, less than half received treatment.” That explains the overwhelming number of drug ads for sexual dysfunction. If only the magic blue pill also made older men actually want to have sex. Women, would it be too much to ask you to diet and exercise? Yeah, I know, you want us men to do the same thing.
  • I’m getting used to having a stepmother. She is old fashioned, so I addressed her by my father’s last name, which she liked. There is a lot to like about Marie. My dad chose well. My guilty thought of the day: I may like her better than my late mother. Perhaps this should not be surprising given that she did not have to raise me, so she comes with no baggage. Anyhow, my father and stepmother graced us with their presence and appetite for Thanksgiving, and showed us pictures of their honeymoon in Switzerland, which we watched on our high definition TV.
  • Speaking of Thanksgiving, the cat enjoyed the occasional scraps of turkey we threw his way last night. And he is being very useful making a rug of himself on my lap as I blog.
  • It makes so much of a difference to teach a higher-level class. The material is more interesting to teach, the students are awake and interested, and they are just interesting people in general. I will miss teaching them when class ends in a few weeks. This is why I got into teaching part time. Unfortunately, when you teach in a community college, you are much more likely to get a class full of students who would rather be somewhere else and would just as soon tune you out.
  • When I feel despondent about the state of the world, it helps to facilitate the youth group at my church. They are such a wonderful group of engaging, thoughtful, sensitive and humane youth. Perhaps with future leaders like these we are not necessarily doomed as a species, although I sometimes think we deserve to be. I hope to blog more about them in the future.
 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 15: Dieting, Fitness and Nutrition – do you know the difference?

This is the fifteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthday.

(Note: If you like this, you might also like Lesson 7 and Lesson 11.)

Young adults, you cannot get online without see articles on dieting, fitness and nutrition. Do you know the difference?

I confess I find it confusing at times. I know people think dieting must make them healthier. It can, but it can also make you sick. In some cases, if done without medical supervision, it can even kill you. So dieting is not necessarily healthy. I also know people who eat very nutritiously and yet it hasn’t made them any healthier. In addition, I know people who get plenty of exercise yet who are unhealthy. All these practices contribute to good health, but none of them guarantee health. Each has their pitfalls and misconceptions. Voluminous media reports on the latest scientific studies only muddles answers. I may be able to help you see through the mist a bit.

Let’s start with dieting. My bet is that any one time, most Americans are either on a diet or wish they had the willpower to go on a diet. They want to lose weight because the media drums it into them that being overweight or obese is unhealthy. They figure: if I can get to a normal weight, I’ll be healthy!

This is not necessarily true. I see many skinny things that are not healthy at all. Maybe it is because they smoke, take narcotics, are anorexic or never exercise. Having normal or below normal weight does not mean you are healthy and dieting to achieve a normal weight may or may not leave you healthier. You can be morbidly obese and still be healthy, with low cholesterol and blood pressure. However, a normal weight combined with good nutrition and regular exercise dramatically raises the probability that you will enjoy a healthy and a long life. Yet, there are never any guarantees. Even the healthiest person can contract a cancer or pick up a virulent infectious disease. Dieting alone is not a solution to your health. It is one of many means that may allow you to be healthy.

A legitimate diet followed rigorously will lower your weight. Nothing else is guaranteed. Losing weight is simple, but not necessarily easy. You must burn more calories than you take in. Diet plans merely offer different approaches for losing weight, but they can only succeed if you burn more calories than you ingest. Losing weight is often associated with reducing blood pressure and cholesterol levels, among other welcome changes, but there is no guarantee that these healthy goals will be achieved by losing weight.

Dieters often make the mistake of thinking they can lose weight by exercising more while they diet, reasoning they will burn more calories and thus take off weight more quickly. The research is now compelling: exercising has a number of healthful benefits but it may defeat your attempts to lose weight, at least if done to excess. If you do a lot of heavy work, like chopping wood, your blood sugar is lowered. This may cause your body to taunt you to eat more food to make up for the extra calories you burned. You may end up healthier from the exercise but your diet may fail. Over the years, I have experienced this, and I have seen it happen to too many of my friends as well. If you really want to lose weight, I would avoid the heavy cardiovascular exercises until after I was at my desired weight. Especially if I were obese, I would check with my doctor first about doing any heavy cardiovascular exercises.

Exercise, while a healthy practice, is actually a very inefficient way to burn calories. The vast majority of your calories are engaged in a much more Herculean task: maintaining your body. How inefficient is exercise? Men’s Health Magazine recently estimated that to consume a popular six hundred calorie entree, you would have to walk the stairs from the ground floor of the Empire State building to the observation deck twice. So counting calories to lose weight is much more effective than vigorously exercising and dieting, as it is more likely to succeed. Choosing mild, moderate or even no exercise is probably more effective at succeeding at dieting than heavy exercising. The most effective way to lose weight is actually simple: consume many measured, small mini-meals during the day so you never get hungry.

Is there a point to fitness given that it may not help you lose weight? Yes! Assuming you are exercising correctly, not overdoing things and not overly stressing joints and such, you are likely to have fewer aches and pains, you will feel a lot better and will have more energy to engage in life. If it’s been a long time since you have felt that way, you will be amazed how wonderful you will feel after a couple weeks of moderate exercising. In fact, the value of exercise arguably increases with age. What is the key factor for living to ninety and still being in good health? Good genetics certainly helps, but falling is what often kills or disables old people who haven’t succumbed to other disease. What causes most falls? It is a lack of exercise, both walking religiously and strengthening the muscles that maintain your balance, such as your thigh and hip muscles. My father, age 84, remains an avid and religious walker. He may be 84, but he goes to the gym regularly. That he walks without a stoop is proof of the value of regular exercise late in life.

While exercise is in general good, exercise is vastly improved by marrying it with good nutrition. Eating healthy while not exercising and being obese may help a little, but if you suffer from problems like high blood pressure, it is likely not a cure. As I mentioned in Lesson 7, nutrition is about giving your body the right stuff so that it can work optimally. If you are overweight or don’t exercise, it may make symptoms like adult diabetes less chronic, but it will probably not solve the problem. Proper nutrition does help you think clearer, feel better about yourself and aids all parts of the body.

Putting this all together: diet to lose weight but as a part of a plan to keep yourself at a healthy weight for life. Yo-yo dieting is not healthy, and may be worse than not dieting at all. Exercise to feel better and so that you can live a long life with minimal health issues. Eat nutritiously so that your body is primed to work optimally.

While these are foundations to health, there are also many other factors that contribute to health. Washing your hands regularly, flu shots, dental checkups, physicals, getting eight hours of sleep a night and avoiding many of the preventable stresses in life, like toxic bosses also contribute enormously to your good health. Your goal should be optimal mental and physical health. All these strategies help achieve it but none of them by themselves guarantees it.

 
The Thinker

Embracing the empty nest

The house is now an even quieter place. Since there were only three of us and we are all pretty introverted, we were never a noisy family. If one of us wanted to enjoy multimedia, for example, we would use headphones rather than disturb anyone else. Now, unless there is conversation between my wife and me, the loudest thing that will be heard all day will be plaintive meows from Arthur, the housecat, who doubtless wants a lap or a scritch.

Arthur does not like our daughter’s absence one bit. He mourns his loss in his own peculiar way: by occupying the end of the bed where they spent so much time and gazing incoherently out her window. Our daughter is not wholly gone, of course, just living elsewhere most of the time. She has come home twice since we moved her into a townhouse in Richmond, once for her grandfather’s wedding. We expect her again this weekend and for a couple days it will be like old times again. This means there will be light creeping under our bedroom door all night, and Arthur will knead her pillow with his paws and periodically snuggle up under her chin. But seemingly as soon as she arrives she will be gone again, back to Richmond where, among other things she has befriended an alley cat. She has no memory of life without a cat.

University is turning out to be a bigger and grander adventure than community college. There is something invigorating about any major city, and Richmond qualifies as a major city. She is becoming used to the bums on Broad Street, who for homeless people are generally inoffensive and congenial. She has found a favorite pizza joint that is a good jaunt on the other side of campus. She has found one exasperating course (psychology) and is finding she must do things that her servants (her parents) usually did for her in the past, like her laundry. She must like it down there because we hear little from her. She sends us snippets of email now and then. But when she is home she is expansive with descriptions and feelings of university life. To our relief, this living away from home thing seems to agree with her. And for the most part I don’t worry that something weird and terrible will happen that only I (because of my advanced parenting skills) could solve. I am realizing, hey, I trained her long enough, let her deal with the ambiguity of life for a change!

I am starting to recall, dimly, a married life before there was a child. We only had four years of it, and it seemed packed with events. You cannot quite pick up where you left off twenty years later. Twenty years ago, the only Internet available was on college campuses and only geeks knew how to use it. The closest to an online experience was AOL, Compuserve or dialing up local bulletin boards on your 1200 baud modem. We were also much healthier creatures twenty years ago. Now we are more inclined toward sitting rather than moving. My wife and I trade daily stories and frustrations, but otherwise do not feel the need to be terribly communicative.

Life without our daughter may seem more serene, but in many ways it is even busier. Neither of us likes to sit around and vegetate too long. I have a community college course to teach on Tuesday nights, and that fills up a lot of my free time. And then there are persistent and annoying home maintenance tasks. Three nests of yellowjackets had to be removed. A screen door is in the process of being replaced. New landscaping was recently installed which means the periwinkle and sod have to be regularly watered. There is also the youth group at the church that needs my attention, and the covenant group on the second Monday of the month. And exercise. And periodic tensions at work can take extra effort. And business travel. In fact, as I write this I am wending my way westward toward Rapid City, South Dakota where I will spend the week. In some ways I feel busier than ever, but mostly in a good way, which is generally the way I like it. Since graduate school in the late 1990s, when I got into the habit of working, studying and sleeping and not much else, any other way of life seems a bit weird. Sloth just does not agree with me.

Yet when I am at home and not too engaged in other activities, I hear mostly the largely welcome sounds of silence. Somewhere in the last twenty years my life became too busy to listen to music regularly. I am trying to get back in the habit, starting with a large rack of CDs and vinyl records that once gave a sort of meaning to my life. Lately, I have been listening to music I have not heard in decades, but which remain imprinted in my brain.  It makes the silence go away for a while, and it stimulates creative thought. It also makes chores, like grading papers, more pleasant.

Old habits are partially coming back, such as family dinner. Family now consists of just my wife and I. With the chaos of work and school, family dinners were a weekend thing. Now they are happening during the week as well. My wife usually takes Wednesdays off, which means I often come home to a prepared meal on Wednesdays. It still feels strange, but I am getting used to it. I am discovering I do not have to depend on Lean Cuisine for my dinners during the week.

Perhaps this should be a time for husband and wife to recharge the marriage. So far there are few signs of extra connection going on. Perhaps we were optimally connected before, or perhaps neither of us particularly feels the need to reconnect more than we are used to. There are new options for our unencumbered state. We can see movies during the week if we want, or can disappear to a bed and breakfast for the weekend. So far we are just getting used to the quiet and the privacy.

I vaguely remember days when I would do brazen things like leave the door to the bathroom open while I showered. After all, if it’s just my wife and I inhabiting the house, and often just me, why bother to shut bathroom doors? One reason which I rediscovered is you need to door shut to retain steam and a higher room temperature. Perhaps I should worry about some pervert looking in through the living room window just so and getting a momentary glance at my naked body when I hustle naked down the hall. Such worries really are specious. No one is looking and frankly no one cares to look at ordinary naked middle aged people anyhow. They want to avert their eyes. I would too.

While at this stage of life I have no problem traipsing around the house buck naked when no one else is around, I realize I don’t particularly want to. It’s dawning on me that most people, including me, look much better with clothes on than without them. This is particularly true of us middle aged people. I am sure the thrill of any nudist colony wears off in about 15 minutes. Belly fat, cellulite, scars and droopy skin are features best left hidden anyhow. Better to imagine you and your spouse twenty or thirty years in the past. Better to wear a robe or a nightie to the bedchamber than show up sans clothes so we can at least pretend there is some mystery beneath those garments. Come to bed naked and you may turn off your spouse.

Overall, I am enjoying the empty nest. My suspicion is that when our daughter comes home for extended breaks, we will all be glad when she goes back to university. This new pattern is actually quite welcome. I still love my daughter, but we had her for nearly twenty one years. She needs to begin living independently too. It was time. It was past time to embrace the empty nest, rather than feel sad about it.

 
The Thinker

Real Life 101, Lesson 14: The meaning of religion

This is the fourteenth in an indeterminate series of entries that provides my “real world” lessons to young adults. It is my conviction that these lessons are rarely taught either at home or in the schools. For those who did not get them growing up you can get them from me for free. This is part of my way of giving back to the universe on the occasion of my 50th birthda

America seems overrun by religion. It’s hard to traverse more than a couple blocks without running into a church, temple or other place of religious worship. Even those who are not particularly religious can feel the need to congregate in places that seem somewhat like a church or temple. For example, many states have ethical societies where, if you are not religious, you can still participate in a congregation of similar people. Your children can even get something akin to a religious education there.

Despite our abundance of places of worship, Americans are becoming more secular. Youth in particular are leading the trend, in part encouraged by their parents who often gave religion short shrift growing up. Others (like me) as children had religion crammed down their throats and had to break away from it as adults. Young adults these days are particularly irreligious. If they went to services growing up, it was generally because they were required to. Once independent, it seemed so unnecessary and kind of dorky. It felt much better to sleep in late on Sundays, assuming you were not rushing off to the Wal-Mart or the Target to put in an early morning shift.

Nonetheless, even if you thought you had enough religion to last a lifetime, in adulthood you may find yourself feeling a bit lost. You know you are missing something important in your life, but you are not sure what it is. Perhaps you are getting an early taste of your mortality as the drudgery of adulthood sinks in. Perhaps your circle of friends is a few classmates from high school and college plus some buddies at work. Perhaps you just read the news online and feel hopeless about how messy and discordant our world is and need to feel hopeful.

For myself, when I was in my thirties, despite having a wonderful wife and flourishing daughter, I felt somewhat hollow inside. I think at some point in life the feeling is universal and we tend to address it in various ways. If we did attend church or temple regularly growing up and we found it a worthwhile experience, it is easy and comfortable to pick up where we left off. Some Sunday you may find yourself back for a service with the same denomination. If you hit some major obstacles in your life, such as the premature loss of a parent or close friend, you may find out you need a religious congregation to help you sort things out. On the other hand, you could like me fall into one of these not very theistic but spiritual types and still feel the calling of religious community.

Here in America, we tend to associate religion with God, but that’s not necessarily what religion is about. Here’s dictionary.com’s definition of religion:

A set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs.

Notice that religion is principally about understanding the universe, not about memorizing Bible or Torah passages or salvation or being born again. Human beings are driven to ponder the imponderable, and since we are finite, it is in our nature to ask questions like, “Why are we here?” Through religion, you can discover myriad possible answers to these questions. Most religions are glad to assert they have the correct ideology. A few of them, like Buddhism and mine make no such claims.

If you investigate a religion, you will find one of two things to be true: either its teachings and values will resonate with you, or they will not. It may well be that, as I was taught, the Catholic Church is the only correct way to understand God and achieve salvation. It really doesn’t matter to me if this is true or not, because Catholicism does not resonate with me. So for me, it will never be my religion of choice and any proselytizing by the Church directed at me will be for naught. If that means I end up in hell, well, it’s in my nature, I guess.

Like it or not we are all on a spiritual path and each of our paths will be a bit different. Some people are on a very independent spiritual path. They feel no need for religion and seek guidance from within. However, the desire to make sense of the chaos that is life remains as much in them as with anyone. That is what drives most of us (at least here in the United States) toward religion.

Worship in some form goes back as far as we can trace humanity. It has evolved from worshiping a golden calf and sacrificing virgins to the volcano god. Today, we may choose to worship The Goddess. We may express worship as a pantheistic appreciation of our complex universe. The common thread is that people of similar spiritual values find a need to come together, express those values and ponder those values with other similar people. Many will find at a house of worship at least some balm for the angst that they carry in their souls. Those that do not may feel free to shop around until they find a religion and congregation that matches their spiritual needs.

I think another reason that is more primal exists for why we affiliate with houses of worship. Basically, we need a community. A real community. There is probably a thriving community where we work, but it is unlikely to resonate with our spiritual needs. Friends also provide community and may provide the spiritual sustenance that we need too. Growing up, most of us live in small nuclear families. Families are the foundation of our society, but as great as they are they are not the same thing as a genuine community. If you don’t have real community in your life, it is hard to forever ignore the call to acquire it.

Some weeks back I was reading about the Dark and Middle Ages in Europe. Community in that time had a much deeper meaning than it has today. It did not take a village to have community; it took a manor. A manor was essentially a large community house, hall, kitchen and mass bedroom, which were overseen by a lord and lady. You were born in or close to the manor and you died there. At night, particularly during the long dark season when light was scarce and not very luminous and cold killed, you bedded with all your fellow citizens in the safety of the manor hall, often sleeping cheek to cheek. You were intimately a part of a real community. Your survival depended on the success of the manor and how well all of you held up your part of your community’s covenant.

Most religions are selling or promoting salvation and/or some grand understanding of the universe, but what most are really doing is creating real communities. Unlike medieval manors where you largely stayed for life, today you can shop around for the manor/religious house of worship that feels most comfortable to you. In your house of worship, you will find similar people. You will find stories and guidance (sermons) and a spiritual leader usually trained in your theology (generally, a minister). You will have the chance to contribute to community life (such as teaching Sunday school). You will have opportunities to embrace a larger community, perhaps by providing food to the poor or by helping to run a homeless shelter. If you are doing it right, you will give and you will get. Everyone in the community should feel spiritually enriched.

Houses of worship are thus gateways for connecting with real people and the real world. They are also (or should be) places of safety and refuge. That’s why even today a house of worship is considered a sacred place. It’s why a church can shelter an illegal immigrant under its roof and know with some confidence that the immigration police will not storm the church. Houses of worship then are really refuges for the soul, places to heal from complicated problems, find strength in others, get guidance to life’s many problems, and a conduit for you (if you want) to stretch your humanity. It is difficult if not impossible to get this complete enfolding experience anywhere else.

There are certain denominations and houses of worship that may be more toxic to your soul than helpful to it. Most strive to emulate higher authorities, but all at their core are human institutions. In my mind, this is fine because I see the real purpose of houses of worship as building real community, not spreading salvation. You will often find giant egos and toxic people in churches and temples, as is true of anywhere else. Most houses of worship though strive very hard to be welcoming, spiritually uplifting and balms for restless souls. Like yours. Like mine. Like everyone who is a human being.

So if someday you feel the call of church or temple, understand that there is nothing wrong with you, that the call is entirely natural. You will probably grow as a human being by scratching that itch. I am glad that I did.

 

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