The UBB Anniversary: The Truth is Always Respectable

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around.  But when I got to be 21, I was astonished by how much he’d learned in 7 years.”  — Mark Twain

Today is April 5, the first anniversary of the deaths of 29 men in a terrible coal mining accident at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia.

I honor the dead, and the families who mourn them; yet this post is not about that accident.  This post is about a question that the accident and its aftermath pose.  It is about something my father believes that I am not yet sure I do, and the anniversary of the UBB tragedy brings it again to the forefront of my thoughts.

“The truth is always respectable.”

My father is much more intelligent than the vast majority of people I know and even know of.   He is one of those “scary smart” men who can remember long chains of statistics, human connections, and historical sequences.  He is trained in the liberal arts and the law, has served in the army and the National Guard, endowed a prize in evidence at his law school and is intensely close to his God.   The fact that he is my father makes his stature even more awe-inspiring for me.  I listen when he speaks.  I take as pillars of my life some of his core tenets:

  • All things in moderation (If my father had to choose between Lost Horizon and the Bible for his one book on a desert island, I know he would struggle).
  • Your experience is the only experience you have; one always generalizes his or her own experience.
  • Never resist a generous impulse.
  • Fewer clothes in a marriage mean fewer arguments. (Note: I have been corrected since the original post, it’s not fewer arguments, it is arguments of shorter duration.  Got it.)
  • You can never see a great film too many times.
  • Butter is worth it.

This is just a sampler of his wisdom, but you get the idea.   The man knows what he’s talking about when he shares the wisdom of his over 80 years, and I pay attention.

That is why I am so troubled about my personal struggle with, “The truth is always respectable.”

Given the track record of how dad’s thinking turns out to be accurate I really wish this core idea were easier for me to understand.  I am still not there, and the UBB date on the calendar clouds things even more.

Evidence in the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) investigation turns up testimony that all of the men did not perish instantaneously as originally reported.  I remember the claim that no one survived the blast being quickly and widely disseminated to ease concern that the miners suffered.  Now we learn several men may have not been killed immediately, and that one man made valiant efforts to save his fellow  miners, only to have to retreat as his own oxygen supply dwindled to dangerously low levels.

When I learned this, honestly I was angry.  I was not angry at the now-alleged wrong information, I was angry that anyone thinks the families need to know that.  How horrific, to be maybe even healing a small amount, only to face renewed grief.  If someone I loved had been in that mine, I thought, just leave me in peace.  Let me have the only thing I can possibly have, and that is that he died without struggle or pain.  Let me move on, let my heart rest.

Then here comes this news…….and there is no rest for the hearts and minds of these families.  It feels so wrong, almost unethical to bring this to light if there is nothing that can be done but to hurt more.

But some time has gone by, and now I do more than just react to this terrible and seemingly pointless news.  I start to turn it around and reconfigure what it means to be devoted to knowing the truth.

If we say, either explicitly or implicitly through our responses to new information, “This is pointless and painful and you should never have told us,” what else are we saying?

We are saying it is acceptable to withhold information that might change future outcomes.

It is true that the terrible UBB explosion cannot be undone.  Those men are gone from this world forever, and their families and communities will never be the same.  But it is also true that large corporations (including the government) breathe a sigh of relief when we don’t make too much out of knowing what really goes on: who was lax, who made a serious error, who showed disdain for human life, who would just as soon deliver a modified story as the real one.

My conflict is with whether or not what the truth IS deserves respect.  That is what I usually hear when I hear, “The truth is always respectable.”  If it’s true that you cheated on a test, or lied to Congress, or abused a child, is that respectable?

No.  But making the reality of what you did available to yourself and to others who deserve to know is.  It’s more than respectable; it’s the only way anything gets any better over the long haul.

The real stories necessitate real change.  I want to put my head under a pillow so I can’t hear the real stories.  But hear them, and share them, and support them I must.

Dad, you did it again.  How do you do that?  I love you.

Image credit: EthioSun.com

The Arc of Your Truth

“I want you to believe in yourself and in the arc of whatever truth begins in you and goes out to the world.  Even when things seem bleak—in our relationships, or in our careers…—sometimes things go our way.  Especially when we are honest.  Surrendered to outcome.  Especially when we live and relate in our most raw and real selves.  Vulnerability is vital to our human experience.  We don’t have to be alone. “

Laura Munson ~ Author.

Writing friends, you will want to read Laura Munson’s bio on her new website (just launched yesterday).  Her essay in the New York Times “Modern Love” column in 2009 turned heads and changed lives.  Beyond that issue, she is a wonderful writer with an open heart and sound mind.  Enjoy!

Santa Claus: or, There and Back Again

Before I became a parent, I was sure of one thing:  No elaborate lies about this guy named Santa Claus.  I generally “believed” myself as a child, but I don’t remember my parents telling me he was real.  I had presents under the tree “from Santa” and enjoyed all of the traditions and stories about the North Pole, reindeer, etc.; but Christmas was about spiritual matters and the other stuff was just fairy tale fun.

This Christmas my daughter is 2 1/2 years old.  She is prime time for the jolly old elf, and I saw on her face something I never expected.  A few times when I started to explain that it is all just tradition and a fun story, she gave me a look that I can only describe as please don’t take this away from me.  In that instant I realized this period of magical thinking is truly brief, and while I had no interest in some elaborate ruse for myself, she was interested.

Conundrum.

I have known too many people who complain bitterly about being tricked about Santa Claus.  They use words like tricked, lied to, fooled,  and deceived.  They say things like, “I realized I could never trust my parents again.”  That, my friends, is serious business.  I don’t think there is any sure way to know if one’s child will end up feeling this way if you lead them along the merry path.  All I knew, or thought I knew, was that I was not about to risk it.  I mean for heaven’s sake, I need my credibility there for things like sex, God, and paper or plastic.  I can’t be burning it up over some fool elf.

But like I said………there was that face.  I didn’t have the heart to tell her it wasn’t real, and I found myself enjoying the game in spite of myself.  The look on her face when she saw Santa soliciting donations for a children’s charity in town was incredible.  She was just speechless in his presence, but couldn’t stop talking about him at home.  She talked about the elves, the workshops, the North Pole, the flying reindeer, all of it.  Where it started to change was when she processed the stories about “keeping a list.”

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Santa Claus without getting into the lists of who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.  The worst are picture books that show him keeping lists of names of “the good little girls and boys.”  My child’s face would cloud over and she looked very unhappy.  Truly, she should have nothing to worry about.  She’s a well-behaved kid.  But I knew she definitely did not like this part of the story.

One evening as she was falling asleep I heard her say, “Santa will be upset with me.  Santa is going to be upset.”  I assured her Santa was just fine with her, that he didn’t get upset with anyone, that it was all good.  But the next episode sealed the deal for me.  As we were talking about Santa in general and the fact that Christmas is coming, she cut her eyes away from me and said flatly, “I don’t love him.”

My girl is one of the most loving children I’ve ever known.  This was a red alert that the big man had to be kicked to the curb.  After talking it over with her father, I told my daughter, “You know, Santa Claus is just a character in a story that people like to tell this time of year.  It’s for fun.  It’s all about magic, and giving, and imagination.”  She looked at me with wide eyes.  I went for it.  “He’s not real.  He’s made up.  Momma and Daddy are real.  We love you.  You never have to worry about Santa, he’s just pretend and for fun.  If it’s not fun, we can just not talk about him.”

That child’s face lit up like a you know what.  She smiled a beautiful smile and hugged me with all her might.

What can I say?  If it works, it works.  If it doesn’t, it’s truly no loss.  Yesterday we lost a fat guy in a suit we were going to lose eventually anyway, and we kept a tighter grip on unconditional love.  That is for real.

Image credit: Norman Rockwell

The Slow Walk to Truth

Niels Bohr

Physicist Niels Bohr said, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement. But the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.”

I’ve also heard this translated as the difference between trivial and profound truths.

So often we are pushed to choose sides around issues that don’t really lend themselves to black and white “sided” decisions. When profound issues are reduced to the dynamics of trivial issues, we lose out as individuals and as a community of human beings when we accept the pressure to name one thing completely right and the other completely wrong. There are elements of rightness and wrongness in all the decisions we make about profound issues, though you might never know it the way our culture demands allegiance to extreme ideas.

Opportunities to see the subtleties in a quest for truth are everywhere.  I recently read an article examining the ethical issues and evidence surrounding public campaigns to promote specific health behaviors in the Journal of Health Policy, Politics and Law that has a great line in it:

“It is all too true that the American public does not understand the concept of risk. They also do not understand the nature of science. Science does not answer questions, in the simple sense of the phrase – it refines them incrementally in its approach toward understanding natural processes.”

I love the idea of the refined, incremental approach to understanding something. It seems so important to internalize the idea that we are always in the process of understanding life’s most significant issues, and that complete understanding is an unrealistic goal. This illustrates the relationship of faith and science and their overlapping dimensions, not their stark opposition in every case. I can switch a word or two and get another sentence that works for me:

“Faith does not answer questions, it refines them incrementally in its approach toward understanding spiritual processes.”

It seems to me Bohr’s principle of profound truths applies. It is not faith or science, it is elements of each that illustrate the best, most comprehensive version of understanding our world.

———————————-

Photo credit: Atomic Archive

Bohr developed the theory that explains the structure and action of complex atoms. During World War II, Bohr fled his native Denmark to escape the Nazis. He travelled to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to advise the scientists developing the first atomic bomb. He returned to Copenhagen after the war and later promoted the peaceful use of atomic energy.  Today’s post revisits some Esse Diem ideas from April 2009.

Growing Up Blind – John Warren (part 5, After College)

This is the conclusion of a 5 part essay for the Essays on a WV Childhood project.  To go to the beginning of the essay and start with part 1, click here.

Growing Up Blind (part 5, After College) 

 

30 years of John's journals, 1980-2010

 

 Ironically, so many Christians befriending me in spite of my struggles had an effect they didn’t anticipate.  I felt intense guilt for being attracted to other men, but I was greatly encouraged that there were people who knew the ugly truth about me and still chose to be my friend.  There was a part of me that began to think, “Hey, if these people will still be my friend, then maybe this is not such a horrible thing after all.”  

In the years after I graduated from college there were many times I felt that I had to choose between my faith and my sexuality, and for many years I chose Christianity. The prolonged conflict between these aspects of my personality, however, took its toll.  At the age of 32 I took a job in a new city and took the next seven years off from church.  

Today, I describe myself as an agnostic.  My beliefs have changed, and I am no longer convinced that it is a sin to act on my sexual desires.  I am now 42 years old and for the first time in my life I am ready to date someone of the same gender.  

Whatever happens, you can be sure I’ll record every major development in my journal.

Image credits: John Warren

Objects and Art: When Toys Tell Truth

In 1987, a little 43-minute movie was released called Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story.  I remember seeing some clips from the movie but never had the opportunity to see the whole thing.  By the time I mustered the courage to watch it, Superstar was withdrawn from circulation due to legal conflicts with Karen’s brother Richard and other family members.

(Blog newsflash!  You can still see Superstar here.  But you might want to hurry…..something tells me it’s not supposed to be there.)

Why did it take courage for me to watch?  Simply put, the clips I saw scared me.  This was no ordinary movie.  The story of Karen Carpenter and her death from cardiac arrest secondary to anorexia nervosa is told entirely with Barbie dolls.

“(Filmmaker Todd Haynes)……spent months making miniature dishes, chairs, costumes, Kleenex and Ex-Lax boxes, and Carpenters’ records to create the film’s intricate, doll-size mise-en-scene. The result was both audacious and accomplished as the dolls seemingly ceased to be dolls leaving the audience weeping for the tragic singer.”

Superstar was my first and still most intense encounter with the technique of objectifying reality so completely that many of the subjective truths we can’t help but “see” in other forms fade to black.  Those subjective truths tend to be either ideas we’ve never questioned or concepts we need in some way to help manage things we find intellectually or emotionally difficult.  By removing literal humanity from the Karen Carpenter story, Haynes revealed human weakness and pain in form more raw than if it had been “real.”  It is as if the mind is being tricked into not using the subliminal cues it usually employs to circumvent “seeing” something it doesn’t know how to place comfortably.

There is a new project out called Why He’s My Ex that uses dolls to explore the dynamics of break-ups.  While it’s not Superstar by any stretch, it presents an interesting dynamic of freezing in a still shot (over and over again) an entirely objectified event that ended a relationship.  Told from a woman’s point of view, the use of the dolls and the single image still manages to cut out the white noise of “he said, she said” that clouds the telling of most break ups.

And last but not least, that which only either a learned theologian and/or toy maker ought to address: The Brick Testament.  If you are Jewish or Christian and you don’t usually see the humor in your respective faiths, you may not want to visit this site.  I wanted to say something like, “I’m a good Christian woman and I think it’s funny,” but I’m not that good and some people don’t think Presbyterians are real Christians.  So just be forewarned, you need to take off any defensiveness hat and just come to this with a mindset of what visually interpreting the Old and New Testaments might look like entirely in…………LEGOS.

I have yet to go through all the images on The Brick Testament, but it is a goal to do so.  Some of them are just truly hilarious.  Sometimes the laughs come because the use of tiny LEGO people in miniature LEGO environments is just so creative and obviously time-consuming to set up that I can’t help but chuckle that somewhere, someone is spending their time doing this — a lot of time.  Sometimes I laugh due to the juxtaposition of children’s toys with dramatic pieces of scripture, such as this line from Revelations positioned with a floating pink plastic LEGO door:  “Come up here and I will show you what must take place after this.”

The funny things, however, are not the true brilliance of The Brick Testament.  By becoming a creator/god of his own worlds, the mastermind behind this art project offers opportunity to ruminate on more than the jokes.  I found myself thinking about why he did this, what his real intentions were, how he made decisions about some presentations, and how utterly absurd and nonsensical much of it all is.

These are pretty much the same questions I ask about God from time to time.

I leave you with a sincere Shalom, and a grateful heart for the visions of artists.

Evil, Meet Science

The concept of evil is so ancient, vast, and complex that even though I think about it often I hesitate to write about it.  A story on NPR yesterday made me change my mind.

Consider this (emphasis added is mine):

Inspired by the structure of Dante’s circles of hell, Michael Stone has created his own 22-point Gradations of Evil” scale, made up of murderers in the 20th century. “I thought it would be an interesting thing to do,” he says.

Dante's 9 Circles of Hell

His scale is loosely divided into three tiers. First are impulsive evil-doers: driven to a single act of murder in a moment of rage or jealousy. Next are people who lack extreme psychopathic features, but may be psychotic — that is, clinically delusional or out of touch with reality. Last are the profoundly psychopathic, or “those who possess superficial charm, glib speech, grandiosity, but most importantly cunning and manipulativeness,” Stone says. “They have no remorse for what they’ve done to other people.”

Stone hopes the scale could someday be used in prosecutions. “The people at the very end of the scale have certain things about their childhood backgrounds that are different,” he says, from those who appear earlier in the scale.

That a modern-day psychology/medical professional would use Dante to consider how to interpret and respond to criminal activity fascinates me.  I have a foundation of respect for things that are ancient and complex, and genuinely believe that no matter how “evolved” we become as a species we may never be able to get any closer to the Truth of some things than we did hundreds of years ago.  In fact, I often think we lose knowledge by insisting that something explained by older civilizations must need polish and improvement.  If it’s old-school, primitive hindbrain stuff, maybe not.  Avarice, gluttony, wrath, betrayal, etc. seem resistant to “evolving” out of human nature.

But how we interpret and label our condition is important.  How we position the concept of “evil” in the world is crucial to how we respond to it.  My life changed the day I internalized the concept, “We are not punished for sin, but by sin.”  Naturally the human justice system can only focus on punishment for, but the larger idea of why we suffer is directed by the idea that following certain inclinations rather than resisting them inevitably will lead to a bad situation.  It’s as guaranteed as basic addition.

When we label people themselves as evil, we are taking the easy way out.  If anything, Michael Stone’s analysis of the 22 murderous types indicates that the more abuse and trauma an individual as suffered, especially early in life, the more prone they are to a psychotic break that disconnects them from a capacity to participate in anything but increasingly violent and disturbing behavior.  There is clearly a stress point for the mind, and the scale suggests that it’s the passing of that point that creates an inability to ever go back.

Which brings us full circle (pardon the pun) to Dante.  

Reading Stone’s profiles of murderous behavior and its origins supports Dante’s story.  What we call “evil” is a concentric, spiralling energy that with each pass pulls one deeper into a level more difficult to escape.  Properly managed, this connection of old and new thoughts on the influence of evil on our lives has the potential to reinvigorate public interest in prevention of and intervention in abusive environments, especially for the very young.

It also reminds me that, past a certain point, there are still limits on what people can fix.  That doesn’t mean it can never be repaired.  See Dante.