27 June 2006

My Inner Child is a Brat

Summer is a cumin seed, to quote PDQ Bach. I have been away for a few days, attending the annual convention of Unitarian Universalists of which I am a part. I always look forward to it, then arrive and remember how hard it is for me.

I need to explain that I am a devoted introvert, someone who finds large groups loud and chaotic and hard to navigate. I am on edge a lot. Large groups sort of come with my territory so you may be asking why I am in this business then? “It seemed like a good idea at the time,” as someone famous said. That would take us down a psychoanalytic path I am unprepared to follow right now. Maybe another time.

Then there is the other neurosis I deal with, incompetence. This too is a psychoanalytic topic, though I prefer the Eriksonian model, which is itself a path of some length. Let me just say that the essence is that I feel surrounded by two types of people – those way better than me at almost everything and those way worse than me. This, of course, is not objective reality but that urgent capacity to feel childish well into the doddering years.

So I tried to experience the UU General Assembly as a sort of psychodrama where I watched what I watched, observed my own observations, thought about my thoughts. Great idea, right?

Yeah, but I failed. The old childish feelings always roared louder than the adult thoughts. I found myself lurching from petulance to self pity, from cynical laughter to bilious outrage. My inner child was a brat all week, and try as I might to listen and show calm resolve I wanted to give myself a good spanking more than once.

My only accomplishment was keeping it well out of view (most of the time at least) and my only hope is that there are more people out there like me. It would be utterly mortifying to find out my worst thoughts were true, namely that I am the only really messed up and confused fifty three year old 12 year-old in the whole place. So if you find yourself in places where your inner brat comes out, places where the most infantile thoughts won’t go away, or occasions when all reason deserts you and goblins dance about between the ears, let me know will you?

If nothing else we can all get together and dish and diss. Didn’t Alice Roosevelt Longworth have a pillow daintily embroidered, “If you haven’t anything nice to say… come sit by me.” My kind of girl.

15 June 2006

"And Speaketh Stll"

Now that I have a minute or two, let me expand on the last post.

Sometimes you can see the future. Not some psychic gift as much as recognizing where something is going because you have seen it happen before. One day long ago I watched my toddler son try to stack a series of nested cups in an inverted pyramid, starting with the smallest and adding the next largest and so on. It fell with the third cup. He tried again, and again. I could see how this was inevitable but he could not.

Prophets are supposed to divine the future. The verb tells you what we think that means. God tells them what’s going to happen, but I think prophets are people who just see where things are headed. It’s not divine inspiration at all. They see the pattern of behavior and, like stacking cups, know what is going to happen. Nothing magical at all.

Steinbeck wrote “The Grapes of Wrath” within the Great Depression, crafting something between a novel and an epic, to lay out the tragedy of it all. The tragedy was not that so many suffered. It was, as I read him, that they did not have to suffer and still did. He portrays the juggernauts of ignorance and fear that possess the nation like a psychosis and drive it to unnecessary misery and defeat. That’s tragedy, both morally and dramatically.

As I read it this week, I saw how the patterns he describes are once again working their way through the land. Wealth and poverty are moving farther apart as the relentless logic of money and business press the poor into even deeper poverty. A belief in the natural laws of competition and trade immunizes the powerful from the conditions of the powerless. The ledger is the law, and whatever makes ink black is good while whatever makes it red is bad. And those who shout ‘stop’ are labeled traitors or subversives, the political equivalent of heretic.

For the real problem is religion. Not religion in the churches and the Bibles, but in the orthodoxy of ideas like trade and competition and deregulation and taxes. They are propped up by papers and think tanks and figures, which have the advantage of looking authoritative by having lots of charts and graphs and scientific packaging. But in the end, some people get to get richer and lots of others get to get poorer. And though that may seem unfair at first glance, the figures and the theories and the data all show that it is a Panglossian blessing. So we can put away out twangs and twinges.

And no one notices that we are stacking bigger cups on little ones. Except someone like John Steinbeck, who isn’t even alive anymore. But then again neither is MLK, or Lincoln, or Jeremiah. But just because they are dead does not mean they are not telling us the truth even now.

Read the book. See the future. And ask, as Scrooge did, if these are the images of things that will be or merely things that may be.

04 June 2006

"What A Good Boy"

Found, or rather rediscovered a most unpleasant fact about myself recently. I am a misanthrope.

The French playwright Moliere devoted one of his funniest to just that title, and a tale of a man on the fruitless search for sincerity. Which reminds me of a favorite proverb, attributed to George Burns., “The secret to success,” he said, “is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” This also serves as a plot summary for Moliere.

My misanthropy is of a less sincere form, I confess. Mine is of the curmudgeonly sort, that is, a toxic by product of my own misery. Someone observed, which means I do not remember exactly who, that a curmudgeon is a bruised sentimentalist. They are those who care and feel very deeply but have found the world not to have returned that care and sentiment reliably. So they build up a crust of suspicion and cynicism that protects their credulous and hopeful parts from regular battery.

Why am I thinking about this right now? OK, how revealing should I be here? Tough question, but let’s take a risk and let down the curmudgeon’s barrier for a moment. I was reading some email from a UU organization of which I am a member. Note that I was born in it, trained in it, and served it as a clergyman for 25 years before stepping outside it in my current job. In that piece of mail I see described several colleagues who are prospering in the public eye, folks I know and like and respect. And yet, I resent it too.

I have felt this resentment before, and noted to myself that I should ponder this feeling as I have had it many times over the years, all the way back to grade school. In fact, the earliest instance of feeling resentment at someone else’s success was in the sixth grade.

I had labored successfully to recruit an African-American friend onto the Safety Patrol. I was a member of the team, and very proud of that, relishing the white shoulder strap and badge and mastering the art of wrapping it into a neat square bundle that could hang on my belt. I was not a sergeant or lieutenant (which had colored badges) but there was the outside chance of advancement at least. And I was very earnest and took the job very seriously.

But at the time, just as busing was getting underway, we had a significant number of black kids attending and no black members of the safety patrol. Tony was a friend, a good kid of the sort that would be safety patrol material, and I lobbied the teacher in charge to admit him, which she did. I was delighted, and so was my mother who was one of the lefty loudmouths at the school who actually thought integration was OK.

The next week, as memory serves, my teacher, inspecting our classroom desks, found mine to be quite messy inside and demonstrated its unacceptable quality by tipping it over so all the crumpled papers spilled out. I was also suspended from the safety patrol.

Being twelve, I did not appreciate the hidden dynamics of power. From a distance I can see that it may not have been purely coincidental that I was suspended for having a messy desk after bringing a black friend onto the patrol. All I knew was that at the time I had done a good thing and was being punished. And Tony, smart enough not to risk his position, was now far more distant and found better friends in the other safety patrol members.

A whole lot of therapy over the years has taught me that I have a very deep desire for approval from others – lacking a healthy sense of my own decency. Sort of how little toddlers look at mommy or daddy to get confidence as they walk and take on other challenges that they are uncertain of being able to do. When others get it (approval) and I don’t my self confidence plummets. That is the curmudgeon’s bruise. And when it isn’t there, or goes to someone else, I feel first a sense of failure and then a sense of anger, which are solid ingredients in resentment.

There’s also a lot that involves sibling rivalry - mine not my sibs - and the inconsistency of parents who after all are merely human but when you are young represent goodness and truth and all that. But it is startling that after all these years and all that professional help, those patterns are still so potent. For some reason I still keep a very childish notion in my head that being decent and good will ultimately yield honor and approval. We will not be measured by our exterior gifts but by our interior virtues, that we will reward loyalty as well as celebrity, bestow honor not just in the familiar or currently popular places but on the many who never make it into the spotlights.

And all this is still a leather shield against the consistently tender place in me that still hopes mom or dad will be there with outstretched arms, smiling and cheering, as I take those terrifying first steps.

Good heavens, I just remembered that dream from yesterday and how my legs failed me then as well. Where’s a cheap psychoanalyst when you need one?

03 June 2006

You Are Getting Sleepy

Had a wonderfully neurotic dream last night. It was the clergyperson’s nightmare, being late for church. (There are other nightmares, like arriving in the pulpit without a sermon, but all of them involve being unable to serve when called upon. Like I said - it was neurotic.) In this case, though, elements from separate churches I have were beautifully plaited together.

- I was in my first church parsonage, a vast and ancient rural house with outbuildings attached. I have often dreamed of it and the town, though in true dream fashion, the visual dreamscape bore almost no resemblance. But I know it is that place because my brain says so in the dream and the details of old wooden buildings, their sags and gaps and other signs of aging, are very much in evidence.

- I was going to perform a wedding, the bride of which was a young woman from my fourth church. In waking life, she was a high schooler when I arrived and some years later did get married. I was not the officiant at her actual wedding, my predecessor was.

- It was now, not then. I have two weddings to perform today and work in preparation before attending to them. One of the issues in the dream was returning my pulpit gown to the church from home, where it is now in fact.

The most striking part of the dream, a recurring motif in fact, was that I was delayed by my own body. The harder I tried to move, walk, the harder it became. The more urgent my need to go, the more my legs refused to move. I was in my suit, heading toward the door when I remembered I needed something (the object escapes me but it was something I could hold in one hand). It happened to be in the back yard (it was a spring day and the plants were well into their blooms and greenery) so I went out to fetch this object now evaporated from memory. But my legs would not hurry, they seemed even paralyzed. I had no choice but to fall on my belly and crawl – soldier fashion on my elbows – in order to get back to the house. So I was now covered in mud from dragging myself through the yard. I remember thinking that this would engender sympathy and forgiveness for being so late.

Once back to the house, I could hoist myself by the furniture and drag myself upstairs to get the pulpit robe. For some reason, was I able to descend the stairs quite normally, even as it was grueling to climb them - like hoisting bags of sand upward.

I knew it was late, well after 2 p.m. and that the father of the bride was an antagonist to my ministry and this would only confirm him in his contempt. So I threw myself forward ever hard, railing at my leaden legs. But the harder I tried the slower I got. Somewhere in the front yard, now almost an hour after I should have been there, I woke up.

I do not believe that Freud was right in his typology of dreams, but I do think they are Rorschachs of the mind. The brain does its housecleaning during sleep, and our minds take this to be input and try to make sense of it. So while the actual stuff running through our neurons may be as meaningless as bundles of old newspapers, the mind reads it all and assumes there is a coherent message and therefore strings it together as best it can. The result is a Dead Sea Scroll of material, with gaps and tantalizing scraps that invite consciousness to imagine a whole from the few bits available. In the end, dreams are a reflection of our projections.

So I am sitting down this morning, barely after 7 a.m., to write out my two weddings for today and get that weight off my shoulders. I am not at all fond of my Sunday sermon, meaning how it says an idea I care very much about. It is a pale shadow of what I want to say, but then again every sermon is only an approximation. They are all failures, and every week is more shadow than substance, more dream than reality. But I shall obsess about that as well, and all the other debris of life which is hardly different from the debris of the brain.

Today is Shavuot, and I intend to go to shul and celebrate the encounter on Sinai in the wilderness. Sometimes I wish our purpose and direction were as cleanly writ as that story believes. But most of the time, even life is a little dreamlike, with holes and gaps and not much clarity about the big picture. And the harder I try to run, the slower I get.

And liberals wonder why people stick with old fashioned religion.