My Recent Empathy Fail

January 14th, 2012   by   Andrew

Part of the series God: from Magic to Motivation

And my head told my heart, ”Let love grow.”
But my heart told my head, ”This time no,
This time no.”
~ Winter Winds, Mumford & Sons

I’m calling the guy Tyler. I don’t know his name, but he might have been twenty, and the flat beak of his hat made me think he could have been named Tyler. Or maybe it was his teeth. I doubt that he’d ever been to an Atlanta Braves game, considering Atlanta is close to a thousand miles away from here, but maybe there is something significant about the good old team from Georgia. Maybe Tyler thinks their s%$t makes him look good. Maybe Tyler was never told the importance of seeing a dentist regularly. Maybe there is a lot about Tyler I don’t know.

After that night, I don’t want to know much about him. He could have destroyed my music equipment.

A friend and I were playing in a small pub in a small village of less than 3000 people. I lived in that village for a while, from Kindergarten to Grade 2. Today there is one Subway restaurant and one Home Hardware store and one IGA. I don’t think there is another franchise within the village limits. Everything else is Mom & Pop stuff. They do have a Family Dentistry Centre though.

The crowd is always great there when we play. Small in number, but they want to sing and they want to have a good time. The owner of the place sang a song with us. I think half the people in the place came up and sang something. Late in the evening the weekday cook came by and she took turns with an older couple in playing either the bongo or the tambourine we brought with us.

Tyler came in with his girlfriend and sat at a table for two. He drank. She texted. After a pitcher, Tyler seemed to realize there was live music, and that others were enjoying the music. A sociable guy in the crowd I’m going to call Jake introduced himself to the two and invited them to join his crowd at a bigger table. Jake is a regular and a good guy. He sells cars during the week and has won the heart of the weekday cook. He was sitting with my wife and some friends.

Tyler lost more and more of his balance over the night. His girlfriend lost more and more patience until she finally decided to disappear. Tyler didn’t mind if she went home, though. He thought he had new friends. And, he became more and more infatuated with a blond at the table. He was a man of persistence and repetition. Even after it was explained several times clearly and calmly that she was neither interested or available, he continued his pursuit. He was a young, motivated man.

When we took a break I learned that Tyler had been shuttled from foster home to foster home as a kid, and then group home to group home as an adolescent. He didn’t have much education, but he did have a three-year-old child that didn’t like him much and a girlfriend that he didn’t love. He was trying to do the right thing, be there for his kid and for the girlfriend. That’s what he’s supposed to do, isn’t it?

It’s amazing how easily personal information flows from the self-medicated. And don’t worry if you didn’t catch it the first time, because they will tell you again and again, just to make sure.

I told this story to a friend that’s a social-worker. Very quickly my friend said, “Don’t tell me his name! I might know more about him than you do.” Tyler might very well be one of my friend’s case files.

Tyler requested a song. After we played his song, he forgot and requested it again. We played it again but he quickly turned around and went outside for a smoke. At the end of the night, he came over to us while we were packing up and requested we play his song again. He was sorely upset that the night must come to an end and he turned to share his disappointment with his new friends at the bar. In that turn, he bumped a table, and let go of his glass of beer. It fell, all of it, into the crate I use for my electronic effects board and my cords. I watched as the liquid soaked into the crate padding, coating the metal casing of my effects board, obeying the demands of gravity and seeking the most efficient routes down and through, down and through.

I remember looking up at the guy. I remember wondering how often I’ve probably worn that same serene, self-medicated face. I remember going over everything I heard about his life, how he may have been the unfortunate loser in almost every possible lottery that life throws at us. He had no say in the genes he was given or in the level of intelligence he might have been born with. He had no say in the parents he was born to, and almost no say in the habits and values they instilled in him. He likely had very little control in the decision-making process that selected his foster homes or his group homes.

And yet he still had the power to drastically change one girl’s life. He had the power to create another life. And he had the power to dramatically threaten a complete stranger’s property. Each of these things probably needed mere seconds and the haphazard coordination of circumstances. Does he have his license and a car to drive too?

How much of Tyler’s life was Tyler responsible for, when he didn’t have either the genetic tools or the nurturing environment to inspire in him a desire to change? What would make him want something more in his life? Even if it is just a dang shame, and society has provided him every opportunity to shape up and value what all the rest of us value, it doesn’t matter. He still has the power to fuck up our shit, by his mere presence!

My brain went out to him, thinking his life was little more than a determined series of events set in motion by things of which he has only ever had partial (maybe illusory) control. My heart said, “Get this guy away from everything you hold dear.”

In environmental terms, the guy is toxic, a stumbling bag of entropy. In religious terms, he was evil – evil by ignorance more than by intent, but still dangerous enough to bring complete disorder. In psychological terms, he was not properly motivated, not adequately socialized to function positively or take on responsibility. But all that doesn’t matter! He nearly broke my stuff!

Andrew Coyne had an article in Maclean’s Magazine a while ago on the differences between the Canadian and the American Occupy Wall Street movements. He suggests the elite classes have a lot of upward and downward mobility when it comes to finances. The lowest 10% of society, however, have practically no mobility and no resources to change that, except maybe their own motivation. According to the stats he collected, getting the poor out of the poor house wouldn’t actually take that much money, relatively speaking. If we increased the personal income taxes of our supposed super-elite class by 10%, that would be only enough to take care of 1/3 of the problem (ignoring other consequences for now). This option is obviously ludicrous, considering a hike that huge could start a civil war in the luxury class. If we increased the federal retail tax by 2% (that means on most consumer purchases of goods and services), that would likely bring in enough funds to move all the country’s poverty-stricken into respectable, safe lifestyles… for one year… conditionally. Changing the corporate tax levels would have too many other consequences, short and long term, that it’s just best to find better alternatives.

The problem is, the poor would still be poor, no matter how we juggle the numbers. People don’t change when money is thrown at them. They just make more expensive mistakes. And maybe most important to me, Tyler would still have the same power and ignorant inclination to mess up the lives of those around him. Even if he does mean to do the right thing.

Strangely, religions have always had an obsession with the Tylers of the world. Religions spend a great deal of energy and effort on either changing the motivations and minds of those that drain society, or at least minimizing the problems they do create. It’s something we need to pay attention to, since this the western world seems to be trending away from religious involvement and participation. The greedy, the ambitious and the rich take care of themselves. They always have, whether we want them to or not. They have to the tools to do it.

If we don’t take care of the religious, then the religious don’t take care of Tyler, and surprise surprise, he doesn’t go away. Instead, we still foot the bill (and my social worker friend has a job through a government agency). It seems like no matter what we do, we’re stuck paying for Tyler and for the person that tries to change Tyler into something more benign or productive. Otherwise, Tyler will find a way into our daughter’s pants.

I’ve spent most of my life in “economically depressed” places. Due to a couple of personal shortcomings and “unforeseen circumstances” (read: not facing my dragons), I’ve failed to sustain my entrance into the middle class. A lot of that has to do with my motivations though.

I want to feel for Tyler. I really do. But I have to admit, with some shame, that even now when I think of him, I can only see somebody else’s problem…

Stephen Colbert once said about America:

If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn’t help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus was just as selfish as we are, or we’ve got to acknowledge that He commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition and then admit that we just don’t want to do it.

I don’t think this is just a problem for “Christian nations” (if there is such a thing), and I don’t think that Jesus is the answer either. If it was, well wouldn’t the problem of Tyler be fixed by now, or at least faced up to?

(After all, Jesus didn’t inspire every troubled person he came across. But he did hang out with them and recognized them as part of his community.)

I think too much discussion is around who is right, or who has got it all correct. I think we need to start by asking, “Who has what power, and what are they motivated to do?” Tyler has the power to impregnate our daughters and destroy the things we hold dear. Moving away from Tyler or depriving Tyler of education and opportunities doesn’t seem to do the trick. He’s not changing. If Tyler is rich or ambitious, our daughters might actually be taken care of. Maybe that’s the only way we are going to understand how Tyler could be part of our family? That is, if Tyler thinks he should do the right thing.

Let’s find a better way to motivate him.

I’m starting to believe that the only religions I can trust are like the Tylers of the world (and even the ambitious of the world for that matter):

limited to benign pursuits,
able to keep their hands out of our children’s pants,
and mindful enough to not spill their drinks on my stuff when I am enjoying the rituals of song and fellowship.

What do you think?

How Muhammad Won the West

October 30th, 2011   by   Andrew

Supplement to the series Myths and Dragons

Even something as simple as the shovel or hoe presupposes the existence of a culture that has granted the individual dominion over nature, so that the individual has the right to make the Great Mother subservient to the claims of man. (Peterson)

In this series I’ve been thinking about how hero stories act as kind of models for behaviour. Stories tend to represent the world as primarily a place of actions with consequences rather than a place of things. The world is an ‘arena’ we play in more than a static ‘landscape’ of objects. Arenas have walls, or at least boundaries that frame the environment – the boards of a hockey rink for example, or the door and walls of your office. Some walls are quite obvious and some are invisible. When it comes to culture, these walls can tie us deep into history, and they frame our thinking whether or not we are aware of their presence.

Jordan Peterson uses this figure to illustrate how these walls can work on a person.

Layers don’t necessarily go away, but instead become more “implicit” – hidden or assumed. But each of these layers act together to reinforce a kind of “interpersonal predictability”. If I know your layers well enough, I will understand your behaviour and I can trust you won’t do too much that seems strange to me. At the same time, if you start exposing and examining those shared layers, your behaviour might become strange to me, unpredictable and not worthy of trust.

Earlier I looked at three ancient stories with male heros that shape much of the Western mind. The story of Horus is about a son that is rightful heir to his father’s reign not by virtue of blood or power but for his insight, cunning and his compassion. He wins out over the violent, unpredictable beast of emotion though he does not defeat the monster for all time. The story of Jacob is about a son that wins the blessing of his father through cunning rather than trust and faith. He wrestles with and accepts in the end a god he finds worthy of worship – one that is forever merciful and yet forever holding him to a higher principle. The story of Jesus is about a hero that commits himself to some higher principle even if it means taking on sacrifices or suffering.

As Peterson’s figure shows, it isn’t just mythic stories that shape us. What we believe in can be made up of a complex layering of vastly different, even competing or contradictory, stories. For example, even if you are not a Christian, much of the mindset of today’s Western World was built on that cultural frame of Christianity. Peeling back the layers to reach and examine that frame could greatly alter how we see our roles in the world.

It might even reveal some other influences as well.

I haven’t looked at the story of Muhammad much for this series, but Peterson’s figure made me wonder if there is a layer, deep down, for that prophet’s influence on the West. The recent “Arab Spring’ movement and the more local “Occupy Wall Street” movement make this influence all the more intriguing for me.

Our mathematical language has some important roots in the Arabic world (which in turn, has roots in Greece, India, Babylon and Assyria). The very word ‘algebra’ hints at the foreign flavours that have reached English, the Western tongue.

But the story of Muhammad reveals a model of behaviour that seems very much at home with the modern Western mind. An orphan brought up by an uncle becomes discontent with the world he finds himself in. He retreats to seclusion and returns to preach a new way that has been revealed to him. This new way brings persecution to him and his followers. They escape but eventually return with greater numbers and greater wisdom to reclaim the place they call home. Upon victory, Muhammad seeks to unite all the lands around him and manage the expansion of his influence. He not only leaves a legacy and an empire but a new way of living in a unified culture.

Does this model not fit beautifully with the entrepreneurial spirit? The attitude of expansion? And even hint at the importance of managing success?

I’ve often been haunted by irony in cultures. The model of the exploratory hero (Peterson uses it as his first ‘wall’ in the figure above), I’m afraid, is a breeding ground for irony, because of the nature of story. A story can be about the very person reading it, or it simply can be about what someone else has done. If we believe the story, on some level, we can either use it as a model for our own behaviour or we can use it for what the hero has done for us.

One of the main messages of the story of Jesus has to do with sacrifice. The Western world is, arguably, the most materialistic culture we have put together.

One of the main messages of Muhammad has to do with submission. The Islamic world has, arguably, one of the most imperialistic histories we have seen.

The more the Western world learns about the rest of the world, the more it empathizes with the people there. The more the Islamic world learns about the rest of the world, the more it distrusts the tyrannies of its leaders.

Both cultures, I think, are attempts at fostering a culture of responsibility (something I bring up in this other post). Strangely, on Wall Street people are suffering through the snow and sleeping in camping gear, begging the successful investors to submit rather than to take. On the streets of Egypt and Libya and Syria, people have armed themselves and sacrificed their lives for what they think their nations should be like.

Where would our cultures’ heroes be sleeping? What would they be fighting for in all this?

And can we still make a culture of responsibility?

Words, deceptively simple and harmless, are sufficient to create disruption and conflict, because Homo sapiens can verbalize his beliefs. The casual criticism of a given explicit presupposition can come, over time, to undermine the unconscious personality and the emotional stability that accompanies it. Words have a power that belie their ease of use. (Peterson)

The Messiah Mistakes

September 5th, 2011   by   Andrew

Chapter 13 in the series Myths and Dragons

“Thou art That”

Joseph Campbell had some advice for his students: “Follow your bliss.”

He got a bit of criticism for it. His intention was not to give an open invitation to a life of pleasure. Joe was a warm and smiling and respectful man, but he sure wasn’t a hedonist. If anything, his message was almost the complete opposite. But he did understand how he could be misunderstood, and so offered to edit the phrase.

“Follow your blisters.”

The work that will require your entire heart and soul and mind is the work that will give you both blisters and bliss. But, he didn’t change that first word, “follow”. Brilliant. It’s the most important part of the advice. Bliss or blisters are consequences and not always in our control. Where we end up isn’t always in our hands. But it’s the action, our own behavior and attitude, we need to get right.

I don’t think Joe meant “follow” as in “be led blindly”. And he didn’t live in a time of social media, so I don’t think he meant it as “click a button and passively get updates about other people’s lives”. Blisters and blisses aren’t things to collect or enumerate. Please don’t just casually know of them. Earn them.

“Follow”, for me at least, means “let it be master and guide”. Don’t tell your blisters or blisses how it’s all going to be. Listen to them. Learn from them. They are in charge, not you. But the word also means “copy”, or “apply it to your situation.” Your blisters and blisses make up a map with directions. How do you get somewhere or build something or achieve any goal? Well, follow the directions!

Joseph Campbell is also known for another quick quote of wisdom:“Thou art that.”

I don’t think Joe had to edit this one. This simple quote is a great start to understanding the power of story. In story, the world is not a place of things. We don’t read a story for what’s real. We don’t go to a play just to get an understanding of the props. Stories are worlds of actions and consequences. Story gives us characters that are caught in circumstances that make them act, and then those characters have to deal with the consequences.

What are we supposed to do when we don’t know what to do? What happens when we are confronted with a problem that forces us to do something? How do we deal with new information that could change how we see the world? How should we change how other people see the world?

These are the kinds of questions stories try to help answer, so that when we do find ourselves in these situations, we have a guide or a teacher, or at least some directions. That is what Joe was talking about. It might just be a story you’re reading, but it might just be about you. And if a situation comes up when you don’t know what to do, you just might be able to navigate your way through it because you thought about how things played out in a story, or you saw someone else in a similar situation.

Messiah – a “Thou” or a “That”?

How are you supposed to read a Messiah story? What does it mean if some hero comes dashing in to save the day? Messiah stories create a tricky problem of attitude – should we “wait for a Messiah” or should you “trust in someone else to save you?”

If you do,  you’re not following your bliss. If anything, you’re telling your bliss to come and get you. But also, in Joe’s words, you are not putting yourself in the story. “Thou” sure ain’t participating in “that”.

For example, I don’t think the Jesus of the Bible ever waited for his God to do something. Jesus just went and did it. And dealt with the consequences. A lot of heroes in stories do just that.

Sure, we all need help from time to time. But we have to live our own lives, take on our own responsibilities and participate in our own stories.

For me, one of the most meaningful parts of the Jesus story is that he died while trying to bring a little change in how people lived their lives. It’s kind of good to keep in mind. Your bliss and your blisters can kill you in the end. But maybe it will be worth it because maybe someone will get the message. It’s unfortunate that you might be the one that ends up suffering with blisters, or even something more serious like death, but suffering and death have always been the price to pay for life. How meaningful that life is depends on how you act.

In the larger story of the New Testament, the followers of Jesus didn’t say to each other, “This is great! The Messiah has come and saved us. We can now wait for God to make things right.” If anything, it was the complete opposite. It was more like, “Wow, we have a lot of hard work to do if we’re going to change how people treat one another. We better get to it.” And most of them found deaths that were as bad as any crucifixion. Some even worse.

Blisters and bliss.

Would they have taken up those blisters without the promise or reward of some heaven, some paradise where what should be and what is align perfectly? I don’t know. But would they have taken up such lives and deaths  if they didn’t believe they could change what is into what should be? These men, according to their stories, believed what should be was more important than life itself, and definitely more important than what was real. I think their efforts would be more meaningful if they weren’t up there in heaven, as the saying goes.

There’s a funny thing going on in some Christianities. Some Christians are so uncomfortable with the idea of an eternal Hell that they have deconstructed it to mean something other than perpetual fire, pain or punishment. (Examples here and here.) Some have even abandoned the concept altogether. I think this is a half-step in the right direction.

Was Jesus a Messiah? In the Biblical story, well… maybe. But was he really the Messiah?That’s a tricky question, and I don’t think that’s the point, really. That leads down a road where we could end up talking about something we cannot really know.

The story that Jesus left behind is an incredible example of actions, consequences and expectations. He really didn’t fit the expectations. If anything, it seems he was trying to change the expected order of things in his day. And that’s what the last stages of the Hero’s Journey are all about. The writers of the Jesus stories seemed to understand Joe’s words of “Thou art that.” Maybe if you want to change your life or the lives of those around you, you better start working on something more important than simply what is. And when you find something more important than yourself, and give it your blisters and your bliss, you become something more than yourself. And you can even transcend the suffering of existence by trying to change a part of the world from what is to what should be. But there are always consequences.

If you believe what should be is more important than what is, and you willingly to dedicate your life and your death to it, doesn’t the idea of heaven rob this noble effort of its meaning? Heaven and Hell might act as good exaggerations or analogies in stories, meaningful comparisons to inspire good actions, but to treat them as specific and certain ends is placing too many expectations on poetic and inspirational storytelling. The phrase is “Thou art that!” and not “Thou shalt be rewarded in the end.”

Maybe we shouldn’t get so hung up on beliefs and expectations, and instead get our stories straight. Maybe then we might be able to see how important other people are in our story, and our role to play in theirs. Maybe we even need a new story to tell us these things.

Maybe what a Messiah story should tell some people is this: if you wait for a Messiah, you might just end up killing him or her when they happen to come along. And then how well off are you?

Christians worried about the integrity of their story have a simple and modest alternative available. Instead of saying, “Jesus is my savior and grants me eternal life”,  another meaningful thing to say would be, “Jesus is my model for behavior in this life.” This would restore the original function of story and save anyone from making claims about things they cannot know for sure.

Life is not about being saved. There is a choice when it comes to attitude. Embrace and participate in your own suffering, be thankful for any help offered to you, change what is to what should be,  and most importantly, follow your blisters.

Now wouldn’t that make a good story?

What do you think?

Jesus: A Change Worth Dying For, A Culture Always Challenged

August 9th, 2011   by   Andrew

Horus, Jacob, Jesus — Three Sons, Three Stories

Chapter 10 of the series Myths and Dragons

Part 1 – Horus: A New Hope, A Wise Past
Part 2 – Jacob – Never Surrender, Never Learn
Part 3 – A Change Worth Dying For, A Culture Always Challenged

If we are to take stories as maps of behavior then we need to identify with the characters. Horus, Jacob and Jesus provide three unique maps for the relationships between a father, a mother and a son. They also illustrate three progressive steps in the mythological consciousness that frames our cultural heritage. We can read these three stories and examine what they say about how the individual relates to the social order that surrounds them and to the unknown world outside that protective social order.

The posts are made up of three parts:  an introduction, a story, and one  explanation (or midrash).

Questions for readers: Can you identify with the hero’s situation? Is this story a good map for how we should behave?


The Christian story of Jesus, when examined through the mythological elements unknown, known and knower, is about how all individuals become equated with the hero, therefore potentially reaching divine status  (There are so many versions of this story.  Check out this kung-fu comedy version. Below is a simplified summary.)

The Story

Jesus had a humble, vulnerable birth. He grew up to be an intense student of the Jewish law, and then became a teacher and charismatic speaker increasingly frustrated with the established order of the day. He did not use physical weapons, but relied heavily on storytelling.  He did not seek militant political revolution, but he was compelled by a need for social change. He affected the lives of those that heard or saw him greatly. He summarized the ancient law of the Jewish people in two principles; love your God, and love your neighbor (even if an enemy) as you would yourself. By doing so, any individual takes up Jesus’ model for behavior and follows a heroic way of living. He disrupted the business of the money-changers in the temple and was brought before the judicial courts. He then voluntarily faced both punishment from the legal system and the great unknown of death.

(One) Explanation

Jesus is, in a sense, the individual no organized human society could really put up with. He was a master of the traditional knowledge of the culture. He was quick-witted enough to outsmart his prosecutors. He desired to remove all past conditions or social judgments from determining the present value of a person if that person came to him with honesty. And, he faced his final judgment voluntarily. He never took another person’s life, but was willing to give all his efforts and his life to changing the attitudes of people around him.

  • Find something so intriguing, so compelling, it fixes your attention and becomes more important than anything personal or selfish.
  • Commit all of your being to it. Take the weight of it upon yourself even if it’s impossible to bear (especially because it is impossible to bear). Be responsible for it and take a stand.
  • Take action so that the future will transcend the present and the past, even if it means you will not survive to enjoy or even see the fruits of that future.

He combined the Great Father of traditional culture and the Great Mother of the natural world in its complexity into one monotheistic deity (something already started and developed by the long Jewish history of storytelling). The unknown became a place of both order and awe. What better way to reassure people, and inspire them to face the unknown, than to tell them they will find something there that will always love them, something in which they will always have a place, and something that will always have order (even if unfathomable)?

He also became a model for how anyone, regardless of race or background or education, could achieve equal status with the divine – seek out the cultural errors around you, submit to what they teach you and commit to changing things for the better, even if it means your death. But never sacrifice someone else for your own personal ends. What better way to show something is more important than yourself than to be the servant? The sacrifice is always you, and the action must always be made by you.

There is always something wrong with a society, and it is always the job of the hero to change those things for the better. But that being said, the ability to absorb any individual completely, someone that might forever have something dysfunctional or anti-social about him or her, is too hard for any society to withstand. How could there be order in a land of nothing but heroes? And yet this is exactly what must be done because society is only made up of individuals, each potentially divine, each potentially a bringer of the magic elixir, and each potentially a destroyer of the traditional order.

(addition: the recent events in Norway are poignant examples of how misguided an individual’s actions can be, how misdirected an individual’s intentions can be, and how disastrous it can be on social order. Two attempts at understanding the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of this individual can be found here and here. Apparently, the person was trying to invoke social change, and he was willing to sacrifice other people in order to make his statement. How can a society address such threats? Build even more walls? Put a microchip in everyone’s brain? Condemn religions? Pressure each individual to be sane and rational?)

Identification with and commitment to tradition is not sufficient. Instead, we adopt and we adapt. The very process that continually creates culture cannot be separated from the process that creates the individual urge to explore new territory, for good or bad, and thus change the present conditions through the gifts and threats found there.

What do you think?
Can you identify with the hero’s situation?
Is this story a good map for how we should behave?
Can individuals behave this way in a community that depends on order?

Scientology and the Hero’s Journey

August 1st, 2011   by   Andrew

Chapter 8 in the series Myths and Dragons

A while ago I read a small book from L. Ron Hubbard. The book was published in the late 1960s and was intended to explain what Scientology was “all about”.

Scientology, according to the book at least, has found two rules for happy living.

1. Be able to experience anything.

2. Cause only those things which others can experience easily

When I first read this I was quite amazed. It wasn’t the writing style, certainly. But when Scientology is itself cleared of all the gobbledy-gook and silliness, at the heart of it there is a another simplified version of the Hero’s Journey.

My copy of the book is a bit old and has a crucified man on the cover. The Scientology folks have since changed the cover for newer publications. Interestingly enough though, they also use the  image of a modernized Atlas.

And, in the second last chapter of the book there is a technique for meditation remarkably similar to something I learned from Kelsang Donsang, (a local Buddhist teacher). At least they are honest and blatant in their borrowing, I guess…

But still, what is the point of a hero story but to inspire in the audience these two things:

Be willing to experience something new.

Bring back something or do something that makes other people’s lives better.

(I checked the dates, and I was relieved to see that Scientology came after Joseph Campbell’s work on the Hero’s Journey. And of course, almost every myth I’ve ever read predates Scientology…)

The Hero’s Journey is the original twelve-step program! And interestingly enough, what are all 12-step programs about, but changing your life through new experiences or attitudes and making your whole world a little better? No wonder celebrities and actors seem so drawn to Scientology!

(Besides the familiarity with 12-step programs, Hollywood actors crave a wide range of emotional experiences and portray those experiences in order to change, or share something with, the lives of their audiences, right?)

But once again, long before modern thinkers got things figured out, mythology was there. And what’s more, mythology did it in story form.

The Hero’s Journey is a map for how we experience things, especially how we experience things where we have to confront new information. It doesn’t have to be grand quests or daring adventures. Even those little moments of uncertainty in everyday life can be mapped by our attitudes towards new experiences.

Have you ever heard a joke that brightened up your day?

Even that can be a great example of how we face new information.

ORDINARY WORLD Your normal, drab day Stu, Steve and Stedman were having a drink after work.
CALL TO ADVENTURE Someone begins telling a joke Stedman said, “Hey, y’hear the one about the man that went bra-shopping for his wife?”
REFUSE THE CALL Reluctance Stu said, “Yea, I heard that one.”

Steve asked, “Is it any good?”

HELP FROM A MENTOR Someone sticks up for the joke-teller Stedman said, “It’s is a good one” but Stu said,  “Don’t forget that she’s religious.”
CROSS THE THRESHOLD Joke begins Stedman went on. “Right. A man went into a store and told the clerk, “I’d like to buy a bra for my wife.
TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES The joke goes through a set-up “Then he added, ‘Oh, but she’s very religious.’ Come on guys, pay attention.

“The clerk said, ‘Well, all bras can really be put into three categories – catholic bras, salvation army bras, or baptist bras.’

THE INMOST CAVE, the whole picture The joke reaches its crisis “The man, now really confused, asked, ‘What’s the difference?’
Challenge and Treasure The punchline “The clerk told him, ‘Well, the Catholic bras support the masses, the Sally-Ann bras lift up the fallen, and the Baptist bras make mountains out of mole-hills.’”
Refusal, Return laughter “What?” said Steve with a smile.

“You’re such a knob,” said Stu, all the while laughing.

Steve then asked, “Did you tell your wife that one?”

Crossing the Threshold, Resurrection Laughter dies down and everyone takes a breath After a while, Steve said, “Ok, I guess that one’s not bad.”
GIFTS and THE ELIXER Everyone evaluates the joke and tries to remember it “I bet Jim would like that one,” Stu said.
MASTER OF TWO WORLDS Friends either give respect, esteem, or shake their heads Steve shook his head and then said, “All right, man. I’ll buy this round…”

Want to be a hero? The next good joke you hear, remember it and share it with someone. They might have a better day because of you.

And what’s the point to this post?

Whether it’s a new religion, an old religion, a fantastic heroic tale, a gripping story, or a good joke, remember:

Somebody has likely told the story already,

And someone has likely told it better, too.

But still, it can be fun to tell the story and change someone’s day for the better.

What do you think?


Gretta Vosper — Taking a Church Through the Eye of a Needle

April 6th, 2011   by   Andrew

Monday night I listened to Gretta Vosper talk about the perils of pathfinding. In a sense, it was a story about ministry.

She had a big problem. She loved her congregation. She loved her calling. She loved sharing her education and her thoughts on religious ideas. But she didn’t have the same God as her church.

She put a lot of passion and work into her sermons in order to explain the history, the context, the subtleties of the old and important writings. She tried to explain out the differences in time, and how important it was to live in today’s world, with today’s understandings of things.

She would finish her services, and the congregation would smile, and she would realize their understandings of God had not been changed or challenged in any real way at all. And when she looked a little deeper, she noticed everything within the old and comfortable rituals of the church reconfirmed what could only be an elementary understanding of God.

So she broke down, and finally told them she didn’t believe in the same interceding God they did. She didn’t believe in the God of agency they did. She didn’t  see God as Love, at least in the way they said they did. She certainly didn’t believe the Bible was the authoritative word of God for all time. And she didn’t know what to do.

Some people in the church were ready and willing to take up the new path with her. Others were not. It became a time of losing allies, dissolving relationships, and things falling apart. But it was also a time of examining values, embracing new friends, and hope taking shape. In her mind,  it had to happen because, well… how else would something as old as a church change?

There is a story about Jesus who was approached by a rich man wanting to know how to receive eternal life. In short, Jesus told him to sell everything he had and turn his life towards helping others. The rich man was unimpressed with the cost, and walked away. When Jesus was pressed to explain what he had said to the rich man, he came up with a really creative image:

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God. [See Mark or Matthew]

A little while ago a friend online posted a collection of interpretations for this passage. There are lots, each one with a history and a use all its own. But the most intriguing one for me was this:

It can be a simple process, but not an easy one. The camel must first be completely destroyed. Once that is done, it can pass through the needle’s eye. [if you know where this came from, please tell me so I can link it or give credit]

That’s a tall order. Churches don’t like being destroyed. Even if it is the only way forward.

I have to give my respect to the United Church of Canada. They have not excommunicated her or fired her. They have not swept her under any rug. They haven’t even simply walked away, like that rich man unimpressed with the cost.  But they are watching and they are waiting.

Gretta talked a little bit about burn-out. As minister, she is the spiritual leader but not necessarily the executive leader, and she did express some hesitation about where this was all going. It sounds like her progressive church is starting to move on it’s own momentum now. Many of the new members of her church have little history with things like Sunday School curriculum, or group assemblies or religious studies. At this point, they cannot return to the old rituals and easy resources. They are making it all fresh and all new. As a result, they work with the passion of zealots and new converts. A moment of care and consideration can be important, especially in unexplored territory. If you are willing to set yourself on fire, some people will be more than willing to help you find the matches.

In breaking new ground, I fear Gretta and her congregation may be digging holes for themselves and losing sight of the many paths already cut through the trees, so to speak. Many people have walked these paths already.  (I wanted to ask her, “Why not ask the Unitarians for help?” but the question period ended before I plucked up my nerve.)

When it all gets done, I’m not sure if anything will be left to pass through that narrow eye of the needle. But, they are facing the daunting task of change, and they are doing it head-on. I’m just not sure whether to lend a hand, or be ready with a bucket of water.

What do you think?