El Gringoqueño

All a man needs out of life is a place to sit ‘n’ spit in the fire.

Category: Faith and Wisdom (page 1 of 4)

Nelson Mandela’s Secret Weapon

I just finished Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, and throughout I kept asking myself, how did he stay true?  How did he persevere?  By his own admission, there were others who were smarter, bolder, and wiser.  So many of the things that he wrote about himself sketched an ordinary man, but there had to be something extraordinary and I wanted to find it.  And there is was on page 615, his secret weapon.

"I never lost hope that this great transformation would occur.  Not only because of the great heroes I have already cited, but because of the courage of the ordinary men and women of my country.  I always knew that deep down in every human heart, there was mercy and generosity.  No one is born hating another person because of the color of their skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.  Even in the grimmest times in prison, when my comrades and I were pushed to our limits, I would see a glimmer of humanity in one of the guards, perhaps just for a second, but it was enough to reassure me and keep me going.  Man’s goodness is a flame that can be hidden but never extinguished.

Nelson Mandela hated apartheid, but he never hated its agents.

You Are Not Your Job – A Clarification

I’m posting this conversation that Laura and I had over IM after my "You Are Not the Sum Total of Your Accomplishments" post.  I wouldn’t normally post things like this, but I found it an interesting window into our relationship.   Bear in mind that my explanation of the p­ost is really me figuring out why I wrote it.

­(8/20/08 4:03 PM) Laura: nice post

(8/20/08 4:04 PM) Laura: you went a bit all over the place… so I had my doubts, it gets confusing… You are not your job, but you made a man reconsider his job and feel loved.

(8/20/08 4:04 PM) Jim: thanks, I think

(8/20/08 4:04 PM) Laura: Did he feel loved because you helped him reevaluate his job…then does that go against the message

(8/20/08 4:05 PM) Laura: I am still chewing on this.

(8/20/08 4:05 PM) Laura: not sure it is clear in your post

(8/20/08 4:05 PM) Laura: hmmm

(8/20/08 4:06 PM) Jim: your job isn’t what you are

(8/20/08 4:07 PM) Jim: but HOW you do your job, maybe

(8/20/08 4:07 PM) Jim: it’s realizing that ALL jobs are service

(8/20/08 4:07 PM) Laura: ahhh ok… because HOW you do your job helps you serve others

(8/20/08 4:07 PM) Jim: and it is in service that we touch the divine

(8/20/08 4:07 PM) Laura: yes I liked that part… that sentiment was unique

(8/20/08 4:07 PM) Jim: so it’s a question of thinking your job is the TITLE, when in fact it is how you serve

(8/20/08 4:07 PM) Laura: It is rarely said… In service we touch the divine

(8/20/08 4:08 PM) Jim: that way we can appreciate sweeping floors AND being a doctor

(8/20/08 4:08 PM) Laura: yes I think you need to somewhere in there… reinforce that people get down when they focus on their job, the tasks the title, the indignities.

(8/20/08 4:08 PM) Jim: but too many people think being a doctor is the M.D. rather than healing people serving people

(8/20/08 4:09 PM) Laura: They should rather take strength and base their dignity on HOW they do their job, on their service to others… because in serving others we touch the divine

(8/20/08 4:09 PM) Laura: ok got it,

(8/20/08 4:10 PM) Laura: very cool and unique. Like I said I think the posts has this and loses it… but ends with a bang

(8/20/08 4:10 PM) Jim: you know I write these things by the seat of my pants, right?

(8/20/08 4:10 PM) Laura: yes that is why I am giving you feedback

…And therein lies the reason for of our 14 years together 🙂

Community Organizer

There was much to be ashamed of during the Republican National Convention, but I’m just going to pick one moment to tear apart.  I think one is enough, and after I gut it and lay its entrails open, y­ou’ll see just what I’m talking about, just what the Republicans are offering.

Although I don’t consider myself a community organizer, I do work with a lot of the same needs in my community as Barack Obama.  I consider it a privilege to mentor and share time with youthful offenders from, what Americans would consider, the "inner city," people who come from the projects. 

In Puerto Rico our "projects" are not segregated in specific areas of the city, congregated and sequestered far from the day to day life of "normal" folks.  Our projects are everywhere, and they have all the same problems you find on the south side of Chicago.  The projects are controlled by gangs.  The police are out-gunned, out-flanked, and out-manned.  The residents of the projects have no where else to go.  They could try to get out, but where would they go?  They live on public assistance, their children exposed daily to violence, fear, and a culture that offers them the way out – run this errand, sell these drugs, lookout for the police, and you will have the flashy car, the jewelry, the girl, and the respect.  It is the only way forward for these kids, and it is why I meet them in prison, why I talk to them, why I have compassion for them, and contempt for the system that foments this aberration.

Barack Obama saw the same things I see every day.   He saw a huge community of lost potential, wasted lives of violence, drugs, and guns.  He saw kids not nurtured and edified, wrapped in the warm embrace of love, but cold hard shafts of steel forged in heat, anger, and fear.

I don’t know for sure, but I can imagine Barack Obama had the same calling I did.  He decided that the war on terror begins at home, and it doesn’t begin with "shock and awe" but with service to the poor.  Barack Obama began his life’s work in the trenches doing what Christians would call the work of Jesus.  If you consider yourself a follower of the ways of Jesus, and you are not actively seeking to serve the most miserable and lost of our society, you are not living the message.  How come you are not engaging, putting your lives at risk in response to the great gift you have been given?

But Barack Obama did. 

He risked himself to go into communities held hostage by apathy and neglect and dealt with fatherless households, lawlessness, poor infrastructure and public schools, and a host of other problems that "white America" only sees on television.  "Oh my goodness, that’s so horrible," they say, "I’m glad I don’t live there."  Barack Obama didn’t say that.  He rolled up his sleeves and got involved.

So that’s why I was so insulted when I heard Rudy Guliani mock him in such a disrespectful manner (quote msnbc.com). 

"You have a resume from a gifted man with an Ivy League education. He worked as a community organizer.”

He paused and then said, “What?” as if to express befuddlement at that job title.

Giuliani had eloquent body language — a dismissive half-shrug — as he said the words, “community organizer.”

Immediately the delegates on the convention floor burst into laughter and guffaws.

GOP vice presidential candidate Gov. Sarah Palin also poked fun at Obama’s work as a community organizer, contrasting it with her own work as a mayor.

Don’t kid yourself.  It was not an off the cuff remark but conscious and deliberate.

If you consider yourself a Christian why would you ­laugh?  Jesus, was the son of a carpenter, a good Jewish boy with a bright future ahead of him as a respected tradesman.  He didn’t take that path though.  He threw it all away to spend time with the downtrodden, the cast out, the lost, and abandoned. He dedicated himself to a life of being a "community organizer."

And he got mocked too.

You Are Not the Sum Total of Your Accomplishments

I was reading this article entitled: "Why Great Men like John Edwards Cheat"

It’s a great article and I think spot on as to why we see politicians cheat on their spouses.  Of course, it begs the question, who says John Edwards is "Great"… but I digress.

­In the course of reading this article I keep hearing my pastor, Fr. Vega, give variations on his favorite sermon: "You are not your job.  You are not a doctor, lawyer, politician.  You are not loved for your accomplishments.  You are you.  Be you, fully you and only you.  Know you are loved as you are."

The measure of how often and how far we are as a society from this ideal is revealed in the quantity of people who are miserable in their jobs, dead, bored, unhappy, yearning for something better, more meaningful, more important, more in line with what they think they deserve.  Sometimes it just takes someone to tell them them how meaningful they and their job really are.

I was visiting a cracker manufacturing plant for a local trade organization a while back, writing an article on products made in Puerto Rico.  My intent is always to always get a human angle on the thing, find a compelling story, simple and touching.  I surprised one of the cracker inspectors by asking him what the best part of his job was.  He looked a little confused, irritated, and put out by the question, like, what the hell do you mean, "best part.  It’s hot as hell in here and I’m looking at stupid crackers all day.  I’m a trained monkey."

"No, I mean, do you have kids?"

"Yes," he answered, "three boys."

"Oh, I bet they love what you do.  What are their favorite crackers or cookies?"  A smile cracked his face.  "They love the florecitas and -"  And on he went through the different products.

"My kids eat these too.  They love them," I replied. These simple adulations I think caused him to reconsider his position, his job, maybe himself.  I wasn’t telling him he was the greatest cookie inspector in the world or that being a cookie inspector was going to get him a mansion in the hills.  No, I simply reminded him of how he impacted and touched others in a meaningful way.  There was something of value in being a cookie inspector, and better yet, there were people who loved him for it – simple and honest.

When I was commanding an Army unit, a shower, laundry, and sewing quartermaster company of 120 or so soldiers, I was always combating this tendency.  "What do you do," someone would ask a solder. 

"We are in direct support of the infantry," they would respond.  If further questions were asked, they would reluctantly admit, that yeah, it was a laundry and shower unit, but that we had powerful weapons.  I, myself, was guilty of this too.  You can see people’s inward snicker when they find out you are a shower and laundry unit.  Cue Korean dry-cleaning jokes, how they want their clothes folded, starched, etc.

The basic problem is this: we don’t really respect ourselves and what we do.  With pride, I tried to say, "I wash clothes for and shower the hard fighting combat troops of the infantry.  You have never seen gratitude until you’ve taken a miserable son-of-a-bitch covered from head to toe in dust and grime and gotten him a hot shower and clean clothes."  In that moment, there are no laundry jokes, no snickers about sewing machines and fashion shows.  He knows how much it means to him, and you know it from the humble thank you.  They all thank you, with deep respect – every last one – for a simple shower.

And personally, even though I’m staring down the barrel of 40, I still have to do intern level tech support such as: crawling under desks, messing with cabling in server closets, and telling people how to use Outlook.  Sometimes it’s damn humiliating.  There have been times when, I overhear the following: "El muchacho está aquí ahora mismo y está bregando con eso."  "The boy (unimportant technician not worthy of having a name) is here now dealing with it."  When did I become the "boy" or the "tech" or some other easily replaceable low level drone?  I have a name, damnit.

But then I remember – because I have learned this lesson many times – and because I write it down for myself in this blog to read later, that I am more than my job, or what I do.  In that moment when I am helping a person, I know that there is nothing more important.  If it was not for me, they would not have email, or a workstation, or an internet connection.  In that moment, I am doing something for them, only for them.  If they are not grateful, and they never are, it smarts, but I know of some truths to which they may not be privy.  I smile an inward smile knowing that I have helped someone. They had a need and I fulfilled it.

I am not my job, but a servant  We would do well to remember that we are all servants.  To serve is divinity itself.

Small Victory on the Road to Jericho

I was on my way to the office when I passed an older man working to change a flat tire.  He looked to be in his sixties and drove a modest car.  My first inclination was to stop and help him out.  Here is a recap of my internal dialog.

I should stop.  He looks like he could use a hand.

Oh, there’s no real place to stop.  Oops, I just passed him.  The traffic is heavy, there’s no space.  Should I turn around? 

Would I want someone to help me?  

But I’m dressed for the office.  I’ll get all sweaty and dirty if I stop.

It looks really dangerous.  He’s got only 1 or 2 feet of clearance parked where he is in the middle of the road. 

It’s too dangerous.

If I stop to help help this man, what will happen to me?  I shook my head, and then it hit me.  I was on the road to Jericho.  No, I think, if I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him? 

He is in the middle of the road, there is traffic all around.  If he slips, if a car passes too close… what would happen to him if I’m not there to help?

I wheeled around and pulled up in where he was.  I stepped out of the car and asked him if he needed a hand.  He didn’t really, but "Thank you," he said. 

He was finishing up, but I told him I’d stand and watch for cars.  I’m tall and hard to miss.  I’ll make sure that the cars see you here.

Again, he thanked me.  I said I wished I could have gotten there sooner to help, because this thing has happened to me many times.  He tightened the lugs and stood up.  I shook his hand and wished him a good day.  We got into our cars and drove off.

I know I didn’t really do anything physically helpful.  Would that I had arrived earlier, but I suppose, with all the cars passing by barely noticing a fellow, my presence was lifting.  You’re not alone, hermano.  If anything, there was someone today looking out for you on the road to Jericho. 

Christian Speak Translations Part Two

Jesus Loves You.

This one takes a bit of doing, but here it is. I would rephrase it as: You are loved.

By whom, you ask?

The universe that birthed you, I reply.

That’s not love.

Okay, how’s this: You are loved, by the universe that birthed you, and your fellows are its surrogate. Those fellows are most closely your family, perhaps your friends, and maybe your neighbors. In the absence of any of these, I will love you.

Who are you?

He who was sent to love you.

So my friends, even in these desperate times, when so many feel so unloved, know that you are lovely, lovable, and that you are loved. All you have to do is open yourself to it, let yourself be loved, even when you don’t feel worthy, even when you feel unlovable. Laura continues to remind me, so I remind you.

Why There Are, By Definition, NO Atheists in Foxholes

Yes, I know. Atheists are offended by that. Let me taunt you again. If you disagree with that statement, you are NOT an atheist.

Let me set you up with a bit of background. Perhaps we can agree on this, no? Would you say that as an atheist, God is no more "real" than say, Zeus, or Odin, or the Flying Spagetti Monster? Yes, you say?

Okay good. We shall continue.

Would you also say that religion, belief in an afterlife, or plain old "fear of God" stuff is just right out. Let’s face it, as an atheist, you don’t believe in that crap. Life is biological. When you’re gone, you’re gone. There is no higher calling than living your life to the fullest, not like a jerk, but fullest, being a good and productive human. It just makes good sense.

You also hate it when people say that without religion there would be no morals. Why not, you ask?

You reply, leaping forth from the fuente of Kantian thought, only that which can be applied universally is truly moral. You understand that the concept of universal morality and the golden rule are practical and lead to a good and solid foundation. Without this practical morality your own lifetime would have been marred with warring and fighting and disease and misery. Pay if forward, you say. Morals make good sense. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Now there’s a moral framework you can get behind.

One more thing, and this is important, so pay attention. You say that life is more precious for you than it is for a "believer," because, to an atheist, there is nothing after. Life is the greatest gift, the only gift you will truly ever receive. Life is all that you will ever have, and death takes away EVERYTHING.

Are you still with me? Do I have it mostly nailed down? I don’t want a straw man here. I want an atheist that can stand up and take it. But you know the strangest thing?

I agree with you.

But I still say there are no atheists in foxholes.

What?! Haven’t I been listening? Bear with me here, I’m going to spell it out. Here it is:

If life is all that you have and all that you will ever have, what the hell are you doing dying in a foxhole? I ask you, atheist, what is so important that you would be willing to give your life for it? I’m baffled. You profess to no god. You patently disavow any sort of celestial reward. You cast off the yoke of religious dogma, superstition, and tradition. For what do you die? Are you stupid? Crazy? Crazy like a foxhole, maybe. I’m on to you though.

A steadfastly rational practical atheist might reply that he is risking his life for a stable future, for enlightenment, for an end to suffering. I shoot back, but YOU aren’t going to be around?  What would the point be?

Maybe he will talk to me of acceptable risk and potential reward.  Sometimes it just doesn’t work out, he would say. Don’t kid yourself. There is no acceptable risk in war. Why sacrifice yourself for oblivion then?

Nobody will live this life as well as you, for you are you and no one else. No one else will enjoy it like you. No one will smell it, taste it, touch it like you. No one can live it as you live it, experience consciousness as you experience it. This fact is not selfish, it is reality, the only reality you will ever know.

But why do you die in this foxhole, atheist? May I dare offer an explanation?

Perhaps, there are no atheists in foxholes, because by the very fact that you are willing to die for something you believe in, something bigger than yourself, you nullify your atheism.

You’ve already proven yourself a practical maverick thinker, not prone to group-think. You’ve shown yourself to be a rational being of the first order. You have seen through all the veils the world has pulled over the eyes of your brothers. You’re the only one that actually sees the truth.

Why are you in the foxhole, then? Perhaps you are not only NOT an atheist, but the most pious of us all. By giving your life in a foxhole, you are faithful to your fellows. You make a commitment knowing the outcome is uncertain. That is faith, my friend. You have faith. Perhaps "true-believers" are not even fit to tie your sandal strap. You are such the atheist that you may as well wrap around and come out the other side transfigured and clothed in divine white.

So I ask you:

Do you believe in justice? Is absolute justice worth dying for? Do you believe in love? Is absolute love worth dying for? Ultimate empathy? I submit, dear atheist, that you are nothing of the sort. Not only are you not an atheist, but you are as the righteous of history, a hero of the first order, a savior of mankind.

Amen I say to you, brother.

Words Are, at Best, Blunt Instruments

We sit in our room blind, attempting to divine the dimensions by bouncing bowling balls off its narrow confines.

There are tons of people out here on the internet writing about their beliefs or beliefs in non-beliefs. There are a million and one smug self congratulatory posts titled thusly, "Why I became an Atheist" "Why Christianity Sucks" "Why believe in something I can’t see, taste, touch, or smell have no direct evidence of is totally silly and you’re all morons for even considering it." I can just see the smug little faces. Go ahead and read this www.godisimaginary.com There’s lots of great stuff there… all of it true. You heard that right, it’s all true. God is imaginary. It is a concept that exists in our imagination. God is a word that exists on paper and in our mouths.

If God is just a word, why capitalize it then? Let’s start there, shall we? Why capitalize the word God? If I don’t, have I blasphemed? Will He/She (there I go again) be offended?

There is a short answer to it all, but I’m not going to give it up so easily. The short answer encompasses all of the rhetoric, the atheists, the religious-ists, the believers, the followers, and the reverent. Perhaps all but the reverent will be offended in some way.

The atheist will retort, how dare you say, sir, that I believe in something which is patently false!

The religious-ist will decry, you are a blasphemer, you malign my faith, a rich tradition with a long history. How dare you!

The believer will say, come child, let me show you the WAY. You are lost and must accept Jesus as your personal savior, or ye shall rot in the fiery torment of hell. God bless you.

The follower will ignore me and continue on his way, busying himself with his good-hearted folly.

The reverent, however, will smile a deep smile and ask, "What did you mean by that?"

And it is there within the question, among all things, that we begin.

Why are we here? Were we created by an intelligence or did we just happen to be. Is our existence wholly a happenstance, contemplated by us only because we happen to exist in it?

"Why are we here" – and deeper, "what is life" are two questions that have no answers. I’m afraid everything you’ve heard up to now is a lie or wrong, or both. We do not know what life is. We do not know why we are here. Maybe there is no reason. Maybe life is a gift from an unknown hand. Maybe it’s just a gift.

Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, I always say.

Maybe life is an opportunity to explore existence. Yes, yes that is it. Life is an opportunity to explore existence, because without it, how could we possibly explore? Life seems pretty essential to exploration if you ask me.

To presume to know is the ultimate sacrilege, the ultimate sin against the cosmos. Scientists, who in their purest form are the most reverent among us, will say we ultimately know nothing, that what we don’t know even about gravity would fill a thousand million libraries. Gravity is something with which we are familiar, but it may as well be magic for all we understand of it. Think about it. Two objects always exert an invisible force on each other. Why? Why the hell is that the case? Well, it just is, you say, and take smug refuge in your equations and mathematical proofs:

          m1 m2
Fgrav = G -------
d^2

But why? That mass one and mass two are attracted at all by an unseen force is, to me, mind boggling. You speak to me again of strong forces and weak forces and atomic forces and quarks and matter and anti-matter and particle accelerators. Like a Jehovah’s Witness you pull out scientific journals and research that "proves" you know more than I do, that you know the "Truth."

But really, truly, you do not know the first thing about anything. It is all imaginary.

Well, you say, I guess you’re right. I don’t know why yet, but we have a good idea how to use it. It yields useful results and allows us to navigate the stars and harness its force to keep buildings from collapsing.

There, there, there, I say, right there! You got it, man. You got it. It is how we use it, not what we have or whether or not we ultimately understand everything or even one thing, but how we use a thing.

Do we care about our gift? Do we challenge it? Do we take refuge in certainty or fly from it out amongst those that would work without a net?

So I say to you, you religion fetishists (that includes you too atheists), you know nothing, yet you presume to know fundamental truths. Shame on you for your lack of reverence. Reverence for the Truth, whatever it ultimately turns out to be is the essence of God. Here’s another equation for you.

Ttruth = TGod

Equal they are, the same thing. In the end, they cancel out and are irrelevant though. What you call a thing is just as good as anything else as long as you are reverent, because God is but a word, a concept of something the encompasses all of existence. Our understanding of existence is pitiful, so is our understanding of God (or whatever word you use to describe the everything of existence, the I Am, the All, Creation). In the end, though, they are just words.

So stop fighting over them, okay?

Impeccable

I don’t know why I seem to get the word "sin" under my skin. I guess it comes from seeing it misused so frequently. "Sin" is something bad. Religions tell you to stay away from it. Don’t drink, don’t fornicate, don’t do drugs and don’t use the Lord’s name in vain. Those are sins and they are bad. If you do them, then you are bad too. Don’t be bad. God hates bad people. If you are good, he will love you.

There are others for whom "sin" has become so tied to orthodoxy as to become meaningless. What do I care for this "Sin" of which you speak from your fundamental superstitious little perch? Your sin has no meaning to me. And of "sin" in its general sense? Well, let’s just live and let life shall we? Good – bad… it’s all relative. To each his own.

As usual, my personal opinion differs greatly from either of these viewpoints. Consider the following questioning of some omnipotent sort, someone to whom we look when we are unsure if what we have done is okay. Call it an inner voice, some sort of reverberation, a kind of internal therapist.

Us: Lord, have I loved enough?

Him: Why don’t you wish to love more?

Us: Oh dear God, have I been patient enough?

Him: Why don’t you wish to be more patient?

Us: Am I forgiven?

Him: Will you let yourself be?

Us: Did I do the right thing?

Him: Why do you think you’ve done the wrong thing?

I imagine it’s sort of like this therapy session. We ask those questions, but we really know the Truth. We can never love enough, we will never be patient enough, will never be able to completely accept forgiveness, and if we wonder if we’ve done the right thing, we probably haven’t.

So, "Sin" that thing that seems discrete, quantized, measurable – isn’t. It is immeasurable, a fabric stretching through all time and space in every direction. It is a condition of our very existence.

There is no such thing as "good enough." You will never be impeccable. You will never reach your potential. You will never fulfill your perfect design.

Everything short of that is, my friends, sin. Welcome to the club with an extremely inclusive membership.

Why Whiners and Complainers are Necessary

Well, mostly they are necessary because I consider myself one. With that said, there is some truth to this though.

Where did we get this idea that complaining never helped anything? Where did we get the idea that those who talk ill of the establishment rather than "Be quiet and suck it up" or "Make it work" or "Be a team player" are somehow miscreants and to be shunned?

Did you ever stop to ask yourself how all movements for change begin? Did you ever wonder how a society, organization, or government changes direction?

It starts with the complainers.

It starts with people who won’t be quiet in their discomfort. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a complainer. Thomas Jefferson was a complainer. Abolitionists were complainers. The fourth branch of government, the news media, is a big fat loud whiner. Everybody who has ever resisted the status quo is a whiner and a complainer.

We need whiners and complainers. They save lives.

Let’s not undervalue our complainers and whiners. Without them/us you’d all think you were happy until it was too late.

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