Nature, The Wasteful Teacher.

Spring will come soon. With it will arrive pollen and seeds and budding flowers. Yellow dandelions will turn puffy and white and insects will burst by the thousands from egg sacs as new fish break water for the first time in the pond. Nature’s bounty is spectacular and Man is right to marvel at it. But the other half must also be looked at. All the multitude of that which did not grow is to easily forgotten in the show.

Think about the last time you walked beneath an oak tree. How many acorns were on the ground?A thousand? Two? I have never counted, but as a child I would gather acorns for fun and I remember filling up a great many jam jars of the droppings from a single tree. It never occurred to me until much later how inefficient it all is.

All those acorns, all those thousands lying on the forest floor… but from how many would a new tree actually grow? Almost none. About zero.

Like all of nature the Oak approaches the world with a shotgun. It flings a scatter shot of potential offspring from itself and hopes for the best, crossing its branches, knowing full well that almost all its effort will come to nothing. How could it not? Reality is complicated and almost everything dies.

Think of the pollen. Year after year the flowers and trees spray fine clouds of yellow mist into the air and almost none of it reaches its target. Like a man’s semen or a fish laying her eggs, trillions of reproductive possibilities may be created over the lifespan of one organism. Perhaps only one or two ever take.

The sky is filled with stars and they each ringed with planets. How many have life? One that we know of. Maybe a handful more somewhere far, far away. The sky gives its rain and much of it falls on rocky places and is wasted, never used. The sun beams it’s light out in all directions, only the smallest fraction ever detected by an eye or used to ripen a grape growing upon the vine. Almost all of the species that have ever lived are now extinct, nearly every organism that has ever existed is dead. She is a wasteful mother, Nature. Efficiency is not her game. It can’t be. Death, her foe, is much too strong.

Reality is complicated. It’s easier to be dead than to stay alive and easier still to never be born. The oak tree cannot run the calculation of infinite variables that the universe requires and determine which acorns it should make, with which genes, at which time of year, and in which season, in order to successfully reproduce. Reality is too complex for that. The future too unknown. Death is always too standing too close to the door. Evolution figured out long ago that the only winning move is to try every possible combination. That’s the best you can hope for. Try everything. Hope one or two of them work.

Within the males of a species Nature has decreed that every single kind of spermatozoa, with every possible combination of the father’s genes, should be made and then fired like a blunderbuss at the nearest waiting womb. Whichever wins the race can have a shot at being alive. That is the only metric that Nature has found to matter. When a womb will even be available cannot be predicted, so animals make sperm all the time, knowing before hand that almost all of it will go unused.

Life progresses forward by trying every possible thing. Evolution is a giant billion year game of trial and error. Reality is too complex a game to play otherwise. It’s far, far too easy to die.

So it is with you. You don’t know what will work. You don’t know what will fail. And the younger you are the more certain both those statements are. Sure bets fall through and people make unexpected fortunes. The future cannot be predicted and those who try often end up destitute or alone. Like diversifying a portfolio, a man’s experience, his skills, his knowledge of the world and his abilities to make money should be many and varied if he is to succeed. The way forward, the only way a creature can deal with the infinite complexity of time and space around him, is to try everything, and then keep what works. As St. Paul said, “test everything, hold to what is good.”

The spiritual realm is no different. I find it hard to trust a Christian who has not dabbled now and again in other religions. In the same manner that I find it hard to take seriously a man who has his whole life belonged to only one political party or ascribed to only one ideology or held only one view of the universe. Such men have tested nothing. They’re holding to what is comfortable, if that also good happens to be good that’s just coincidence. They don’t know. They haven’t tried anything else.

A man’s religion is dead if he has never seriously wrestled witch scientific reductionists, nor wondered if his neighbor’s religion might not actually be the true one, nor ever thrown his holy book in disgust across a room. Without Doubt there is no Faith. Faith is good, yes. But it should not be blind.

Jacob became the patriarch of Jesus over his firstborn brother Esau because he was the one willing to wrestle with God. Esau had his birthright stolen and he did not fight to get it back. Jacob, underhanded and deceitful as he was, was the sort of man to wrestle with God in the dark until the sunrise, for that he is blessed, even if also injured.

Reality will hurt you, make no mistake. But if you are to conquer it you must move forward into the dark and wrestle with whatever you find there. That is God you see. You always meet him in the darkness.

Try everything, hold to what works. That’s the way Life triumphs over infinite complexity. That’s the way the Spirit finds its way to God.

Only the Strong Can Be Virtuous

Atlas must not shrug,

Mountains hold many small things.

Evil hands grow frail.

What follows might sound like a silly thing to draw a lesson from but I don’t think that it is. One of the central pillars of my thinking is the notion that the universe is fundamentally fractal, it follows the same patterns over and over again, just at different scales.

Maybe that’s mysticism, maybe it isn’t, but when you do an ordinary thing like wash the dishes or walk in the woods or take a shower, I believe you are playing out the same music going on above in the heavens… just in a more minor key. Hell, fundamentally, is discord. Evil is a bum note.

As a great man once said, “Rome falls a thousand times while you vacuum your carpet. Your job is to notice.” This is true. I believe that’s why Christ was able to teach in parables, because simple things like drawing baths and tending lamps are truly smaller versions of creating oceans and making stars. “As above, so below” as the alchemists were fond of saying. In every small thing is something larger. “The universe is in a drop of wine.”

The other day I was jumping rope. I like to jump rope. It’s great exercise and you can always challenge yourself by trying to do a new trick or a new jump. It’s less boring than running, at least to me. In any case I was taking a rest between intervals and I sat down on the floor of my garage covered in sweat and listened to the music blaring from my phone. “Energy” by The Apples in Stereo. Somewhat appropriate. As I sat there, hunched over and breathing heavily, I noticed an ant.

We’ve had ant problems. In the summers our area basically turns into a rain forest and the heat together with the moisture makes it a haven for insects of every kind. But ants are the worst. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to battle a legion of ants making a trail through our living room to and from some minuscule scrap of food that one of my kids knocked under the couch. They always come at night, while you’re asleep, and in the morning you wake up to discover your home has been invaded.

My wife hates them and I use hate here in the purest sense of the word. Once they were in the sink going after scraps on a bowl and instead of simply killing them she boiled a pot of water and poured it on them, literally cackling with delight as they disintegrated.

So yea. Ant problems.

As the line “the world is synchronicity” played from my phone I reached out with my thumb to smash the creature. You must stop the scouts. If one ant finds a food source he will return to the hill and bring back ten thousand more. I stopped though. I don’t know why. I was simply moved by a small bit of compassion for the thing. Snuffing it out so suddenly seemed cruel. It was probably having a happy day. I didn’t want to end it.

Sure, it occurred to me as I spared the thing’s life that I might pay for it later. It might find something. The one might become many. But… if that happened, well, I could handle it. That doesn’t sound like a big deal. It is though. A few years ago I couldn’t.

I went through a very long period of depression. Very long and very deep. I was suicidal and I used to practice shooting myself in the head with an empty revolver, trying to work up the courage to do it with a live round. Sometimes I still think about the click of the hammer in my ear. Not a good place.

Naturally, during that time my marriage suffered. My wife, God bless her, stayed with me through it but it was touch and go for a while and at some points there she could’ve hardly been blamed if she had left. We fought constantly. We were always at each other’s throats. Any little thing could set us off and I remember being paranoid about the smallest details because everything had become a land mine. Shirts not in the hamper? That was a 30 minute fight. Her shoes got mud in my car? That’s an hour. The dog shed on the couch? I punch a hole in the wall. The baby cries all night? I might’ve thrown myself from off a bridge.

Of course, none of that fighting was about what started it. The shirts were only a problem because I was a problem. The dog was just being a dog, it was me who was unstable. My depression had made our marriage so weak that anything and everything threatened to tear it down. A legion of ants on the floor back then might as well have been demons from Hell. I’d have blamed her for not cleaning up properly, she’d have yelled at me for not helping, I’d have cursed her and asked what kind of person did she think she was to deserve it, she’d have shoved me, I’d have stormed out and slammed the door and woken the baby up. My wife would cry. I’d go downstairs and practice killing myself.

So yea. Problems with ants.

I’m better now and my marriage is stable and good. Because of this, I could afford not to kill. I could let the ant live. When you see a violent man, the odds are you’re also looking at weak one. Maybe not physically, no, but economically, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually? True some men are simply evil but… then again…. it’s not exactly clear what the difference between the weak and evil is. Weak men fall to temptation. Only the strong can be virtuous. Only from a place of power can you show compassion. The Kingdom of God is within you, and your internal kingdom must be strong.

You have a moral obligation to build yourself up. Start doing so. One by one, each of us doing that… that is how we save the world.

Naming Fear. Also Hats

Jungles in the mind,

Unknown map to be explored —

Darkness makes the fall.

Recently I’ve been feeling like I need to do an MMA match. This is absurd. I’m not yet out of the age range where people do such things but I’m certainly beyond the age when they start their fighting career. Plus I have a white collar job where black eyes are frowned upon and a family depending on me to not have a broken body. There is no upside to doing it.

None save one: I would confront a fear.

… that’s not nothing.

From time to time I get this way. I will realize that I have a fear of something and then fixate on it, unable to really focus until I do something to address it. Last year it was heights. I don’t like heights. I never have. There’s something about the instantaneous permanence of going over the edge of something that I cannot stand. Most mistakes in life leave room and time for correction but, going over a cliff? You’re done. Gravity wins. Naturally when I realized how much this fear bothered me I joined a rock climbing gym, an effort to try and push myself to confront it.

I had some success. Minimal though. I wasn’t able to get to the gym often enough to make real progress. Nonetheless, I tried, and trying makes it better.

Recently though I’ve been having insecurities about my own masculinity. Why? I think because I’m challenging myself more. I’m trying to live out the role of the hero and I am worried I am not up to the task. Strength? I’m fairly strong, stronger than most I’d imagine. Intelligence? Again, here I don’t feel lacking. But courage? Courage? Well, I wasn’t sure. Am I brave? Have I ever really tested that? I didn’t know.

I started to think about what sorts of things would scare me and I realized that an MMA match would be a good one. For context, I’m not a stranger to martial arts. I’ve done jujitsu, wrestled in high school, trained for a while at an MMA gym, and even participated in a few sumo matches. I’m not entirely unfamiliar with combat. And yet, when meditating on my own fears I recalled just how much I *didn’t* like competing in those sorts of contests. I never liked it. In fact I hated it. I remember every wrestling season in school just spending the whole winter with butterflies in my stomach, nervous about my next match. I couldn’t stand that feeling. I stayed on the team only because I loved the camaraderie of my team mates… but boy did I dislike the actual matches.

Thinking about this, I got it in my head that I needed to confront this fear. I needed to go compete again and sign up for a jujitsu tournament. Now, again, I’ve done that before as an adult, even won a tournament before, but, again, I never liked it. And the fact that I didn’t like it so much really bothered me. Of course, as is my tendency, I pushed that sentiment to its extreme: “Well, if you’re nervous about a jujitsu match you would damn sure by scared of an MMA match. You should do that instead! Do the hardest thing and prove you can!” As mentioned, this is absurd. Yet absurd ideas stick around.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was something I needed to do so at last I sat down with my fear and meditated on it for a while. I got out my prayer rope and mulled it over while reciting The Jesus Prayer during a long drive.

I asked myself what it was I was really afraid of. This is important. If you have a fear, precisely what it is that you’re scared of may not be the surface thing the fear presents itself as. Naming the fear is important, it lets you deal with it in the most efficient way possible.

For example, a lot of people are afraid to speak up for themselves in front of their boss at work… but are they really? That’s how the fear is manifesting but, is that really what it is?

Well, one way to approach the problem is to isolate the components of the scenario and see where exactly the fear lies. For example, speaking up to your boss has several parts to it. There’s the actual act of verbal confrontation, which everyone fixates on, but, also there’s several other things: the power differential between you, your boss’s position of authority, the threat of being fired, the consequences of being fired, how those you care about would react to you if you got fired, the implications for your home life, the implications for future interactions with your boss after the confrontation takes place… on and on. Where exactly in that morass does the fear reside?

Isolate. Divide and conquer. Divorce each element from the others and see which one specifically is making you afraid. For example, are you afraid, really, of the verbal confrontation? Well maybe not. If you were not your boss’s employee would you be afraid of dressing him down? People engage in verbal conflict between their peers all the time, so maybe the actual verbal confrontation isn’t where the fear is.

Is it the power differential? The fact that he’s in a position of authority? Again, maybe. However lots of people speak down to police officers, politicians, and others in authority all the time, so maybe that’s not it. Likewise, by the same token it therefore can’t be precisely the power differential either, but rather the consequences of that differential. Namely, you could be fired. Even here though we’re probably not at the bottom because lots of people actually sorta want to be fired. They hate their jobs. It would be a relief to not have to go back to the office everyday. Sometimes perhaps they even fantasize about getting canned and never having to put up with it again. So is it being fired? Maybe not. In all likelihood the real fear is either the threat of going broke or, perhaps more likely, *the threat of how others would perceive your broke-ness.*. If that’s the case, then the path to clearing the way forward for the necessary confrontation with your boss may not actually be with him. Rather it may be sitting down with your wife, or your parents, or your friends, and discussing the problem with them first. If ahead of time you secure their support for your decision and they’ve assured you that they’re there for you and on your side… well, you might find that you’re suddenly a lot less afraid of the guy handing out pink slips. You’ve dealt with the real issue. All the layers above it become easier.

I tried a similar thing. As far as I could tell, an MMA match could be broken down into two primary fear elements: 1) fear of being hurt, the actual threat of physical violence and 2) fear of being judged publicly if I failed. Specifically, in the context of my current masculinity insecurities, number two was the fear of having my *masculine ability* judged in public.

So which was it? Where did the fear lie?

I had a couple of clues. First I realized rather quickly that the fear evaporated when I imagined a hypothetical scenario in which I had foreknowledge of my own victory. (By the way, it’s perfectly okay to play such games when working out a problem. In your mind, adjust the scenario to remove and isolate variables. Pin down the thing like a scientist in a lab.). Even in the hypothetical scenario where I also had foreknowledge of being badly hurt, if I *knew*, if I really had certainly I would win, there was no fear. Clearly then the fear lay primarily in the loss and not in the physical confrontation.

But also a second clue was that I had not felt such nervousness, the butterflies in the stomach, when doing sumo. Wrestling, jujitsu, MMA, all these scenarios produced the butterflies but I had competed, and gone up against big and scary guys in sumo with none of that anxiety. That was curious. Why?

I realized it was because neither I nor anyone else took sumo seriously.

In Japan perhaps it’s different, but in American culture that style of wrestling is an oddity, a unique cultural exhibition. It’s not *serious*. No one uses it as a gauge of your masculine prowess. I wasn’t nervous about the combat of a sumo match because it carried no cultural weight. It had no judgment. If I lost… well, it was just a silly eccentric contest. It was nothing *real*.

By contrast boxing, wrestling, MMA, *are* part of my culture’s masculinity measuring tools. That’s why I was afraid. I was not afraid of the combat or being beat up (though naturally that would be unpleasant). I was afraid of being judged. I was afraid of putting my masculinity on display and coming up short.

Ok, what difference does that make? Well, it lets me know my avenues to solving the problem.

If I was truly afraid of combat then addressing that fear would necessitate me going to a gym and getting knocked around. But if I’m rather afraid of being publicly judged…

While I meditated on this for some reason my mind kept being drawn back to a hat that I have. (You should listen to such things. Your subconscious knows things that you don’t. If images keep coming back to you that seem unrelated to the problem at hand, they’re probably not as unrelated as they seem.) This hat is a great hat. A traditional Scottish style golfing hat with red, green, and black and with a little puffy tassel on it and I look smashing in it. I really do. It perfectly matches my face for some reason and makes me feel great. The only trouble is, as it probably sounds, this hat is *very* flamboyant and extravagant. You can’t wear it and not call attention to yourself. People stare. You walk around and you can feel their eyes.

So… I never wore it. I love the hat, it was a gift I cherish, but I haven’t worn it except for a handful of times because of the judgement of the crowds.

And that’s the same thing, isn’t it?

That’s roughly the same fear I was now wrestling with.

So… I started wearing the damn thing. I started getting used to people staring at me. I started accustoming myself to their public judgement of my fashion choice.

And you know what?

The butterflies that entered my stomach when thinking about the MMA match started to go away. I started getting used to being judged, to being singled out by the crowd. No it’s not precisely the same because the hat isn’t a measure of my masculinity (although maybe it is because you have go be damn confident to wear it), but it is being judged, and that’s the primary component of the fear I felt.

So maybe by naming the fear you have, by specifically nailing it down… then you can deal with it. Efficiently. In a way that doesn’t require you to take up rock climbing or get kicked in the head. Whatever your fear is, dissect it. Take it apart. Maybe it’s not so monumental as it seems and maybe you can figure out an easy path around.

Name the Fear. To Name is to control. To control is to win.

And.. maybe one day I’ll still go do that jujitsu tournament. Just for fun. 🙂