Monthly Archives: October 2008

Resistance Is Fruitful

Anyone familiar with “Star Trek: The Next Generation” will recall the Borg, a race of cyborgs who roamed the universe in a brutish cube that looked like a nightmare that had been run through a trash compacter. The Borg overwhelmed and assimilated cultures after issuing their signature warning, “Resistance is futile.”

“Star Trek” and the importance of resisting came up the day after I posted my last blog, and in the most unlikely of places. Who’d have thought you might find answers to the financial crisis in the first century AD?

I was invited to participate in a workshop recently at Columbia Theological Seminary in the Atlanta suburb of Decatur. One of the speakers was Stan Saunders, an associate professor of New Testament, and before I go any further, a caveat.

It’s not my intention to promote a particular religion. The password here is change — stories about those who have chosen positive change rather than settling for the ordinary and conventional. My experience is that the most powerful and lasting change is usually spiritually driven, and in this particular case, Saunders talks about Christianity. If he’d been discussing the Old Testament, you’d be reading about Judaism Several centuries later, Islam. And so forth.

Now back to our regularly scheduled programming….

The Wrong Theory

Saunders is a big, balding, middle-aged guy about 6-foot-4 who wore brown Carhartt jeans – new, from the looks of them – a bright blue shirt and lightweight hiking boots.

Glowing with enthusiasm, he rolled up his sleeves as he began his lecture. Then he removed his wristwatch, and encouraged his listeners to do likewise. Until capitalist entrepreneurs needed factory workers, he said with an air of disapproval, humans told time by the quadrant of the sky the sun occupied, and by the noteworthy events of their era.

Saunders’ first scholarly reference, as it were, came not from the Bible, but from “Star Trek” and the frequent references on the show to the space-time continuum.

“We locate ourselves by what time it is and what kind of world we’re in,” Saunders said. “If you think bankers own the world, you’ve got some confusion in the space-time continuum. You’ve got your life ordered around the wrong theory.”

A Different Story

The right theory, as you might imagine at an institution that trains ministers, is an orientation to the Creator and things eternal. And Saunders explained how a group of spiritually-minded people challenged the prevailing reality of their times.

 Early Christians were members of a “counter-culture” who identified with “a different story” than their contemporaries. That story, of course, centered on Jesus of Nazareth.

They also believed that God was not far away, but with them in the everyday world. That notion, Saunders said, “…changes how you discern the world.” And because of their perspective, “Christians were contrarians.”

The apostle Paul espoused two ethical principles: love and renunciation of self. Neither allows much room for greed, self-righteousness or manipulation of others.

Early Christians were also known for giving aid to the sick during epidemics. Whether their frequent exposure to disease fortified their immune systems is not clear, but Saunders said that Christians typically lived longer than non-Christians.

Whose World Is It?

Saunders said the very act of worship itself was – and still is – “resistance to the world’s order. We are called to push back. Not through war, but in a form of resistance to the world. Empires don’t like the little people to gather; [worship] names another power in the world.”

The rampant wealth and profligate spending of our times has been so excessive it’s tempting to wonder if, perhaps, materialism might not be the Borg of our times. And, indeed, if we are witnessing the end-game of that dynamic.

If so, and if you’ve been assimilated into the dizzying excess of the past years or the recent near-panic, Saunders says, “You’ve lost control of time. You have to remember whose world it is and what kind of time it is. You need to be resistant to the modern capitalist society.”

The alternative, he suggests, is the spiritual life, and it looks something like this: renunciation (giving up self-righteousness), forgiveness (of others and yourself) and reconciliation (with enemies).

Personally, Saunders’ Rx is not very appealing; it’s the behavioral equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest. I’ve invested a lifetime in self-righteousness and resentment, and it’s not easy to give that up. But I must also acknowledge that he’s correct. There’s a wonderful saying in 12-step programs that sums it up: “Do you want to be right, or would you rather be happy?”

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BMWs and the Black Swan

I’ve marveled occasionally over the past few years at the explosion of wealth in this country, and the totem for these reflections is the BMW.

I lived in Louisville during the ’70s, and BMWs were all but unknown. The only BMW dealer was a small garage well out of town in a hamlet on the Ohio River. People who drove Beemers were enthusiasts who prized them as high-performance machinery.

Now, I commented to my friend Saul the other night, BMWs are status symbols and as common as Hondas.  “There’s a lot of money in this town!” I said.

“It’s not money,” he said  solemnly.  “It’s credit. They’re doing it on credit.”

“And there’s nothing behind it?”

He nodded.

It’s a Fist-Fight

Saul’s a money guy, a passionate student of the markets and trends who worked for Merrill Lynch before starting a hedge fund with a couple of friends. He knows economic history the way the geeks on Sports Center know baseball statistics.

“This whole thing,” he said, referring to the financial world that is in such upheaval, “is a contest, and I’m a game-player in the contest. There are thousands of books about it and all these theories, but no one has the answer. They tell you it’s an intellectual pursuit, but that’s bunk. It’s a fist-fight, and the best advice I’ve ever seen is ‘cover your chin and jab on the run.'”


“Don’t lose money. Cut your losses as soon as you recognize them. Don’t let it be a long-term investment.”

That, he said, is an old money-management technique that has been ignored in this “new age” economy where “everyone thinks it’s riskless.” Federal guarantees, greed and foolishness, he said, led to easy credit for individuals and institutions, and a bloated economy.

A House of Cards

Saul was so baffled by what was going on that he moved all his fund’s assets into cash, certificates of deposit and gold a few months ago. Nevertheless, he is still rattled by the crisis.

“It was a house of cards,” Saul said, “there was nothing behind it. I feel sorry for people who  thought they had investments, and now the outlier (the extreme of a bell curve, a statistical form that measures probability) comes along to destroy their wealth.

‘It’s the rare event, the fifth standard deviation, the black swan. It’s the unanticipated event that comes along every 100 years.”

Saul was taking it so personally that it reminded me of the winter of 1992-3. I had just moved to a small town in northwestern Connecticut. My wife and I decided to divorce, and I was living alone in a big, cold house with baseboard electric heat that was scandalously expensive. I didn’t have a job, my savings were gone and my checking account was at an all-time low. Then I got a utilities bill for $575.

An Exploded Balloon

I spent an hour raging, cursing my fate, and entertaining vivid scenarios of my life as a homeless person. Finally, I sat down and started writing. Every thought that crossed my mind, no matter how foolish, I committed to a yellow legal pad.  I wrote for an hour or more, ten pages in all, emptying myself in blue ink.

When there was nothing left, I sat for a moment, incredulous. Then I laughed. The fears that were running me were not mine at all. They were my mother’s, who came by them honestly. She grew up during the Depression with an alcoholic father.

I glanced out the window at the garage. I had a nice car in that garage with gas in it. I had food in the kitchen, a roof over my head. I was warm and dry, and I had a comfortable place to sleep.  Whatever was going to happen, no one was going to come to the door and shoot me. I’d be OK.

A Baseball

I put on my coat, called the dog, and went for a walk. Up the road, I passed a spot where a car had been parked. Lying next to the snowbank was a scuffed, grass-stained baseball. Spring was coming; I’d be OK.

A few days later, I got a check for a magazine story I’d written. I expected $500; the check was for $3500.

I wish I could say the experienced changed me, but my first reaction to upsetting news still tends to be negative and fearful. I’ve had my own “rare event,” and it laid me low. But the truth is that even though I’ve been brought to my knees, the reality was never as bad as my fears portrayed them. I was — and still am — OK.

And if my experience has any value, what we’re going through now may get ugly, but we’ll be OK.

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Tasmanian Devils and Moon Shots

It’s a Friday morning in early June and my girlfriend and I are on the front porch of her house in Atlanta sipping coffee. Spring is tapering into summer, but it’s not too hot to be outside, and the mosquitos don’t come around to the front of the house.
The year is 1997, and I work the 2:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift at I write about elections in Nigeria, the trial of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and, on one memorable night, about a woman in Australia who found a Tasmanian Devil under her car.

My girlfriend is a realtor, and she’s got a problem of her own. “I don’t have any business,” she said. “I’ve talked to all my clients, I’ve called people and I’ve been through my Rolodex, and I just don’t have any business.”

This, as any guy knows, is an invitation to fix something. It’s one of our specialties: we discover a problem and we think we’re supposed to fix it. And ordinarily I might have blundered right in, trying to do just that.

Operating Room

But perhaps because I’d just awakened, and the coffee hadn’t kicked in yet, I took a different approach. I told her I knew what a hard worker she was, and how I believed she’d done everything she could possibly do.

“But if I were you,” I said, “I wouldn’t say ‘I don’t have any business.’ There might be something out there, you just don’t see it yet. You’ve got to leave some room for God to operate.'”

It’s not often that I’ve said something that has such a visible effect, but she gave me a relieved smile and said, “Of course.”

The next morning at ten minutes to 7, the phone rang, an interruption that could not have been any less welcome had it been a Tasmanian Devil.
It was a guy in Houston who grew up down the street from my girlfriend.
He wanted her to sell his mother’s house in one of Atlanta’s most desirable neighborhoods.

Mental Health

That story came to mind the other evening as I was driving home from a meeting where the topic was trust. Those at the meeting had been bruised and scarred by the alcoholism of people close to them, and trust was not easy to come by.

It was a casualty in my life, too, but for some reason what came to mind was the round of golf I’d played a few days before with my friend Mike.

This is my fourth year at the game, and only my sixth outing of the year. In other words, I’m not real good. And after yet another of my drives disappeared into the woods, I told Scott, one of the guys we were playing with, “What I lack in accuracy I make up for in mental health. It feels so good just to knock the hell out of the ball.”

However therapeutic it may be, it’s not satisfying in the long run. I lost a lot of balls that day, and Scott used the same ball for the whole round. He’d put intersecting lines on the ball in red ink, and every time he teed it up, I saw those red lines and was reminded that the point is to keep the ball in play.

“Y’know, you’ve got a great swing when you relax,” Mike said. “It’s fluid and easy. You don’t need to kill it.”

Moon Shot

He was right, and not just about my golf. It’s also true about the way I live. When I obsess, think I’m in control and try too hard, it’s ugly.  When I relax and trust the way my girlfriend did, the results are better than I could imagine.

Just a few days before we played, I wrapped up a writing project and wondered if the well had gone dry, as I always fear it will. But I was calm, relaxed. It was too soon to conclude that God had let me down, and a few hours later, I got a call and another project.

So when we got to the 14th, a short, 182-yard hole about 100 feet lower than the elevated tee, I relaxed. I slowed down, trusted the swing and let the club do the work. I hit a moon shot, a towering 8-iron that floated down out of the sky as if guided by angels and landed pin-high, 18-feet from the hole.

I don’t’ know, this trust thing could catch on.

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A Note to Voyeurs

I got an email the other night from a lady I used to run into often, but had lost touch with. Her note says, in part:

“I came across your website, and wanted to reach out and let you know that I enjoy reading your entries, and value your willingness to be vulnerable and publish your journey. I guess it gives those of us on a more secluded path an opportunity to be spiritual voyeurs. :-)”

Odd, the timing of it. I’ve wondered at times whether anyone beside myself was getting anything out of this. It started as a place to report my experiences as I reinvented myself. I knew others had been tossed over the side by corporate America, or left their jobs for some other reason and might need the encouragement of someone else’s experiences.

And I probably also hoped it would buck up my own spirits. I tend to get despondent over setbacks, a consequence of growing up with a mother whose father was an alcoholic.

Who Are You?

What I discovered is that reinventing myself isn’t just about branding, marketing and networking. It goes much deeper than that. When you get past the what, the when and the how of it, you come to the who.

And as The Who put it, “Who are you?”

Well, I’m a guy who grew up without the conviction that you need what I’ve got (see Trump, Donald). There was a shortage of self-esteem that I’ve spent my lifetime trying to fix. It’s an obsession dangerously close to narcissism, searching for the fix, but taking life on it’s terms is not an option.

Discovering Al-Anon’s 12-step program has given direction to my spiritual longings, and recently I got an opportunity to take it even deeper.

It’s a Put-On!

I’ve been invited to participate this month in a “spiritual formation” seminar at a theological seminary.

The assigned reading includes “Thirsty for God” by Bradley P. Holt in which Holt discusses “vocation” as something we are led to that expresses our core values. It came to me almost immediately that my “vocation” is encouraging others, reassuring them that it’s safe to come out from under the bed and play.

There’s a saying that one teaches what he most needs to learn, and that’s certainly true in this case. I’ve spent most of my life hiding behind a mask, and as The Who (where would I be without them?) put it so well in “Eminence Front” , “It’s a put-on!”

I Know! I Know!

Where is this leading? I wish I knew. But that’s the old me, the one who tried to control his environment and was always thinking, always trying to figure it out.

Now, as Scrooge puts it in the extraordinary ’51 version of “Scrooge” while dancing a jig on Christmas morning, “I know! I know! I know that I don’t know!” (If I’ve used that line before on the site, I owe you one….)

I know that I don’t know. And yet, because I keep turning my life over to the Creator, it seems like things keep getting better. I couldn’t have said that a year ago.