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?”

Post a comment below or send an email to jc@johnchristensenonline.com.

 

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.'”

Meaning?

“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.

Post a comment below or email me at jc@johnchristensenonline.com

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 CNN.com. 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.


                                      Post a comment below or email me at jc@johnchristensenonline.com.

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. 

The Abundance of the Moment

I was talking the other night to a friend about the gas shortage here in Atlanta, and admitted that I was embarrassed how it had unnerved me.

Hurricanes Gustav and Ike shut down the refineries on the gulf coast which produce the gasoline that is pumped through pipelines to the southeast. It has taken the refineries a long time to get back up and running, and the gasoline reaching our area is well below normal.

The result has been shortages, long lines and the barely muted panic of a population habituated, and unable to get, it’s substance of choice.

The first line I saw was a week ago when I went to get my car washed at a gas station. (Due to a drought, we’re also restricted from engaging in another American birthright: the domestic joy of washing the car in the driveway.)
There was a line half a block long at the station. The attendant said it was because they were selling lowest octane gas at $3.87 a gallon.

I got the car washed without waiting, but the experience was disturbing.

Wild Mind

The same thing happened when Katrina shut down the refineries. I sat one afternoon in a line for 30 minutes waiting to fill up. I had a job the next day, and I needed the money. My mind ran wild, beginning with “What happens if they run out? Where do I go next? What happens if I can’t find any gas?”

So here I was again, running through a well-stocked inventory of fear-driven scenarios, all of them built around scarcity and lack. And every time I’ve seen a station since with long lines, those fears are refreshed as if I’d hit the reload button on my Firefox browser.

And I ask everyone I speak with if they’ve bought gas, where, and what were the lines like.

“I’m glad you told me that,” my friend said the other night. “I was thinking it was just me who was so freaked out.” 

Combustible Emotions

Finally I decided to take a look at the obsession head-on. What I came up with was that the high level of uncertainty I’ve experienced over the past few years has made me unusually sensitive.

I’ve managed reasonably well, but a gas shortage threatens one of the freedoms I treasure most: mobility. If I can’t get around, I’m in deep trouble. And I live in a sprawling city with nearly 5.5 million inhabitants, most of whom are habituated to plentiful gasoline and long commutes.

Those lines teem with people whose unchecked anxieties are probably similar to mine, and their emotions are more combustible than fuel. I heard a story last week about a guy who cut in front of a woman. She  went into the station, bought a cup of coffee and dumped it on him.

Authorities say part of the problem is that people are panicking and topping off their tanks rather than waiting until they’re low to re-fuel. If I’d seen a short line, I’d have done it myself.

And I’ve given plenty of thought to options, too. The AT&T store is looking for help. Or maybe the library at the end of the street, or Borders, which is just a mile away. Those are places I could walk to. Lowe’s is a few miles the other way, and the MARTA station a few hundred yards from here puts other possibilities within reach.

Reclaiming the Day

But for all the nightmares I’ve conjured, none has come to pass. And as a passage in a book called “Courage to Change” points out, “My best hope is every bit as likely to occur as my worst fear….” It adds, “All I can do is make the most of this day.”

Come to think of it, this day isn’t half-bad. Temperature about 80, low humidity and I’ve got the double front doors open and am sitting in the doorway with a commanding view of a riot of greenery — trees, lawn, shrubs — the street, and the  ravine across the street. A young mother passes pushing a stroller and leading a dog on a leash. She sees me and we exchange waves.

What’s not to like? With this splendid working environment, I have wrapped up two jobs, written a blog, figured out how to put ads on my website and been offered an interesting assignment that will pay a lot of bills for the next few months.  And all of this without turning on the ignition.

The abundance of the moment reminds me that giving in to the panderings of the unchecked mind is stupid, weak and a failure of faith. Faith in the Creator, and faith in my ability not just to cope, but to make the best of a situation.

Online reports say gas supplies ought to be normal by mid-October. I trust that my reservoir of sanity will be topped off and flowing freely well before that.

                                Post a comment below or email me at jc@johnchristensenonline.com.

Blue-Chip Discipline

I’m in one of the stuffed purple chairs at Starbucks, editing a story on my laptop. An academic friend of mine is in the adjoining chair, checking his assets in the Wall Street Journal.

“You gonna work much longer?” he says, folding the paper in half and then in half again.

“As long as I can,” I say, bemused.

He meant was I planning to retire soon. I’ve made no secret that reinventing myself has taken a toll on my finances. That it has eluded my friend probably says more about his preoccupation with finding a woman to marry at the age of 51 than about my circumstances.

Which are anything but robust, at least in the Wall Street Journal sense of the word. But in a world that seems to be lurching from one financial crisis to another, I’ve got some blue-chip experience when it comes to what Andy Stanley calls “faith tension.”

In Money  We Trust

Stanley is the pastor of three very successful non-denominational churches in Atlanta, and the other day he discussed Jesus’ take on spiritual discipline.

One facet of spiritual discipline, he said, is prayer. Not “prayer on the go” – praying that you’ll get to your appointment on time, for example – but taking time out every day, away from all distractions, and praying.

Another is giving, whether to the poor, to charity, to a church, whatever, but giving without expecting to be recognized or applauded by others. This was the nub of our existence, Stanley said, because what people trust above all else is money.

“It competes with God more than anything,” he said.

Thus the tension of faith: do you believe in God or in money? If you trust God, then you give as an act of faith, not knowing what’s going to happen next, but secure in the knowledge that your needs will be met.

People on Edge

It’s reminiscent of a one-liner from an underground comic strip called the Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers during the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” era: “Dope will get you through times of no money, better than money will get you through times of no dope.”

Substitute “God” for “dope” and you’ve got the premise of a lifetime.

But does it work? We’ve had a series of crises that test our financial certitude, from financial institutions to oil prices to the mortgage debacle.

A woman on the radio asked consumer advocate Clark Howard about insurance giant A.I.G., which the government was  about to prop up. “I’m about to retire,” she said, “and I’m kind of depending on that money for my retirement.”

“Of course you are,” yelped an agitated  Howard.  

When people are on edge, when their savings, pensions and IRAs are imperiled, when their security is threatened,  what does spiritual discipline have to do with it?

The Foothills of Faith

Plenty. After several years of financial stress I came to the conclusion that there was no way I was going to succeed on my terms. Having tried everything else I could think, and being about nine parts out of ten desperate, I decided to turn it all over to God. Not just work and finances, but everything. And not just once, but every day, and sometimes more than once a day when I start waffling.

It wasn’t such a big step. I’ve been studying spiritual matters for 25 years. But all I had for it was a set of beliefs, some of them pretty ordinary, others rather unconventional.  I’ve started writing a book to lay it all out on the supposition that others may find it useful and perheps inspiring. 

But those beliefs don’t add up to faith, and I didn’t realize that’s what was missing until I turned things over to the Creator and began to experience an almost dreamlike serenity. My circumstances hadn’t changed, but my attitude had. Things didn’t bother me the way they used to, and I don’t worry nearly as much. If I were hallucinating or indulging some kind of fantasy, I would have seen through it quickly. I’ve too accomplished a doubter to fall for self-hypnosis.

But I’m just in the foothills of faith; I’ve got a long way to go. Last night, I broke a tooth during dinner, and started obsessing about how much it’s going to cost to repair it. I called a friend, a 20-year veteran in  Al-Anon and a cancer survivor.

“That’s just life stuff,” he said. “The things that money can’t fix are the things that really matter. “

No Contest

So I turned the dentist issue over to God, relieved to be reminded once more that I am not in charge, and serenity drifted back into the room. 

Will spiritual discipline solve the financial crisis? Probably not. 

But when I look at the options — let’s see: I can either put my faith in financial instruments that are subject to the greed, fear and unpredictability of fallible people like myself, or I can put my faith in the source of the serenity I’ve been experiencing for the past eight months or so — well, it’s really not much of a contest.

 
 

 

LinkedIn as a Metaphor

I got an email yesterday from a friend whom I had invited to be one of my connections on LinkedIn. The essence of her question was: why?

And the essence of my answer was: I don’t know, but I’ve been sitting on the sidelines all my life acting like I’m in control when all I’ve been doing is surviving, not living. Signing up for LinkedIn isn’t exactly bungee jumping, but it’s a small step in the right direction.

I understand her reluctance, though.  She’s like a lot of people who watch others jump from trend to trend, and sign on only to the sure things.
It took me a couple of years – and a career shift – to convince me of the need for a cell phone. I waited until three years ago to start my own website.

Sanctioned Insanity

Standoffishness is a family heirloom. My buddies buddies got to stay out ’til midnight; I had to be in at 10:30. The message was “We’re different,” and there’s something to be said for not going along with the lowing herd.

The rest of the story, however, is that mine was a joyless and stressful childhood. We may have been different, but I was miserable. Holding back and isolating was how I survived.

Now – and I must remind myself of this for the rest of my days – I have other choices. Holding back and isolation no longer represent safety. They are an invitation to sanctioned insanity – the random soundtrack of the untamed mind.

Now when I feel that craziness rising, I call friends who have been there, too, and understand.

Underachieving

In that same spirit, I signed up with LinkedIn because someone asked me to be a connection. But I filled in the bare minimum on my profile – just 15% — as if it were wasting away from a lingering disease.

Recently, however, I filled in the work and education portions, and got a recommendation. Then I asked a number of people to be my connections, mainly because that 15% was bugging me. It reminded me of my father’s lectures about how I was underachieving.

So now my profile is a robust 90%. I’ve got 32 connections who have 2200 connections and a total network of 547,600 people, which is mind-bending.

I re-connected with some folks I hadn’t heard from in years, which is cool, but that network stuns me. I can send out a query and get coverage that is unimaginable in any other way.

Giving Up Control

In particular, I’m looking for websites with good writing, not the usual “My hamster loves Cheerios” drivel.

Finding some good sites would be helpful, but for me the greatest benefit is taking the chance – no longer holding back and trying to be in control.

Even if it doesn’t work out, I’m pretty sure it won’t be fatal.
Although, come to think of it, that might make an interesting screenplay – a social networking version of “Fatal Attraction” ….

The Quality Commitment

I came across a remark from Jimmy Page  the other day in the June 12 Rolling Stone that reminded me about the importance of commitment.

In an interview with David Fricke, Page said, “The main thing is quality… The important thing is to commit to playing. You have to put a lot in to get a lot out.”

As a rock critic (see Bio), I could take or leave Led Zeppelin, although I still consider their “When the Levee Breaks” one of the great rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time.

But Page’s comment echoes something I heard recently from a friend who turned her back on the financial world to become an artist. While bemoaning the decline of morals and standards in our culture, she remarked that “quality will always stand out.”

Rear-Guard Action

These remarks are especially helpful right now. As a freelance writer, I write for a variety of media – internet, special interest magazines and newspapers.

I enjoy all kinds of writing, but journalism is where I got my start and where I have the most freedom. But newspapers are losing money and readers at a frightening rate. The Atlanta paper recently asked for 54 people to take buyouts, and got 73 takers.

At the moment, that seems to mean more work for me. But sometimes I wonder if I’m fighting a rear-guard action: I’m being paid piecemeal for stories that I used to do as a full-time writer with a salary and benefits.

Which makes me wonder if I’m on the right track. And if I’m not, what is the right track? The smart money seems to be on the internet, but where? Is there a market for what I do? For that matter, how would I characterize what I do?

Everyday Magic

Answer: I tell stories, often the story behind the story. I look for qualities like connection and change, for the positive and upbeat. I look for the magic in everyday life.

So…newspapers? Magazines? The internet? I don’t know where this adventure is taking me.

But I do know this: my commitment, like Jimmy Page’s, is to do the best I can, and hope that readers leave feeling better than they did when they got here.

That doesn’t necessarily mean this adventure will have a  happy ending. But I’m beginning to understand that I’m not in the results business. All I can do is commit and have the satisfaction of knowing I did my best. Anything less would be cheating myself.

The Wisdom of Squirrels

The pistol shots began about 730 on Sunday morning: BANG! BANGBANGBANG! BANG! BANGBANG!

I don’t live in that kind of neighborhood, so I got up and wandered into the living room. The sun was still low and hung up in the foliage east of the house. But it had broken through in one spot and cast a fiery orange glow on the living room wall. It was so bright that I thought I’d left a light on in the kitchen.

I stepped into the morning cool on the front porch and confirmed that those weren’t pistol shots at all. It was squirrels.

Tattooing the Tin

There were at least three of them high in a hickory tree next to the house, tails thrashing violently as they cut nuts loose and let them fall, presumably to be collected later. Most of them were tattooing my tin roof and either bouncing off or sliding down the roof like loose gravel.

But I didn’t mind. Unlike the moron on the next block who had fired up his leaf blower and everyone else be damned, I admired the squirrels.
Within a half-hour of daybreak, they’d begun the day’s work – in this case, harvesting for the cold months ahead – presumably without any of the angst that attends humans at work.

In fact, they are so uncomplicated and childlike that they stopped in the middle of their labor to engage in a madcap game of tag. 

A Dull Lad

They raced up and down the pin oak in the front yard, ripping through the ivy-entwined trunk at full speed, then scrambled out on slender branches and made outrageous leaps into the waiting embrace of a dogwood across the driveway.

I watched from a bentwood rocker on the porch and wondered what my life would look like if I could toggle that easily between work and play.
Considering that I am by habit and family legacy far too serious, and that I am in truth and in fact a dull lad these days, I’d say I’ve got a lot to learn from the squirrels.

Something to the effect that, yes, work is important, but so is play. Neglect it at the peril of suffering your own company.

Buckminster Fuller Reconsidered

“Young man, you amaze me.”

That’s how Albert Einstein greeted Buckminster Fuller when the geniuses met in the 1920s. Einstein had just read the manuscript of Fuller’s first book, “Nine Chains to the Moon,” and asked to meet the young unknown whose chief distinction was that he’d been thrown out of Harvard not once, but twice.

The anecdote was reported by the Christian Science Monitor in a long article it published a few days after Fuller’s death in 1983. It came to mind when I was flipping through a back issue (July 7) of TIME recently and happened upon an article about Fuller.

The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is exhibiting his drawings, sketches, etc., by way of remembering him 25 years after his death. TIME acknowledges Fuller as “the famous advance man for the future” (Wikipedia refers to him as an architect, author, designer, futurist, inventor, and visionary), but he was more than that.

In fact, it may be that the drawings and inventions were not Bucky Fuller’s greatest contribution. In a world beset by hubris, greed and aggression, Fuller was remarkable for his love for mankind and his commitment to peace.
“War,” he once declared, “is obsolete.”

But it was at the personal level that I think he made his greatest contribution. Bucky Fuller was a role model for the evolution of humankind. In particular, he understood the necessity of subduing the ego and what the Hindus called “the monkey mind” in favor of humility and connection.
The Monitor quoted the pastor of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York as saying that while Fuller was not a particularly religious person, “He was the most spiritual person I ever met.”

I got a glimpse of this in 1984 when I attended a four-day workshop in Honolulu called “Money and You.”

It was taught by Marshall Thurber, a bright and amiable San Francisco lawyer who had started a business buying, renovating and selling old Victorian houses. Thurber operated the company on New Age principles, and reportedly  secretaries were making $50,000 a year.

The workshop, at least as I recall it, had less to do with acquiring and using wealth than with changing the business paradigm. It was the first time I’d heard the term “win-win,” and Thurber emphasized repeatedly that cooperation, not competition, must be the dominant theme.

On a grander scale, this took the form of the mantra “We are all one.” Thus, the proceedings were punctuated with breaks where we stood in a huge circle, holding hands and sang along with the likes of John Denver, Bette Midler and the “We Are the World” gang.

Thurber came by this philosophy through Fuller, with whom he apprenticed and apparently lost his taste for law. He discussed Fuller at length, and often played recordings that had been taped during talks and lectures Fuller gave over the years.

I had tried to read Fuller’s book “Critical Path,” and gave up after a few pages having not the slightest idea what he was talking about.  I expected the recordings to be similarly dense and abstruse, but they were not. In fact, Fuller live proved to be a man of enormous warmth and love. With his rumbling, gravelly voice and simple eloquence, he seemed a loving, kindly and understanding grandfather.

During the third day of the workshop, as Thurber reminded us once again that “we are all one,” I had a surprising insight: Thurber understood oneness as a philosophical concept. He grasped it intellectually, seemed to believe it and conveyed it with as much conviction as he could muster.

But Fuller got it at the spiritual level. He had internalized it, felt it and knew it in the same way that knowledge dwarfs  belief. He had navigated the shift from intellect to intelligence.

In short, where Thurber was the well-intentioned intellectual, Fuller was enlightened. He had sublimated the ego and counterbalanced the extravagances of the mind with the wisdom of a spirit-filled heart.

This is in no way a criticism of Thurber. Making the jump Fuller made is not easy. Few manage it. Indeed, just a few days ago, I heard a guy argue for nearly an hour against Eckhart Tolle’s  contention in “A New Earth” that the ego must be subdued, the intellectual equivalent of a dog chasing its tail.

For that matter, I need look no further than my own life to see how much damage a willful ego can do. And this after the insight about Fuller and Thurber, about the mind and the heart.

The good news is that beneath the radar, people like Fuller, Thurber, Tolle and others in a variety of spiritual hues are building an alternative curriculum. In due time, a new paradigm will displace the rusting, toxic relic that has dominated the world for a long, long time.

             

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