The Paradox of Hope: Part Two

In a previous post, I mentioned that hope is a paradox because by its nature it implies that something needs to die in order for something else to live. With regard to America, that something is our culture. Over the next few weeks I am going to talk about some things that we can do to make life more meaningful and hopeful as we continue to live in uncertain territory here in the USA.

The Upside Down

If you’ve ever seen Stranger Things, you know about the upside down. If you haven’t, here’s the general idea. The upside down is some weird alternate reality that wreaks havoc on the principled and orderly town of Hawkins, Indiana. I won’t ruin the show, but needless to say, the upside down is a scary place where nothing makes sense.

As Americans, it’s safe to say we live in the upside down.

“Do you”

“Put yourself first”

“It’s not worth it if it doesn’t make you happy”

They all sound like really great mantras on the surface, but if you really examine those mantras, they also scream something else: self-absorption. That’s not to say we shouldn’t care about ourselves or enjoy our lives, but we should probably focus on ourselves a heck of a lot less if we truly want to live hopeful and meaningful lives.

I say this as someone who has found it incredibly difficult to give up these mantras.

Suicide is on the rise in America, and I don’t think it’s because so many more people were born with brain chemical imbalances. Sure, chemical imbalances matter and I don’t want to deny or suggest that brain chemistry isn’t part of the issue, but I’d argue that another big part of the issue is our culture. It says a lot that so many people live secretly lonely lives with superficial relationships and unfulfilling careers with the outward appearance of being happy. We’ve become a nation of individuals who have been trained to focus on ourselves so much that we don’t even recognize that it’s our culture, not us that’s the problem.

Here’s one thing I’ve learned having gone through waves of sadness myself: the last thing we need when we’re at the “self-help” stage is more “self-help.” I don’t believe any of us will find what we’re looking for in exciting/life-changing/fireworks things of life. I think we’ll find life when we give up ourselves for the boring and not immediately gratifying things.

Dying to Live

Okay, so now that we all feel painfully uncomfortable and disappointed by our culture together, let’s focus on the hopeful part.

In every movie ever, the good guys always having the losing hand at first, right? They’re smaller and less interesting. Their tactics seem impractical, downright dangerous and ineffective compared to the sexy, powerful, and magnetic appeal of the dark side. And they lose A LOT. But with perseverance and commitment, they almost always win in the end.

Dying to our old American selves feels a lot like that. And you never die all at once. Call it a quarter-life, mid-life, whatever life crisis you want, it’s a death that will always bring short-term losses but long-term gains. I won’t deny how hard that can be sometimes though, especially when culture is working against you and especially when you’re in the middle of the transition.

But here’s how I think we as Americans can reshape our collective and individual identities to grapple with the world as it is right now without losing our minds. Things are going to be different for the foreseeable future, and it’s best to acknowledge that so we can make shifts and do great things for our country. It’s possible to move from death to life, true life:

Start With Faith

I find it interesting that a common thing confiscated at the border are rosaries, and I think we could learn a thing or two about faith from the newest members of our American family, people who are actually suffering and STILL believe in God. I for one, find it incredibly humbling that the wisest people I know aren’t executives or businessmen with fantastic TED-talks and bestsellers, but extremely ordinary people of faith. Having a personal relationship with a higher power is better than having a relationship with some shapeless being in the sky – or believing in nothing at all. Jesus warned about false religion and people professing to be “Christians” who would do evil things in his name. I used to think the Bible was antiquated before actually studying it, and I continue to be surprised by its modern-day applications and by how much I thought I knew and didn’t. And yet, like everything else in America, we destroy the very things that could be sources of healing, including religion. Yes, you can still be an intellectual and a person of faith. It might seem counterintuitive to believe in God at a time like this, and yet, you might find you actually do if you give it a try. You can even go to church online these days.

Don’t Focus on Finding Your Passions

Everyone has gifts. Not perfect, flawless, Instagram-worthy gifts, but gifts nonetheless. And the less you try to discover/take personality tests/figure out what those gifts are, the better off you are. Nine times out of ten, the second you focus on your community’s greatest needs, is the second you discover your greatest gifts. You may even discover gifts you never knew you had and be able to apply those gifts in ways you never could have figured out on your own. Say yes to opportunities that don’t benefit you because in the end you won’t get mired in hopeless questions like “What can I do? There are so many problems to solve” because you’ll be too busy working on problems in meaningful ways to worry about the impact you are going to make personally.  Just do your part and contribute to the collective whole. You’d be surprised what you can do with others and with your gifts.

Create Communities

Creating communities, especially offline, has never been more important. You never know how important that community may become later. Connect with strangers and make it a point of not befriending them online. That seems weird, but it may become more and more necessary, especially as our country gets more and more unpredictable. When you start forming these connections it’s important that the unreality of online masks doesn’t intervene with the reality of true connection and that you try to make space for people from totally different backgrounds, ages, etc. Meet to discuss important matters (both personal and collective), volunteer together, and share ways to connect to other communities.

Get Boring and Unimportant   

No one wants to feel uncomfortable. And it’s especially difficult for us Americans who (compared to the rest of the world) are used to feeling fairly comfortable and important. Sure, some of us have had more challenging upbringings than others, but none of us are immune to the lure of insta-life. I truly believe that in order to feel fulfilled, hopeful, and focused on the future, we have to train ourselves to enjoy being ordinary rather than extraordinary, accepting that we may see a lot of setbacks before we see any breakthroughs. It sounds like a letdown only because our culture tells us that we’re meant to be special people who do big things and change everything right away. Life is messy and unpredictable and there’s a lot of uncertainty, but when you learn to form your identity around living a life that you’re proud of because it was in service to something greater than yourself,  you won’t be focused on the outcomes as much as the relationships and people you met in the process. I hate that life isn’t a romantic comedy, with some big epic wrap-up wins all of the time, but sometimes it just isn’t, and small wins are still pretty great wins. Hope is a process. And there is life after death.

As Martin Luther King said:

Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!

Advertisements

The Paradox of Hope: Part One

On the surface, Tupac’s song Runnin’ isn’t hopeful. Or is it?

I used to jam to this song a lot back in the day and felt a lot of peace listening to it despite the curse words, gunshots, and all around hopelessness of the content. I didn’t question why. Fast forward several years later and now I get why

Here are the lyrics by the way (don’t get distracted by the cursing): 
Between you and Biggie it was like, who’s going to rule the
Nigga kingdom and shit, basically, know what I’m saying?
I was like, this is like a fucking election
It is that
You know what I am saying
Me and Biggie’s situation is smaller than that, it’s like…

[Hook]
And I wonder if they’ll laugh when I’m dead?
Why am I fighting to live if I’m just living to fight?
(You don’t know)
Why am I trying to see when there ain’t nothing in sight?
Why am I trying to give when no one gives me a try?
Why am I dying to live if I’m just living to die?

I always felt very moved by this part of the song for some reason, and on some level I think it was because it led me to question the very meaning and purpose of life. Objectively speaking, aren’t we all just living to die? On the surface that’s a pretty depressing question.

And I think unfortunately it’s all to easy to stop there, get apathetic, and just accept the meaninglessness of life and try not to think about it too much. Well that’s ridiculous and doing so does a real disservice to your soul and overall mental health. Especially because there is a point.

Here’s the reality and the point: In order for hope to exist, something has to die. And death is painful. There’s no escaping the pain and destruction that death brings. Ego, security, strongholds, identity. It’s done. Death brings an end to all of it. But hang on…is that all there is? Is there life after death?

I remember when both Tupac and Biggie’s moms came together at the VMAs back in the day, and it was so bittersweet and yet so beautiful. Why? Because it was evidence that despite an unjust system, despite two sons whose deaths were a completely unnecessary byproduct of a screwed up system, and despite the hate and violence that turned two people who should have been friends and neighbors into enemies, love won out. It won out in a quiet display of solidarity in a world of confusion, division, and hopelessness.

Now some may say, yea, okay that was sweet and all but that didn’t stop the violence. Look at the world today, the system still sucks, how was that evidence of anything? And I’d say it was evidence of what could be. Unfortunately, America’s monster still hasn’t died yet.

Our country doesn’t have to worry about another country taking us down. We’ll take ourselves down if we’re not careful. We are no longer that scrappy country that left Great Britain. We are our own worst enemy.

We love happiness, surface level solutions, individualism, money, sex, power, celebrities, and social media. And our true loves have just been exposed, exacerbated, and put on display for the rest of the world to see by the election of a man who embodies everything we’ve always been but never wanted to admit we were. America has a heart problem.

We have two options:
1) Stick to what we know, east coast west coast tactics, solving problems through politics, power, pride, and the American dollar and pretend that “this isn’t us”
2) Be completely countercultural. Admit we have a problem. Completely dismantle our culture piece by piece.

The second one is harder. American culture will have to die in a lot of ways in order for something new to be born, but I think it’s worth it to prevent what could be a huge catastrophe for our nation.

If we decide not to do number two, we’ll destroy ourselves soon enough, probably grow apathetic until our problems turn into a full on war. But if we can adopt a completely countercultural framework, protect the vulnerable, and demolish our system in a radical way, I think there’s hope.

To Be Continued…

Taking The Boredom Out of the Bible: The Book of Hosea (An Applicable and Timeless Love Story)

Back in 2014 (okay fine…and part of 2015), I liked someone I knew had some real character flaws. Haven’t we all? I made excuses for his behavior, wanted to see the good in him despite the warning signs, and basically held out hope that things would work out. Of course, we all know things didn’t change. In fact, if I’m honest, I had some real character flaws too. I wasn’t much better.

There was nothing particularly amazing about this guy other than the fact that I became a better person around him. His actions didn’t make me better a better person. It was just for some strange, unknowable reason, I was kinder, more forgiving, more honest, more giving, and better around him. The world felt good. I felt good.

There were a lot of coincidences surrounding our meeting and time together that had all the makings of a really great romantic comedy, but, in the end, our time together ended in the most humiliating way possible. Just like in the movies, I ran into him with another woman. I was pretty sad about it for a while, but in the end I learned to see it as an object lesson for a better love story.

The Book of Hosea is a story in the Bible that when read without any context sounds really antiquated and yet another reason to hate the Bible and the way women are portrayed in it. So instead of giving you a word for word run down, I’m going to paraphrase it so that the message is conveyed in the way I think it was intended.

The story goes like this.

The setting looked a lot like present day America. The politicians and religious leaders were corrupt. Women were treated like objects of sexual gratification. There was a lot of money, prosperity, and opportunities to be had. People loved selfies and self, and general spiritual apathy pervaded. On the surface, society was still functioning, but things weren’t looking good, and God wanted to warn everyone while they still had a chance to turn things around.

So one day he spoke to the heart of a man named Hosea. Hosea was an honest guy who followed the rules and did what he was supposed to do, the one girls tend to root for in movies but label “too nice” in real life (go figure). Hosea was looking to get married, and God had the perfect spouse in mind for him.

“You see that girl over there, the one surrounded by all of those men. Those guys don’t like her for her anything more than her body, but you will like her for more than that. Her name is Gomer, and I want you to marry her. ” Hosea thought he hit the jackpot. Gomer was really pretty and he liked her personality. He was attracted to her mind and her body. God warned him in advance though. “I just want to tell you before you get involved with her that she’s going to leave you. Marry her anyway.”

Hosea was different from the other guys Gomer had dated in the past, and she fell for his nice guy charm. They got married and eventually had a child together.

Hosea believed God’s prophecy about her might be wrong since they both seemed very happy. God tells Hosea to name their new baby boy, Jezreel, which means “God will sow,” as a prophetic warning that if Israel (God’s chosen people) didn’t shape up, he would allow them to reap the consequences of their actions (sounds a lot like the U.S. and our pride right now). Coincidentally, it was after the birth of Jezreel that Hosea began to notice Gomer’s restlessness.

Hosea was probably the nicest person Gomer had ever dated, but he wasn’t “fun” in the way the noncommittal guys she was used to dating were. He didn’t offer her the exciting lifestyle she was used to, so she started going out more and staying away from home. She missed her old life.

Eventually, Gomer got pregnant again. She apologized for leaving home and for all of her late nights and promised to settle down. Hosea forgave her. He knew she’d experienced things in the past and figured she was just a little uncomfortable. Hosea didn’t want to assume that the baby wasn’t his, but he suspected it, though he let the thought go. This time, God tells him to name the baby Lo-ruhamah which means “no mercy,” as a warning that God would no longer have mercy on Israel, just like Hosea would no longer have mercy on Gomer in time.

It’s after the birth of their second child that Hosea realizes God’s prophetic announcement was true. Gomer was continuing to see other men behind his back. She leaves home and comes back off and on until she gets pregnant for a third time. God tells Hosea to name the third baby Lo-ammi which means “not mine.” Clearly a metaphor for his relationship with Israel and Hosea’s own paternity.

It’s after the third baby that Gomer leaves for good telling Hosea something along the lines of “This isn’t working out. We’re too different. I’ve fallen in love with someone else.”  Hosea is understandably upset. All of his friends tell him to forget about her, that he could do better, and that there’s no point in holding out hope for a girl like her to change, but Hosea just can’t let go. Hosea knows this new guy can’t take care of her, so he sends her things in secret, letting her believe they’re from the guy she’s with.

Months pass and God finally tells him to cut her off, effectively saying, “If you don’t let her go, she’ll never learn.” So Hosea listens and when she tries to come back again he refuses to take her back. He loves her, but he’s angry, he’s hurt. When he says goodbye he grieves as though she’s died. He wants to take her back, but he prays and God says no. God wanted Hosea to understand his own grief when Israel turned to things he knew would hurt them in the end and he wanted Hosea to preach about that grief to Israel.

Eventually, Hosea gets word that Gomer’s life is in shambles. His friends say, “Haha, see she got what she deserved. Now you can move on.” But Hosea’s heart won’t let her go. God tells him now is the time to go out and find Gomer. He says, “Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods.” God wanted Hosea to prove to Gomer how much he loved her by his actions and as an object lesson of his own love for Israel. So he goes out in search of her.

When he finds her, she’s like Jenny for Forrest Gump. She’s sick, disheveled, and all messed up, selling her body on an auction block for anyone who will pay to have her (think sketchy online dating apps). Anyone else would have given up at that point, but like Forrest Gump, Hosea couldn’t let her go. He goes right up to the auction block and pays for her, spending his last dime on her to buy her out of her slavery.

“We don’t have to get back together, but I want you to stay at my house and get better,” he says. “I want you to respect yourself and love yourself and I can tell you don’t right now. I’m not going to sleep with you or take advantage of you. I’m not going to leave you for anyone else either. I want you to know you are loved.”

It’s at this point that Gomer had to make a choice. Does she change her life for the better or does she just use Hosea’s kind gesture as the confidence boost she needed to go back to her old life?

The Bible doesn’t say. It leaves it open to interpretation.

I’d like to think that this act had some impact on her even if she didn’t change immediately. If you read the Bible, you know the nation of Israel ultimately falls to foreign invaders, BUT I don’t think that that was the end of the story.

If Hosea is a prophetic prequel to the love story of Jesus, then we all know the story has a happy ending. Jesus ultimately endures the cross of humiliation for people who don’t care much about him or his message because he loves humanity anyway. It’s fitting in a way. We all turn our attention away from a committed relationship God, mixing it with other philosophies and material things (ex: careers, relationships, money, power, pride, politics, etc.) because they all sound more “enlightened” than a boring, antiquated relationship with something that we’re not even sure exists. We think of God as this angry, vindictive dictator, hell bent on making our lives miserable with rules and burdens, until we’re desperate and really want something.

Parents have this unique ability to love their kids unconditionally, and I think that’s how God works too. Yes there are rules. Yes there is discipline. But it’s all based in love.

My redemption story ended like this: I realized I wasn’t Hosea and that guy I liked wasn’t Gomer. Nope, I was Gomer all the way. God was the guy providing all of the emotional things I needed until he realized he was hurting me more by doing so. That guy was just another object of misplaced affection.

It took me a long time to realize how much I longed for God, but when I finally started studying the Bible and going to church, I realized how much I needed a healthy, committed relationship with God in order to have a healthy, committed relationship with anyone else.

Do I believe people can change? Yes. Do I think that change is easy? No. Change requires discipline, rules, and commitment, all things that aren’t easy in this day and age. Luckily, we don’t have to do it alone. I often think of church as spiritual therapy. You don’t go because you have to go, you go because you realize you need help. You go to grow.

These days the world is crazy, and it’s easy to give up hope. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in going back to church it’s this: God lives for happy endings. He died for one too. Love.

 

The Crazy Power of Prayer

My belief in a higher power runs somewhere between certainty and a nagging fear that it’s all just wishful thinking on a daily basis. Doubt is human. Faith is too.

Faith and doubt aren’t opposites. To doubt requires faith and to have faith requires doubt. It’s a marriage of perspective really and in today’s world, it doesn’t hurt to have both.  I mean, religious or not, who hasn’t gotten down on their hands and knees and prayed for something even when they weren’t sure they were actually praying to anything at all? It’s human to want to believe in something. And that shared humanity makes me curious, curious because I realize how powerful prayer is and how intrinsic it is to our nature.

Prayer doesn’t require stringent formalities or even perfection. Prayer only requires two things: 1) Realizing how little control we have  2) A belief that hope and change are possible.

Read More »

I Promise We’re Not All Crazy

A Prologue to I Promise We’re Not All Crazy: One Girl’s Search for Meaning in the Modern World by Ashley Boney
(Illustration provided by the exceedingly talented Vashti Harrison)


Most of us have questioned our sanity at one point or another. It’s always a slow creep too. We hear the alarm clock buzz and reach for the snooze button. Sometimes we hit it, other times we turn it off the first time. We roll out of bed, stumble into the bathroom, and take a shower. We will the warm water to wake us up as we contemplate the day. Should I make coffee or go to Starbucks? Starbucks, we decide. We finish our shower, brush our teeth and put on our clothes. If we’re lucky our commute is nice enough to forget how much we have to do at work. We ride the train or sit in traffic with other commuters. We smile when a good song comes on. It puts us in a good mood. We arrive at our cubicle and see a stack of folders on our desk.

“Is it Friday yet?” we mumble to ourselves as we turn on our computer and wait for the blue screen to fade. We open our inbox and sort through emails. We don’t mind the spam. Deleting it make us feel like we’ve accomplished something. We chat with coworkers in the break room

“How’s it going?” we ask as we drink our coffee.

“It’s going,” they say doing the same. We contemplate what we’re going to have for lunch as we sit through meetings. Thirty minutes into the meeting, we debate whether we should start looking for another job. We start turning our attention towards lunch instead.Read More »

We’re All Just Love Addicts In Denial

Bad emotions feel good in a twisted way. Anger. Pride. Irritation. Sadness. Blame. We eat them up willingly. We know that they’re fleeting addictions, among the most temporary emotions we have. And that’s exactly why we like them. Because we can ignore the bigger elephant in the room. The bigger addiction. That four letter heroin of emotions: love.

Love is a beast! It lingers past the point of reason, burning its way into our hearts and minds amidst the anger and the frustration. Love confuses the irritation and sadness and all but eradicates appeals to logic. Love is powerful. It’s the most powerful emotion we have. And yet, it often takes an overwhelming trigger before we come to terms with how much we need it. And that trigger is always, always, ALWAYS, our biggest achilles heel. Fear.Read More »