Seeing People Like Trees

Dr. Michael Kearney is a skilled hospice physician, gifted writer, former colleague, and treasured friend.[i]  He recently posted this:

“Answering a question about how we can judge ourselves less harshly, Ram Dass writes:  Part of it is observing oneself more impersonally… When you go into the woods and look at trees, you see all these different trees. And some of them are bent, and some are straight, and some of them are evergreens, and some of them are whatever. And you look at the tree and you allow it. You see why it is the way it is. You sort of understand that it didn’t get enough light, and so it turned that way. And you don’t get all emotional about it. You just allow it. You appreciate the tree.

The minute you get near humans, you lose all that. And you are constantly saying, “ You’re too this, or I’m too this.” That judging mind comes in.  And so I practice turning people into trees. Which means appreciating them just the way they are.”

I find this a helpful metaphor.  It is common to look at how someone appears, how they present themselves, and how they behave and put them in categories of good or bad, respectable or not.  We do this to ourselves as well. Our inner critic can be fierce in judging who we are, what we’ve done, and what we should have done.

Thinking of people like trees can give us an alternative.

Look at this Eastern Redbud tree in our backyard:

Somebody looking at it will assume that the trunk is curved to the right because that is the direction in which the sun shines into our yard.  That is correct. But I know more about its history.   

We planted it ten years ago and it had a hard time getting established. The top of the trunk was often bending so far following the sun that it was in danger of falling over and having its roots upended. We tried bracing with different methods — vertical stakes and ground anchors — but the growing center branch was always veering perilously to the right.  One day a gardener pointed out that the bracing was no longer helping. The tree had become dependent on external support and was not developing its own root system. We removed the bracing.  After one strong windstorm, the tree bent completely over, and the tip was touching the ground – we didn’t know if it would recover. But it did.  In time, the roots became established and created the strong support it needed. It now reaches in two directions: one continues orienting toward the sun while the other grows vertically, adding balance to the whole. It may not win “Best of Show” in a horticultural contest, but when I look at it, I see a living presence that has had to struggle to survive and has succeeded.

So it is with many of our fellow human beings.

Early in my ministry, I felt a calling to do memorial services, regardless of whether I had known the person or if they had any religious affiliation. 

We were living in the small, rural community of Wapato, Washington, when I got a call from the local mortician.  He asked me to do a graveside service for a man who had no known family and just a few friends.   I agreed.  I met with the friends to gain a sense of the man’s life, chose a few relevant Scripture passages, then led the service.  A half-dozen people were present.  No impressive obituaries were published, nor were any soaring eulogies given. But like a tree that had faced many challenges, this man had endured a great deal.  I remember feeling a sacred presence as we honored him.

We know trees benefit from skillful pruning.  A good arborist sees each tree in its unique environment and shapes it to help it flourish.  The same is true for loving parents, dedicated teachers, insightful mentors, and caring friends.

Following a spiritual path can be an act in which we open ourselves to being pruned by the wisdom and practices that a tradition gives us. As the saying goes, “God meets us where we are but doesn’t leave us there.” 

A friend of mine is a retired police captain.  He told me that a turning point in his career was when he began seeing people with compassion instead of judgment.  And his life was profoundly influenced by Father Gregory Boyle, the founder of Homeboy Industries, who has spent decades working with at-risk youth, convicted felons, gang members, and their families.[ii]  Father Boyle has said, “I choose to stand in awe at the burdens carried by the poor rather than standing in judgment about how they carry them.”

Take a close look at the oak that Michael photographed while hiking the San Ysidro Creek:

How many twists and turns has it made while seeking the life-giving sun?  What a story it could tell.

Oak Photo: Dr. Kearney


[i] To see Michael’s writings and meditations, go to https://www.michaelkearneymd.com  Michael’s wife, Radhule Weineger, is a popular mindfulness teacher whose work can be seen at https://www.radhuleweiningerphd.com

[ii] https://homeboyindustries.org

Do Your Best and Let It Go

            Let’s talk about pressure and responsibility.

            Last year I was listening to a baseball broadcast on the radio.  The announcer told a story about perhaps the greatest “closer” of all time, Mariano Rivera of the Yankees.  In baseball, the job of a “closer” is to come in to pitch toward the end of the game when his team is ahead by a narrow margin and not let the other team score, “saving” the game.  Between 1995 and 2013, Rivera was asked to do that 1,115 times. He succeeded 734 times and failed only 80.[i] He was selected for the All-Star team 13 times and elected to the Hall of Fame in an unanimous vote. Rivera was once asked how he could live with the intense pressure of being a closer day after day, year after year. He said he did everything he could to throw each pitch to the best of his ability, but once it left his hand, he assumed he’d done his part – what happened next was beyond his control.

            I find this perspective to be valuable when thinking about how we live our lives.

            Take parenting.  You want the best for your children.  You provide for them, guide them, lose sleep over them, and do all you can to prepare them for life.  You will always love them and be concerned for them. But once they go out the door, they face a world beyond your control. Free will, chance happenings, and unexpected events will shape them. 

            Or how about work?  Every time I’ve left a job I cared about, I hoped the organization and people would do well.  Sometimes that happened and sometimes it did not.  I felt sadness when things did not go well, but, taking Rivera’s advice, I remind myself I gave it my best when I was there and what happened after that is beyond my control.

            The same can be true for many decisions we make, including deciding to move to someplace new or what we do with our money.  As Kierkegaard said, we tend to evaluate our lives by looking backward at the decisions we have made – after we know how it all turned out. But we did not know then what we know now.  We have to live life forward, without knowing all the facts.

            In spiritual traditions, we can find similar stories.

            Moses takes his people from bondage to within sight of the promised land, yet dies before they cross over.  But he had done all he was asked to do.

            One of Jesus’ last recorded words was, “It is finished.” How could that be, a retreat leader once asked — if he came to feed the hungry, give sight to the blind, and liberate the oppressed, so much suffering was still present in the world when he died; how can he say, “It is finished?”  The leader concluded: because the specific task God had given him to do was finished. It would be up to his followers to take the work forward.

            One of the stories about the death of Buddha describes how, in his 80s, he fell ill after eating spoiled pork.  The man who cooked the food was overcome with sorrow. But Buddha told him not to feel that way.  What had happened was a gift, because Buddha was ready to die and move into the next realm.  He left behind a vast treasury of teaching, and that was enough.

            Let’s do our best with the responsibilities we’ve been given. But let’s also recognize there is only so much we can do.  Once the ball leaves our hand, we can be at peace.


[i] For folks who care about baseball statistics, Rivera had 652 saves and 82 wins for a total of 734.  He had 80 “blown saves” and the rest were no decisions.

Are Natural Disasters Sending Us a Message?

Earlier this week an intense storm moved through California. My community experienced historic levels of intense rainfall, much as it had five years ago; roads were closed, creeks overflowed, and thousands of people had to evacuate.  As I followed the news reports, I couldn’t help but notice a pattern in the language used to describe it. Here are some examples (italics added):

  • “Southern California faces another day of punishing rains…” (LA Times)[i]
  • “…the latest in a series of atmospheric rivers to pound the state…” (LA Times)[ii]
  • “The string of storms pummeling California has proved catastrophic…” (NYTimes)[iii]
  • “In Los Angeles, four people escaped after a sinkhole swallowed two cars on Monday night…” (NPR)[iv]
  • “We need to be nicer with Mother Nature, because Mother Nature is not happy with us…”  (Ellen de Generes’ tweet cited in NPR Online.)[v]

What does this language suggest?  Does rain “punish” people like an angry parent?  Does a storm “pound” an entire state as if it’s in a rage?  A boxer “pummels” an opponent to subdue, demoralize and defeat him – was that why this atmospheric river came our way?  Whales “swallow” people in the Pinocchio and Jonah stories — but does asphalt do that?  And does “Mother Nature” send an intense torrent of muddy water down a hillside to show us that she is “not happy”?

Of course, the rational answer to these questions is “no.”  The language expresses in dramatic terms what severe weather can feel like when we experience it – it’s our human imagination at work. Weather events are not personal acts of cosmic vengeance but are explainable by the laws of physics. 

And yet I understand why such language feels appropriate.

I vividly remember in January of 2018 when, for the first time, three of us were allowed to pass through police barricades and evacuated neighborhoods to view the impact of the debris flow on our 26-acre retreat center in Montecito just days before.  The mud was deep, viscous, and dangerous — it would pull your rubber knee boots off your leg if you stepped in the wrong spot.  Boulders, mud, crunched lumber and twisted oak trees were everywhere. Some of our large buildings had completely disappeared.  It was stunning, hard to fathom, and an unforgettable reminder of how fragile life is. Somewhere deep in my primal instincts, it felt personal – like a mighty, conscious force was displaying its power to make a point.

After returning home, I began thinking about stories our ancestors told to make sense of such destruction.  Noah’s ark came to mind.  I reread it. 

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence. And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth. And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth.[vi]

Sounds like the reason the flood happened is that the divine force felt a need to “punish,” “pound,” and “pummel” the corrupt and violent human race, letting the seas “swallow” them all up –because the Holy One was not exactly “happy with us.”

I thought about that.  I understood it made sense generations long ago in a prescientific world, but it doesn’t seem plausible to me today.  Indeed, the more we learned about debris flows, it became clear that these are routine geological occurrences that have been going on for thousands of years, long before people were living here.  Besides, I don’t believe in a punishing God. The storm was not a moral or spiritual event but a phenomenon explainable through the natural sciences. 

But I kept pondering the issue. I wondered: “Was human behavior a contributing cause to the severity of this event due to our complicity in global warming?”  We can’t blame a Creator or Mother Nature or physics for climate change – that’s on us, on our ignorance, willfulness, stubbornness, and greed.  The dramatic intensity of the storm was not an expression of divine judgment but, to some degree, a natural consequence of our past actions. So, if there is a moral lesson carried in the increasing intensity of severe weather events and fires, it’s not about divine intent or a weather system with emotional issues – it’s our selfish behavior coming back to haunt us.  We need to be humbled.  And we need to take responsibility for our mistakes.

Several weeks later, I was able to return to the property and walk it again.  Bulldozers, backhoes, trucks, and work crews were clearing the wreckage of the buildings and trees.  The magnitude of what had happened was still astounding.  But in many places, green shoots were coming up from the ground. Life was regenerating.  Let’s hope the lessons being offered us are not forgotten.

Art work: Noah and the Dove, 13th century, Monreale Cathedral, Sicily


[i] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-10/storm-southern-california-los-angeles

[ii] https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2023-01-10/storm-southern-california-los-angeles

[iii] NY Times. Online, Jan 10, 2023

[iv] NPR Online, January 10, 2023

[v] Degeneres Tweet, NPR Online, January 10, 2023

[vi] Genesis 6: 11-13


Friction, Character and Home-Cooked Meals

            Some years ago, I heard of one family’s coming-of-age ritual for children on their 12th birthday: prepare and serve a multi-course dinner for the family. Not by micro-waving or Grub-hubbing but by doing it all from scratch.  Deciding on a menu. Making a list of ingredients and buying them.  Setting the table.  Prepping and cooking each dish. Planning it all so everything would be ready at the right time.  Announcing, “Dinner is ready” and calling everyone to the table.  Then doing the clean-up after everyone is done.

            This was expected of each child, regardless of gender.

            I doubt if I would have wanted to do that when I was a kid.  It would involve giving up highly productive activities I preferred – like watching cartoons and sitcoms.  It would require listening, observing, experimenting, and being patient.  I might very well experience what we can call “friction”– the discomfort we experience when we are doing something difficult.

            My use of the word “friction” comes from a philosopher of technology, Albert Borgmann.  I encountered him and his work twenty years ago when I did a sabbatical project exploring how digital technology was changing personal life and spiritual practices.  Borgmann observed how digital devices often reduce friction in our life.  Instead of getting up and having to do something that may take effort and skill, a device invites us to avoid the effort – the friction — and instead, we tap a button or give a voice command.   Borgmann’s point is that the more and more we expect a friction-free life as the way things are supposed to be, our capacity to deal with friction when we encounter it diminishes.  He also believes the way in which we handle friction in daily tasks carries over to the formation of our character and capacity for nurturing interpersonal relationships.

            I remember a time when our family was practicing having a “digital sabbath day” – one day a week when we would not turn the computer on.  (This was long long ago in a galaxy far far away — before smartphones and tablets competed with oxygen and water as essential for moment-by-moment survival.)  My six-year-old daughter was bored. She begged me to let her turn on the computer and play a game. I told her we were taking a day off from using the computer.  Why not, instead, play with a favorite neighborhood friend of hers?

“We had a fight on Friday”, she said.

“Well, you could call her and try to get over it,” I said.  She fumed.  But after minutes and minutes of misery, she decided to call.  They got together, cautiously at first. But soon they became lost in play which continued for two hours. They faced the friction of interpersonal issues and got through them.  It would have been easier to be digitally distracted — and alone.  But working through the friction led to a renewed relationship.

Whether it’s marriage, family, or the workplace, dealing with other people often involves some discomfort – some friction – and it takes patience and determination to see if things can be worked out. The more digital technology leads us to expect a friction-free life, the less and less able we will be to deal with other people — those pesky humans just don’t seem to respond to our desires as quickly and easily as our beloved devices.

            My wife spent many years teaching first graders, who can become frustrated learning a new skill. She would tell them to say to themselves: “I can do difficult things.”  In a sense, it’s saying, “I can bear the friction I experience as I learn to master something new or challenging.”  And developing our will and stamina to do that strengthens our character.

            Huston Smith said that one of the shortcomings of our contemporary culture’s understanding of “spirituality” is that we often make it too easy and self-serving.  Spirituality becomes something like a buffet table – we walk by displays of various ideas and practices and put on our plates what appeals to us at the moment.  In doing so, we may avoid anything that is difficult.  But the great global traditions include practices (Ramadan, High Holy Days, Lent, vision quests, etc.)  that ask us to take on difficult things, like fasting, repentance, and acts of service.  Our ego may resist, but our soul welcomes the challenges as the means to a more personal strength and maturity. The traditions, Smith said, “have traction.”   

            I’ve often thought of that family’s dinner preparation ritual. Imagine turning 12 and, for the rest of your life, having the confidence and skill to feed yourself and others. How strong and free you would feel.

Image: “Mickey Mouse and Goofy: Thanksgiving Dinner,” #776, Children’s Book Illustration, Whitman, c. 1970s (apparently the guest on the right is a turkey who’s been invited to share in a vegetarian banquet instead of being the main dish.)

Out With The Old, In With The New?

            I once was asked by my employer to attend a program on “Organizational Change.” There were six of us present, each responsible for a particular program.  Standing next to an easel holding a blank sheet of newsprint with Magic Marker in hand, the presenter posed a question: “Why might we resist change?”

            A few years ago, I would have been excited by this question.  As a young leader I wanted to be a “change agent” and a constant innovator. But maybe I’d been in too many of these kinds of seminars led by consultants or speakers who seemed to unequivocally assume every “change” is a good thing.  Or maybe I sensed she assumed the way we ran things needed improvement without first appreciating what we were doing.  Or maybe I was just feeling ornery.

            With nothing to lose, I raised my hand and said, “Well, one reason we might be resistant to change is that things that are working well don’t need to be changed. They should be respected and preserved.”

            She looked at me as if I said something incomprehensible. She didn’t ask me why I felt that way, or what examples I could give.  She ignored my comment and turned to the others to give the answers she wanted.

I confess from that point on I tuned her out.

            “Out with the old, in with the new” is a common phrase in our culture.  But there are times when we should question it.

To be clear, I’m all for new things – when they are necessary.  In the past year, I bought a new Ride1Up E-bike that is a delight to use.  We bought a new TV that’s far better than our old set.  In May I went to Los Angeles for the premiere of a bold new classical composition by Thomas Ades and it was thrilling.  I got a new pair of shoes that I really like — only $25 at Costco! I put a new coat of paint on the walls of my home office, and it looks a lot better.  I’m always on the lookout for a new way to grill fish, or an exciting new movie, streaming series, or book. I love meeting new people, asking where they’re from, and learning what’s been important in their life.  And I’ve led organizations where I’ve worked hard to envision and implement changes, and felt satisfied and gratified when things turned out well.  

            But some old things are worth hanging on to.

            I have a dining room table from my ancestors’ farm in Iowa that is 150 years old. My grandmother did her Latin homework on it in 1915.  It was old, worn, and in pieces when my father asked me if I wanted it when he was cleaning out his garage.  I almost left it for the landfill. But I decided to take it home and see if I could refinish it. I sanded it, shaped it, stained it and finished it with a coat of varnish. It turned out far better than I had expected.  When you put all the leaves in you can seat 12 people, and it’s a meaningful link to my family history.

            I treasure friends that have remained close over the years.

I have a special affection for old dogs.

            I don’t think I need to seek out a “new and improved” version of the Pacific. Or trade in the Sierras for a “new” mountain range.

            I was a history major in college because I wanted to understand how the world got to be the way it was.  One day I realized I had always assumed that the story of Western civilization was constantly moving forward toward something new and better, and that everything “old” needed to be discarded.  That may be true in some areas. But how about the arts and sports?  Would you say someone has finally gotten “better” than Bach, Gershwin, Lennon/McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, or Michael Jackson?  Has painting “improved” since Botticelli, Monet, and Van Gogh?  Are athletes “better” than Babe Ruth, Pele, Serena Williams, or Steph Curry?  New composers, artists, and athletes come along, but that doesn’t mean they are “better” than those of the past…they are just new arrivals.

            Our economy is built on the assumption that we must be constantly expanding.  But look what it’s done to our “old,” dear earth.

            In the last year, I’ve been meeting with a group focused on the redesign and rebuilding of La Casa de Maria, the 26-acre retreat center that was damaged by the 2018 mud and debris flow while I was the Director.  We’ve been working hard to see how we can bring it back better than ever. But we also know there was a sense of “soul” and presence there that can’t be improved on but must be preserved.  After months of work, we believe we have found an optimal balance between innovation and preservation.

            I believe the divine Spirit is always fresh and creative, asking us to dream new dreams and be open to new approaches to life.  At the same time, have we found better values to live by than to seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly on this earth with one another?

            So — out with the old, in with the new? It depends.  There comes a time when we need to let some things go. But other things need to be kept, held with deep affection, and revered.

Photograph: “Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park,” amercianforests.org

Sunlight Finds the Opals

LODE

Even underground, sunlight

finds the opals and fills them.

So much beauty embedded

in cavern walls, needing no one

to find it, no human eye to see,

waiting in perfect patience,

in due time, to be revealed.    MCM

The painting is by John McEntyre and the poem by his wife, Marilyn.  John and Marilyn have been friends and colleagues for many years. Marilyn led several online writing classes during COVID which helped me change my writing process — she discourages using an outline or having an endpoint in mind when beginning, and instead “write into the unknown.” 

As I’ve followed this advice, I’ve found myself coming to surprising perspectives.  I don’t know if the insight is there before I start seeking it, or it is formed as the search progresses. But there is “sunlight” “embedded” in us, and often we need patience, curiosity, and courage to find it.  Maybe it’s through painting or writing.  Maybe it’s on a long walk or during an extended conversation with a trusted friend.  Or maybe it’s letting a sacred text or piece of music open our hearts and imagination to something new. 

I’ve seen many people walk through times of darkness and find such light.

I worked at Hospice of Santa Barbara for 5 ½ years. When I told people where I worked, it was common for them to say, “Oh, that must be depressing.” But I would say it was not. Seeing people work through their grief to find some authentic resolution and a way forward was inspiring.  One 15-year-old said: “Death is like a broken heart.  It hurts and is sad but you get through it.  Your heart is twice as strong.”

Solstice and the sacred stories of the season remind us that there are endless points of light waiting to be revealed in “due time.”  As we face periods of uncertainty, may we trust that the light is there, safely residing in “cavern walls,” “waiting in perfect patience, in due time, to be revealed.”

John’s painting and Marilyn’s poem are used by permission. More information about Marilyn, her publications, her classes, and retreats can be found at https://www.marilynmcentyre.com; John’s work can be seen at https://mcentyreart.com.

Empathy Means I Don’t Know How You Feel

             “Empathy is not ‘I know how you feel,’ but ‘I don’t know how you feel.’

I recently came across this quote in notes I’d kept from a retreat I attended some years ago. It was credited to Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury. 

            If we care for people, we want to know how they are feeling.  Making the effort to do so is a genuine act of compassion.  Sometimes we make the connection easily.  But sometimes our assumptions about what another person is feeling can lead us astray.  

            I remember an older woman I visited after she began attending our services. She always dressed more formally than was the norm in California and was always very gracious. When I came to her apartment, she invited me to have a seat in her living room. I noticed the many shelves which were carefully arranged with shiny porcelain figurines and elegant China dishes. It all suggested to me she’d probably led a proper and sheltered life.  I asked her to tell me about herself. She talked briefly about her life before coming to Santa Barbara.  Then she calmly described how her husband had recently died after ten years of dementia. She said for the first five years, she had cared for him by herself in the apartment, needing to be more and more vigilant as his condition deteriorated.  When she could no longer keep him safely, she transferred him to a facility and visited him every day for five years until he died. I was stunned.  Where do people find the strength for such devotion?  

            I once went on a mission trip with teenagers in Mexico.  We’d build homes during the day and return to the campground at night.  I had unconsciously brought with me an assumption – shared with many fellow parents of the time – that teens were becoming so obsessed with digital devices that they must be losing their ability to make genuine connections with others.  But as I sat with them at night around the fire and they talked about their lives, I realized I had misjudged them; they were much better listeners than many adults. 

            I got to know a woman in her 30s who’d been wheelchair-bound her whole life. Once she said something that made me think of Christopher Reeves, the Superman actor who had become paralyzed after a horse-riding accident. “He must be an inspiration,” I said.

            “Not really,” she said. “He’s rich and famous and can pay for 24-hour care and do what he wants. But most of us don’t have his resources. We experience a lot of loneliness and depression.  But no one wants to hear that. People like him because he’s always positive. If he’s feeling down, he can’t talk about it, or he won’t be popular.” 

How little we know about the inner life of others.

            When I began my work at Hospice of Santa Barbara, I attended a workshop focused on caring for families in which the death of a child or parent had occurred.  The speaker had worked for twenty years in hospitals dealing with such situations.  I was hoping for some handy guidelines for such situations. I was surprised when he said what he does before he walks into a room to meet a family: “I get in touch with my helplessness.” That confused me at first.  But the more I thought about it, the more I realized this is a way to set aside that anxious, earnest, “I-want-to -fix-it” impulse within us to become truly open to whatever is present.

            And I remember being at a conference where a prominent nursing educator from the City of Hope was speaking about how easy it is to misjudge people. She said she had once led a support group for women who were dealing with breast cancer.  Each person in the circle was taking a turn describing what emotions they were experiencing.  All the women in the group talked openly about how hard it was, and many shed tears.  One woman, however, seemed unmoved and opted not to share.  The speaker confessed thinking, “This woman is probably repressing her feelings; I’ll speak to her after the session.”  After the session was concluded and the others left, she approached the woman, who agreed to sit down and talk. The leader shared her concern that the woman was perhaps not being forthright and encouraged her to share.  The woman told her what she’d experienced in the last three years. First, her family had lost their home in Hurricane Katrina and couldn’t go back. Then a daughter died. Then she’d lost her husband. “This?” she said, motioning towards her body, “This is just breast cancer.”

            We never can assume we know what someone else is really feeling, or what it’s like to be “in their skin.”

            A seminary teacher once made a reference to a painting that was probably in every Sunday School building in America: “Jesus Blesses The Little Children.”  It’s very simple: Jesus is just sitting in the midst of a group of boys and girls. “You know,” the professor said, “People always assume that he is teaching them something. But maybe he’s just listening.”

Image: Portrait of a Peasant – Patience Escalier, Vincent van Gogh

Our Evolutionary Inheritance: Work, Sleep, and Campfire Wisdom

            Several years ago, I read about an African hunting/gathering community that had virtually no prior contact with “civilization.[i]” For two years an anthropologist recorded daily conversations, coded them, and analyzed them.  Some key findings:

  • Almost all the daytime conversations involved work, with approximately 37% consisting of people complaining others weren’t doing their fair share.
  • Tribal elders did not have much to say or contribute during the day. 
  • At night, everyone gathered around the fire. The focus changed from work to spiritual topics, tribal history, and “subtle psychological insights.”  Elders became central to these conversations. The conversations could last for hours, and the old ones might nod off.  But after a rest, they would often rejoin the circle.

At the time I read the article, I was leading a nonprofit with 30 employees, and these themes resonated with what I was experiencing: 

  • The hardest part of the job was dealing with “HR Issues” – people’s work performance and how people would fret about the performance of others (probably close to 37%).
  • Younger employees often had more energy and could work longer. They also had more skill and less anxiety dealing with IT issues and were invaluable for pointing out cultural changes that were occurring and how we might adapt.
  • While everyone might have insights into our work, it was the older ones who held the “tribal memory” of both the organization and the profession and were particularly helpful in offering long-range perspective.

Later I saw an article about how our evolutionary past might explain the way memory changes over time.[ii]  As we know, older people begin having difficulty with short-term memory (“Where are my glasses?” “What’s my password?”)  But even seniors with dementia can have remarkable recall of past events. When our ancestors were hunting or gathering during the day to survive, they had to rely on mental alertness and physical abilities. But as they became slow, creaky, and sore, their value to the community shifted – they were the ones who carried the valuable stories; short-term memory was less important.

Maybe evolution also explains our sleep patterns. During COVID, I read Why We Sleep[iii]. The author notes that some adults go to bed early and wake up early while a roughly equal number of people go to bed late and sleep late.  He theorizes this may be an inheritance from our past: it would be advantageous to have people awake at different times of the night to act as sentries for the tribe.  So maybe this is one reason older folks wake up more often at odd hours — they’re wired for sentry duty.  (Of course, the seriousness of the danger has changed; instead of “Is that a lion I hear in the forest”? it might be, “Does the dog need to go out?”)

These ideas comfort me.  I like to think some of the changes we experience as we age aren’t because there’s “something wrong” with us, but because of deeply engrained behaviors that were advantageous for our ancestors.

I’ve always been fascinated by how Rembrandt was able to document his aging process.  He portrayed himself close to 100 times, 40 of which are complete paintings.  Here is one from 1632:

This 26-year-old guy is on top of his game – no doubt staying up late, full of energy and confidence, and successfully adapting to the latest trends and techniques.

And here he is 31 years later at age 57:

He may not be not going out as much…probably frustrated with aches and pains…going to bed earlier than he used to and waking up at odd times during the night.  Maybe you wouldn’t ask him to help you move furniture across town. But look into his eyes: wouldn’t you like to hear some of his stories?


[i] I wish had the citation for the article, but I can’t seem to find it.

[ii] I can’t find this article either. Do you remember where I put it? Did you move it?  You didn’t throw it away, did you?

[iii] I found this one!  Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams, by Matthew Walker.

Top image: “White Mountains Moonlit Campfire,” Getty Images

What A Relief to Know Some of Us Aren’t Perfect

            I recently read a review of a new book, Imperfection, by an Italian biologist, Telmo Pievani.[i]  The theme is that some people expect nature to be “perfect,” but in fact, from the Big Bang to the present moment, imperfection permeates life:

  • “In the beginning, there was imperfection. A rebellion against the established order, with no witnesses, in the heart of the darkest of nights. Something in the symmetry broke down 13.82 billion years ago.”
  • “Mary Poppins congratulated herself for being ‘practically perfect in every way,’ but of course she wasn’t, if only because she bragged about it.”
  • “… being primates, our Pleistocene ancestors were naturally fond of sugars, which indicate ripe fruit, and of fats, present—albeit in generally small quantities—in game. Today, our culture provides us with excessive opportunities to indulge such fondness, which we overdo, benefiting only the confectionery and meat industries, along with dentists, cardiologists and morticians.”
  • …”Homo sapiens are marvels of unintelligent design, with their useless earlobes, their tedious wisdom teeth . . . the remains of their ancestral quadrupedal gait, and the corresponding ills and pains, backache, sciatica, flat feet, scoliosis, and hernias. Add the terrible structure of our knees, our lower backs…”
  • Imperfection makes clear that ‘evolution is not perfect but is rather the result of unstable and precarious compromises,’ and that accordingly it isn’t a highway to excellence but a bumpy path that, despite potholes and construction delays, leads at least some travelers to the biological goal of survival and reproduction.”
  • “Readers wanting to get up to speed on imperfection would do well to attend to two little-known words with large consequences. The first is “palimpsest,” which in archaeology refers to any object that has been written upon, then erased, then written over again (sometimes many times), but with traces of the earlier writings still faintly visible. Every living thing is an evolutionary palimpsest, with adaptations necessarily limited because they’re built upon previous structures.”  As a prime example, the author notes that we’ve evolved to have big heads, but the birth canal passes through the pelvis.  This worked well when our ancestors had small heads but increasingly is a problem with our increasing hat size.
  • “Which brings us to our second unusual word: ‘kluge,’ something—assembled from diverse components—that shouldn’t work, but does. A kluge is a workaround: often clumsy, inelegant, inefficient, but that does its job nonetheless. Because we and all other living things are living palimpsests, we are kluges as well.”
  • The reviewer concludes: “Unsurprisingly, I’m imperfect, you’re imperfect, everyone and everything is imperfect. Mr. Pievani is imperfect—his writing doesn’t sparkle, but his ideas assuredly do, which makes Imperfection a perfect way to begin understanding our imperfect world.”

      The fact that life is permeated with imperfection explains a lot: why our politics are such a mess, why the Dodgers (with the best record in baseball) didn’t make it past the first round of the playoffs, why we can’t live anymore with just one password, and why inflation and gas prices are high. It also explains my disappointment when I must forgo Toll House Chocolate-Chip Cookies, Gallo salami, and Costco hot dogs (well, most of the time).  And it’s a logical way to look at what keeps doctors, surgeons, pharmacists, dentists, and psychologists in business.

      It seems the Great Cosmic Designer clearly did not consult Martha Stewart before allowing the Big Bang to fumble us all into existence.

      But I don’t find this a pessimistic perspective.  I think it reveals why there is a poignant beauty in life.

      A certain ancient book has two creation stories back-to-back. 

The first one is a creation-in-seven-day story.  Composed some 2,500 years ago before modern science, it’s an elegant account of light coming out of darkness, land out of the sea, and the emergence of plant life, sea creatures, and humans (created with gender equality).  It ends with “And behold, it was very good” and a command to take a day of rest to savor it all.  Aren’t there moments when we see the interrelationship of all life and sense it is beyond amazing? It feels like a kind of perfection.

      The second story focuses on a man formed from earth who assumes he is the center of everything. He’s given lots of animal companions, but he’s still lonely.  A woman is created.  They discover a freedom to make choices. They get in trouble and are expelled from Easy Street.  She’s cursed with the pains of childbirth, he’s cursed with the frustrations of hard work, and a poor serpent must be forever wary of someone stepping on his head.  It’s a human story of promise, longing, hope, confusion, choices, regrets, and struggle — imperfection.

      Between the two stories lies all the glories of this improbable life, right alongside the tragedies, heartbreaks, and back aches. 

Maybe some people think this imperfect world is a just a cosmic mistake and would prefer to live in Martha Stewart World.  But not me.

      An art history teacher once pointed out that Dutch still-life paintings often depicted beautiful flowers, fruit, and beverages – but something is amiss. Something is beginning to decay, or there’s an uninvited fly on the peach or in the beer. The message: we long for a perfection that lasts forever, to have everything stay as we want it to be. But life isn’t like that.

At the same time, we can remember that the fruit, the beer, the light, the artist, the viewer — and the fly — all emerged from the same improbable process.  And flies are pretty incredible creatures.

      We can feel despair from seeing all the “imperfections” of life.  And yet there is a transcendent, translucent, transformative sense of presence amid all the improbability. How unexpected that it’s all here after so many mishaps, “palimpsests,” “kluges” and stumbles.

      It’s a relief to not expect perfection in ourselves, each other, or life.  It’s a gift to look instead for wonder.


[i] https://www.wsj.com/articles/imperfection-review-unintelligent-design-11666735767

Top Image: A Still Life with Grapes, Peach, Cabbage-White and Dragon-Fly, 1665 Willem van Aelst (1627-c.1683).jpg

Bottom image: Still Life by Johann Georg Hinz (c.1660). German painter

Ritual, Power, and Spirituality

            I love spectacles.

            In 2017, I took $1,200 out of my savings to buy a ticket to the 7th game of the World Series at Dodger Stadium.  I’d been a fan all my life but had never been to a World Series game.  The mood of the crowd, the pregame ceremonies, and the singing of the national anthem were all thrilling.  The Dodgers were favored to win.  They lost.

            In January 2020, I flew to Vienna to begin a two-week pilgrimage focused on music, art, and history. A few hours after my plane landed, I entered the historic Vienna Opera House to see Richard Strauss’ Salome.  I had bought a seat in one of the side balconies so I could be close to the stage.  The music began and I thought, “I am at the opera in Vienna!”  As it turned out, there was a pillar on the side of the balcony that blocked my view of the right side of the stage where the climactic final scene took place.  Oh well.

            In September I joined over 4 billion people who watched the funeral of Queen Elizabeth.  The pageantry!  The precision!  The history! The crowds!  I was totally engaged.  I watched the coffin brought into Westminster Cathedral and was in awe.  But when the elaborately dressed archbishop began eloquently reciting a passage from the Gospel, I felt uneasy.  I wasn’t sure why.  And then it occurred to me: He’s reading the words of a Palestinian peasant and prophet who spurned any signs of status, constantly challenged authority, and identified with people at the margins of society. 

            Later in the day, the coffin was taken to the chapel at Windsor Castle.  On the coffin were the crown, an orb, and a scepter.  I was fascinated as I watched each item carefully transferred from the coffin to the altar, signifying the Queen’s time of authority and service was completed.  I looked for information about these items:

  • “The crown is made of gold and set with 2,868 diamonds, 269 pearls, 17 sapphires, 11 emeralds, and four rubies.”[i]
  • “…. the orb is a 30cm-wide hollow gold sphere, mounted with nine emeralds, 18 rubies, nine sapphires, 365 diamonds, 375 pearls, one amethyst and one glass stone.”[ii]
  • “The scepter is “comprised of three sections, with the magnificent Cullinan stone atop, supported in an enameled heart-shaped structure. This structure is surmounted by enameled brackets mounted with step-cut emeralds, and by a faceted amethyst monde…set with table and rose-cut diamonds, rubies, spinels and emeralds, with a cross above set with further diamonds, with a table-cut diamond on the front, and an emerald on the reverse.”[iii]

Historically, these items are reminders that the monarch is God’s chosen instrument on earth. I couldn’t help but think, “Is this the same God that chose to identify with the slaves of Egypt?  The same God who, Jesus taught, comes to us in the faces of people in need?”

            Don’t get me wrong.  I have complete respect for Queen Elizabeth.  She served her country for 70 years with grace, forbearance, and dignity. I remember well when the COVID pandemic was threatening us all.  While the American head-of-state was generating confusion and discord, she delivered a wonderful message encouraging all the people of the UK to come together in mutual support and caring.  An honorable person, an amazing Queen.

            And I know my history. I know that the “divine right of kings” has been a principle accepted by many societies throughout human history.   None of us are perfect, and to be in a position of great authority and responsibility, always in the public eye, is a formidable task.

            I’m still trying to figure this out.

            In 1982, we were living in Santa Paula and heard that Mother Theresa was coming to give the commencement address at nearby St. Thomas Aquinas College.  A friend got us tickets.  We were sitting on folding chairs when the opening procession came down the center aisle, 50 feet from where we were.  The first prominent person visible was a cardinal from somewhere, dressed to the hilt.  A bit behind him was the barely visible bobbing head of this small nun, dressed in a simple habit.  When it was his turn to speak, he invoked his status to encourage everyone to respect the authority of the church. When she spoke, she said what counts in life is love and prayer.

            I remember as a kid watching President Kennedy’s coffin being carried on a horse-drawn caisson down Pennsylvania avenue with nothing on it but an American flag:

Courtesy JFK Library

            A few years later, Dr. King’s coffin lay on a share-croppers wagon drawn by two mules:  

            I am a fan of spectacles and rituals and theater. The British do it well.  But the older I get, the less impressed I am by mansions, palaces, and jewels.

There was a remarkable priest here in Santa Barbara who served the local Mission and greater community for more than 50 years – Father Virgil Cordano.  He was “beloved by the community as a whole for his humanity, humor, erudition, and readiness to reach out his hand in friendship to all.”[iv]  When Queen Elizabeth visited Santa Barbara in 1983, it was Father Virgil who gave her a personal tour of the Mission.  I was privileged to serve alongside him on the boards of Hospice of Santa Barbara and La Casa de Maria Retreat Center, and we became friends.  At meetings, I’d often sit next to him so I could ask him what’s on his mind.  One time he answered, “I read something by a theologian that I keep thinking about.  When we see God, what will we be most amazed by?  God’s humility.”  And he smiled.

Lead image: BBC American


[i] https://inews.co.uk/news/orb-sceptre-what-meaning-queen-royal-jewels-what-happens-after-funeral-1866599

[ii] The Crown Chronicles

[iii] The Crown Chronicles

[iv] https://www.independent.com/2008/05/22/father-virgil-cordano-dead-89/