Superheroes

I love superheroes. I love the stories, the characters, the concepts… honestly, I pretty much love everything about superheroes… except the way some authors draw women. Yes, I’m a nerd. I’m pretty sure that’s been well-established. So, along with this love of superheroes came a love of the idea of righting wrongs… I had to learn the hard way that this isn’t the way it works. The idea of righting wrongs is really nice, it removes guilt, regret, and responsibility. The problem is that we can’t change the past. Once a wrong has been committed it can’t be uncommitted. I can work to mitigate the damage done by that wrong. I can work to make a right come out of the wrong that I have committed, but the wrong that has been done can’t be undone.

It’s been a rough 40 some hours, and I’ve done some things that I wish I hadn’t done. Things that I can’t go back and undo. However, as Paul tells us in Romans, where sin increases, grace abounds. I could sit here and berate myself for the things I’ve done in the past two days, I could run them over in my head, I could beat myself for them, burn myself for them, take out on my flesh the anger that I feel over my actions. However, all of these things are attempts to drive myself to perfection, and that’s not what Christianity is about.

It’s very easy to convince ourselves that our lives are about our sins. That we must strive to free ourselves from sin, or that we are defined by our sins, or that we are trapped by our sins. The thing is, grace is the antidote to sin. This is not to say that my sin is unimportant, or that I can or should sin with impunity. Paul also tells us that the fact that grace abounds where sin increases does not mean that we can or should continue sinning. Sin is wrong, and is something that I should avoid. However, it is also something that I live with everyday. I live, I try, and I fail. When I fail, grace.

I am, to be honest, always amazed at the grace that God shows. At his continual willingness to forgive my wrongs. I fail in so many ways and he is always ready to forgive me. I used to say that I couldn’t understand this and that he shouldn’t have saved me. I gave up on that a while back… mostly because it’s ridiculous. God does what he wants, and what I think is really unimportant. That being said, I have no idea why he chose me, why he pursued me, or why he saved me.  However, he did, and I can imagine my life if he hadn’t. It isn’t pretty or pleasant. Heck… my past 40 hours hasn’t been pretty or pleasant and this is me after being a Christian for 13 years.

Honestly, I wish I could show the grace and mercy that God does. I want to, and yet every time he gives me the opportunity, I fail. I love people, and yet I fail. I want to help people, and yet I fail. I want to be a good man, and yet I fail. I want to be like God, and yet I fail. It often seems that failure is what defines my life, and yet… in failing repeatedly I succeed in growing. From my failure grace brings growth and victory, and this is something that I truly do not understand and cannot replicate. I imagine that if I could… I really don’t know how to finish that sentence. I was going to say ‘I’d be rich’, but I really don’t want to be rich, so I doubt that I would.

A Right View of Oneself

I think I’ve mentioned before that I do martial arts as a hobby, and help teach an Aikido-Jujitsu class. I really enjoy this, though I’m not the best fighter in the world… or probably in the state, but I practice because it’s a lot of fun. I’m a fairly big guy, so I’m used to being the biggest, strongest person in the class, and being the toughest person in the class. I have to say that this always makes me feel good about myself, and there are times where I have to work hard not to be a bully (it’s a natural inclination of mine). Last week a new student started in the class. A guy who’s a little bigger and a lot stronger than me, and a lot of the simple things that work on people just don’t work on him (he doesn’t feel most of his pressure points). He’s a really nice guy, but he makes me feel inferior. In a real fight I might be able to take him… might being the key word. There’s a part of me that would like to find out honestly.

Then there’s the part of me that only wants to be around people weaker, dumber, less perceptive than myself. People that I can feel superior to. I am a prideful man, though I think I’m a lot less prideful than I used to be, and it’s something that I’m continually working on. This new student (…honestly, I haven’t had a chance to learn his name yet), we’ll call him Bill, is someone that I can definitely practice on. He’s offered to teach me some Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, an art that I’m not hugely fond of… mostly because I don’t really like ground-fighting, but I think it would be a good opportunity both to expand my martial skills and to intentionally practice humility. 

That being said, I go back to the verse in Romans 12:3. If I convince myself that only people weaker than me are worth spending time with, then I’m not likely to have a right view of myself. Spending most of my time with people that I can make myself feel superior to is a way to boost my self-esteem (i.e. pride), but not a good way to boost my confidence or a good way to have a right view of myself.

Something that I need to, and have been, making an effort to do is to spend time with people who are better than I am at things that I love to do. People who are smarter than me, people that are better fighters than me, people who are more spiritual than me.  I need to seek out ways to make myself better, instead of seeking out people who make me feel better. This is a hard thing to do.

Bovary Moments

I’ve started this post three different times in three different ways. I’ve been trying to think of something to write all day. I was going to write about the meaning of success, the pursuit of excellence, and the importance of being good enough. I was going to write about a book that I’m reading and the moderate depression that it’s thrown me into. And I was going to write (yet again) about how sometimes I still feel like I’m always going to be alone… and sometimes want to be… both of those have something to do with the book I’m reading. The book is Madame Bovary and it’s pretty much making me hate women. The entire book is about a spoiled, selfish, flighty woman who doesn’t know what she wants, doesn’t know what she has, and hurts everyone around here (especially her husband and daughter) because of it.

My body isn’t what it used to be. Well… I shouldn’t actually say that because I’m probably pretty close to the best shape of my life. I think last year was probably the best shape of my life, which is kind of sad. Still, I hiked about eight miles today and by the time I got home both my hips and my knees felt like they were going to give out. I really needed the hike though. It gave me time to think, and enough perspective to realize that, all to often, I am Bovary. I can be a moody bastard, and all too often I’m selfish and don’t think about others in the pursuit of whatever fancy takes me. I truly hope that I’m not as bad as Madame Bovary is in the novel, but I’m certainly no saint.

I tend to be prone to extremes. I was once about two days worth of sharpening away from cutting out my eyes with a sharp, sterilized spoon. I had a roommate at the time that inadvertently talked me out of that (thankfully). I’ve also given actual consideration to making myself a eunuch, and before I converted I made multiple suicide attempts. I liked to walk in front of cars on highways… only God knows how many accidents I caused. Needless to say, this very Bovarylike behavior is not the extent of my similarities with this fictional slattern for whom I am filled with loathing.

In my extremes I tend to flip back and forth between believing that only the best passes muster, and saying ‘fuck excellence! I just want to be good enough’. I will say that I don’t think we give enough credit to good enough. The vast majority of us never reach good enough in much of what we do, and it’s certainly evident that, in our quest for excellence, we as a nation have abysmally failed to reach good enough in many areas, welfare and education two of the most outstanding.

That being said, as long as the quest for excellence doesn’t end in a failure to be good enough, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Madame Bovary certainly doesn’t seem to seek excellence in anything she does. She isn’t even a very good adulteress, the one thing that she seems moderately passionate about in the novel. All to often we too set down our quest for excellence and settle for less than mediocre standards… of course, I deal daily with students do don’t actually manage to meet those less than mediocre standards… so I might be a bit jaded.

Then again, I have to say that one of the things that I love about my job is seeing a student start off the class with Ds and end it getting Bs and As. This is an excellent feeling. All to often few and far between, but a truly excellent feeling. Nonetheless, I feel like I’m failing the students who don’t improve. Some of them I probably am, but some of them I do my very best to help and they reject it at every possible opportunity. Some people seem to aim for sub-mediocre intentionally.

The thing is, sometimes I wonder if I’m not one of those people. I’m not particularly ambitious, and I don’t have a whole lot of pride left… though that’s something that God’s been systematically drilling out of me for a long time now. I’ve had many people tell me that they see great potential in me, and I have to wonder if I’m failing to live up to it.

Then I look at my friends, who consistently tell me that I’m a pretty amazing guy, a great teacher, a good friend, and that any woman would be lucky to have me. I’m not sure how much of this is simply friends telling me what they think I need to hear, and how much of it is honest, critical assessment. Still, there seems to be something to it.

I’m always hesitant to say anything positive about myself because I’m afraid that I’ll come off as prideful. All to often, I can’t tell the difference between pride and confidence, and I think that these are two of the easiest attitudes to confuse, both in yourself and in others. I haven’t managed to catch my post count up to the number of followers… which is still a mild source of annoyance to me, but I’m dealing with it. It makes me think that people find value in what I say… which I still don’t understand.

Here’s the thing that I’m consistently failing to do. I’ve said it before: In Romans 12 God tells us to see ourselves ‘rightly’. Throughout scripture he tells us to judge ourselves by his measure, which means two things: 1) to understand that I am in every way a sinner, fully deserving of eternity in hell, and 2) that when God looks at me, he not only sees someone of value, but someone who is filled with his son. I’m still struggling with to reconcile these concepts of myself.

I find this task equally as difficult as reconciling within myself both Christ’s extreme desire to see people follow him, and his extreme willingness to drive them away if they didn’t measure up to his rather harsh standards. In both tasks I tend to be able to do one or the other, but I can’t manage both simultaneously. Maybe someday…

push… Push… PUSH!

I slept for eleven hours last night. It was wonderful, and I think very much needed. I tend to push myself fairly hard, and every so often my body just says ‘nope, that’s it, I quit’. Then I get sick and have to spend a few days sleeping and eating a lot. Yesterday, I could tell that I was starting to come down with something, and I still did my best to get all of my work done, but I also tried to take some time to relax and enjoy myself. As Americans we tend to have a habit of forgetting to take care of ourselves. We’re not as bad as some *cough* Japanese *cough*, and we tend to be much harder workers than others *cough* Spanish *cough*.

All in all, I think we’re close to having a good balance. There are some people who work 80, 90, 100 hour weeks and this isn’t a good thing, but then there are some who work 20 hour weeks and think that they spend too much time at work, which is ridiculous. Work is important, it’s part of being a grown-up and taking responsibility, which is also a good thing, but it’s very important to find time to just relax and enjoy yourself as well, and it’s important to know how you enjoy yourself.

There are lots of different ways to play. Some people like to play with action figures, or to play video games. Other people like to play football or soccer. Other people like to just lay around and watch movies, and some people like to go out and start fights. I have to admit that if I can find a good person to fight with, a person who knows how to really enjoy a good, clean fight, then it’s a lot of fun. Those people are fairly rare though.

So, all in all, I’m actually a fan of the ‘American’ work ethic (not that every American has this ethic). Work hard when its time to work, and relax well when its time to relax. However, our priorities are way off base. We seem to have taken the motto ‘If something’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing right’ far too seriously. I was raised with the idea that if I can’t be that absolute best at something, then there’s no point in even trying. The goal was not ‘do your best’ but ‘be the best’, and as I drill into all of my students, but especially my martial arts students, ‘there will always be someone better than you’.

I think that a better motto for us to live by is ‘if something’s worth doing, then it’s worth doing badly’. I tend to want to do the things that I’m really good at. I’m good at fighting, I’m good at teaching, I’m good at deep conversation, and I thoroughly enjoy all of these things. I seek them out because I enjoy them. However, the things that I’m bad at… making money, paying bills, math, romantic relationships, small talk, bananagrams, etc I often find myself avoiding. I find excuses for not doing things that are absolutely worth doing, because I’m not very good at them. That’s a dumb thing to do.

If something is actually worth doing, then it’s worth doing it badly. I spent the other night with a group of friends (… all girls actually) just hanging out and playing games. We played volleyball, frisbee, bananagrams… all things that I’m pretty bad at. There was no deep conversation (this group actively avoids that), and obviously there was no fighting. However, I thoroughly enjoyed the evening because I just let myself suck. I didn’t try to win, I just tried to have fun, and I did. So, the moral for today: stop trying to be the best at everything! Do your best, absolutely, but don’t be afraid to lose a game, get a B (or a D), or just fail at something that’s worth doing. If it’s worth doing, then it doesn’t matter if you succeed. It’s not about succeeding, it’s about doing.

Getting What You Ask For

Taoism provides an interesting philosophical trap. I think that it is a good trap to fall into, but it is a trap nonetheless. Taoist teachings promise great authority and ability at persuasion, the ability to bend the world to your will and to make people do what you desire. However, to achieve these abilities one must truly, thoroughly, and permanently give up any desire to have authority, any ambition of the will, and any pursuit of power. In leaving off these things the ability to bend the world to one’s desires becomes obvious, but one’s desire to bend the world is gone. I think I’ve rather over-simplified this argument, and I have no doubt that both Laozi and Holmes Welch (the author of the book on Taoism I’m reading) would shake their heads in consternation at my inability to effectively express these ideas.

Nonetheless, reading today had me thinking about the many biblical promises that God will grant our every desire, and how they form the same wonderful trap. There are many places in scripture in which we are told that if we abide in Christ then we may ask whatever we desire and it will be granted. Note the italicized phrase there… it’s really important and I’m going to come back to it.

I used to work for a ‘Christian’ ministry company that prayed with people over the phone. People would call in and ask for prayer about something, and we would pray with them. Needless to say we had a lot of strange calls… I actually still have a list somewhere of 1400+ of the strangest prayer requests you’ve ever heard. Someday I plan to publish it… I should do that actually…. Anyway, the point, that I seem to have ambled away from rather thoroughly, is that the vast majority of the callers wanted magic. They believed that if you said the right words, in the right way, and with the right person that God has to give you what you ask for. We all tend to do this to some degree.

Richard Cavendish, a historian and occult author, defines magic as the manipulation of supernatural forces to achieve the magician’s temporal ends. This is a good definition, although my personal definition of magic is the illusion that man can control supernatural forces. In either definition the power is a reality. I am always amazed at people who believe in miracles but not in magic, or people who believe in God but not in demons.  However, the mistake that many Christians make is the attempt to control God. Whether we do so through bargaining, words of power (often scripture taken out of context), or ritual, the goal is the same: we want to make God give us what we want.

However, this is not what the New Testament promises. The New Testament promises that if we abide in Christ then God will give us what we want. However, when I am truly abiding in Christ, then my desires are few. Primarily, my desire is to know and pursue him more fully. Other desires fade away, or at least become unimportant by comparison, and when my desire is to know and pursue Christ more fully, then of course God is going to grant my desire. It is a beautiful trap, and it is a trap that seeks to and succeeds in making us both better and happier. Laozi said ‘Let me have few desires and be happy’ (I’m paraphrasing here). I think I agree with him.

Blindness

We all tend to be blind to important things. Sometimes we realize that we’re blinding ourselves, and sometimes we don’t, but we still blind ourselves. We generally see the things we want to see. When we don’t like someone, then we see all of the things that we don’t like, and we don’t see any of the things that we might like. When we do like someone, then we see all of the things that we like, and we don’t see any of the things that we might not like. As I write I’m talking to a friend of mine on an instant messenger and she’s explaining to me the weird uncomfortable date she went on recently and how horrible the guy was. The thing is, she barely knows this guy. By her own admission she’s only talked to him briefly a few times, and while they don’t have much in common, she’s listing out to me all of the things that are wrong with him and why he’s a weak, worthless person.

The thing is we all do this, especially when someone we don’t particularly like does like us. Instead of seeing them for who they are, we see everything that we don’t like. Sometimes we even see things that we don’t like about other people, even though they are completely untrue of the person that we’re talking about. I did this with a friend not too long ago. She wasn’t even someone I disliked, just someone I wasn’t romantically interested in. Though she was the first girl to actually pursue me in a very long time. I made it clear to her early on that I wasn’t interested in anything romantic, but she was still hung-up on me for almost a year.

The thing is, she really is a very sweet girl who deeply cared about me, and I almost blinded myself to that. I saw every annoying facet of her infatuation, and slowly lost sight of every positive aspect of her character until I was simply constantly annoyed with her. I realized what I was doing in time to avoid doing anything stupid and hurtful, thankfully, but the thing is that I was doing it. I only let myself see one aspect of her being, and that easily could have cost me a close friend.

I’m not really a huge fan of The Song of Ice and Fire, but I enjoy the novels. The stories are good and the characters are interesting, thoroughly worth reading, though they’ll never make it into my top suggested novels. However, there is one character (though he only appears for a short while in the first novel A Game of Thrones) that I absolutely love. The character’s name is Syrio Forel, and he is a swordmaster and brave from a foreign land who is hired to teach swordsmanship to one of the main characters. One of the first lessons that he teaches her is to see truly. That is to say that one should not be mislead by appearances, expectations, or prejudices, but that one should see truly and judge honestly.

This is a very difficult thing to do, and honestly the older I get and the more I try, the more I realize how hard it actually it. We are all weighed down by our experiences, our expectations, the things that we have been taught, and the things that we have learned (which are often quite different). To see through all of that, along with the masks that people throw up to protect themselves, and the hundred thousand different opinions about everyone is a daunting task. Yet, if we are to be true, then we must learn to see truly. Otherwise we inevitably become lost in our own perceptions and suspicions and we wind up hurting people that we should be loving. Honestly, I think the Psalmist had it right when he said ‘there is no-one good, no not one’.

Responsibility!

Responsibility is a big thing with me. Kind of huge actually. It’s almost as important as honesty. I’ve mentioned before that when I was seventeen I accidentally killed someone. Well, sort of… there was a car accident, a no-fault accident. The judge ruled that neither party could have realistically been expected to do anything to change the situation, but I hit two pedestrians. One was fine, she had a bruise on her leg. Her brother was not. The next day this girl told me that her brother had died and that her family was pushing to have me charged with manslaughter. It was a little over a week before I found out that this wasn’t entirely true. As far as I’ve ever been able to piece together what happened: her brother died at some point on the way to the hospital and was resuscitated and left with permanent brain damage.

Honestly, it took a long time before I was willing to share that story with anyone. Now I’m pretty comfortable talking about it with people. However, that experience made me keenly aware of the difference between fault and responsibility. The accident wasn’t my fault, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was behind the wheel of the car, or that there is someone walking around who isn’t the person that they could have been.

Today a friend of mine was asking me about the difference between guilt and regret, and the difference between fault and responsibility. In the best way that I know how to put it the difference is this: guilt is something that owns you, but regret is something that you own. Fault is something that follows you, but responsibility is something that you choose. I’ve known all of the above quite well. I’ve been owned by guilt, and I was owned by guilt over that accident (among other things) for a long time. I still regret things that I’ve done in the past, but this is because I choose to own them. To live up to the reality that sometimes my actions have not been what they should have been, and that I bear the responsibility to understand that and do better in the future.

The thing that a lot of people don’t understand, the thing that I didn’t understand for a long time, is that you can’t right a wrong. No matter how hard you try, you can’t undo something that you’ve done. I kept wanting to, and trying to, and allowing guilt over my past to shape my life and everything that I was. However, this is easy. Honestly, it’s as easy as pushing those actions and their consequences away and pretending they never happened. Neither choice is the right one, though. Neither choice is responsible, neither choice is healthy, and neither choice does anyone any good. Instead of allowing the things I’ve done to shape my life and being, I need to let them inform me, to let them teach me how to be a better person, and how to love others who screw up just as badly.

Being responsible is hard. Not playing the victim and blaming everyone else for your problems, your mistakes, and your unhappiness is also hard. We like to do this. We like to find someone to blame for everything that goes wrong in our lives, and sometimes there is someone to blame. However, does pointing fingers really do any good? Has it gotten you the promotion that you wanted? Or the girl that you wanted (guy that you wanted I guess… if you’re a girl)? Has it made your life better in any real way, or has it just made you feel justified in your hate?

Instead of blaming people, try being responsible. Even if it’s not your fault, be responsible and clean up the mess (that’s what I’ve been doing for the past two weeks with the financial and physical messes that my roommates left behind). Do something that makes a difference to people, even if it isn’t your job to do it. That will help you a lot more in the long run.