Social Experiment

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When I studied Celtic Christianity, I came across something humorous about the ancient Christian Celts who wanted to make a pilgrimage to Rome. The expression was a limerick informing the pilgrim that if they wanted to find God in Rome they had better take God with them. Granted, this limerick was a critical jibe at how Rome corrupted Christianity, and how the Roman system covered God in the customs of state, but there is something spiritual in the criticism. Recently, I came across a meme on a Buddhist site I follow expressing to the wanderer they will experience Zen in the monastery if they bring Zen with them. Generally speaking, many external things in this world are neither good nor evil, but become whatever we bring to the situation. Things like social media are neutral, but become monsters as we, in the privacy of our phones and laptops, unload all the things we mask in public.

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That being said there are people who respect the overwhelming power of social media, and use the medium to further something good. One of my friends is a pastor at church on Indy’s near west side. The area he serves in is a poor area filled with desperation and self-medication through substance abuse. There have been times when he has received phone calls in the middle of the night from a scared kid who is alone in their home because their parents are God knows where and their sibling in the other room is shooting up heroin. After calling the police to take the kid out of a bad situation, my friend will go over to the house, check on the sibling, and keep the kid company until the police arrive. As a pastor he believes in the power of the gospel, but that power doesn’t come from an insightful exegesis or a brilliant hermeneutic. The power of the gospel, in his view, lies in the action of the Christian responding to hopelessness in their corner of the world. Jesus, as God incarnate, came to bring light to the world—especially the darkest parts and how he expressed that depended on the situation. My friend attempts to live up to that example through his life outside of the church and on social media.

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In the last year, Facebook came up with a new thing called Facebook Live providing a forum for people to speak their stories with tone and nuance instead of a blank text. There is nothing wrong with text per se, but the meaning behind the words lie in our facial expressions and how we say our words. Facebook Live is a great medium, and I finally used it for the first time this week to address gender and sexuality issues. Participating in Facebook Live grants a position to influence our culture for better or for worse. My pastor friend uses Facebook Live once or twice a week to address his concerns over what he sees in the news, the behavior of many Christians, and what he is doing in his ministry. He doesn’t preach, but he does tell those of us who follow him, who profess to be Christians, what it means to be Jesus in our community. Little things like our attitude and a misspoken word can have life-long damaging effects on people we meet. Believing in Jesus and going to church is not limited to our eternal hope, but has a lasting effect. Jesus’ resurrection was God initiating the process of “his” kingdom integrating in our world. What we Christians do on earth lays the foundation for the life giving new thing God will bring about at the arrival of Jesus. Yes, being kind and helping those in need are good things, but they are not temporary and they are not limited to the here and now. My friend uses his voice on social media to encourage his fellow Christians in the work of God, and hope to those who do not believe or have lost faith from being burned by the church.

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What my friend does is a good example of how to use social media, but most people, myself included, go to the darker side of social media and become the bullies who broke us. In the middle of the night, in that wistful moment where sleep is interrupted by a second’s consciousness, a thought rang throughout my head calling the monks to meditation: social media has become a dumping ground for all my insecurities. Specifically, Facebook, because my posts on Instagram and Twitter involve moments I catch throughout the day—mostly trees, flowers, and my cats. Ever since I went through the betrayal of my friends and fiancé (at the time) from my church, I went on an intellectual rampage. I returned to school so I could earn my degree in religion and philosophy, and to use my education in my war against Christianity. I exhausted question after question in class, pulling no punches, and offending a few Christian classmates. By the time I received my degree the frequency of my antagonistic outbursts had lessened, but the wounds never really healed. Whenever I posted something sarcastic about the institution of Christianity, I did so with the ulterior motive of picking a fight with my religious friends who were erudite. Why? When I returned to Indy, and faced those who had hurt me and heard their arguments, I realized how small they were. I never thought that this is the way of most people, but I roared and bellowed, and I had a song in my heart as I publicly embarrassed them. I had become the thing I hated. I had become the thing that hurt me. I had a point to prove. Unconsciously, I overcompensated for my insecurities rather than face them and hurt other people in addition to the ones who wounded me.

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Alexander Dumas in Count of Monte Cristo argued against vengeance of any kind because, no matter how calculated, an innocent is caught up in the mix and swallowed by our demons. I know I’m not the only one who treats social media as a psychological vomitorium, and I’ve observed similar patterns from people across the social, political, religious, and philosophical spectrum. With the illusion of anonymity we have unleashed all of our weaknesses, wounds, betrayals, etc. on to the world via our devices. Through these immaterial signals we create a hideous material world where our ignoble tweets can instigate a nuclear war (Donald Trump), or cause someone to lose their job because someone wrote or posted something that went against our arbitrary values. I think the monster is out of control, but I also think the monster can be subdued if we stop feeding it. I know there are people who have quit social media because they were tired of the negativity, but their removal did not change their hearts or the issues they still carry. Social media isn’t a terrible thing, but what makes it terrible is what we bring with each click and clack on our keyboards. The solution can be found in mindfulness and breathing before we sit down and scroll through our feed. We don’t have to obey our mind, and 99% of the time what our minds bring us is bullshit. Let the thought inhale and react, and let it dissipate without it finding life in our text or speech.

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Plot Twist

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This morning the alarm went off at 4:45. I slept out in the living room on the hide-a-bed Ronnie’s mom found for us at a Goodwill in the Castleton area. Because Ronnie’s back was hurting last night, and I wanted to be out of bed before the devil to get in some walking, I opted for the living room. The mattress is firm, and with the added comforter for padding, the sleep was quite comfortable, and I did not wake up stiff and groggy as I normally do. The reason, I got up so early to walk had to do with meeting a friend at a coffee shop this morning, but with the weather change added another reason. It’s hot. Yesterday was eighty-three, and today will be eighty-seven. It’s also spring and that means there is pollen and freshly cut grass to make breathing difficult. When heat is added, I feel like there is a weight compressing my chest and shoulders—the movement is sluggish. Mornings are terrible, but in the afternoon there is quite a bit of humidity in the air that feels like a towel soaked with hot water breaking your neck with its sopping weight. This morning was a little humid, but I didn’t think it would would be too bad so I put on my jogging pants, wore socks and shoes, and wore my Dharma Punx hat. I was feeling sluggish and overheated, but I was able to watch the transition from night, to twilight, and the beginning of the sun rise. A new day.

I’ve been going through another reading and listening of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road because I miss the West, and the burden of my longing only increases as I read about Indiana’s General Assembly green lighting a religious freedoms law for students. The language implies that any student can carry religious items or conduct religious practices on campus. So ideally, a Muslim kid could bring his prayer rug or a Wiccan could perform a sacred rite during lunch, but that won’t happen. There will be a fuss from Evangelical Christians who behave like former Prom Queens who wants her popularity recognized outside of high school. In the world outside of high school she is a dime a dozen. Rather than accept this fact as an adult, she will live in denial and keep her high school mentality well into mid-life making her an unbearable presence at work. I am not implying The West is Utopia, but I never experienced an imposition from an unread religious group. Christians are active out in the West, but what I saw in Portland they were all about taking care of the poor, the homeless, people of color, immigrants, and so on without raising any attention to themselves. The West has its own issues, but Conservative Christianity isn’t one of them.

The narrator, Will Patton, captures the voices of Kerouac and the characters in On the Road making you feel as if you’re in the muggy Bayou with Bull Lee (William Burroughs), in the car holding on to your seat with Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) at the wheel, or in Carlo Marx’s (Allen Ginsberg) living room rummaging through books and cigarettes. As I make the laps around my apartment complex, I can hear the roar and hum of the morning traffic on I-65, and I feel the itching increase. I also smile. Driving across the country, I can now reminisce with the feelings of trepidation over the unknown as Kerouac did with his trips—but my trip was relatively safer. I had interstates with rest stops and wi-fi. Kerouac buzzed around the United States before the advent of the interstate and the country wild with highways with slight dabs of urbanity west of the Mississippi. I finish my walk. I go inside to peel off my clothes so I can shower and shave, and start the day.

When I finish the time is 6:25. I opened the door, “Hey, honey. It’s 6:25. Time to get up.” As she moves about beginning her morning routine, I ask her, “What would you like for breakfast this morning?”
“Oh, I’ll have some toast.”
“With butter?”
“How many pieces?”
“I’ll have two.”
I go into the kitchen to turn on the stove. Our toaster died a couple months ago so I use the skillets to make the toast. Even if we had a working toaster, I still would have used the skillets. Ronnie’s mom stayed with us all last week, and she brought her bread maker. Mom makes the best bread, and she cuts them thick—too thick for toaster. I’ve no complaints. She makes her bread so thick and hearty it can feed a body with one slice. I made myself three slices cut in half for peanut butter and jelly to eat at the coffee shop, and I started the electric kettle to make coffee for Ronnie.

The mornings are rushed. Ronnie usually leaves for work at 7:00 so she can be home by 5:00 and have a few hours to relax with crafts and YouTube. Mornings like this one where I drive her to work, she can go a little slower and eat her breakfast in the car. This morning, I took my time, because I didn’t want to forget about today. What is so significant about today? Two years ago today, Ronnie and I were married at The Federated Church in Carlinville, IL. That was a stressful time. Any wedding planning is stressful, but we made it worse by doing it during our last semester at Blackburn. We both had our Senior Seminars to do, and that required a lot of research and self-loathing in addition to the regular amount of work we had with our classes. She was a Psychology major doing her seminar on eating disorders and I was a Literature major doing his seminar on the Jack Kerouac’s Dharma Bums and the book’s relevance to 21st century spiritual seekers in America. I spent hours researching, printing articles, writing, meeting with my adviser, revising, and keeping up with my normal work load. The time spent was worth the effort because I learned I am no literary critic or public speaker. With all the packing for our move across the country, the reading and writing, and planning a wedding, I am surprised I graduated with a 3.415 GPA—.85 away from being on the Dean’s List for the third time at Blackburn.

A week after our wedding, Ronnie and I were on the road to Portland, OR. The trip had a couple set-backs involving us getting lost in the middle of Wyoming at 2:00 in the morning facing down a mountain lion, and almost flipping the rental SUV over lava rock in southern Idaho because a deer threw her body in front of us. We made it to Portland two days behind schedule, and things were not working out as we hoped as were promised. We stayed with a friend of Ronnie’s who told us jobs would be easy to get, and we would find a place of our own in no time. When we arrived, her roommates were slightly hostile towards us. We asked one roommate, whom we got on with, if we did something, and she told us Ronnie’s friend did not tell her we were coming. We were also told Ronnie’s friend has a bad habit of not communicating to her roommates about anything. Finally, the friend lied about her landlord coming in to do an inspection. We had to leave, and stayed in a Motel 6 across the river in Vancouver, WA. We didn’t care about the lie, Ronnie and I were just glad to be out of that situation. We still had to find jobs and a place to live, and we were having no luck in Portland or Vancouver. I wanted to make this work. I wanted all the pain we accumulated on the road to be worth something. So I kept forcing Oregon on us.

Ronnie and I decided to visit Eugene, OR to see if finding work and an apartment would be easier. We spent the first night at a motel that had bugs crawling everywhere. Originally, we had the room for two nights, but we got our money back for one night, and found a nicer hotel for a cheap price across the street from a mall. I was still stressed because our money was slowly depleting, and Ronnie finally told me, “You know, we don’t have to stay in Oregon. We can go anywhere we want.” All the stress went away. Yes, our van was packed, we were homeless, and we could go anywhere. I was so weighed down on making Oregon happen that I didn’t realize we had the road before us. We could go anywhere we wanted. We still can. Her statement summarizes our relationship. We have complete freedom, and we do not bind ourselves to the arbitrary notions of what we “should” do.  We also complement each other in our journey. Her usual default mode is worry and stress when circumstances look bleak and out of control, but I am the gypsy telling her everything will be fine. How do I know? I don’t. Opposite to her, I had a life full of instability since I was born. There was always the threat of going without food, of being homeless, of my family completely disintegrating, and I had nowhere safe in home, school, work, or church. I learned quickly a stable life is an illusion, and even the most established are a paycheck, a phone call, or an email away from losing everything. Regardless of the circumstances, no one is truly bound to anything, there is always freedom.

There are times, though, when Ronnie and I switch roles. I, too, am prone to worry and stress, and more so after I we were married. It is one thing to live that five by five life when you’re single, but takes on another dimension when you’re in a relationship. I get caught up in what I think I should be doing, and those things dissipate. I become overwhelmed with fear and anxiety because the instability caused my previous relationships to dissipate. Before Ronnie and I were married, I told her, “I can’t promise you a comfortable life, but I can promise it will be interesting.” I did not say this to her to give myself an out, but looking back upon my life, I thought it would be foolish to promise something I never had. She wanted to marry me anyway. She told me she didn’t care if we had the biggest mansion or a cardboard box on the street just so long as she is with me. That does sound cliché, but a week after our wedding, she got in a car with me to drive across the country to Portland, OR. She followed me even though I had no idea what would happen, but she wouldn’t go back and change anything.

Ronnie has made my life considerably better. She understands human nature and is compassionate, and earned her degree in psychology to give her insight academic weight. She understands how much I have to work to unlearn the teachings of my family, the trauma I experienced from them, and to learn the things they did not taught. That statement does not imply my family is responsible for who I am, but it does mean I need to surround myself with better examples so I know how to apply new teachings and new ways of thinking. Somewhere along the way, I adopted their violent, arrogant, and condescending attitudes as a hiding place when my soft underbelly was kicked. Unfortunately, my choice has made my life more difficult than it already had been. I would have eventually overcome those easy choices, but being with Ronnie increased my rate of evolution. I’m not her project, I’m her life partner. We’re a team, and we both work to help the other grow. This is one of her parts in my life. This is how she changed my story, and this is how she is helping me break the Smith/Culbertson cycle. Who Ronnie is, transforms me into a better human being.