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The Dirtiest Word in the English Language

Finding God in the Passenger Seat

Paying for College

Black Friday

A Year of Magical Thinking


The Dirtiest Word in the English Language

I have heard many curses in my time and uttered a few choice ones of my own at moments of acute pain or frustration. None shall ever accuse me of being innocent. I’m not sure if I’ve heard every one, or even most, but rest assured, I have heard plenty. Having reviewed my imaginary list from every four letter word to lengthy descriptions of degradation, only one word in the Human collection of languages has brought wholesale destruction upon generations on every inhabited continent of our planet. The word is “theology.”

The diehard anti-religion theologians (yes, the term is a contradiction) confuse the words “God” and “theology” to mean the same thing. These anti-theology theologians argue that “people kill in the name of God,” and they prove their statement by quoting the murderers’ own words. While extremist Islamic groups such as Al Qaeda and Hezbollah are in the news today, almost every religious tradition has been plagued by people who believe they have a divine writ to maim, burn, and destroy human life. In the Jewish tradition, the sicarii of the late Second Temple Period were feared for their wielding of an assassin’s knife by Roman and Jew alike. European history is replete with wars and inquisitions all in the name of God – or more to the point, all in the name of who got to name God.

“God” and “theology” is not the same thing among the great monotheisms of the world. God is unknowable and improvable by humanity (thus far); Immanuel Kant proved that one cannot prove God’s existence in the late 1700’s. Nonetheless, Kant believed in God. The issue in not whether God exists or not, for to murder in the name of God is to believe thoroughly that God exists. Why else would Al Qaeda seek out mosques to recruit new members?

Theology is what human beings do with their beliefs in God. The exploration of the connection between God and the physical, mortal world is the realm of theology. Theology tries to answer what is the relationship between God and human beings.

God doesn’t command people to murder and slay other people; human beings choose to murder for a variety of reasons and cloak their vile deeds in the veil of religious justification. Every religious tradition agrees with that statement.

If every monotheism agrees that murder is against God’s will, how do these extremists, then and now, justify their swords, bullets, and missiles? The answer is simple: they rationalize that they are not killing “true human beings”, they are killing “inferior beings” who only resemble the true ones. Their theology is that only true believers are true human beings: all of the rest are expendable.

Theology is a human invention and like all human inventions it can be twisted and bent to justify just about anything in the human realm. Theology is used to justify the great rules of society, from swearing the truth in a court of law to upholding the laws of the Constitution. On these very shores, theology has also been used to justify polygamy, slavery, prejudice and persecution. As with all human inventions, theology can be used to bring human beings to great heights and it can be used to bring out the worst, the most base in people.

God does not murder people; people do – some of them in the name of God. To sully the name of God must be one of the worst crimes in the world because it leads to the worst crimes in the world. Theology is a dirty word.


Finding God in the Passenger Seat

My eldest child has his learner’s permit and I am teaching him how to drive. If there was ever a time to want to believe sincerely and thoroughly in God, that time is when I am seated in the passenger seat while the speedometer flits over forty miles an hour. Some might be more inclined to spout profanity when the car is not doing what it should be doing, that is to say the driver is not, but a simple “O God” seems to be utterly appropriate for me.

A psychologist might say we have a crisis, we have a response, and afterward, we have a resolution derived from the response. Let us conclude that this anonymous psychologist paid someone else to teach his children how to drive, because no one who has been through this parental rite of passage is so blasé. The fear is visceral, the pounding of my right foot on the imaginary brake is altogether too real, and my grip on the handle above the door is a white-knuckle, sweaty, death grip.

How appropriate that my comment at that moment(s) is “O God.”

In the Jewish world my utterance is a prayer, a sophisticated and sincere one at that. As a prayer it is shorter than the shortest one in the Bible, when Miriam is struck with leprosy as punishment for speaking against Moses. Moses forgives her by asking God: “Please, O God, heal her.” That prayer is five words; I got it down to two – fear of life and limb will take a person directly to the heart of the matter.

Prayer is about paying attention to the world surrounding, and responding to it. Prayer is meant to petition God and to praise; however, prayer can also transform the mundane into holy and make real what was once only a dream. There is no doubt in my mind that when I recite my prayer (some say “my mantra”) in the passenger seat, I am acting on all the impulses of worship.

Indeed, my petition to keep three tons of steel on the straight and narrow and a goodly distance from that which is hard and unforgiving is only the most obvious request. Keeping my limbs intact and my insurance costs down is a close second, a request I remind my son of every time he turns the key. While I say it with a twinge of teasing and humor, I really mean it.

Over and over in my thoughts I replay the admonition that teenagers are more likely to get into accidents. While a moment’s inattention could be fatally disastrous, I try to convince myself that my predominant fear is the fender-bender that sends the insurance cost into the stratosphere. The cosmic “what if” still percolates in my brain though: IF my son is in an accident, please God, let it be a minor one.

Perhaps sensitive auto insurance prices are one of the most mundane and shallow subjects between a father and son; nonetheless, the conversation teaches one of those more godly lessons of choices and their consequences. Conscientious parents want their teenagers to be cautious and alert, respectful of the power in their hands rather than terrified of a hurtling metal death. O God. Case in point are those young drivers who drive fearlessly, careening recklessly with great speed towards the yellow light; I refer to such careless teens with all due irony as “drivers without a prayer.”  Teaching such a common, ordinary lesson is one of the most important prayers, one of the most holy, a parent can preach.

Beneath my entire whimper, simper, and whine is a realization that my kid is growing up. Children can grow up into strong, healthy adults the way they are supposed to mature after all. I thank God for granting me children and giving me the privilege of raising them. I never dreamed that one day I would be teaching my kid how to drive and it is a rush of emotion. Since my son is the subject of a public article, I would be remiss if I did not say that I am proud of him. That, too, is no less of a prayer of thanks.

Such is the power of prayer that with two words I can praise and petition, make real and make holy.

So. If you see a nice young man driving a big, white sedan with a bald, bearded guy in the passenger seat whose eyes are bulging white with anxiety, please don’t hesitate to offer up a small prayer of your own . . .and get out of the way.


Paying for College

A small blip hit my screen last week; I made my last payment for my graduate school education. With all the religious fervor I can muster, I eulogized that quiet moment with that must pious phrase, “Thank God.” Then my wife spoiled it all by reminding me that I finished paying in time to see the first child off to college.

Is there no end in sight?

College is not a joke anymore. The disparity in salaries between those with a college education and those without has been widening for decades. A high school degree is just not worth what it once was in our new economy. Knowledge and information matter more than brute strength and rote mechanics; manipulating concepts and analyzing data is valued more than reading diagrams or manipulating tools. Generalists need not apply to a bevy of corporate positions, specialization is considered a plus. All of these trends increase the pressure of families to get a kid in and to finish the degree.

And the money? Private schools are topping out at over $120,000 for four years of undergraduate study. That degree in art history won’t go far either, so start adding those graduate studies that start at $500 a credit for state schools and rocket up to $2000 a credit for the better known private schools. These prices only aggravate the situation by pushing many middle class families who in earlier decades would have taken the plunge into debt for the private route to pursue the public school education. Penn State is an excellent university, good luck getting in; yet, if you do get in, better luck making it to the main campus.

The White House budget proposal 2005 recommends cutting the federal student loan programs. In particular this budget targets those programs that subsidize the low rate student loans offered by private banks. Although these changes drastically affect the lower classes, the middle classes will also feel the pinch most acutely. Every time there is a deficit, these types of educational cuts are put on the table.

The Jewish experience in America is a success story that is fueled by higher education. Indeed, one can argue without dissent that the emergence of the Jews into the middle classes is our traditional emphasis on education. Throughout the 1900’s, Jews sent their children to get a college education and professional degrees that bypassed the anti-Semitic bastions of corporate and manufacturing America. Colleges allowed Jews to become self-employed professionals and Jews flocked to campuses in numbers that far exceeded our percentage representation in the general population. My alma mater, which is a private Unitarian university, is still one-third Jewish, a percentage that existed decades before I attended and continues those very few years since I have graduated. (Ahem.)


Black Friday

Sometimes I just don’t understand. My friend, Nathan, is a part of that energetic group that gets up early the day after Thanksgiving and stands in line for specific, specially priced items; he is a Black Friday aficionado. He is not just buying for himself, he stores some of his best purchases  as a donation for a charity Gift Auction. The altruism is top-notch but I don’t understand this ritual of Black Friday.

I appreciate a good sale, but I have lost most of my tolerance for waiting in lines, especially long lines. My intolerance of late has risen to such a level that I will skip the best selection and cruise the targeted store on a Monday night after dinner, when most sane people are home coping with the aftermath of the first day of the workweek or helping children and grandchildren wrestle with decimal points and commas. If this were a contest, I would lose for I fear that I am the more selfish one.

Regardless of the thrill of getting the best price for a coveted item, there is a fortitude and willingness to surf the shopping mob and stand at the checkout for a long time to buy gifts for friends and family. To give is not an easy or simple act for the human race. We are programmed to survive, giving as necessary and suspicious of unsolicited gifts that come our way. Yet, some people arise in the earliest hours of the morning, before the sun rises, to stand out in the cold in order to snatch up the dangling fruit that merchandisers offer to draw us into their stores.

One of the local news stations had a camera focused on the entrance to a Philadelphia big-box store at the moment the doors opened on that Friday. People pushed, shoved and even stepped over two people who had fallen to the ground. The well-stationed policewoman had to intervene to avoid further mayhem. I viewed that footage and shook my head with absolute certainly: “not me.”

How many years have we raged against the naked greed of the holiday season? The Christians are troubled over the commercialization of their holiday and the Jews are concerned with the expansion of minor gift giving of generations past expanding into a spate of major gift exploitation. The worry is confounding, especially when we see people just like us getting caught up in this aspect of the season. Black Friday typifies this tension of naked consumerism and gifting benevolence. There are as many reasons to participate in this shopping ritual as there are people in the stores; some of the reasons are selfish but many more are bound in varying degrees of generosity.

Some people think of the day as great fun and a sporting challenge; that’s the part I really don’t understand. Then again, I am of the sort who sees checkout lines on par with drilling teeth without Novocaine. Black Friday is not all black after all.


“A Year of Magical Thinking”

Joan Didion’s memoir “The Year of Magical Thinking” is an interesting read from an author who is regaled as one of better writers still living. The title refers to the year of mourning after her husband died. The writing is still superb; she is able to render sophisticated ideas and convoluted feelings with grace and ease. Ever so rare in my career, Joan Didion has written a book that falls within my experience and expertise, which allows me a more perceptive critique.

Her greatest insight was the magical thinking that pervaded her imagination and ruminations while she mourned. The many ways she deceived herself, the traps she laid for herself, and the painful truths she sought to duck pursued her throughout that period, causing even more pain and grief.

At one point I put down the book and noted how sad it was that this gifted and driven writer is only now realizing how her life is riddled with magical thinking. She is well into her seventies and it took the death of her husband to bring about such a dramatic realization. I am not singling out the author, for I believe all of us pursue our daily lives with threads of magical thinking.

“Things will work out” and “this is for the better” is some of the threads many of us adopt at times during our lives. Bad luck, good luck, and a knack are all tidbits of magical thinking. Sometimes it is easier to believe that something external is working upon us or that something we mystically perform internally makes a difference out there in the world.

I used to play a game in the car with my kids. I declared that I could make the traffic light change at my command. With an eye on the yellow peeking from the overhead traffic light, I would clap as the signal changed: Voila, magical thinking. My children figured it out soon enough as all children do, but once in a while I will dreg up the old joke as a remembrance of their younger, more innocent lives. “You keep thinking that,” my daughter placated me with a patronizing voice as she patted my arm in mock empathy the last time I tried it. She is not gullible anymore.

Magical thinking springs from our desires in blatant and subtle forms; it seems to be a part of our human nature. We can use it to make children laugh or hide ourselves from pain. The rationalists may despise it as weakness but the creative minds crave it as manna from heaven. We read to our children and grandchildren of “The Little Engine That Could” who chugged up the mountain panting “I think I can, I think I can.” We know full well the limits of this magical philosophy until we find ourselves in physical therapy or rehab. As we face the staircase, the weights, or the manipulations of the physical therapist, we all chant “I think I can, I think I can” and mean it. Therein lies the transformative power of magical thinking; it can be constructive or destructive.

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