Standing Ovations and Undeserved Praise

I made my stage debut in The King and I as one of the Siamese children. (Yes, I am white, as were most of the other kids in our production. Yes, they literally dipped us head to toe in stage makeup to make faux Asians out of us. Yes, this would be unacceptable today. That’s a topic for another day.) I was in 6th grade. When we did the curtain call on opening night, the audience gave us a standing ovation. That was in the mid-1970s, when such an ovation still meant something. Now a standing ovation is practically obligatory at every show, regardless of the quality of the performance. The gesture has become meaningless as anything other than a polite matter of course.

But that first standing ovation felt awesome! All these years later, it still stands out as a great moment in my life. Aside from being the first time I experienced the thrill of the stage, it was meaningful because it was deserved. My role was a tiny one, but I knew that even though this was just a high school production, it was a very good one. I have been involved with shows since then that also received standing ovations, but ones which were in no way deserved. They felt phony.

When I was a kid, my parents praised me to the skies, even when I didn’t deserve it. I was a pretty good young musician, but not the best in school, and certainly not the best on a statewide or even citywide level. If I lost a battle for first chair in the band, or didn’t get top score on a solo, my parents acted as if I had been cheated. I wasn’t cheated; I simply wasn’t as good as the competition, and I knew it. To be told otherwise felt like a lie, even if it was well-intentioned. The praise my parents offered was meant as support, but again, it felt phony.

There is a big difference between “You ARE the best!” and “You can BECOME the best.” The latter is helpful; the former is not. When a student (in music, sports, or anything else) hears “You are the best,” the message is “You needn’t bother trying harder; the world has to come around to you.” This is unfair to the student and also casts a negative shadow over the world for not recognizing talent. It would have been much healthier for me to hear a lot more of “You can become the best” while growing up. There the message is, “You are not the best yet, as you are well aware, but the potential is there if you work at it.”

Being told I was the best when objectively and obviously I was not led to a distrust of compliments. It also implied that I was already as good as I could ever hope to be, and since I knew others were better, it led to a feeling of hopeless inferiority. I don’t mean to bash my parents, and I also don’t claim that this is always the case. I just wish I had figured all this out a lot sooner.

Religion: Who Cares?

3 religious books - YouTube thumbnail

In my last blog post, I talked about how little thought people actually put into their religion, even as those same people claim religion is the most important thing in their lives. A recent article in The Christian Century confirms this problem in a longitudinal study of emerging adults and their beliefs. (Seven Spiritual Beliefs of Young Adults) What emerges from the study is that those studied have the sense that they can trust their own instincts about religion, morality, and spirituality without giving the matter any real thought.

I can’t help but see this same trust in personal instinct in the way Mr. Trump approaches…well, everything. He believes his own gut feelings have more validity than the word of experts in any given field. We see this clearly in his daily COVID-19 briefings. The current tendency to dismiss expert advice is not limited to Trump. Is this prioritizing of one’s own inner sense over evidence and expert testimony a symptom of our culture’s longtime conviction of American exceptionalism? Or is it a recent phenomenon?

With regard to emerging adults and their relation to religion, the fact that they trust their own instinct to form a personal belief system may be a sign of the fading importance of religion. As the article states, “[A]ttaining religious knowledge is no different from learning other things: it takes an explicit effort.” If people are unwilling to put in that effort, the result is an uninformed belief system. In a country that consistently gives privileged status to religion, we either need to take the time to formulate intelligent decisions about religion, or acknowledge that religion isn’t that important after all and take away its position of privilege.

Choosing My Religion

“Above all else, a god needs compassion.” – James T. Kirk

There are a lot of people pounding their Bibles, using it to justify whatever pet cause they have in mind, claiming they have the right to do whatever it is they want to do in the name of their Freedom of Religion. These people say God, the Bible, and their Faith are the most important things in the world for them—that their religion is, to borrow a phrase from Paul Tillich (although most of them wouldn’t know Paul Tillich from Kim Kardashian), the “ground of their being.” Most of these people put more thought into what color socks to wear than they do into their religion.

Stop and think for a moment: Did you choose your religion, or was it chosen for you? Go further: What do you really know about your own religion? About other religions? Why is it important to you? How is it informing your actions?

I’m not going to attempt to answer all of these questions in one short blog post. In fact, I’m not really able to answer them at all, because they are for you to answer. Too often, we—all of us—don’t want to do the heavy thinking. It’s hard. When someone, or some system, comes along that promises to do the thinking for us, it’s tempting to jump at the offer. I don’t mean we should ignore everyone and stick entirely to our own counsel; we have a president now who tends to do exactly that, and it’s not pretty. Absolutely we need to listen to experts. We need to learn from the words of the wise people who have come before us. We owe it to ourselves and to posterity to be broadly informed. BROADLY informed. Then we need to think.

This applies to politics, to our jobs, to how we manage our daily lives, and to our choice of religion. Because it is a choice. Choose wisely, because how we decide matters.

Foundation or Federation

Sal Khan, of Khan Academy, has been doing daily “homeroom” live streams to help students and their parents manage during the coronavirus pandemic and its attendant school closures. Though I’m neither a parent nor a student (not officially anyway; I like to think I’m always a student because I always love learning), I have listened to some of the homeroom sessions because I respect Sal and appreciate the advice he dispenses. Today someone asked him about his favorite books, and the first thing Sal mentioned was Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series. This is a favorite of mine too, and at least in part for the same reason Sal gave: The series paints a distant future in which an age of darkness looms. Though this new dark age is inevitable, one man, Hari Seldon, believes its length and impact can be greatly lessened if a group of scientists, inventors, etc. can come together to forge a Foundation which will serve as a warehouse of knowledge. (This is a conceit also explored in other science fiction works such as Neal Stephenson’s Anathem, Walter M. Miller’s  Canticle for Leibowitz, and others.) Asimov doesn’t gloss over the coming dark age, but his vision is optimistic nonetheless.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I see Star Trek’s Federation as another optimistic picture of the future. I have also mentioned how impossible it seems, given the current tenor of discourse on nearly any topic both here in America and abroad. This is nothing new; our optimistic Mr. Asimov many years ago said:

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’ (Isaac Asimov, Newsweek, January 21, 1980)

The fear of society’s devolution into dystopia is a mainstay of science fiction. The possibility of it actually happening feels truer today than ever, however—at least more than at any other point in my lifetime to date. Maybe that explains my obsession with ongoing learning. I may not ever zoom around the galaxy on a mission “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before,” but I can do my part to help bring about the Federation…or the Foundation.

On Typing

“You either live life—bruises, skinned knees and all—or you turn your back on it and start dying.” – Captain Christopher Pike

This line, from the pilot episode of Star Trek, pops up again in Stephen King’s short story Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption. The line has some resonance for me, especially as I get older. It is tempting to tell myself I’m too old to learn new skills, but that’s not true. One skill I plan on honing: typing. A recent text chat with a longtime friend brought up the topic of typing, and since we were using text as a way of communicating, the message that came through loud and clear was that I suck at typing.

I never took typing in high school because there was never time for it in my schedule. Half of my school day was taken up with music classes (concert choir, jazz band, wind ensemble, etc.); I had to take both summer school and night school just to squeeze in my required history courses. Typing seemed like a class for students with no higher aspirations than secretarial work. How wrong I was!

These days, we spend a lot of time typing on computers and smartphones, and I wish I were better at it. The need for solid typing skills has never been made more apparent than in these past few weeks, when most communication cannot be done face-to-face, and we must rely on the written word more than ever.

Some time ago, I gave some advice on how to succeed in college. I would like to add to that list: Learn to type! It is a skill that will serve you well! I am taking this advice myself. There are plenty of online sites that will teach you to type, many of them free. I am currently using typing.com. I’m sure your local library also has books and tools to help you learn to type, so once they are open again you can take advantage of that resource.

Yes, even an old dog like me can learn new tricks!

“Get busy living or get busy dying.” – Andy Dufresne and “Red” Redding

Bible Thoughts

One of Roger Ebert’s movie rules is that whenever two characters are talking and one of them quotes the Bible, the other will immediately respond with book, chapter and verse, as if everyone in the world had the Bible memorized. I’ve noticed this too, including in one of my favorite musicals, Guys & Dolls. Memorizing Bible passages is a neat parlor trick, and can make one appear intelligent, like people who randomly quote Shakespeare but never read his plays, but mere memorization does equal understanding.

Worse, memorizing quotes to support a pet belief or bias—prooftexting—weaponizes the Bible in a manner that is misleading and dangerous. You want support for slavery? It’s in there. You want some “proof” that homosexuality is a sin? It’s there. In short, if you need backup for just about any prejudice you may harbor, you can find it in the Bible if you look hard enough and don’t worry about the larger context.

It was only a few generations ago that slaveholders turned to the Bible to justify their inhumane “peculiar institution.” Abolitionists were hard-pressed to find any Biblical support for their cause. Now we look back at those slaveholders waving their Bibles and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?” Now Mike Pence and a whole band of anti-gay pastors are pounding their Bibles to justify their homophobia. The current trend among this crowd is to blame the COVID-19 pandemic on gays, claiming it is punishment from God, and using the Bible as “proof.” There will come a day—not soon enough—that the world will look back on these folks and say, “How could those people be so wrong, so bigoted, so hateful?”

 “The portrayal of the Bible as a source of infallible truth does not arise from a reading of the Bible itself, but is a monstrous imposition upon it…Perhaps the greatest irony in the history of the Bible is that it itself has so often been treated as an idol, and venerated with a reverential attitude while its message is ignored.” (John J. Collins, Holmes Professor of Old Testament Criticism at Yale University, A Short Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd edition, p. 393)

Science and Theology

bible and sci-fi

Here are two books I’m currently reading: The Common English Bible Study Bible (With Apocrypha) and The Big Book of Science Fiction. I realize this pairing of books lends itself to jokes, and I didn’t put them together this morning by accident. They highlight a problem that has baffled humankind for centuries, if not millennia. What we are taught to believe does not always mesh with what our minds tell us.

I was raised in a Christian environment, and like many other people, there came a point in my childhood when I noticed a divergence between what I heard in church and what I heard at school. I remember feeling a great sense of relief when our church pastor’s sermon one Sunday promised to resolve the disparity. He told a story about a student not unlike myself who had approached his own pastor with a science textbook and a Bible, demanding to know how to resolve the two. The pastor in the story said, “The Bible is God’s word; the textbook is man’s word. We use the Bible in church to learn about God’s world, and we use the textbook in school to learn about man’s world.”

I was not happy with this answer. It was cleverly said, but resolved nothing. The pastor’s response skirted around the question in an effort to please both sides, but did not do justice to either. I have no satisfactory solution, but I know that asking the questions and searching diligently with open minds for the answers is a worthwhile pursuit. So I will continue to study theology AND science.

Here are two websites that are good places to start:

 

Easter 2020

Revelations of Divine Love - cover

Today is Easter. When I was a kid, Easter meant a fun search for candy eggs to start the day, extra special music at church, and usually a big lunch with extended family. Even if I didn’t get much out of the theology of the resurrection as a youngster, it was still a day of celebration.

But Easter 2020 finds the world in rough shape. There are no church services on account of coronavirus, except for some irresponsible and foolish congregations that think they are somehow immune to the disease. Family gatherings must be kept to a minimum. Restaurants are closed. Not to mention the many other crises currently affecting the planet. And to boot, it’s a dark, cold, rainy, ugly day weather-wise.

Oddly enough, I’ve been taking comfort in an unusual book: Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich. It’s an account of the visions that came to a Middle Age anchoress in 1373. When she wrote about her experiences, she wrote in Middle English, but I’m reading in a Modern English translation (Oxford University Press, ISBN 978-0-19-964118-5). I’ve never wholly bought into the phenomenon of holy visions, and I can’t say whether the things Julian saw were the product of a fever, an overactive imagination, or actual visits from a holy being. But her writing is lovely and affecting. Maybe reading her words is the best way I can celebrate Easter this year.

Holocaust

I have plugged John and Hank Green’s excellent online education series of videos, Crash Course, previously. Most recently, I suggested it as one of several options for how to spend time productively during the current COVID-19 crisis. (https://barefootvoosk.com/2020/03/19/10/)

The newest Crash Course video was just released this morning, and it is an especially poignant and disturbing one: The Holocaust,Genocides, and Mass Murder of WWII: Crash Course European History #40

 

This might not seem like the best viewing material for a world in the midst of a global pandemic, but let’s not forget that the problems that existed just before we all went into quarantine still exist. Climate change still exists. The United States still faces challenges to democracy under the current administration. And hatred still exists in all its many forms: racism, homophobia, xenophobia, misogyny, bigotry, etc.

The Holocaust happened, and not all that long ago. There are still many people alive today who remember it. George Orwell’s allegory Animal Farm, which I also mentioned recently, shows just how quickly authoritarianism can take root, and just how easily hatred can erase equality. “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” It’s happened before. If we’re not careful, it can happen again.

 

 

Kurt Vonnegut

Vonnegut books

Since I’ve been talking about science fiction, perhaps this would be a good time to mention one of my favorite authors: Kurt Vonnegut. One of the things that most appeals to me about his writing is the meta-ness of it. His novels sometimes contain generous helpings of autobiography, as in Slaughterhouse Five, and many of them are aware that they are novels, as with Breakfast of Champions. Then there is Kilgore Trout, the failed science fiction writer who pops up in many of Vonnegut’s books. We are given many samples of Trout’s writing, and Trout himself frequently appears within the story. His reality is multi-leveled; sometimes he is the author, and sometimes he is the innocent creation.

Time travel is also a frequent Vonnegut theme, and provides the central conceit for his last novel, Timequake. It’s no wonder time travel appeals to science fiction writers; it offers possibilities and paradoxes by the score! (Incidentally, that’s the second time in this blog post that I’ve use a semi-colon, which Vonnegut would have strongly opposed.) And here I can use time travel to tie Kurt Vonnegut to another writer whose work I admire: Harlan Ellison. Trekkies regard Ellison’s time travel episode “The City on the Edge of Forever” one of the best in all the Star Trek canon.