Friday 28 September 2007

Brush With Death I - The Bird of Devastation & The Angel of the Orient

This is the first in a series of accounts of occasions on which I have been forced to confront my own mortality, sometimes at an uncomfortably close distance. It is dedicated to you, if you have ever been there at the precise moment that someone really needed you.

The Path To Adventure
I strain to recall now what it was that brought me specifically to Beni Mellal, a Moroccan city known as a centre of agricultural trade, but if it was another unforgettable travel experience that I was seeking, then, in that respect at least, that is very much what I got. I know I was in the general area because I had resolved to go off the beaten path, as usual, and take one of the colorful local bus services to get from Marrakech to my next destination, the great Islamic jewel of Fez.

The Path To Sanity
The only way to enjoy travel in Morocco was, at least back then, to endeavor to exercise endless patience with people and maintain quite a bit of physical endurance for good measure. Without the physical element of endurance, patience is nigh on impossible, as any parent of a tired child will attest. Even with the fitness element solved, being set upon at every turn and being followed from everywhere any transportation stopped by a mob of young, multi-lingual, silver-tongued men could either drive you to act out, or at least make detailed plans to act out, some of your most violent fantasies, or it could invite you to define the spirit of true adventure, where choosing a path meant surrendering your time and likely your money to someone who you hoped you could trust but knew you probably couldn't. To that end, I do remember the bus pulling into the centre of Beni Mellal sometime during the late afternoon, and being surprised at the lack of willing "guides" that usually waited like mosquitoes in the squares of most of the major Moroccan towns through which I had passed.

The Path To Salvation?
The other must-have for travel in Morocco was a companion. I was the ultimate lone wolf, with the view that I always got into much more interesting situations when there was noone around to tell me how stupid I was, but, as unexplained forces would have it, I was to have another lost soul to accompany me on this particular adventure. His English name was Eric, he was from Hong Kong, and he spoke almost no English, and absolutely no French. From a purely utilitarian point of view, my value to him was obvious; I could get by in French. When I met him, I could have had no idea that his acquaintance would turn out to be infinitely more valuable to me.

The moment we stepped off the bus, it became apparent that I was probably the only pale-faced foreigner in town and Eric was certainly the only Asian, as our trailing, intently curious, and continually growing entourage proved. My guide book devoted only a single sentence to the area, listing a single hotel, and my French was adequate enough to learn within minutes after my arrival that that had long since closed down. We were thereby placed in a situation that even a mildly adventurous traveller knows well; needing to retreat into our own physical and mental space in order to make a decision, while a crowd of people shouted suggestions, advice, and orders in a dialect of a language I could only partially understand in the first place. In such situations, you want to tell everyone around you to just shut up and let you think, and in weaker moments you actually do start shouting that very thing, but you know that, in most cases, if you do, you will have an even smaller chance of getting the help you know you really could use, but are too proud to ask for.

Shelter From the Storm
Figuring we could think better if we weren't starving, I suggested to Eric that we ruminate on the dilemma over some vittels, and we made a quick dash across the square towards the place that most looked like it might be an eating establishment. At least in this notion, my hunch proved correct, and we charged our way through the door, past the counter, and collapsed with backpacks still half-attached into a couple of chairs around a table right in the back, where we knew, based on the physics of small spaces, that only a small portion of local well-wishers could follow. Inevitably, a few of them made their way in and took places at neighbouring tables, but, as planned, most of the mob lost interest and went on their merry ways. Our steaming mint tea arrived and, for the moment at least, we found some measure of the respite we had sought.

The Art of the Deal
I'm asked often these days what makes me a strong negotiator, as I'm pretty well known for getting good prices on purchases and favourable outcomes from discussions. My reply almost always references the skills that I picked up in Morocco, where even a bottle of Coke has anything but a fixed price for a tourist. When you are forced to negotiate for everything, right down to the essentials of life (sustenance, shelter), you'd be foolish not to draw some positive lessons from the experience. This one particular time, however, I wish I had paid more attention to the science of microbiology than the art of the deal. It turned out that this restaurant could also accommodate guests in an adjacent inn, so I was so pleased at myself for managing to haggle a two-for-one deal on our meals to go with accommodation in a shared room that I neglected to really take into proper consideration the conditions of hygiene in the establishment. If gravity of consequences is the way to measure the quality of a decision, then that one would have easily ranked among the worst I've made in my entire life.

When in Rome...
I'm not sure what ended up being worse, the restaurant or the accommodation, but the choice of both ended up being truly regrettable. The meal itself, my meal at least, actually tasted quite good, roasted chicken and fries, and even prompted me to boast to Eric that, in being a little more adventurous with food choice, I had deftly avoided subjecting myself, for the first time in nine or ten days, to his ho-hum selection, the ubiquitous Moroccan cumin-covered kebab. But, of course, if food were just about taste, our mothers wouldn't always be telling us to eat our greens and our bodies would never pass their own judgement in all the weird and woeful ways they do.

All Clear
It was dark by the time we finished our meal, so we followed the toothless old fellow who we took to be our host through a couple doors in the back of the restaurant to our temporary home away from home. The room itself had two beds and a table and seemed generally acceptable, notwithstanding the dozen or so small spatterings of blood and squashed mosquitoes on the walls near the beds, so we paid the man for the room and board and waited for him to leave. Immediately after he did so, we busily began the then-customary practice of pulling off the mattresses and checking the bed frames for bedbugs. We satisfied ourselves that, if less than clean, the room was at least bedbug-free, and so we spread out a map and bus timetable and set about planning our route to Fez the following day.

Reconnaissance Mission
Shortly after finalizing those plans, I realized that it would likely be prudent to locate the washroom, as it was clearly not ensuite and experience had taught me not to wait until the moment of truth to begin such a search. Not seeing it in the hallway through which we had passed coming from the restaurant, I popped my head back into the restaurant and asked in French where I might find the facilities. The old man who had ushered us in was gone, and there were just a few men left in the restaurant, sitting around one table drinking mint tea, smoking cigarettes, and laughing. Seeing me, one of the young men got up, looking slightly annoyed, and headed through another door out the back, this one opening into an outside alley. On the other side of the alley was a door, which he rapped on harshly and, finding no reply, pulled open the door to reveal the washroom.

Welcome to the Dungeon
I smiled weakly in thanks for his effort, very weakly I imagine, given the state of the little room, and tried not to gag as the wave of sharp, sickening stench from inside worked its way through my senses. The room was the size of a large shower stall, and in the dim light, it took me a few seconds to realize that that was exactly what it was. Except that it was also a toilet, apparently for public use. After almost two weeks of squat toilets, I had actually grown used to exercising my legs to do my business, but never had I seen nor imagined anything like this. This was a squat toilet with a small sink in front of it but, to conserve space or water or both, the only way to flush it was to turn on the shower above. In fact, it wasn't really a flush toilet at all, it was a pit toilet with a pile of sewage that was getting dangerously close to the drop hole. I deduced that the opposite must have held true if you wanted to take a shower; you would have to perch precariously on the footrests while showering, praying to all that was holy that you didn't lose your footing. The worst part was that, considering I had asked about using the washroom, the young man who had escorted me was clearly waiting for me to step inside. Calculating that I could hold my breath until he vanished, I gingerly stepped in, balanced myself on the footrests, and pulled the door closed gently behind me. I could only stand being in there for perhaps twenty seconds, at which time I pushed out on the door with my backside, stepped backwards out of the toilet/shower/closet, exhaled, and re-entered the restaurant/inn, vowing all the while to do whatever business I had to do somewhere else.

What A Relief

I shared the incident with Eric and we thanked our lucky stars that, barring a sudden onset of travellers' diarrhoea, our status as men would preclude us from ever having to use that particular facility, seeing that a wall in that same alley would be more than adequate for most of our needs. After a final cursory check through the room for creatures and critters, and possible entrance points for such, we cut the lights and flopped down on our beds for the night.

A Rude Awakening
The next thing I remember is bolting awake in the middle of the night with an excruciating pain searing through my gut and an imperative impulse to immediately empty my body of waste through any means or orifice available. I leapt out of bed and realized I had no choice in the world but to race to the toilet out in the alley. When I reached my destination, for at least a very brief moment, the relief I felt in the subsequent crouch and drop was equal to and perhaps greater than the complete aversion each of my physical senses had to the place. But only for a moment. That moment was followed by a revulsion of mythological proportions, as the nausea I had brought with me to this putrid little crevice in Hell's deepest chasm coalesced with the distress I now felt squatting in agonizing pain over a pit of human excrement into a succession of much longer moments that really felt like forever.

Second-Hand Smoke
But angels come in strange places, in surprising forms, and at the most opportune of times, and one certainly came to me then. As I choked and spewed and my senses pleaded for deliverance, I vaguely discerned the draft of the opening door and looked up to see my travelling companion Eric holding the most unlikely, most welcome instrument of salvation of which I could have then conceived. All hail the burning cigarette! I did not smoke at the time, but Eric seemed to know it was exactly what I needed. Taking care to avert his eyes from my squatting form, or perhaps just cringing from the stench, he handed me a lit cigarette, which I immediately and instinctively knew to hold under my nose. The hazards of second-hand smoke are by now well documented, but, in my time of need, I saw only the benefits, first and foremost of which was to replace the acrid smell of waste with a much more pleasingly acrid aroma of burning leaves.

It's Gonna Blow!
I spent most of the rest of the night in that wretched little patch of property, being fed a steady diet of burning cigarettes through a crack in the door. We also recognized the need shortly after the introduction of combustion to the equation to aerate the space regularly, as there was likely enough methane gas stewing in the air to blow us clear into the next town if it got any more concentrated, so, every couple minutes, Eric would swing the door open and closed to keep the air circulating. By the time the morning came, my legs were as badly cramped as my gut, and I was a mere shell of person, emptied of nutrition and hydration to the point of hallucination.

Greener Pastures
I therefore received quite a significant shock when I returned from one of my extended visits to the place of ceaseless torment to find that Eric was not there. I was too exhausted either to panic or to notice the note he had left for me on the table, and I feel into a kind of sleep of partial awareness, knowing that it would only be a matter of minutes before I would be on the move again. However long or short it was, the next thing I knew, I was being gently shaken by Eric and persuaded to do my best to get back to my feet and steel myself for a longer journey than the one to the toilet. Eric had packed my backpack and, as he pulled me from the bed and supported most of my weight as I took the first few steps, took up my pack on his other shoulder. Where, I mumbled, could we possibly be going? I managed to decipher, through his very broken English and my very broken consciousness, that he had spent the past few early morning hours wandering through the streets of Beni Mellal, quite unable to communicate with the locals, searching for medical attention for me or, at the very least, an improvement in accommodations. He had found the latter, and he informed me that that's where we were going.

Easy To Please

Fortunately, the journey was only one of about fifteen minutes, and I remember nothing about it other than my one object of concentration, which was to avoid an orifice explosion by any means possible. I managed to do so and, thanks to what I now considered the heroic actions of my friend, we ended up in a guest house that was still far from paradise, but was in every way an oasis in this dirty, dusty part of town. That the accommodation was in a six-bed dorm room was not, upon my arrival, of the least concern to me, although my moaning would certainly prove an annoyance to the room's other inhabitants. All I cared about was whether or not the toilet flushed, and it did.

The Numbers

I lost 25 pounds over the course of the next three days, from a frame that was already very low on body fat. For two of the three days, my system had so completely shut down all its processing functions that I could drink a glass of water and have it come out the other end, undiluted and still clear, five minutes later. After 72 hours with no food intake and negligible absorption of liquid, and without even the energy to make the 5-metre walk to the toilet without assistance, I had quite understandably given up the will to live. Had it not been for Eric sourcing a package of rehydration tablets, forcing me to consume bottles of water and clear juice, warding off the guest house's owner when he complained that none of his other guests wanted to stay in the room, and hardly leaving the room during the entire time, my parents would likely have had to go through the logistical nightmare of arranging their son's body to be shipped home in a box.

The Plan

Saint Eric made one other procurement that would prove invaluable, Immodium. At the first respite in the bacterial onslaught, I regained some measure of awareness, and as soon as I did, Eric insisted that I pop a few pills and get on a bus to Tangiers, from whence ran the ferry that would take us out of Morocco. I clearly needed medical help, and both of us had completely lost faith in the ability to get what I needed in Morocco, even though I can see now with the benefit of hindsight that, had we resolved to do so, we could likely have found a hospital somewhere in which I could be treated. The fact was that my illness had beaten the cultural tolerance right out of us and we just wanted to get out.


In a more lucid state, I'd have likely thought to ask exactly how long a trip we were looking at, and I'd have been quite disturbed to learn that Tangiers was a 10-hour bus ride. Wanting to put the host city of my own Olympiad of Affliction behind me was a very powerful motivator, however, and I was shovelled into a seat for the long and very bumpy ride north. It was far from pleasant, and attended by much moaning, but it was without significant event that we rolled into Tangiers just after dark. Apart from deliverance from the source of my suffering, the ride did provide at least one other potential benefit; two gorgeous, very blonde German nurses, who boarded the bus in some non-descript town along the way and subsequently took enough pity on Eric and his moaning burden to volunteer to assume some responsibility for my care and comfort.

The Weakest Link

Unfortunately, as with nearly everything that formed part of this whole string of ill-fated occurrences, the company of the nurses turned out also to be as much a curse as a blessing. We learned upon arrival in Tangiers that the ferry for Spain didn't leave until the following morning, so we immediately began a search for lodging, four very conspicuous and clearly disoriented foreigners wandering, after dark, through what the guidebook described as "the most dangerous city for tourists in Morocco." And so, inevitably, like the weak caribou in the herd that the wolf pack so expertly identifies, we soon attracted some very unwelcome attention from a throng of very unpleasant local delinquents.

Worse Comes to Worst

As we walked through a small, dark square, we were surrounded suddenly by a group of about a dozen young Moroccan men, who formed a half circle around us and backed us toward a wall. The two German girls had taken great pains when we set out from the bus station to cover their flowing blonde locks in makeshift hijabs, but it became immediately clear as the small mob converged around us that the covering hadn't left quite enough to the imagination of these shadow figures. One of them lunged in, grabbed in his fist a clump of fabric from the hijab of one of the nurses, and yanked it in one motion from her head, releasing a cascade of combed tresses that almost seemed to light up the night. The group of thugs gasped and then smiled greedily, no doubt each imagining that he would be the one man enough to handle this Aryan princess. They began to hiss and chortle amongst themselves, and, in a mixture of Arabic and French (when they wanted to be understood), they began to boast to each other of their plans for the rest of evening with these two beautiful ladies in tow.

The Presence of Greatness

Suddenly, Eric cut through their jibes with a sound of focused inner fury and leapt forward to land in a fighting stance between the girls and the closest members of the street gang. As he did so, I realized in my own state of frailty and fear that the only possible way for us to prevent a very bad outcome was to somehow take control of the situation. At almost the instant Eric landed in a stance right out of a martial arts movie, I addressed the semi-circle of miscreants, in better French than I knew I had.

"Do you know who this is?" I shouted.

There were a few guffaws and bemused glances my way.

"You don't recognize him?" I continued. "Don't you watch television?"

The men looked at each other, as though looking for confirmation.

"In Marrakech, everyone wanted to meet him, but you don't know who he is?"

One of the smiled and made a mock kung-fu move.

"Bruce Lee?", he quipped. "Bruce Lee, kung fu!"

I pretended that I had taken his response seriously, and started nodding my head vigourously in acknowledgement.

"The son of Bruce Lee!" I said excitedly. "Yes, you do know him. You've seen him on television."

A Glimmer of Hope

Eric was frozen in his fighting stance, calmly but angrily surveying the group, waiting for someone to move against him. The men looked at each other sceptically. Before their doubt could settle, I looked directly at the man who had removed the scarf from the German nurse.

"And that is his girlfriend and her sister." I pointed at the girls, and continued as best I could in French. "If you say you're sorry, he may have tea with you and your friends, and tell you some stories."

Peace Offering

I knew our ruse had worked when I detected in the group's leader the scent of the sensibly proud male, where defeat cannot be acknowledged but an analysis of the situation necessitates some kind of compromise. He thoughtfully pulled two cigarettes from his pocket, put one between his lips, and then reached across a couple of his friends to offer the cigarette to Eric. Eric held his glare long enough to provide a few anxious moments of doubt, then took the offered cigarette and a light from the guy closest to him.

The Promise Land

We ended up skipping the tea, but, after Eric signed various personal artefacts of theirs with his "autograph", the group did help us in finding acceptable accommodation for the night close to where the ferry went out the following morning. By afternoon the next day, I was sitting in a hospital in Seville with a diagnosis of salmonella, an IV drip, and a prescription for Bactrim.

Pinholes or Stars?

As I look back now, Eric's face above me on my sick bed took many forms as the last swells of energy ebbed from my body during those three fateful days. Throughout these manifestations, having visited me then and since, I have come to realize that we may choose to view people who come into our lives in a couple ways. Their coming and going may indeed be entirely without any greater significance than we ourselves assign to them. Their presence at "the right time" may be explained as mere mathematical inevitability; lines will eventually intersect if there are enough lines going in enough directions. Our choice is whether to view these points of intersection like pinholes in the dark blanket of random chaos that backdrops most of our actions, or like stars that illuminate that darkness. Those people and events to whom we choose to assign such significance become a permanent part of who we are, because people will be more dear to us and events will be cherished more when sprinkled with the magical stardust of meaning. The more open we are to these interactions, the more stars we pull from the darkness to examine like sparkling gems in the light of day and drop back into the waters that fill us, the more likely it is that the interactions will start to intersect each other, like ripples from separate splashes that overlap in a lake, until they eventually form a pattern. This pattern can be seen as a random milieu of half-completed circles, or it can be seen as a work of art, fashioned with spirit but without design and possessed of great intricacy and beauty.

The Gift of Understanding

That these patterns do not reveal themselves to everyone who deserves to see them is often cruel, for they can make even the worst of life's moments better. Even if they are merely a psychological coping mechanism, they are an extremely effective one, and they certainly beg the question of where the brain's ability to organize them into such a wondrous array goes when the moments have passed. Those who have not been close might dismiss the deathbed conversion of a scoundrel or the feeling of all-encompassing well-being that accompanies the final hand squeeze given in the last moments from a stranger on some battlefield, as an impulsive, last-ditch attempt to prepare for the unknown. Perhaps in some cases it is; I cannot speak for all who have passed within a few breaths of the other side. But my impression, my experience, is that the understanding of the process is more powerful than fear of the outcome. What I saw in hindsight after I passed through those moments was not that Eric had saved my life, it was simply that, by miracle or pure chance, he had been there exactly when I needed him to be.

And for that, I now christen him the Angel of the Orient.

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Sunday 16 September 2007

The God Conclusion - Was It a Stupid Question?

This post is dedicated to you, Tiska, for always, always asking the right questions.

From Fact to Conclusion
All knowledge that is accepted as fact and not opinion invites you to draw a conclusion. Every time you read a fact in a newspaper or in a book, or watch a documentary on TV, or get your news from the Internet, every time you hear something you accept to be true, you are being invited to draw a conclusion, have an opinion, and take a stand. Even if you had a book about everything we as human beings know to be true, and you understood and believed every last word of it, you would still feel not just invited but compelled to draw a conclusion based on that information. A non-factual conclusion.

Which are You?
Have you drawn a conclusion about God? For some, opening a bible, praying at a mosque, or just looking up God on Wikipedia may well produce enough information about God to draw a conclusion. For others, experiences like these are not nearly enough. God would only be a product of a rational argument, whose existence must be proven by logic beyond any shadow of a doubt.

God's Invitation
My view is that, wherever your beliefs lie, if your antennae are set to the right frequency, you will be able to discern an unmistakable signal, coming clear through the static of all the information you've ever received, as the broadcast of a simple invitation. And what, you may reasonably ask, is the nature of this invitation, especially if I don't even believe there is a God? Well, just like with any stream of information, you are being invited to draw a conclusion.

If You Believe...
If you have drawn a conclusion in favour of God, whether through others' interpretations or your own, you likely know, or think you know, that communication from God is possible. You know that God exists, and you may even know God quite well.

If You Don't...
If God does not communicate to you, you have no logical reason to believe in God or to believe that God exists. You know that, in spite of all the arguments made for and against the existence of God, there is and will never be a universally-accepted way to prove beyond a doubt that God does or does not exist. So, if God does not communicate to you, then for you, there is no God. That is your conclusion.

Communications Protocol
With that in mind, I want to tell you about how I think God communicates to all of us, in the hope that, if you do not know God and you might someday wish to, you will recognize something in that communication protocol that might someday apply to you, and you may be able to use that protocol, if you don't already, to receive similar communications. If you already know God, or even if you just think you do but aren't sure, it may interest you to know whether there is any overlap in the method of these communications. If you do not know God and do not wish to ever again entertain the prospect of doing so, you may now choose to leave this page and assume that, in so doing, you will be subject to my condemnation of your soul-less, amoral, empty, existence. Either that, or you may read on and discover why I think any such condemnation is completely ridiculous.

The God Signal
Depending who you are, I may be no more acquainted with God than you are. In fact, I may very well be less acquainted with God than you are. But it is both my blessing and my curse that I do seem to have been built with or molded into a very finely attuned receiver for certain types of signals. You can debate, as I certainly have for a very long time, whether or not these signals should actually be interpreted as "God signals", but I can now say with some level of confidence, along with a healthy fear of rebuke, that God communicates with me more or less directly, not altogether without an intermediary, but more with a single signal beamed through a multitude of intermediaries. The message I get from that signal, is that whether God also communicates to you on a very high level, or on a very basic level, God does speak to all of us.

Spirit Exercise
Whoever you are, and whatever you believe, and whether you even care or not, what that signal essentially says is that you really should care; that you really should make a commitment to exploring and exercising your spirit the way you know that you are supposed to do with your body and your mind. There is a need to feed the spirit the way we feed our bodies, to express our spirituality the way we express our emotions, and exercise our "God muscles" the way we exercise each of the important muscles in our bodies. Only in this way can the spirit be allowed to perform at peak efficiency and give us the best lives that we can achieve.

Why Did I Win the Jackpot?
This can sometimes be a little tricky, because, for the most part, God does not communicate in answers. God primarily communicates in questions, which makes charting out an exercise regimen a little more work. One of the first questions generally asked about God when deciding whether or not to establish such a regimen is whether or not God exists. It is an important question, to be sure, but this is a question about God, not from God. Wondering about whether God exists, rather than wondering about the nature of God, is a little like winning the jackpot from a slot machine and wondering whether you deserved it or not. Maybe you deserved it, maybe you didn't, you have the money now and you must decide now what to do with it. In other words, it is more instructive and beneficial to contemplate the true nature of God not as a source of the universe, but as a property of it.

God The Phenomenon
If you must look deeply into the question of existence, you will likely agree that, at the very least, God is a definition of a phenomenon. In this sense, God exists in the same way that Love or Fairness, or even Evil, exists. Ask ten people to define any of these things, or to describe their experience of them, and you will of course get ten different answers. There will be little agreement and a whole series of factors that influence how they are experienced. That these are things that we feel deeply when presented with in a particular set of circumstances, however, there can be no doubt. If we can feel them and speak about them, then they do exist in some measure.

Does True Love Exist?
Anyone who has ever been in love knows that an attempt to deconstruct the whole concept is inevitably doomed to failure. Why do I love this person, and why does this person love me? Depending on who you ask, true love may or not exist; it may merely be about acceptance, coincidence, common background, or even the elusively defined chemistry. Whatever it comes down to on a molecular level, love is a phenomenon that, it is generally acknowledged, is better to have in your life than absent from it. This may not prove the existence of the concept of true love, it may indeed just be about two mammals that share common traits, but it certainly seems that it would be a concept you'd want to embrace if it were going to make your life better.

Intuition is Not Science
A reasonable response to this might be that knowing something by intuition is not knowing that thing at all, that only that which can be quantifiably measured, precisely defined, independently verified, and scientifically proven can be said to exist, and only things that we know to exist are worthy of contemplation. According to this argument, what separates science from conjecture is that a scientific fact that began as someone's intuition (think of gravity) then underwent this process until enough evidence was gathered and arguments made that a consensus was reached to consider it true. This is indeed a worthy standard for knowledge, but I believe it also serves as a double standard when turned against the argument for God. For a very long time, a basic argument pertaining to God has been advanced through myths and religions all over the world, and, consistently throughout the ages, the amount of adherents, intelligent adherents, to the basic principle of God, stripped of all interpretive manifestations, would seem to satisfy all but the most exacting standards of scientific confirmation. Above the fray of the most basic scientific facts, I know of no all-encompassing theories in science that enjoy this level of independent verification.

Can't Fool Me
A reason for the existence of this double standard may be that there is, among the competitively intelligent in this time of keen scientific insight, a deep aversion to being duped, and the aversion becomes even deeper when the argument that they are being asked to accept is coming from a source whose intelligence level is sometimes perceived to be inferior, and often actually is. It is my suspicion that some of this tendency enters the discussion of God. Faith in God has nothing to do with intelligence, and therefore, to a person of intelligence who inherently questions the validity of faith or the existence of God and recognizes the complexity in such considerations, there may be a tendency to reason that, because faith is sometimes practiced by people whom the competitively intelligent person perceives as less intelligent, it must therefore be the case that the argument for faith is an inferior one. If this describes you, you just haven't met enough of us heretics.

Do Unto Others
Of course, that sword cuts both ways. If, in the certainty of your faith, you believe that all sceptics and perhaps even all scepticism is an inevitable path to cyncism and eternal hoplessness, you need to get a grip. Being cautious about something so fundamental to human life as faith is not only smart, but pretty wise, too. It may be true that, if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything, but it is equally true that, by standing for something, you may have already fallen for it. I personally don't believe that there is anyone who cannot be converted to at least some type of faith, but if someone does not share your faith and cannot comprehend the joy with which you deliver your gospel, that does not mean that that person cannot comprehend or experience similar joy.

God The Delusion
As part of this question of existence, God is often portrayed, in this time of the great flowering of human knowledge, as a delusion, a hazily considered and popularly accepted end point, at which the answers stop and the questions become unanswered or unanswerable, and beyond which the individual intellectual powers of one person, or even groups of people, cannot venture. Consider this for a moment. What is a delusion but a dream applied to the world of the logically awake, an inability to understand the boundary between the world of the dream and the world through which our physical bodies move? There are many ideas on why our bodies insist on dreaming, but whether a dream is a way of organizing our thoughts, or is the product of antennae picking up signals that we can't access while awake, can we really claim that there is no value in listening to what our dreams tell us? Have you never awoken from a dream with a crystal clear solution to a problem you needed to solve in reality? Can we stop dreaming? Is the way to understand our dreams to force ourselves to stop? Certainly we can try to figure out why we dream, and how, but, seeing that we do dream and aren't likely to stop doing so any time soon, shouldn't we look also at the benefits of dreaming, and how we can apply those benefits, even as we continue to try to unravel the mysteries of the dream?

God The Dream
What if we chose to see that lucid dream clearly structured in the same way that we hear music beautifully realized, existing in some space both within and apart from the physical instrument on which it was produced? Would we find the greatest value in standing with arms crossed in the shadows descontructing the notes, or would we want to start dancing, singing, or playing along? It is the music produced, the image of the dream, that resonates most deeply with most of us, but there is, for those whose compulsion it is to understand what creates what we see and hear, a beauty, complexity and depth in the notes themselves; their frequency, their pitch, the vibrations that enable us to hear them. But even at the core of their essence, resides an unidentifiable noise, a hum, elemental and close to basic principles perhaps, but really just another kind of music, radiating nonetheless behind all the words, numbers, and ideas we use to label all its components. We have to call it something, so the sounds we call music, and the dream, the delusion, we call God.

Stupid Question
The whole thing was summed up rather neatly for me the other day when I was having a conversation with a very good friend of mine about a previous post. She made one of those comments people make sometimes that resonate because they put words to something you have yourself thought many times, but have never converted to language. "I hate when you're talking about this type of thing and people ask if I believe that God exists", she said, "That's such a stupid question."

A Better Question
Stupid question, indeed. If we can all agree that there is no way to logically prove or disprove the existence of God, isn't the better question "Is my life better with a God or without a God?". This is a question that all of us can at least answer with some degree of personal certainty.

Who Is This Guy?
It's worth mentioning that I speak not here of God the parent, God the designer, or God the granter of wishes. The God whose signal I hear does not have a gender, or kids, or a chosen person or people, except insofar as stories told about God, or stories told about anything, must have characters, concepts and settings that we recognize and identify with in order for us to be able to consider them. The God whose footprints I see does not require devotion or sacrifice of life, or any particular course of action on your part or mine to show our understanding and appreciation. This God does not personally reward or punish behaviour by sending good luck or bad luck our way. Any reward comes intrinsically from knowing God, and the only punishment, if it can even be called that, is the absence of that relationship. Either way, neither this relationship nor its absence makes it any more or less likely that any of us is going to get struck by lightning or hit by a bus.

Us And Them
Whatever has been done in the name of God by people and groups of people throughout our history, this God's nature is truly worthy of consideration and wonder. The point is not that any particular set of stories, myths or religions have gotten it right or got it wrong; this is not about the believers versus the infidels, or armies of the faithful vanquishing once and for all the legions of the doubtful. The lives of the people in these stories and the ideas these people pursued are indeed worthy of contemplation, our contemplation. In every way, however old or new these myths are, wherever they come from, they are all merely reflections in pool of our own shared lives, sometimes vivid and clear, sometimes pale and murky, but always and unmistakably in our own image.

Many Messengers, One Message
The point, rather, is that no one messenger is any more valuable than any other; s/he just speaks a different language, uses a different set of symbols, or broadcasts on a different frequency. That some may frame their ideas in a way that is easier to hear and easier to understand for a certain audience, shows only that people with different backgrounds and different realities respond to different signals. God communicates with us all the time, through everyone and everything around us. The more of these languages we learn, and the more channels into which we are tuned, the more we open ourselves to communication from God. From the most gigantic of stars and the furthest reaches of space, through us, and all the way down through the most elemental particles and the unimaginably minute systems they themselves seem to contain, anywhere that thought is made into something that can be measured, God communicates.

Manic Street Preacher?
I can imagine what you might be thinking; this guy who claims to get messages from God, this all sounds a bit off to me. How much bad stuff has happened when a person thinks he is God's Chosen One and manages to persuade a whole bunch of people that's true?

Or Regular Guy?
Well, don't worry, if you are one of those who knows me, you know that I'm not one of those guys. And if you don't know me, let me help to put your doubts at rest. I am not God's Chosen One any more than you are, or any less than you are. I'm a son, a father, a brother, a husband, a friend, a colleague, a coach, and a poor singer, among rather many other things, most of which would be considered even by a normal person as being completely normal. I am a guy with a family that I love and cherish, many very close friends whom I adore and appreciate, and a bunch of stuff I can't really afford. I don't have any special powers, I can't heal with my hands, I can't walk on water, and I won't ascend to heaven carried by a heavenly host of angels, at least not in any literal sense. I am fallible, impatient, sometimes vain, and often ruled by desire. I have no interest in hanging on a cross, poisoning all my followers, or going down in a hail of bullets as they storm my compound. I wouldn't mind getting on Oprah, though.

Take Me To The River
The one thing I cannot change, is that I am absolutely compelled to bring you this message. If I close my mouth, my hands find paper or a keyboard; if my hands cannot find paper or keyboard, my actions find a way to communicate on my behalf. When the river of thought comes, it must somehow manifest itself in something tangible. I don't know why this is true and I often wish it weren't, but it is. But I'm no guru, in fact I reject the whole concept of gurus, and I have no interest in leading you to the Promised Land. For that you need either God or a really good travel agent.

Adjust Your Antennae
And, though it may seem like it sometimes, God is not hiding. Go to church, go to your temple, or mosque, or wherever else it is where you think you'll have the best chance at bumping into God, but don't take that to mean that involvement in religion automatically reveals God. Go to your encyclopedia, your science books, your novels, your music collection, your workplace, set up your antennae anywhere within the panoply of thoughts and tasks and actions that make up everyday life for everyone, and listen for the signal. But don't take this to mean that the signal will be easy to find, or that everyone everywhere is always in tune with God.

The God Channel
For we know in our hearts, as we run from appointment to appointment, flip from channel to channel, and surf from site to site, that we have, in many ways, trained ourselves away from picking up the God Channel on our wireless antennae. The entire history of the heavens and the earth rushes through every protein in every cell within us and every atom we bump up against and contain, and yet even as we evolve toward what we are convinced is deeper understanding, we evolve away from our essential selves. This deeply personal, secret, spiritual, intellectual, emotional life within each one of us, most of which is hidden from the world and part of which we keep hidden even from ourselves, is the manifestation of the essence of being into living thought. This inner life is the channel through which God communicates, and this is the life that should be given every opportunity to manifest itself in our lives at large.

The Noise That Jams The Signal
But, in drawing our conclusions that will affect this inner life, we must be wary, recognizing that all of the other channels, the scientific, the religious, the artistic, the commercial, already contain some interpretations; the interpretations of certain facts made by their own creator or creators. We must adjust our antennae so that we can discern where knowledge ends and interpretation begins, for, in the same way that all knowledge of fact invites us to draw a conclusion, so all interpretations of fact made by others discourage us from reaching interpretations and drawing conclusions that are truly our own. We must resist the temptation to let others draw our conclusions. Our real souls are not influenced or affected by the interpretations, opinions and theories of others. Our real souls, the eternal ones, are on God's frequency. Cut through all the noise, and the signals are everywhere.

All that is left for us is to learn to tune in.

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Wednesday 5 September 2007

The Hunter, The Hero & The Witch Doctor - Samati & The Lion

Dedicated to those victimized by their own courage.

Unspoiled Africa
I had the glorious opportunity to live and work for three months in the Okavango Delta area of Botswana, helping to construct lodgings and renovate existing structures in a tourist camp on a lagoon called Xakanaxa (this is a Bushman name, with each 'x' pronounced as a click) within the Moremi Game Reserve. I met, lived with, and worked with some extraordinary people there, who taught me much about everything that makes Africa both great and troubled, but the most interesting person by far was a fellow named Samati.

The Chick Magnet
I first came across Samati while taking part in a village celebration that I had been invited to attend. I don't recall the occasion of the celebration, but I do recall (through a bit of a haze) that we dined on roasted buffalo and drank home-made beer. What I remember most, however, is a big commotion and a subsequent hero's welcome being accorded to a solitary figure walking into one corner of the village from a bush trail. Someone shouted the word "Samati!!" and all the young women in the village immediately left whatever they were doing and ran to greet the approaching man. I'm not sure what I expected, but, when he got close enough, I realized that he certainly didn't look like a rock star, so I couldn't help but wonder just why he was being treated like the Beatles arriving for the first time in America. He was clearly uncomfortable with all the attention, and had a wild look to him, accentuated by a face, neck, and torso liberally adorned with substantial scar tissue.

Humility Personified
What with the festivities and all, I never got a chance to properly investigate the matter, but, as it happened, less than a week later, Samati turned up to join my small construction crew at the camp. He was quiet and extremely humble, with very little familiarity with English, and seemed quite fearful of me. As I was only in the beginning stages of learning his language, and he clearly didn't want anything to do with me, any communication with him had to be done through a third party. I soon learned, after asking about him numerous times, that he was extremely uncomfortable talking about himself in any language. If I wanted to understand the mystery of his extreme popularity, I needed to start with accounts of others.

A Nice Twist
In a nice twist of fate that I appreciate keenly in the midst of our somewhat more cosmetic culture, it turned out that his disfigurement and his popularity with the ladies were intricately related, but in a way that I could never have expected. The story was told to me by several people, with little variation between versions, as follows.

Trophy Hunting
Several years previously, Samati had been employed as guide for big game hunting parties. One nice irony throughout many parts of Africa populated by protected wildlife is that hunting within the rules is not forbidden but actually encouraged. It won't surprise many to know that people of means in the affluent parts of the world will pay a lot of money to go to Africa and hunt for animals that they could never find at home. The fees charged by the governments that allow this are astronomical, with trophy fees up to $10,000, depending on the animal. Whatever one's view on the hunting and killing of animals, there is a huge upside to this practice; these funds are then put directly back into conservation efforts, with the concept that, as hunting is something that people will find a way to do regardless, the sacrifice of one animal for sport enables the survival of considerably more of its kind.

An Unwise Decision
One day, Samati, armed with only a sheath knife, was the lead guide for an American hunting party looking for buffalo. They were tracking a particular buffalo through some fairly dense brush when one of the hunters spotted a large male lion at the edge of a clearing ahead and to the left of the hunting party. According to the story as relayed to me, the hunter was heard to mutter something along the lines of "Screw the buffalo, I'm going to bag me a lion", even though the party was not actually licensed to hunt lion and would have been in violation of national law for doing so. The hunter levelled his gun at the lion, and fired. He missed.

Hell In A Lion's Jaws
We can only imagine what the lion was thinking as the shot rang out and a bullet whizzed by him, but it's safe to say he wasn't pleased. The lion roared, likely in a mixture of anger and fear, and bolted for the first living thing he saw, which happened to be Samati. The lion reached Samati in practically an instant, leaped on top of him before he'd even had a chance to turn fully around, and started tearing him apart. According to accounts, Samati was pinned by the lion and his left arm was fully inside the lion's jaws and throat, while the lion bit down and tried to tear the limb off.

The Miracle
Samati's reaction to this horrifying situation can only be described as miraculous. With a 200-kg lion crushing his legs and ripping his left arm from its socket, he managed to reach down with his right hand to his belt, unhook the clasp of his knife sheath, and extract his knife. He then ran his fingers up along the lion's rib cage feeling for where its heart should be, and, in one powerful thrust, plunged his knife through a thick layer of muscle between two of the ribs. The lion shuddered for a few moments, then slumped in a heap on top of Samati.

The End?
I wish I could end the story there, with Samati's difficult one-year recovery from his wounds and his subsequent rise to local legend. I wish I could say that the worst injustice in the whole affair was that, in disturbingly typical African fashion, the rich white guy who had almost facilitated Samati's death got off with a token fine and a slap on the wrist. Unfortunately, the cruelest irony, at least from my perspective, was yet to come.

Always An Achilles Heel
Samati was not a complicated man, and though he must have certainly become more complicated after spitting in the face of violent death, it was said by those who knew him that his trademark humility had remained completely intact, and even deepened, in spite of the adoration he now received from everyone in his environment. Unfortunately for Samati's continued well-being, this simplicity, mistaken by the truly stupid as stupidity, was accompanied by a very tangible naïveté.

The Hero Gets a Visit
One day as we were working, a young man came into camp and asked to speak to Samati. As soon as Samati saw him, he became edgy and clearly uncomfortable, even though, judging by the respect this young man received from the others, he was a person of some standing in the community. He and Samati headed off for a half hour or so. Samati returned alone, visibly shaken and muttering under his breath. I asked what was bothering him but he wouldn't speak to me. I urged him to take the rest of the day off, but he wouldn't have it. I did notice that he spoke to a few of his co-workers, often in animated tones, several times during the day, so, when the day's work was done, I asked the guy with the best English, one of Samati's friends, what was bothering the village hero. Was the young guy a doctor? Had someone in his family died? Was he sick? What could have disturbed him so?

Doctor in The House
Well, according to his friend, he was sick, in a way. As this was right at the beginning of the AIDS scourge in Africa, I immediately feared that Samati had received that dreaded diagnosis. His friend replied, fortunately, that that wasn't it, though the young man who had paid a visit, a simple safari driver by day, was a kind of doctor.

The Curse
In fact, or at least in perception, he was a witch doctor, and he had come to tell Samati that he had been cursed. As a result, he was compelled by whatever laws governed such curses to become what amounted to a servant of the witch doctor for a specified period of time, so that the curse might be removed. I was frankly incredulous, first that Samati would allow himself to be manipulated in such a way, and secondly that his clearly rational and intelligent friends wouldn't see this charade for what it was; an obvious attempt by the "witch doctor" to bring the local hero under his control, in order to better control others. I was further shocked to learn that this was not the first time Samati had been informed of his cursed status, but the third time. How could this happen? All these guys went to church, and often spoke in glowing terms about Jesus and the Bible. Couldn't they see what was happening here? Well, being the outsider, it became obvious to me in no time at all that my argument was culturally insensitive and lacking proper perspective, so I respectfully requested a meeting with the witch doctor, with the hope that I could convince him to remove "the curse".

The Doctor's Qualifications
I was granted a meeting, and was surprised to learn that the witch doctor spoke better English than anyone in the area, owing to the fact that he had spent the most time in school and had travelled to a number of places. Here we had a comparitively well-educated, well-travelled guy dispensing curses whose only cure was to demonstrate service to him, the conduit to all the dark forces behind the curse. Hmm.

Truth Hurts, Don't It?
The meeting was civil enough, but I wasn't able to get the curse removed. He listened to me, nodded a lot, and then told me I couldn't understand because I didn't come from his culture and that, in any situation anywhere, human beings took superiority over other human beings wherever they could get it. If you were brave and strong, you used your body; if you were physically weak but smart, you used your mind. People would use whatever attribute they had to take any advantage they could get. With that much, I had to grudgingly agree, and we ended our meeting with at least some level of understanding. I suppose I should at least feel thankful that he didn't put a curse on me.

Same Old Story
Now, I'm not saying here that I don't believe in curses, or witch doctors, or at least in the power of the unseen to influence human lives. I have seen, and will write about, some things that come a lot closer than this to the supernatural. I'm virtually certain, though, that this guy was not just a fake, but a clever, malicious control freak, who well understood the political value of having a great, respected man running around like his hunting dog, sniffing for other vulnerable souls to tear out and stomp on. This was a perfect example of a phenomenon I had seen before and have recognized many times since; an intelligent person, schooled in human behaviour, supported by the trust of a community, exploiting that trust and the gaps in understanding existing in that community, for the purpose of personal empowerment. In spite of having some level of understanding of the witch doctor, the whole situation still made me about as angry as anything ever has.

Lesson Learned
So now and then I go hunting, looking for witch doctors wherever I can find them. When I get one in my sights, I do sometimes pull the trigger, but I always use rubber bullets. For, while chances are good that they've already cursed their share of heroes, chances are even better that, given the opportunity and the tools, I might have done the same.

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Saturday 1 September 2007

Beware of Friends Bearing Messages - The Jesus Principle

This post is dedicated to you, Greg, for proving to me beyond a reasonable doubt that faith, wisdom, and intelligence can share the same mind.

Let's Hang Out
What would be really good is if we could spend some face time together. If I already know you, I'd love to see you again. If I don't, I'd like to meet you, and get to know you, and hang out with you, because, if you're here in the first place, we're obviously on the same wavelength. Unfortunately, modern life being what it is, chances are pretty good that, whoever you are, unless you live close by, we'll have to just settle for spending time here. Not that that's a bad thing. The greatest power of the Internet -- the personal, digital printing press, telephone, and living room all rolled into one -- is that it allows us as individuals to spend time with more people at one time and in one life than our ancestors, or even our parents, would have ever believed was possible.

You're On My Friends List
I promise you won't be disappointed if you do allow me to share your time. I think you'll be glad you did. You may even enjoy hearing my stories almost as much as my kids do. You'll enjoy learning about the world as I see it, even if you see it in a completely different way, because, if you let me, I will make you think. If you don't already know me, you're going to get to know me pretty well, even if you don't know what I look like. If you already know me, you're going to get to know me a little better. If you read this and you can see the real me, then chances are that I've also seen some of the real you. If you're reading this, I already consider you as my friend.

Tough Choice Re-Visited
I made a choice a number of years ago whose consequences I've been living with ever since. It was a tough choice, a very tough choice, and anyone who has had to make it will understand that, whichever path you choose, it will affect and it can and probably will ruin many parts of your life. In other words, the very existence of the choice is somehow destructive. I made the choice I made then because the parts of my life that would be ruined were all to do with the people I loved, and the benefits of the path I did not choose would fall mostly to me. I'm faced with the same choice again, though it now feels more like a compulsion, but this time I think I can manage the consequences better, being older if not wiser. Either that, or I'm so afraid of being snuffed out like a candle that feel I better take my shot while I still have something to shoot with.

So You Wanna Be Famous?
The choice of which I speak did have something to do with becoming a person of some renown. I wrote a book that I was pretty sure would make me very famous, and infamous with many. There is an inherent assumption these days that fame is good, that it is a recognition of accomplishment of qualities that people find noteworthy, but the thing that strikes me about fame, at least from the outside, is that it seems to have been designed as a very clever practical joke, played on those who should have known better but were trusting enough to have bought the basic premise. Many without it covet it like nothing else, as it seems to represent something that every human being craves; to be accepted, on a truly grand scale. Those familiar with it, those who talk so that so many can hear, often have lives as tragic as they are successful, because, though they are heard by so many, often times the ones who they would most like to reach may not be listening, and part of the reason they are so good at talking to so many is that they are so used to being not listened to, that they have developed remarkable communication tricks, which is what so many others hear.

Snake In The Grass
For such as them, such social standing is actually a penalty, a balancer, for living their lives by doing what they were really put on this earth to do, for better or worse. It is like a serpent slithering though leaves on the forest floor of Paradise, reminding you that if you want to use this world as your personal playground, as your own earthly kingdom, where riches flow to you simply because you are who you are and you do just what you want to do, then you had better learn to step a little more lightly. You just cannot have it all, and Fame, along with a few other vile but inevitable creatures like Tragedy and Disease, is there to make sure you remember that. The final poke, what you realize as you feel the poignant prick of its fangs pierce your skin, is that what you really wanted was not just to be accepted but to be understood, and the number of people that actually understand you is no more now than before you were famous.

Mask of Normalcy
So, anyway, as a result of the choice I made, I went into a kind of hiding, at least from the public, as any living organism might when perceiving a threat to its security, or even survival. I built a Trojan Horse of normalcy around myself, wondering at times if I would ride it all the way to the horizon, never stopping to emerge within any castle along the way to show its inhabitants what I had in that horse with me. After all, when faced with the dilemma of whether to show your true self and thereby change the shape of your life and many of those in it forever, or to voluntarily sacrifice the yearnings of that inner self for the sake of sheltering yourself and those you love from risk, ridicule, and possible harm, isn't it pretty clear which is the moral choice?

The Selfish Choice
This was essentially what my book was about, though I had no idea as I wrote it that the choice of which I wrote fictionally was one that I would face myself upon completion. The problem was that my book was about that same choice as faced by an allegorical Jesus, and my contention was that he made the immoral choice, the selfish choice, the wrong choice. My argument went that, if we accepted that Jesus was special from a very young age to everyone who knew him, as anyone must be possessed of such wisdom, or even if we took a historical approach that he was special from the time his words became worthy of record and quotation, we must also have realized that all those whose lives he touched, all those who surely loved him and were concerned for his welfare, would have been deeply affected by any important decision he made regarding the direction of his life.

What Killed Jesus?
I could not see how anyone could doubt that it was Fame that killed him, the fame that came naturally, inevitably, from people being captivated by his words, and his deeds. It had to be assumed that he knew his own fate, if not by some divine gift of precognition then at least in the way that a person of intelligence knows that to challenge the powers-that-be with certain ideas is to invite certain disaster. My reasoning was that, if he did know his own fate, and continued to pursue it, what did that say about his sense of responsibility to those who loved, nurtured, and followed him? Wouldn't he have been worth more to them alive, teaching them further how to live, or simply sharing more of his time?

The Question of Sacrifice
The educated Christian response to that, of course, would be that he had the sins of mankind to die for, for eternity, which would have outweighed any humanistic, earthly considerations of the time, and that his primary responsibility was to God, not his circle of loved ones. When I wrote my book, I had two problems with this argument. First of all, this did not make any sense to me based on the ways of people. Think of the people in our lives that really make us mad. The guy who blames everyone else for his mistakes, the woman who won't give in even though it's obvious she's wrong, the kid who whines about everything he doesn't have when he should be thankful for everything he has. These people bother us because they will not make sacrifice, and will not accept responsibility. Both personal sacrifice, the ability to accept that you can want but don't need everything, and personal responsibility, the understanding that what you do need has to come from you, are critical for personal growth. Sacrifice brings humility and perspective, two profoundly beneficial qualities for society at large. So why would anyone concerned with the spiritual well-being of humankind make that sacrifice for them? Out of love for them? In my softer moments as a parent, I would certainly prefer to protect my children from ever having to make significant personal sacrifices, but I know in the end that, for them to grow, and learn to accept responsibility for their actions, they must learn not only to make sacrifices but to willingly accept them.

The Ultimate Epitaph
Secondly, I wondered how we could ever know whether this stated mission, of one person's sacrifice for the good of all humankind, was just a good cover for wanting to become great. Those interested in their legacies and concerned with their own mortality could do worse for an epitaph than "He Saved Everyone For All Eternity." Those possessed with the power of words, the power to persuade, have a huge responsibility to live with, in that they are capable of doing great good, but also great evil. To strive for and achieve worldly greatness is to walk a very fine line between those two extremes. Even notions of great altruism and charity can be double-edged; is the self-fulfillment in noble philanthropy related only to the simple joy of helping another person, or is there some part that craves the adoration and respect that "selflessness" will likely invite? Can anyone really know for certain what truly motivates another individual? If you love someone, set them free; isn't that how it's supposed to go? Who would doubt that a charismatic individual can choose to use his words, her power, to manipulate people into doing what s/he wants? You must know such a person, probably you know many. But what do we make of a person who uses such a power to control the people s/he loves? Could this have possibly been what Jesus was doing, consciously or not?

That Dammed Stream
Or perhaps Jesus had never even had a choice. The strength of the compulsion of which I have spoken, the compulsion to represent who you really are, made me wonder if an attempt to consciously divert a human being's nature was like trying to stop a stream by putting your foot across it. It may flow in another direction, it may change shape or form, but flow it will, to wherever downstream it is bound to go. Everything from Scripture to Holy Communion makes clear that God gave Jesus to the world as a sacrificial lamb, so, in this rendering at least, regarding his ability to shape his own destiny, he may have had little more choice than does a farmed sheep from becoming mutton, fated to bleed out into a stream running as red as wine and be feasted upon by the grateful and ungrateful alike.

Cost Benefit Analysis
Those were the things I was thinking about at the stage of my life at which I wrote the book, and it was the certain repercussions that would have come with airing these ideas that led me to eventually destroy everything I had written. These ideas may not seem all that inflammatory now, but, as I look back, I recall that that period was not all that far removed in time from the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses. It may seem ridiculous to some to expect a similar reaction among Christians to a work that was perceived to be blasphemous to Jesus, but, besides the fact that all but the most careful reading of my work might have offended even members of my own family, this was also a time in North America when anyone involved with the provision of abortions ran the real risk of being murdered by those with strong religious beliefs against the practice.

The Love That Passes All Understanding
Though I have foresaken my first choice of a full-time job, I have continued to ponder these questions part-time, and I have since come to realize, being 20 years older and hopefully a little bit wiser, that the object of worship and love for so many was not strictly defined by the man himself but by the ideal of the love that he was said to profess. The person who loves everyone as he loves the most cherished person in his life is the cleanest, most perfect, happiest person any of us could ever imagine. For that person, it is indeed possible to sacrifice out of love without absolving of personal responsibility those for whom you are making the sacrifice. Love and forgiveness can be used to burn away even the most heinous instances of betrayal, defiance, and disappointment, but such a possibility is not the product of any ordinary love. One might hear an exquisitely rare story of a mother who eventually finds enough love in her heart to forgive the man who murdered her husband and children. Imagine this kind of love then magnified to include all human iniquity througout the ages. This is a love so great as to be not only beyond human capacity, but beyond human comprehension. Whether divinity is a living entity or just a concept for organizing complexity is a subject of some debate, but, either way, it is no wonder that such a love as this would be described as the love of God.

Question Arising
It necessarily follows therefore that, for our small minds to even begin to be able to conceive such a concept as this love, it would need to be demonstrated in a way that humanity could understand. I suppose it is from this need that may come the Christian conclusion that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son. Consideration of such love, with Jesus or anyone else as a medium, is a wise and worthy pursuit, giving us an ideal towards which we can aspire, to enrich and improve our lives. Where the question arises, is as to whether this awe-inspiring ideal can only arise in consideration of Jesus, or whether it can be considered of its own accord, or perhaps again through reflection on a selection of equally compelling life stories, including our own.

By All Accounts
I don't know about you but, even an hour or so after the most important conversations of my life, I cannot remember word for word everything that I heard, or recall with exact precision what I have seen. We now possess the most amazing communications tools, and still there are as many accounts of facts and events as there are people to write them. Accounts of the words and deeds of Jesus were passed through many sets of ears and eyes over the course of years and even centuries before ever being recorded. The message I take from this is that what makes his life worthy of contemplation would be terribly limited if restricted simply to the things he said and did. What is infinitely more instructive is the shape of ideas that has emerged from discussion of his life. If we can never know what he thought, what he really said and did, or even whether or not he existed, we can at least know and discuss the ideals to which this history of discourse refers.

Across The Spectrum
There have been plenty of messiahs for humankind, some overtly self-styled, and doomed to obscurity, some still widely followed, and I have always believed that there are as well at least a thousand people alive at any one time who believe it is their destiny to fulfill that role. I believe with enthusiasm and without hesitation in the ideals to which believers in these perceived redeemers are drawn for inspiration. I believe as well that the discussion of these ideas, that takes place across the spectrum of religious faiths, brings anyone open-heartedly involved in the discussion closer to their own true selves and therefore closer to each other.

Qualm & Question
My qualm is with the very concept of an actual person whose motives I can never know, addressing on my behalf such elemental principles of life as sacrifice, responsbility, and love. Whether the people who claim or have claimed to address these principles on my behalf have a choice in the matter, or whether they just do what they do and are somehow destined to do so, is not, to me, the most interesting question. Far more interesting to me is this. Does the fact that they can captivate, guide, and even free people from their burdens by tapping into a message that is deeper than the ocean of humanity's consciousness and grander than the universe in which our imagination roams mean that we should ascribe predominance and grant dominion over our thoughts to the messenger?

The Messenger Is Not The Message
My answer to this question is the title of this post, and it is a warning that is even more resonant in the age of the Internet. What makes the Internet and all of our other tools of mass communication so wonderful, providing as they do the ability to reach and even spend time with so many people all at once, also makes them very, very dangerous. These threads of insight transmitted to us though waves and wires allow both the responsible and the irresponsible, the noble and the self-serving, access to our coveted attention. Can you tell them apart? I'm not sure I can. What can set you free can also enslave you, that is no secret, but even the message most liberated from everything we may have known before, hides the secrets of the messenger.

Even if that messenger is famous. Even if that messenger is revered. Even if that messenger is your friend.

Trust me. Unlike everyone else, I have only the best intentions.

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