How Many New Years?


I persuaded my oldest daughter to get married on December 31st.  My persuasive arguments? Her sister and brother-in-law would be home for the holidays, they could file a joint tax return, and when they celebrated their wedding anniversary, the whole world would celebrate with them. This year they will have their 25th new beginning as a married couple, a new beginning that starts with a holiday.

January 1st is an arbitrary date, marking the end of the Roman Saturnalia that began with the winter solstice.  Chinese New Year is in February.  On the old style calendar New Year’s Day fell in France on what is now April 1st.  Those who failed to switch and continued to celebrate the old date were—you guessed it—April fools. The Jewish New Year is in the fall, and the Celtic new year began with Samhain, which morphed into Hallowe’en.  Both traditions defined their days from dusk to dusk, so it was fitting that they celebrated the expected return of the light in late December  by going into the darkness after the autumnal equinox.

Each of us has other new years as well.  My birthday is June 30th, the last day of the state fiscal year. (It used to be the last day of the federal fiscal year, but Congress had too much trouble getting a budget passed in time, so they moved it up six months.  Now they never get a budget passed in time.)  So a new year in my life begins every July 1st, and as an economist specializing in state and local public finance, I am pleased to know that it coincides with a new fiscal year.

From age 5 to age 75, my life was also guided by the academic calendar as I progressed from kindergarten o college professor.  Our academic contracts took effect August 15th.  One year I held a new year’s eve party for a group of professor friends on August 14th. Back to school is definitely a new beginning each fall for students and teachers alike, leaving behind the failings of the previous year, committing to do better, and building on the learning of the year before.

While we associate New Year’s Day with parades, football games and in the south, collard greens, for many of us it is a chance to start over, a new beginning.  In the Celtic tradition one casts away those experiences, habits, grudges, complaints, that we do not want to carry as baggage into the new year. On the positive side, we can make resolutions.  The advantage of celebrating multiple new years instead of just one is that we have more than one chance to start over. Your diet and exercise plan or commitment to keeping a journal or promise to call your parents every week didn’t last until the end of January?  No problem.  You can begin again on Chinese New Year, the old French New Year, your birthday, the new school year, and/or the Jewish or Celtic New Year.  It’s never too late, or too early, to start over.

A Happy New Year, and many more in 2019.


Accentuate the Positive

I was recently reading a book on environmental justice, and I was struck by an observation about motivating people.  The writer argued that we should not use guilt or fear to motivate people to be more environmentally responsible, but rather gratitude and love for the Earth our Mother.  That feeling of doing a good deal by recycling, or gardening organically, or driving less and owning a more fuel-efficient and less polluting car is a great reward.

That idea of positive motivation has a lot of implications for how we encourage people to develop good habits, habits that are good for them and for others as well. Yet how rich in our world are the negative commands.  Starting with the Ten Commandments, eight of which are Thou shalt not.  The only two positive commands are to keep the sabbath and honor your father and mother.

A bias toward negative commands and negative motivations—fear of failure, fear of ridicule, fear of punishment—is pervasive in our highly competitive society, which creates a few winners and a lot of losers. In their book, The Winner Take All Society, Robert Frank and Philip Cook argue that many of the rewards in our society go to Number 1, whether it is a football championship, the Best picture Oscar, the spelling bee championship, the job at a prestigious law firm, a presidential election, or the prom king and queen.  Everyone else is an also-ran.  Being good enough is not good enough. “Loser” is one of President Trump’s favorite  tweet insults.

Some of the well-intentioned efforts to counter this set up for disappointment and build self-esteem, especially in young people, have gone awry.  Participation trophies. Blue ribbons and smiley faces for every pupil. The gross overuse of the term “awesome.”  how we can encourage people in a positive way that will make them feel successful and being who they are and doing what they do?

Collaboration and cooperation is one strategy.  There are lots of co-operative games out there, and lots of ways in engaging in activities that are not competitive.  Teamwork doesn’t have winners (unless, of course, it is team sports where there is a champion!). Both in paid work and in volunteer communities, there is a great deal of satisfaction in creating in collaborating with others, learning new ideas and building new friendships. We celebrate the solitary writer or artist, the lone genius in her lab, but in reality, some of the best work arises from the synergy of learning from one another.  I remember one time when I led the process of writing a mission statement for my congregation.  It was highly participatory. I could identify 55 people (in a 120 member congregation) who had a hand in its construction, and no, it didn’t look like the proverbial camel (a horse designed by a committee).

A second strategy is to let go of attachments to rewards and do what you do for its own sake, for the pleasure of doing, alone or with others. You can run a marathon to win, or just to improve your time or to enjoy the experience.  You can be an excellent cook whose efforts are appreciated without winning the prize at the county fair or being the best contestant on a cooking show. You can be a good writer and be appreciated by your audience without making the New York Times Best Seller list or winning a Pulitzer prize.  There is room for more than one.  And competing with yourself to do better at whatever you are doing means you are always a winner.

Or, like the writer on environmental justice, you can do what you do as a worker, a family member, a friend, a neighbor, a volunteer, a citizen our of gratitude for the riches that life has bestowed on you.  It’s your choice.  For your sake, and everyone else’s, I hope you choose that path and practice it without attachment to rewards and when possible, in collaboration with others.



Time to Speak, Time to Leave

One of my all time favorite books, written by an economist in 1970 (Albert Hirschman), is Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. The focus is on how we deal with dissatisfaction with anything–a relationship, a community, a seller, a political party.  Economists, he argues, focus on exit as the strategy–just leave, find a better relationship, restaurant, neighborhood, political party, community.  There are two problems with just leaving.  One is that there are costs to you–costs of relocating, of finding new communities or relationships or restaurants.  The other is the baffled person, firm, or community you left behind, who or which doesn’t know what went wrong and can try to improve.

Enter voice, the preferred response of political scientists.  Complain. Explain.  Try to repair the relationship or reconnect with the community. Engage in dialogue.  Even compromise if necessary.Give the person or community or firm a chance to improve and keep your relationship.

How do we decide? Do we use the threat of exit to make our voice heard?  What if we have no place to go? A friend of mine, a Lutheran, found that exit was pretty easy when things went wrong at her Lutheran church in a large metropolitan area. There were good substitutes.  She was loyal to Lutheranism but not necessarily to one particular incarnation, so she just changed her membership to another congregation.  I, on the other hand, am a member of a small faith tradition, and it’s 40 miles in either direction to another congregation. So my costs of exit are higher, and I am more likely to use voice and leave only as a last resort.

Hirschman calls this attachment to a particular relationship, community, restaurant, or bank loyalty, and it is loyalty (including the costs of leaving) that makes us choose between exit and voice as our default strategy. Monopoly firms have high costs for exit by customers because there is no alternative available.  Gangs impose very high costs on those who attempt to exit.  Some religious communities have used a variety of strategies to discourage exit, such as burning at the stake for heresy in earlier times to the practice of shunning among the Amish.

Our default choice will vary from one situation to another, depending on loyalty of some kind. Default just means the one we try first. Voice is fair in that it gives the other party a chance to respond, change, or decline to engage, anfter which exit may become more attractive. Voce can be expressed in many ways.  Complaining is only one.  Some people are quick to complain, others hesitate to speak up. .  Voice can mean getting involved and trying to make change from within.  Voice may mean engaging a third party, a mutual friend, a marriage counselor, the Better Business Bureau, or reviews on Yelp! Voice in the political area may mean becoming informed, writing letters to the editor, engaging others, voting.

Hirschman was mainly focused on exit, voice and loyalty as an economic question of why firms fail before they have a chance to regroup and improve.  But it’s an important question in our personal lives as well.  Sometimes we look for a middle, more passive strategy that is less risky than either exit or voice, especially in personal relationships with individuals and voluntary communities.  We can to pull back, tone it down, shift some of our attention to other people and other communities without making a complete break. In a sense, a partial withdrawal is a blend of exit and voice.  But it’s not often a very effective strategy, because you are waiting for your coolness to be noticed rather than being more pro-active in trying to strengthen or restore the relationship.

I invite you to share your experiences with using exit, or voice, or pulling back as ways of dealing with frustration in relationships and in communities.




Spiritual but not Religious?


When Martin Luther, an ordained Catholic priest and a leader of the Protestant Reformation, left the monastery at age 49, he felt he had to live out his salvation in the world. But he didn’t give up on the idea of religious community.  He served a congregation, preaching and teaching and offering pastoral care and advice.  He also became famous for his table talk conversations with those who visited the Luther household, populated by a wife (an ex-nun) and their six children. In that chosen community, visitors worked out their own religious understanding in the company of others.  The idea of working out your evolving faith understanding in community is the core of the more liberal understanding of Protestant Christianity as a religion.  Salvation (or wholeness) is a lifelong journey.  We need companions to help us to stay on the path and at the same time explore new byways.

Now and then we encounter someone who is religious but not spiritual—someone who wants to be part of a faith community but has little or no interest in experiencing the sacred.  I remember one long-time member of my own congregation, an engineer with a very scientific mindset.  Every few months he would inquire of me, or sometimes of the minister, “Now, what’s this spirituality thing again?”  We would explain and he would nod, but it never stuck.  Another long-term member,was an elegant Southern lady and one of the few people other than the minister who dressed up for church.  She once announced loudly in a church discussion that she was a secular humanist.  I bit my tongue to keep from saying, No, you are actually a religious humanist, because you are here every Sunday! Recently my friend Pater Kandis and his co-author Andy Reese have written a book to make that very point, that humanists need religious community.

But it is the opposite combination that we encounter most often. How many times have you heard people say, “I am spiritual but not religious?”  The last person who said that to me was a Presbyterian friend  who served on her church’s social action committee but never attended worship. Spiritual but not religious is the new mantra, the ultimate in individualism.  My inner life is between me and God and I don’t need anyone else.  This attitude is confirmed by national reports of  declining church affiliation and attendance.. According to the Pew Report, the percentage of American adults who were religiously unaffiliated jumped from 16 percent in 2007 or 23 percent in 2014, and is projected to continue to increase.

So how is spirituality different from religion?  One definition of spirituality come from Unitarian Universalism’s first source,” direct experience of mystery and wonder.” Here are some other definitions, drawn from the University of Minnesota’s web site on Taking Charge of Your Well Being:

  • Christina Puchalski, MD, Director of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, contends that “spirituality is the aspect of humanity that refers to the way individuals seek and express meaning and purpose and the way they experience their connectedness to the moment, to self, to others, to nature, and to the significant or sacred.”
  • According to Mario Beauregard and Denyse O’Leary, researchers and authors of The Spiritual Brain, “spirituality means any experience that is thought to bring the experiencer into contact with the divine (in other words, not just any experience that feels meaningful).”
  • Nurses Ruth Beckmann Murray and Judith Proctor Zenter write that “the spiritual dimension tries to be in harmony with the universe, and strives for answers about the infinite, and comes into focus when the person faces emotional stress, physical illness, or death.”

Based on more than 30 years of psychological counseling and pastoral care, Howard Clinebell believed that humans have seven spiritual hungers. Human beings long to experience the healing and empowerment of love and renewing times of transcendence.  They feel a need for vital beliefs that lend meaning and hope in the midst of losses, tragedies, and failures., to have values, priorities, and life commitments centered in issues of justice, integrity, and love to provide guidance in personally and socially responsible living.  They want to discover and develop inner wisdom, creativity, and love of self and, develop a deepening awareness of oneness with other people, the natural world, and all living things.  Finally, they are seeking find spiritual resources to help them deal with grief, guilt, resentment, , and self-rejection and to deepen their experiences of trust, self-esteem, hope, joy and love of life.

Some of those longings can be achieved in isolation, or between spouses and friends, but many of them would benefit from a supportive community of fellow seekers—in other words, from religion.  Religion comes from the Latin word religio, which means the ties that bind us to one another and to the sacred. In general, it refers to an organized faith community with a shared story, shared values, and sometimes (but not always) shared beliefs, and rituals.  Regular weekly gatherings are a common practice of the three Western religions that trace their descent from Abraham: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The more liberal forms of the three traditional Western religions encourage exploration, personal spiritual development, and mutual support.  More traditional forms of Christianity may insist that their members affirm specific beliefs, such as the virgin birth, scriptural inerrancy, and Jesus died for our sins.  Conservative branches of all three religions may also require certain practices, such as keeping kosher, praying five times a day, fasting, or abstaining from work on the Sabbath that set them apart as people of a particular tradition.

The attitude of spiritual but not religious is reinforced by common misperceptions of organized religion, particularly in not recognizing the diversity within faith traditions. An example of these misperceptions comes from Aging Well by George Vaillant.  In explaining the limited participation of his aging subjects in organized religion, Vaillant writes, “Religion involves creeds and catechisms.  Spirituality involves feelings and experiences that transcend mere words.  Religion is imitative and comes from without; religion is “’so I’ve been taught.’  Spirituality comes from within; spirituality comes from ‘my strength, hope and experience’… Most religious beliefs involved dogma.  Spiritual trust involves metaphor…Metaphors are open ended and playful; dogma is rigid and serious…. Metaphors allow the truth of our dreams to become clearer with every retelling.  In contrast, dogma may insist that heretics be executed.” Anyone who read that caricature would be likely to go straight to spirituality, rejecting religion as a hindrance rather than an aid to spiritual development. It may well describe some faith communities, but it does not describe any of the three to which I have belonged.

Some of those who choose to call themselves spiritual but not religious are just loners. One friend who is very introverted confessed that she did not go to church mainly because it would be “full of people.” She is, however, open to attending meditation, even if it is in a group, because they won’t be talking!  Others who avoid church are refugees from bad church experiences, unwilling to give church community another try in a different congregation or even a different faith tradition. Many find the literal interpretations of the Christian story, or the beliefs, an obstacle, and do not realize that there are alternative forms of religious community where members are free to affirm those stories as stories, or as metaphors that are covey truth and meaning rather than a set of empirical facts.

Millennials so far show little interest in organized religion.  They are in a stage of their life between adolescence and parenthood, and may or may not eventually return to church but are presently satisfied with their casual companions, close friends and virtual communities. Still others of all ages are part of the growing army of the never-churched.  Raised without a faith community, they have no idea what it can offer to enrich their lives.  Whatever the reason, many of the unchurched, formerly churched, or anti-churched who call themselves spiritual but not religious feel that they have found a solitary relationship with the sacred that gives them strength and comfort, and they have stopped looking for anything more.

My friend Fran and I taught a class in downsizing and decluttering to older adults for  five years.  I jokingly refer to the class as weight watchers for your house.  Weight watchers, like other support groups with a common goal, provides companions and direction for those struggling unsuccessfully to lose weight on their own.  In our five week class we offered support and encouragement as part of a group facing a common challenge. A church is, among other things, a long-term spiritual support group. Yes, it’s possible to be spiritual but not religious, just as it is possible to be religious but not spiritual (to belong to a church solely for the community aspects).  But both the spiritual and the religious part of our lives will be enriched and deepened by having companions on the journey.


Lessons from a Doughnut Box

When I was a child, my mother would occasionally buy us a dozen confectionery sugar-coated doughnuts in a blue box from Reynolds’ Doughnuts. On the side there was a picture and a poem.  The picture was a tree with two men sitting under it, one on each side.  The man on the left is contemplating a fat doughnut with a small hole.  The man on the right is contemplating a skinny doughnut with a large hole.  My recollection is that  poem read, “As you ramble on through life, brother, whatever be your goal, keep your eye upon the doughnut, and not upon the hole.”

Nothing reflects abundance more concretely than a doughnut, rich in fat and sugar and calories, if somewhat lacking in nutritional value. But it is the picture these words paint that reminds us that we have abundance if we choose to see it.

We experience a great deal of life as hole rather than doughnut, scarcity rather than abundance. In a world of scarcity, competition is the way we relate to others. Winner take all.  Second best is just another word for losing.  Grading on the curve will only allow so many A’s. More immigrants means fewer jobs for Americans. Not getting into your first choice school means that your college degree will have no value. Fear of failure that leads us to not even try to succeed. Greed, envy, and fear replace gratitude, empathy, and joy in our interaction with other people.

I just spent a few days at one of my favorite places, John. C. Campbell Folk School in the North Carolina mountains, where the focus is non-competitive learning of a variety of arts and crafts.  No blue ribbons, no invidious comparisons of my work with that of others. Room for many levels of skill, many forms of self-expression, in which we encourage others and get encouragement in return.

I used to want to create heaven on earth, but that’s far beyond my reach.  Maybe creating some oases of abundance, joy, empathy and gratitude is the best we can do. I know where one of my oases is.  Where are yours?



Winter Holidays

Most of you know I am a big fan of holidays.  This year Hanukkah (eight days starting December 3rd) runs alongside Advent (December 2nd to 24th) and tiptoes through Saint Nicholas Day (December 6th). Solstice is the 21st, so have your Yule log ready.  Then Christmas and Kwanzaa (December 26-January 1) and finally Three Kings’ Day (January 6th), rounding out exactly a month of winter holidays.  I usually forgo Hanukkah and Kwanzaa because I don’t know the routine and stick with my Western European heritage represented by Christmas and solstice.  But all of us in the Northern Hemisphere are celebrating the same thing. light. Hope. Warmth.  Snuggling down into our winter cocoons and letting the seeds of renewal germinate inside us. I just can’t wrap my head around celebrating Christmas in Australian and New Zealand!

Every year I struggle with how best to to celebrate these holidays. For years I was teaching at the university up till maybe ten days before Christmas, and I found it  hard to quiet the mind for Advent, or turn the Christmas spirit off to grade exams and then turn it back on.  Now it is much easier to set the work aside.  I do not shop on Black Friday or Cyber Monday.  Each year I try to spend less money on gifts and more time on experiences–music, theater, movies with the grandchildren, listening to Christmas music. (Deck the Halls is my personal song.)  I refuse to consult wish lists, trying instead to listen to who each person is and get them the right book and the right funny socks or T-shirt that rflects what is special about each of them. I try to observe the solstice in ways that are respectful of Mother Earth by generating less waste (reusable cloth gift bags are this year’s addition), turning down the thermostat, and shopping locally from small stores and artisans.

Certain things are slow to change.  Christmas is still family time. When my dear husband of 53 years died just a few weeks before Christmas in 2015, my three daughters took on the task of supplying the traditional gifts–a book, a nightgown, and a jigsaw puzzle.  The jigsaw puzzle is for after the kitchen is cleaned up from four or five days with the eleven people in my immediate family.  But as I get older, I farm more tasks out.  The home is smaller, and so is the tree.  I have been giving Santas from my large collection to daughters and grandchildren. I know the day will come when we gather at my oldest daughter’s house, but I’m not ready yet.

In Hindu tradition, when one’s hair is white and one has seen one’s grandsons, it is time to let go of household responsibilities and material possessions and seek the life of wisdom and the spirit.  I’m not there yet, but I’m moving in that direction, and the gradual evolution of my Christmas holidays is one of the times that invite me to reflect on this stage of the journey.  That’s the start of my passage.  How is yours?


Welcome to my blog

I aspire to be a purple sage. I meet one requirement, which is being old, validated by my senior discounts and Social Security check. Young sages are an anomaly. While I do not aspire to be  a desert plant with purple flowers, I do hope to offer some occasional extra seasoning to the lives of others. I want to be purple enough to engage in dialogue with both red and blue in a search for common ground, even though I lean to the blue side. But I am always mindful of the words of Paul Tillich, who challenges us not to retreat to a limited defensible fortress of ideas. Dialogue with peoplevwhonthink otherwise  keeps us outside the gates, open to learning and change.

So I invite my followers, however few or many they may be, to walk this path with me, encourage me when I show signs of sagacity, challengingbwhen i sayvsomething banal or stupid, and pulling me back from the edge of the blue cliff when I might tumble over.