30 October 2011

The Seventy/Fifty-Five Rule of Life

Our mother lived on Anna Maria Island (just off Bradenton, FL...south end of Tampa Bay) from 1980 until her unexpected death near the end of 1987.  Her favorite restaurant on the island was a place called "Fast Eddie's."  It was known for great seafood with an enjoyable family atmosphere.  At some point in almost every visit to mom's house, we found ourselves at that restaurant.  It is no longer there, but I have great memories.

At "Fast Eddie's" there was a sign posted over the pass-through from the kitchen area to where the wait-staff would pick up orders for customers that read:  "If you are not proud of it, don't serve it."

Think about that.  The folks waiting tables did not buy the seafood, vegetables, etc.  They were not involved in either cooking it or arranging the plates for presentation.  The only thing the servers did was to deliver the product of that process from the kitchen to the customer.  Yet, the sign suggests that the servers had a stake in those dishes being served.  They needed to be proud of what they delivered.  It meant that they had to know what it needed to look and taste like.  That's a pretty big responsibility.  Plus, how did they know what their customer would experience with the delivered product?  What my experience of foods, spices and cooking methods calls forth from me on a particular menu item may not be at all like that of the person sitting at the next table with the exact same menu item.  If I tell my server that the dish is wonderful, and my next table neighbor sends his/her dish back, because its not suitable, who is right?   Is it the buyer, distributor, fisherman or farmer?  Ah, the conundrum of ethics and diversity.

Let me provide one more example.  On 6 October 2010, an orthopedic surgeon replaced the joint in my right shoulder with a titanium prosthetic joint....a procedure that took a bit more than 4 hours due to the level of joint deterioration and collateral muscle/tendon damage.  The surgeon is considered to be one of the best in his field for this kind of surgery in the KC area. 

In early summer, I began to experience pain and reduced mobility in that shoulder.  The surgeon's office examination shows a shift in the prosthetic joint indicative of a muscle/tendon breech.  Lab tests and a CT scan (can't do MRIs with a metal system) will indicate if there is an infection or if one of the four muscles that make up the rotator cuff has torn.   Fact is, it is quite likely that I will face a second surgery on the same shoulder to correct whatever went wrong and the damage that it may have caused the overall system. 

The questions here include:  Did I do something wrong in my overall rehab process to create this new problem?  Did the surgeon do something in the first surgery that caused a muscle/tendon not to heal properly?  Did the maker of the prosthesis system miss a flaw in the titanium product that caused this new problem?   Do I blame one or both of my parents -- or ancestors -- for the degenerative arthritis that destroyed the joint?  How about the places I did weight training and the two accidents I had in doing military presses that damaged my shoulders years ago?  Ah, an ethical and diversity conundrum of a different nature!

These two examples may seem very different.  However, close examination points to a number of similarities.  The first is in a social dimension (restaurant and consumer communities).  The second is more internal or personal (me, my surgeon, the product and family of origin).  Otherwise, the process and resulting questions are identical.  That means there is a "rule" involved.  Here, the term "rule" means "measure."  Ethics involves the rule or measure by which standards are created.  Within those standards, there is the flexibility of individual experience and the evaluation of that experience.  It sounds somewhat complicated...and it is.  That's why being human and living in human community can often be a messy business. 

The recent clashes between police and the Occupy folks reflects such messiness.  If we understand the function of our democracy and the system framed in the Constitution for the culture we call the United States of America, it guarantees the freedom of expression and assembly.  Even though each of us enjoys the benefits of this system, it often happens that our neighbor has an entirely different experience of that system and its interpretation than we do personally.  The Tea Party folks call Occupy folks "Socialists."  The Occupy folks could call the Tea Party folks "Neo-Nazis" (I have not heard this, but socialism is considered to be the extreme "left" of the spectrum and neo-nazism is considered extreme right on that scale in political theory).  Name calling is a nasty and un-called-for business.  It presumes we know exactly what the other person is thinking and what motivates his/her actions.  It implies the danger that one person is more correct than the other.  Did my enjoyment of my restaurant meal mean that the customer at the next table, with the same meal, is wrong for not appreciating the same dish?  Or, vice-versa?   Is my experience of facing another surgery making me a better or worse patient than the person who has had the exact same surgery with the same surgeon and equipment and had no problems whatever since the first surgery?

One way to approach a workable platform in this apparent knot is in the marriage of Christian theology and Family Emotional Process (aka Bowen Theory).  Without a dissertation on either, I will summarize this way:  We can only really experience and engage the world through healthy self-definition  (personal experience and expression).  Each person has to know where he/she ends and the other person begins (boundaries).  We can only be responsible for our own actions.  We need to have a common ground for what are appropriate limits (ethics).  The healthy community is one that stays connected...even when expression of self  has diverse manifestations (as many as there are persons much of the time).  Spirituality is the experience of God in a person's life, and theology is the articulation of that experience.  So that we can tell the difference between a true experience of God and simply a behavioral projection of a person's mental content (dysfunction), the community uses the combined experiences to create a "system" to objectify and find common ground in the expression of  what we call Christianity.  We embrace diversity within that system.

My mentor in Family Emotional Process -- Dr. Edwin Friedman -- provided me with a socio-theological way of dealing with all this.  This is what I call the "70/55 Rule of Life." 
     1.  On a scale of 100, no one gets better than 70% in this life.  It means that 30% of the time we are in a willful modality (stuggling to have things our way on our terms). 
     2.  Those who function at 70% consistently are considered to be "saints." That means that even those we hallow, have been willful 30% of the time.
     3.  The average, healthy person functions at a 55% level.  Astounding as it may seem, this means that most of us are in a willful mode 45% of the time. 
     4.  Below an average of 55%, dysfunction begins to occur (neuroses, psychoses, spiritual and psychological disorders).  Going too low can lead to severe mental/spiritual dysfunction and institutionalization (to prevent danger to self or others).
     5.  To maintain a healthy spiritual and relational life, one needs to speak in clear "I" statements (self-definition); set limits (healthy boundaries); remain as emotionally neutral as possible in normal relationships (avoiding visceral responses/keeping healthy emotional distance); stay connected with others in healthy ways (staying in conversation, even with disagreement, and avoid cutting-off from others because they are different); practice a disciplined connection between one's mental and spiritual internal realities.

The last part of item #5 above is probably the hardest.  It is called by several names:  contemplative prayer, mindfulness, transparency, self-actualization -- to name a few.  As a priest in the Episcopal tradition, my vows include holding as valued the life of every person as well as holding before them the reconciling/healing Grace of God.  In a parish, that meant (I'm retired...reason for past tense) seeing each person who entered the church building on a Sunday morning as equally loved and embraced by God....regardless of socio-economic, cultural, political, theological, gender, orientation.   While not suspending my own orientations (political party, doctrinal parity, personal issues), I needed to create a space for everyone to feel both welcomed and safe.  No personal "axes" or agendas from the pulpit.  No "holding hostages" emotionally (eg., 'if you are a good Christian, you will do ___).  In large measure, I was able to achieve that. 

Now that I am retired, I am freer to express my own "take" on the issues of the moment.  I still find myself defending the right of Tea Party and Occupy folks to be vocal in the same system.  It is our system...called a democracy.  I find myself embracing those of different experiences of spirituality and exploring what that means to them...and ultimately to me.   It is quite a journey.

Okay, so who am I in all this?   A political progressive who is conservative on some issues and liberal on others.  I don't have a strict "party line" (though I am registered with a political party).  A theological centrist.  Most of my clergy colleagues might call me a tad conservative.  A social liberal.  It is a big tent and everyone is invited to be part of it.  I am an advocate for the social minorities and those who feel disenfranchised or marginalized.  I am commited to speaking my truth in love and to embracing those, whose positions/points of view, are different.   I defend their right to that opinion...even if it bothers the hell out of me.  I am committed to constant research and review so that my opinions and stances can shift and change to be more accountably accurate.  That is, to me, both the Gospel and my take on democracy...trying to live in the tension of  both.

In Christ's Love,

Fr. Fred
At Large and Running Amok
Lee's Summit, MO

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