Flirting with darkness: When knowing hurts

The other day a friend and I were talking. Something came up on a television show that shocked this friend. Though it was fictional, he was pretty taken aback at how such a thing could be allowed to happen. He said how it was the “most depraved thing” he had ever heard.

It wasn’t THAT bad. I knew of a dozen things far worse than that in real life. I wanted to say “Really? Because that’s nothing!” and give a few examples of things far, far darker.

From time to time, I want to nuke a conversation like these with some one-up example of depravity and darkness. Pride can make me want to one-up situations. Usually it is actually out of respect (or perhaps my pride justifies it). I respected this friend and wanted his perceptions to expand beyond the sheltered and naive mindset he’d just expressed. But look at me, trying to “fix” someone. Like many instances, I kept my thoughts to myself.

Should it really ever be my place to rain on someone’s rosy outlook on the world—as a Christian or even as a friend? Is there a time to force someone to recognize how bad things can be, but maybe in a positive way? Can such things be positive?

And furthermore, how healthy is it to dwell so long in books and in the news about the sufferings and pain visited on people by others? Sometimes I feel like I’m being drawn in to this morass of melancholy. My waking hours are filled with sobering statistics of the painful human condition.

As a Christian, I have an innate desire to do good. I am exhorted to thirst after righteousness. I am asked to defend the defenseless, be a voice for the voiceless, and do things in such a way that I don’t seek glory or recognition for this work. I am given the Holy Spirit who acts as my counselor and teacher, who cultivates (if I’m not a stubborn idiot) the attitudes and lessons that let me strive after these things.

There are times when I feel I should shake awake those who think first world problems are the highest form of human suffering. I feel people sometimes should have their perceptions re-aligned. Perhaps they should know more about actual persecution and suffering versus put-on tantrums.

So I absorb information. I read about children forced into prostitution. I learn about human trafficking even here in the U.S. I hear about rape prisons run by ISIS. I see the 10 year old murderer here and there. I read about the kid who killed his mom and had sex with her corpse. There are the slavery rings of our migrant workers. There are the unfair trade practices that keep entire nations in poverty. Diseases rage across all borders. There are famines. There are wars.

I combine this with my own experiences in Iraq. I remember faces. I remember some gruesome scenes. I remember the desperation in the people. The smells of war…

It all enrages and breaks my heart. In its remembering, it brings me low. Really low. To the point where it’s damaging. Ecclesiastes 1:8 talks about how all things are wearisome, and that the eyes and ears will consume more and more if you don’t rein them in. Their appetites are such that they are never filled.

The same chapter in verse 18 also says an increase in wisdom is an increase in sorrow (we’re more familiar with the sentiment’s opposite: ignorance is bliss). The more I learn about reality, the more brokenness I see.

Professionals like police officers, soldiers, healthcare workers and journalists especially know these struggles. Humanity can be absolutely evil. And for those of us in these professions (and others), if we don’t guard against this darkness, it can turn on us. We’ll become tainted or, at best, cynical and detached.

I first became depressed and suicidal when I was a teen. I got help, but it is something that has always stuck with me, throughout college, the Army and after…I’ll go through good periods and bad periods. My mood will shift.

It doesn’t matter how good or bad life’s situations are—or how many people are around who love me, I’ll go through cycles every few weeks where I’ll reach a real low point. I have people who are there to catch me. But the brooding darkness always creeps in. It’s like the pull of the tides, powerful but subtle.

My inner struggles started before learning as much about the world. It seemed to happen in tandem, not caused from one to the other.

However both my emotional dispositions and what I’ve learned about the world (however relatively small) do serve a purpose.

Others want to talk about their struggles too. And in some of these types of situations, it takes one to know one. I am no professional counselor, but I can listen. That can be enough.

So there’s a redeeming aspect to all of this. It keeps me restless and keeps me quiet, hoping to hear why someone feels a certain way versus attempting to conquer the world through a perspective of ideology.

It can also be dangerous, though. Flirting with darkness cultivates empathy, but it can also give way to despair and corrupt appetites.

But when I learn that my identity isn’t in my circumstance, I gain the strength to transcend it. That’s the idea, at least, even when I fail.

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‘Dropping the ball’ is actually pretty normal (NOT an Ebola rant)

Recently, a man walked in to a hospital complaining he was sick. He had recently traveled to a part of the world where a certain virus was raging. The hospital sent him home for days.

Wait, what? How could they—? Unbelievable.

Later he was re-admitted, but soon died. Two of the healthcare workers tending to him are now sick. Turns out protocols might have been improperly followed.

Wait, what? They still messed it up?

Turns out one of the healthcare workers traveled to Cleveland to plan a wedding, knowingly flying when she wasn’t supposed to. Now, it turns out the CDC might have dropped the ball too.

(Update: Dallas nurse: ‘I can no longer defend my hospital’…a blow by blow accounting of all the ways things didn’t happen.)

Wait, what? Why would she—? Why would they—? Ugh.

Questions abound. Who’s running that operation? What the hell is going on at that hospital? Don’t they realize what they’re doing?

I’m going to share something with you and it may surprise you: people, organizations and entire governments ‘drop the ball’ all the time. People who should know what they are doing often don’t.

Oh there’s often well-intended reasoning and hard-working people behind every bad situation. I’m not trying to say that we’re all losers who can’t do our jobs. On the contrary, everywhere I go and in every place that I’ve worked (from retail to high government, small start-ups to large corporations) the only thing keeping things working at all was the work of the dedicated few who get things done right.

However, when we sit back and say things like “They should have known better” and “How could this have ever happened?” and “THESE people of all people should have been on their game” I would still assert that people are people.

We have this childlike faith in so many systems of our society. We might think that our company or our family life is out of whack. But we think that things run smoothly in all other parts of government and life. We feel venerated positions like doctors, nurses, political leaders, police or the military all have some sort of godlike superpowers. Perhaps we think that there’s this orchestrated plan and everybody follows it because…well…because!

But—surprise!—people are imperfect. They get tired. They get frisky. They think about PlayStation. They want a drink. They want a raise. They don’t magically become infallible because of a college degree or a high paycheck.

If you were to have access to all workplaces and echelons of society—if you could take a listen to the conversations in break rooms everywhere—I think you would be surprised—perhaps horrified—at how often systems break down. We just happen to dodge the bullet most times.

Think about your boss. Think about the times he/she got things wrong. Think about your office politics. Think about how so-n-so doesn’t do his/her part. Think about how backward some of your processes are and how things often don’t get done because of some weird procedure. How slow does your organization react to something? How many levels of approval does it take to get something changed? How often do people skirt the rules?

Well everybody has work experiences like that—from the corner Subway to the Pentagon. And the same sorts of people work everywhere. Some people might operate at higher levels of responsibility—they might have shiny stars on their shoulder, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t above sleeping with their subordinates, or tweeting pictures of their genitals.

I tell you, the petty squabbles and oversights I saw working at Blockbuster video as a kid were the same petty squabbles and oversights I saw in units while fighting a war in Iraq—and even during my time at the Pentagon. Person A thinks Person B is hot. Person C wants more money. Person D is unhappy. Person E feels unappreciated.

So, when you’re at a concert, or waiting in line at the airport terminal, or trying to return at item at a store, or hearing about some misstep in your kids school…and you think “What is going on here? Who’s in charge?” remember, it’s probably someone like an old boss, leading a group of people like your old boss did.

And when you look at the news and are baffled that someone could be so stupid—or how some leader could be so shortsighted. Yup. They’re people. We aren’t ruled by robots.

YET!

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Political shifts, left and right (pt 3): The End State

So at last we come to it. Through part 1, where I talked about my background…through part 2, where I pitched a fairly cynical view of what’s going on…and now on to part 3: the end state.

I have met a lot of people in my years. I’ve tried to absorb as much wisdom and insight as possible through our times together. Sometimes, through, I’ve struggled to find value in certain friends’ perspectives.

For example, one of my old mentors and I have grown apart. He retired from his job and now sends out large amounts of politically-themed emails. You know the sort: Comrade Obama is taking your guns, Obama is about to let the UN take control of the country, the illegals are at our gates and must be beaten back, the Arabs want to kill us all, Obamacare has death panels, climate change is a farce, Obama is a Muslim….

The hate radiates from my screen. I’m urged to rise up (sometimes in outright sedition and treason). I’m urged to fight the good fight. Pundits, right and left, give heartfelt but ultimately melodramatic pleas. Chuck Norris thought Obama and his ilk will now lead us to a thousand years of darkness. While it is the most ridiculous articulated example I’ve seen, the same sentiment is far more common.

With evil, the enemy, ‘them’ at the cusp of world domination, I’m left with little choice but to align my heart toward war. If I was a decent, God-fearing man, I will need to mobilize and undo my emotional peacetime mindset. Stand up for something! Fight! Now!

But are things really so threadbare, especially in the U.S.? What is the right response?

As a supposed man of faith, what sorts of attitudes should I spend time cultivating? I’ve been awash in propaganda from both sides of the political aisle. It has led me to be pretty vocal at times—more than I should. I default to being an action guy, rather than just a blabber of words. Hell, it’s why I joined the Army post-9/11. If not me, who? That sort of thing.

But after dealing with war, dealing with my own demons and dealing with the general state of things, I’m not feeling it. I’m not buying into all the “good vs. evil” rhetoric with our local political squabbles. I’m not going to sew seeds of hate over this stuff.

There is plenty of darkness to fight against in the world, surely. Human trafficking, slavery, unfair trade practices, the rape of the natural world, the violent repression and persecution of people concerning their religious beliefs, disease, the marginalization of groups of people, and rampant exploitation…all are causes to fight for.

But this supposed war on Christmas? You can’t fall over without knocking down a stack of Christian symbols during the season. The supposed removal of prayer from schools? I tried to make a scene about praying as a young man in several states, several times, and nobody cared that I was praying. The strange idol worship of 10 of the 613 Jewish commandments? If you’re going to play the “Keeping the Law” game, you gotta keep ‘em all, remember?

A lot of it seems pretty forced.

“Well if we let ‘them’ win on this one, it’ll just be a matter of time before…”

God is bigger than one nation’s political theater, believe it or not. Think God’s plan was knocked off course when this president took office? What about the last one? What about when that jerk-off Andrew Johnson took over for Lincoln? He never even went to school! THOUSAND YEARS OF DARKNESS! What about when the Populares edged out the Optimates in ancient Rome? Whew, that one almost kept Jesus from being born, right? Those sneaky Populares!

In another 1,000 years (of darkness?), do you think the Kingdom of God is going to be swayed one way or the other because North Carolina let someone list their same-sex spouse on their insurance? Will heaven suddenly cease to exist?

I’m tired of the hate. I’m tired of the dehumanizing, veiled bigotry. It comes across as whining fat children who didn’t get their flavor of ice cream, while the kid next door sleeps in the streets.

But screw my opinion. What does the Christian Bible say about spending our lives smoldering in anger against ‘the man,’ plotting for the overthrow of an administration?

Paul, writing to the believers in Rome. Chapter 12. Even if a group of us is being persecuted (as in beaten and killed, not told our Christmas lights are too bright), we’re supposed to bless those who come after us—not curse. Gandhi even got that one right.

Romans 13. We’re to calm down, honor our government and pay our taxes. This was written to the believers in Rome—not exactly the most pious of regimes—nor the most fair in tax rates. And yet, there it is. Chill out.

Christ also kinda maybe exactly says this in the gospels of Matthew and Mark. Give to God what is God’s, and give to Caesar what is Caesar’s. This was said in the midst of a violent, brutal occupation of God’s people by a pagan government.

Paul, writing to Titus. Chapter 3. Calm down, do what is good. Live in peace. Don’t spend your energy on foolish controversies and quarrels about the law. Because it is unprofitable and useless (not necessarily incorrect…you can be right and still waste everybody’s time).

Peter’s first recorded letter, writing to the scattered believing Jews of the Near East. Chapter 2. Submit to the authorities. Focus on doing right—on doing good. And you’ll silence foolish people.

For the sake of keeping this blog post under 30,000 words, yes I cherry picked verses, but tear into me in the comments if I’ve missed the gist of it.

The world’s powers come and go, but movements of the Spirit remain. Christianity didn’t start out as a religion, it started out as a way of life—where people were known for the hope they had and their love for each other and strangers. It overthrew regimes not by the sword, but by love. Sort of like how Christ did it. Pretty trippy.

Now is it all going to be roses and candy canes? No, of course not. Ephesians 6:12 is pretty clear on that.

But cool it on the hate. When we’re on the other side, at the Bema Seat, it won’t be a tally of how many Facebook arguments we won, or how many dirty poor people we kept from getting more money. Nope. Any kudos for our lives will be attributed to how many children we fed, how many prisoners we visited, and how many strangers we comforted in the hospitals, in Christ’s name.

It takes a lot more courage to love people than it does to hate them. Takes more restraint to listen than to shout someone down.

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Political shifts, left and right (pt 2): The State of The Union

Need to catch up to part 1? Check it out (here).

The propaganda siren call of the right and the left is strong. Both lull adherents to sleep with ideas that they are the righteous ones, that the ultimate enemy is the other side, and that they can safely sleep in the bosom of their chosen ideology. No further growth is needed. “Congrats. You made it. You’re among friends now.”

Both have religion. Both have science (ish…). Both have a full half of the country with them. Both are fully convinced their side is for truth and the other side is for total destruction. There is no middle ground. There is no compromise. There is either victory or there is death.

Which is fine for the gladiatorial games, where one participant is forced to murder the other and be done with it. But it is dehumanizing. The other side becomes a villain, a demon, a sub-human. Actions against them—even violent actions, are justified, because you have to take them out before they take you out, right? Machiavelli teaches us this in the “Un-Golden rule”.

However, this is a sham of a way to run a free country, where both sides must work together to achieve a civilization.

You’ve seen the stats. Filibusters remain a constant obstacle to productivity (here). Congress passes fewer and fewer laws (here) (here) (and here). The Senate backlog on appointee confirmations is a “national embarrassment” (here).

And the vitriol is pretty rough. The extremists of each party get more press than the moderates. In the past few years, moderates have become actively hated. Repubs and Demos rarely vote against their party (now and then, sure, but only 6% of 2012 Representatives voted against their party more than 20% of the time…the rest of the time is straight ticket Right or Left) (here).

Moderates are easy fodder for more extreme challengers and the Tea Party. One by one, they fall to the wayside, or drift left or right to keep their jobs. In recent years, Republicans have taken to hunt down their moderates outright (here), lead by groups like RINO (Republicans In Name Only), who seek to eradicate the softies who might not agree with their party 100% of the time (here). It’s just not sexy to be open to working with people of different opinions.

And that’s the crux of the whole thing: not wanting to work with others.

Ever hear of Rick Nolan? He’s a Representative from Minnesota (here). The guy served in the House back in the 70s and 80s, took a 30-year break and came back. He said he wanted to bring his experience from the past and see what might work in the present.

He was shocked at how little interaction there was between both political sides. Even in the day-to-day interactions of Congress, both sides rarely spoke to each other. No one came face to face with members of the other party anymore. There were hardly as many social settings where Senators and Representatives could see each other as human. Both sides nowadays stayed in their respective camps and lobbed artillery over to the other.

Did you know Congress only works two-to-four days a week (here) (here) (and here)? Usually Tuesday through Thursday. That’s alongside the month-long break in August and the week-long breaks in February, March, April and May (here…look for “district work week”. That means not in Washington). Sure, Reps need to get back to their districts and meet with constituents, but how often that actually happens is another argument and set of statistics.

To Nolan’s point though, the political atmosphere stagnates and festers. Moreover, it is fettered by money and special interest (a whole other world to discuss). To combat all of this, Nolan introduced a bill to get Congress to work more and work together more. It is called House Resolution 695 (here) and while it stands very little chance of going anywhere, well…at least someone put up a symbolic resistance? Is that the best we can hope for?

So how to respond? How should you respond and how should I? I can’t really speak for you. you can do that in the comments. But I’ll share what’s been going through my head recently.

We’ll have to wait until next time, though, if you can stand it. This post has gone on long enough.

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Political shifts, left and right (pt 1)

I remember coming to political awareness in college.

I went to a very conservative Baptist college. All sorts of rules: no dancing, daily chapel services, dress codes, no displays of affection, no R-rated movies…all that fun stuff.

I remember being surrounded by conservative professors, hearing conservative speakers in chapel, talking with conservative friends about conservative things.

I remember the Bush vs. Gore election. I remember watching the debates in a large classroom with about 100 other students. Regardless of what was said, we would cheer for Bush and jeer at Gore. What a bore, that Gore! Hahaha. Laughs all around.

There was this one guy I sat next too, though. He was for Gore. And he was pretty well-read. He asked me a bunch of questions that got into political philosophy and reasoning behind my purported preferences for Bush and conservatism. I had to deflect–I couldn’t give answers to the stuff he was asking. He was respectful and happy for the conversation, regardless. A few of us gave him a hard time for being on the “wrong team”. He laughed it off. We won the evening, of course. Gore was stupid.

For me, 9/11 happened in college. It brought a lot of realities to the forefront. I remember Fox News being on non-stop. America. War. Patriotism. Iraq. Saddam. WMDs. What was normally just background noise to normal college pursuits drew me in, my interest piqued. I would say I started looking into issues, but I didn’t really. I remembered bullet points and saved them to fire off on someone who hadn’t memorized as many bullet points. Luckily, everyone was on the same side, so I left the heavy lifting of reasoning to others.

I heard a lot about how awful liberals were. Fox told me time and time again how there was this whole sub-race of people out there who were against everything America stood for. Our speakers in chapel would often take jabs at “the Left.” They were idiots, devoid of reason. They were tearing down our families. They were destroying our schools. They wouldn’t rest until everything was gone—destroyed, laid low.

I honestly wondered how the U.S. tolerated such a cancer. Could there even be Christian Democrats? How could they reconcile their terrible beliefs with the Bible? Liberals were just so backward on everything. It was crazy.

They hated our country so much–on every level, they wanted to tear down hard-working people and prop up illegals and free loaders. I didn’t understand why people so debauched and against everything good could even live with themselves.

I would ask my professors about it. I was told to pray for them. I was told to pray for my country. The end times were coming. Things were going to get pretty rough, but at least we had the truth on our side.

Then I graduated.

I moved to Michigan and helped a friend set up a film company. I started reading some really amazing theological books from authors more on the Left–not so much focused on the Social Gospel and not Universalists, but just more left than the mainline Evangelical diet I was accustomed to. I gained a lot of insight out of those books. They gave me a lot to mull over.

The film thing came and went and I enlisted in the Army.

Basic training was interesting. Pagans, Mormons, a Hindu, Catholics, some illegals, Protestants, atheists and anti-theists. Heck, we even had two guys from Puerto Rico who didn’t speak English. We argued and debated about all manner of stuff. Now we were junior enlisted, so it was more how things sucked or some chick was hot verses parsing out Federalist No. 51 for ways to decentralize power…but it was still an eye opener to have such diversity of opinion.

Later, the WMD thing turned out to be bogus. Bush had his gaffes. For the year I spent in Iraq, a lot of us bonded around the question “WTF are we doing here?” It seemed a little scandalous, because back then you were a traitor for questioning the president. But we still were pretty miffed about the whole deal. As the year went on, fewer and fewer believed in the mission. It was eye-opening.

When I was at camp, downloading images from the previous mission before heading out again, I always seemed to get there right as Bill O’Reilly came on. I didn’t like how he just steamrolled over people and didn’t let them finish. Fights with him were over before they started. But now and then someone would make a great counter to his arguments.

I moved to DC for my final assignment with the Army and, by chance, ran with a different crew. I found myself not watching Fox News at all. I watched Daily Show and even Rachael Maddow and Keith Olbermann (didn’t like that guy).

Liberals made some really good points. A lot of them really seemed to love their country. I started to break out of old habits and mindsets.

Yeah! What was with conservatives? Why were they so dead set against conserving the Earth? They seemed to be driven by so much self interest and greed. Ayn Rand? Seriously? Conservatives were too cozy toward special interests and corporations. They were selling out democracy. They were against everything America stood for, if you thought about it. They were pushing out everyone not exactly like them. Brown people made them nervous, be it Mexicans, Blacks or Arabs. They were destroying our schools. They wouldn’t rest until everything was gone.

I honestly wondered how the U.S. tolerated such a cancer–

–Hey, wait a minute…

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Love is hardly one dimensional

It’s weird to me when I hear people talk about love. They’ll talk about being in love, or feeling love. When I talk to them more at length, the concept of love comes across as a sort of bucket that gets filled because of certain things. It slowly empties naturally with time—so apparently it’s a leaky bucket.

People will feel appreciated and loved based on a perception of how full or empty this bucket is. Or perhaps people feel they fall somewhere along a spectrum. “I’m at a 3 out of 10 today on the love meter” or “I’m full…I’m at a 10.”

But that changes, right? Some days we’ll feel more loved than others based on their actions. Sometimes our own mood affects how loved we feel. You have the “5 Love Languages” thing (here), which is helpful and insightful, but can lead to this sort of thinking too.

So is a one-dimensional leaky bucket or meter the right way of describing love and being loved? Seems a bit limiting and myopic. Moreover, it gives impulsive people license to just cut-and-run when they feel they can get more love somewhere else. I’ve seen divorce and breakups happen all the time because one or both of the people “just aren’t feeling it.” It’s like the year’s fashion or a type of food—you just get over it after a while.

But given how often I see some of these people hop scotch in and out of marriages and relationships, I wonder if there’s a perception problem there with being “in love”? Maybe the one-dimensional thing isn’t cutting it.

What if we saw love more like a tree—a living, breathing, complex three-dimensional entity? Wouldn’t that give us more to draw from in describing how we feel for someone else than a scale of 1 to 10?

Hardly a ground-breaking analogy, for sure. I’m sure smarter, licensed professionals have already done this at length, but let’s stick with your buddy Josh here for a bit.

Let’s think of each relationship we have with someone else as a tree. More specifically, our involvement is the attention and intentionality we give to this tree. The tree itself is the result of our actions—it is representative of the relationship itself.

We can focus on the big relationships in our lives, I don’t want to get too lovey-feeley about cultivating a love relationship with the convenience store guy (hot as he may be). So let’s think about our spouse or significant other (or the one you want to have some day for all my single peoples).

There is soil—the circumstances and area in your life that you share with this person. Could be class, church, work, whatever. You and the other person have this plot of land together. The soil might suck at first, or perhaps there isn’t enough water around (all sorts of relationships start under less-than-ideal circumstances), but you try and make a go of it anyway. The soil is fertilized based on attraction and affections. The seed is planted intentionally by the two of you and viola—a small tree starts to grow.

There are roots that draw nourishment from the soil. That then starts other elements of the tree. The trunk and leaves break through the soil. The water is important. The air is important. The sun is important.

I don’t want to belabor the analogy with what means what, with where compassion fits in, or commitment, or sex. My main point is each relationship is unique as each tree is unique. The fullness of the tree, the height, the depth of the roots—all of these things contribute to the overall health of the relationship. This particular tree can’t ever be replicated with someone else. You might think you can create a tree with someone else—and that you can—but this particular tree won’t ever be recreated.

What I have personally found this does is it breaks us out of the idea that we can find something “better” just by quickly swapping somewhere else. In the one-dimensional view, if we’ve been at a 3 out of 10 recently and something hot rolls around, the one-dimensional view lets us think things could be better with this other person. We’d be at a 6 or 7 at least on the ol’ “being loved” meter…

…When in actuality you would need to kill off this tree you already have with someone else and re-plant with this new person (or let it languish and die by simply withdrawing our attention).

And who knows how well the new tree will go? It might start great, but not grow into anything special. The roots might be too shallow. The leaves might not be very full. Things might not be greener on the other side, so to speak.

If you have a more three-dimensional view of a loving relationship—if you are intertwined with the other person through branches and leaves that uniquely manifest experiences and time spent…if you have this larger view of things, then you’ll see impulsively leaving doesn’t always fix things.

It’s not to say we should always stick with it—by all means some trees become diseased and need to be cut down, or die in spite of our attempts to heal them.

But when feeling like your bucket is low, or you’re at a 2 or 3 out of 10 on some arbitrary meter, consider instead the idea that perhaps the season of life you’re in has stripped off the leaves, but that they’ll come back after winter is done. And you’ll be glad for the familiar branches and wide shade of the old tree.

…Oh great, I wrote one of THOSE types of posts.

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But I don’t know him, why am I signing his retirement card?

Do you work in an office that passes around cards to sign? You know—for birthdays, get wells, get betters—that sort of thing?

I do. And I go back and forth from being a decent human being who doesn’t mind signing them (and even wants to know more about the situation), to being a heartless jerk who rolls my eyes when a new stack comes in.

I think the main thing that I find interesting about the topic (enough to write a blog post about it), is how propriety trumps genuineness. And not just here, but in a great number of other interactions with our friends and co-workers (mainly work environments, where we are already in a “required to be here; required to put on airs” sort of state).

Each time someone sneezes, we say “God bless you” or “bless you” (if you yourself are the Lord and do your own blessing, I suppose). I don’t think many of us actually thinks bad spirits are waiting to be sucked in as we gasp after a sneeze (the origins of the pagan blessing), but we feel outright rude or bad if we don’t say anything when the person next cubicle sneezes. And am I supposed to keep saying “bless you” during her regular sneezing fits in allergy season? Poor lady machine-guns those things out. Do I wait until there’s a lull? Then start up after the next batch?

We say “sorry” a billion times a day for no damned reason. Coughing, moving first to get out of the elevator as someone is also trying to leave, slightly startling someone, BEING startled ourselves…what’s with all of the apologies? Do we actually mean it? No, of course not. That’s why #sorrynotsorry is a meme. If we went through our day being that overwrought with remorse, we’d be mewing, obsequious drones. Come to think of it….

We’re obscenely promiscuous with giving away our “best” in most circumstances. Best wishes, best of luck, best intentions…we will even give someone our best in an automatic email signature without any cause for concern. Why did you give your best *something-or-other* to that guy’s roommate, whom you’ve never met? Doesn’t your spouse deserve your best, you monster?

And so come the cards. My office signs their fair share. It started on my literal first day on the job. I was signing “bests” and “get well soon” and “sorry to hear for your loss” to all sorts of people I didn’t know.

“Was she an employees here?”

“Who?”

“The card person–the person I guess who died?”

“Yes, she died. No, she didn’t work here. She was the wife of a friend of a co-worker.”

“Oh, okay. Did Kate sign yet?”

“No, and she’s at lunch.”

“Crap.”

The card comes in—sometimes several trickle in over the course of a couple of hours. I stop what I’m doing, write my little appropriate, heartfelt but not too much, genuine but not too much, concerned but not too much, burst of appropriate words, then check off my name from the cover sheet (like many places, we have cover sheets and folders), then find someone else on the list who is actually at his/her desks. The charge of responsibility isn’t passed until the next host is found. I’ll get back to my desk just in time for another one to come in.

A couple of times, I nearly wrote a “so happy for you, congrats” retirement quip on someone’s sympathy card—for losing a pet or spouse or something—heck if I remember, but crisis averted! I sent it down the line with the appropriate appropriateness and never thought of the person again until now.

One of my co-workers said, “I keep a computer file with funny, serious and congratulatory sayings and rotate through those. You just have to be careful not to mix them up.”

Which is my point. It’s like the birthday celebration on “Office Space” where everybody murmurs out a flat, barely audible sigh of the birthday song, then more eagerly waits for their piece of cake.

“Yum, cake! Why are we here?”

“Some chick had a birthday?”

“Who?”

“Margret, I think?”

“Margret?”

“I don’t know.”

“Oh, okay.”

The cynic in me recognizes these cards of sympathy and congratulations are more for ourselves than the other person. But the humanist in me does care enough for my fellow man so as not to advocate for the discontinuation of the forced sympathy.

…So not bringing it up is also self-serving, I suppose? So tricky.

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