Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Is it the miracles (a Thanksgiving question)?

I have to admit I have never given much thought to the meaning of Thanksgiving. I have thought of it primarily as an opportunity for folks to get together with their families, which is something that can be the source of all kinds of meaningful stuff. But does the holiday itself have some kind of meaning? Is that meaning rooted in the story that's told about the holiday, like the way the meaning of Passover is deeply rooted in the story of the Israelites' redemption from bondage in Egypt?

The below prayer from Rav Zalman would seem to suggest that the meaning of Thanksgiving is indeed rooted in that traditional story. The prayer is written to be included in the "about the miracles" section of traditional Birkat HaMazon, or 'blessing of the food' that is said after meals. The insertion into the "about the miracles" section (which is where we traditionally make insertions on Hanukah and Purim) in and of itself suggests that what we are thankful for on Thanksgiving has something do to with miracles given to us by the Divine. And the content of the insertion suggests the miracle has something to do with the traditional story about Thanksgiving I was told as a kid where poor settlers were helped by Native Americans.

I wonder, however, do we still tell our kids that story? Is there something in there that might be offensive to Native Americans? Do we really want to uphold that traditional story when we celebrate Thanksgiving, or is it about something else for us now? I'm not sure I'm comfortable with this blessing.

But this year, I'm just glad that tomorrow I will have the opportunity -- God willing -- to see my Mom and my Sister and her kids. I hope you will have the opportunity to be with people you care about, too.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Rav Zalman's "About the Miracles" blessing for Thanksgiving

(click on image to see full size)

Thursday, November 15, 2007

21st Century Consumer Man

I don't know if the first decade of the 21st century will be the time that Americans finally wake up to embrace the principle that small is better (a pursuit that really consumed me when I was a college student in the 1980s). But I'm really feeling like a part of that movement right now: Today my reusable ACME shopping bags finally arrived and I had a chance to head to the shopping center with them and my Xtracycle. That's about $40 worth of groceries, etc., below in two of the bags on the left side of the bike. The bags aren't full and I haven't even begun to use the other side of the bike! And, it's also possible to strap stuff to the snap deck above the rear wheel, meaning I should easily be able to carry two and three times as much stuff. Pretty exciting. And the bike handled like a dream on the way home, even with the weight being all on one side.
The pic, by the way, was taken with another consumer good that also came in the post, today. This purchase was a good bit more expensive than the shopping bags -- a camcorder (a Panasonic SDR-H18) that I bought for work purposes (I need to record some of my work with my chaplain students). The camcorder can take small stills in addition to recording video.

So, I am indeed willing to admit that some of the thrill I feel tonight may be the joy of good old-fashioned consumerism (it's fun to play with new toys!). But there is some genuine being kind to the earth in there as well. And, in the small is better department, the camcorder is wonderfully compact (especially in comparison to the over-sized, outdated alternative without the editing features I need which I would have had to use otherwise).

Shabbat Shalom!


More pics of the (loaded) bike:

Beauty at a soldier's death

There was a great interview on NPT's Fresh Air, yesterday, with a Catholic priest who is serving as an Army chaplain in Iraq. One of the most powerful parts of the interview is when Father John Barkemeyer describes giving last rights to a dying soldier. He says it's a painful experience, but also . . .

In some ways it's very beautiful. It's the most beautiful thing you can do -- to reassure them of God's love, God's care, God's compassion at the time of the life where they need it most. So, it's beautiful. But it's difficult.

Worth a listen.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I won!!!

Well, not really. But -- when I read today about the last of the bastions of pay-for-content news on the Web, the Wall Street Journal, finally giving up and going free -- I couldn't help but feel a sense of vindication: it was in a 'past life' now (ie, well before I became a rabbi), but I still remember clearly how passionately I argued with my colleagues at my old newspaper against the idea that we had to charge for our Web content ("how can we just give it away!?!!). With the cost of distributing content on the Web being effectively free (especially when compared with the cost of delivering piles of black ink printed on dried sheets of wood pulp to the end user) I just thought it was inevitable that the only sustainable source of revenue would end up being advertising. . . . And so it has come to pass.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Trauma -- is it catching?

When a study came out recently suggesting that you can 'catch' obesity from your family or friends, it sure got a lot of press. But a tendency to gain weight is not the only non-viral or non-bacterial thing we can pick up from other humans -- we can take on their trauma, too.

Anybody in chaplaincy or the other helping professions knows this. If you talk to someone who has undergone a great physical or emotional trauma you start to feel the weight of it, too. You may even start to develop the same physical symptoms as the person you are caring for. If they can't sleep and wake up in the middle of the night with terrible nightmares, you may start having trouble sleeping at night and might start waking up with terrible nightmares. But how does this process of contagion of trauma actually happen?

That was the question the speaker was pondering at a lecture I went to the other day on vicarious trauma (sometimes called second or secondary trauma). An answer occurred to me that I think might help in understanding this. It occurred to me to think of secondary trauma kind of like the way we think of the fight or flight impulse, something that was very useful to the humans who lived before civilization, but that is now potentially deadly for the modern human who is divorced from the pre-modern context.

Fight or flight refers to the physical changes that a person undergoes when he or she feels under threat. These changes -- including the release of adrenaline, the increase of the heart beat and an inhibition of digestion -- are quite useful if the typical threat one faces is a physical threat: they help one either fight stronger or run away faster.

But for most of us -- for example, those of us who work in a modern office environment -- the threats we face ("am I going to lose my job if my boss doesn't like this report?") are not physical at all. We don't need physical strength or speed to cope with them. But we still suffer from increased heart beat, upset stomachs and sweaty palms. And these can be much more than uncomfortable symptoms -- they can contribute to real medical problems like heart disease.

I postulate that the process of trauma being able to be communicated from one person to another may also have had a pre-modern function that is of little help to the modern person (especially the modern chaplain). Way back when, people lived in small bands. Any trauma that affected one person in the group had the potential to affect all of them. Thus, the transmission of trauma from one person to another helped the group to act as a collective against the threat that caused the trauma. And, therefore, the ability of trauma to be transmitted from one person to another within the group helped the group to thrive and survive.

But that same function is of no benefit to the chaplain of today. We take on bits of trauma from folks who are not part of any group we both belong to. But that received trauma doesn't lead us back towards a change in the behavior of a group that both we and the directly traumatized person belong to.

This all underscores, once again, the importance of self-care for chaplains and others in the helping professions. If we don't figure out ways to take care of ourselves amidst our work, then our work literally can kill us.

What have you done for yourself, today?

I got brake

Well, it's been about a month now since I stretched my bicycle, but only last night did I finally reinstall the rear brakes, which pretty much completes the transformation of my plain old bicycle into a SUB (see pic below for an example of what an stretched bicycle looks like, and, more significantly, how much stuff it might be able to carry).

Tonight I not only did the radical be-kind-to-the-earth-while-being-kind-to-yourself thing of going grocery shopping via bicycle (which I've actually been doing for some years now, even during my years in the internal combustion kingdom of Los Angeles), but I actually used a paper grocery bag at the self-checkout line (something I had never witnessed before in these parts -- a locale where the checkout people most definitely do _not_ say "paper or plastic?" before plunging your groceries into some solidified petrochemicals).

Soon after I placed the paper bag (which I should add was provided by the supermarket itself right there next to my self-checkout station), the young woman in charge of the area came plodding by. She silently looked me over with palpable suspicion and peered into the bag to make sure I hadn't sneaked anything in there before having the temerity to break the normal plastic routine. . . . Apparently, using a paper bag must be on the official shoplifter profile they train these self-checkout overseers with. I'm happy to say that me and my groceries were allowed to leave the store without incident!

Before going to the supermarket, I took my SUB (well, actually, I'd rather just call it an Xtracycle) on the longest ride I've gone on with it, yet, about 30 kilometers (about 18 miles), including a climb up one of the steeper hills around here (with about a 600 foot climb) -- a pretty good Sunday afternoon workout for the likes of me. :) . . . The bike did fine, and soon I may build up the confidence to take it on longer trips.

The paper bag thing, by the way, was not just about upsetting the supermarket personnel. I realized the other night that the Xtracycle is pretty much incompatible with the common plastic grocery bag: Note, in the picture above, that the sides of the bags on the Xtracycle really don't come up very high. So, if you really want to get your money's worth out of this thing (cargo carrying wise), then you have to put your stuff into something (like a box or a paper grocery bag) that has a little structural integrity of its own and can hold some stuff higher than the side of the Xtracycle bags.

But, in fact, I have no intention of converting to paper bags. Maybe I would if they were the nice, strong ones that the likes of Trader Joe's has with the handles, but the ones in the supermarkets here (if you can find them!) are not such premium-quality grocery holders. So, I ordered four ACME bags (see, image on the left) from They're supposed to be exactly the same size as paper grocery bags and they're supposed to stand up on their own like paper bags. I think the Xtracycle should be able to easily accommodate four of these completely loaded plus additional stuff on top of the snap deck that sits above the rear wheel, between the bags.

Below, by the way, is a pic of an Xtracycle with two Trader Joe's style grocery bags on each side. Note, by the way, that this bike looks very different from the one in the pic above. That's because the Xtracycle is a conversion kit that can be added to just about any bicycle. In essence, it lengthens the bike frame to accommodate super big bags to carry lots of cargo. For me, it's part of my pursuit of a long-time dream: a lifestyle -- one that will be kinder to both me and the earth -- that does not have the internal combustion engine at its center. It's also part of my love of things that are simple and versatile. People who know my cooking, for example, know that I eschew gadgets (no garlic presses or yogurt machines please!) in favor of a nice sharp chef's knife, a big cutting board and a big cast iron pan (almost anything worth doing can be done with little more than those few things). The bicycle is one such wonderfully simple and versatile machine. But we Americans too often tend to impose our need for complexity and specialization upon it -- routinely marketing bikes that are meant only to be a toy, for recreation or exercise (have you noticed how many bicycles have no braze-on's for a rack to be easily attached? . . . scandalous!). The Xtracycle is a machine that is indeed a wonderful toy. But this toy is also a workhorse. Simplicity and versatility. . . . Now with (rear) brakes, too. :)

P.S. For a wonderful explication of just how much cooking can be done with just a little equipment, see this article from the New York Times' "The Minimalist."

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Stages of CPE -- Are we pushing our students too far?

At a recent chaplaincy conference in Dallas, the speaker laid out a challenge to the people who educate chaplains and clergy about how to care for sick and hurting people: Most of the people training to be clergy these days are no longer highly educated folks pursuing masters degrees and doctorates in seminaries, said Elizabeth Conde-Frazier (of the Claremont School of Theology). Rather, they're less educated folks (who generally have more conservative theologies) at Bible Colleges. And chaplaincy education -- founded by highly educated white, male (mostly Protestant) folks -- has a long way to go if it's going to be able to reach out to Bible College people and find a way to accept them into the world of professional chaplains, Conde-Frazier told the room full of the spiritual care educators of the Association of Clinical Pastoral Education (ACPE) on October 25.

I was thinking of Conde-Frazier's challenge this week at a regional conference of spiritual care educators (otherwise known as CPE supervisors) I was attending (at a wonderful retreat center) in Stony Point, NY. The speakers there gave us a framework for helping us with understanding -- and with working with -- Conde-Frazier's challenge: the adult development theory of developmental psychologist Robert Kegan.

Developmental theory has been around for a long time, but it's mostly been applied to understanding the development of children. It has special application to the education of children. It helps educators understand when they are pushing a child too hard and when they are not pushing a child hard enough. If a child, for example, has not developed to the point where he or she is capable of abstract thought then you would be pushing the child too hard to demand abstract thinking from them and they will only become frustrated and discouraged. But, if you don't push them hard -- including making them feel frustrated sometimes! -- to make the leap to abstract thought when they have developed to the point that they are just about ready, they may never make that developmental leap.

Kegan, and others, have worked to extend developmental theory to adults. The conference speakers, who both studied under Kegan at Harvard, said that in CPE our official standards, in effect, ask us to push students to the highest level most adults are capable of ever reaching -- Kegan's stage 4.

The speakers called stage 4 "The self-authoring mind." Unlike people at the earlier stages, the person at this stage does not need an authority or institution to tell him or her what is right or wrong or what is the right thing to do. They don't think something is right just because the church says so or their rabbi told them so -- they can, and will, decide that on their own. Similarly, the person at stage 4 is not threatened when people disagree with him or her. They see such conflict and critique as productive. If someone says to them, "you're a bad person!" they might say, "oh, that's interesting, why do you say that?" whereas an earlier stage person would seek to defend his or herelf -- "no I'm not! How can you say that!?"

The problem with this framework is that some people might find it offensive in that it implies an implicit criticism of their beliefs. For example, for many Orthodox Jews, accepting the authority of a rabbi (and going to him for a ruling on whether something is permissible or not) is a central part of their belief system (which they understand as coming from God!). Kegan seems to be saying that such an Orthodox person would be intentionally hobbling his or her development, and thus an Orthodox person might find his theory offensive. Conservative Christians might feel the same way.

For spiritual care educators (like myself) the challenge put to us by the speakers in Stony Point is clear: If CPE really demands that people reach stage 4 in order to become certified chaplains or certified educators of chaplains than maybe we are walling off our group to the Orthodox Jews and the conservative Christians of the world. And can we really justify doing that? Also, since the speakers found a correlation between how educated a person is and how likely they are to reach stage 4, are we cutting off the less educated and people from less-privileged economic backgrounds? In other words, it's the diversity question. [And, are we valuing things that have little or nothing to do with patient care?]

One thing that is interesting to contemplate are the parallels between Kegan's theory and James Fowler's Stages of Faith. Here, side-by-side are Fowler's stages 3-6 and Kegan's 2-5 (as described by the conference speakers, Deborah Helsing of the Change Leadership Group at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Kathleen Pakos Rimer, an Episcopal priest):



Stage 3 - "Synthetic-Conventional" faith (arising in adolescence) characterized by conformity

Stage 2 - "The Instrumental Mind"

  • Capacity for concrete thought
  • Orients to explicit cause and effect
  • Dualistic
Stage 4 – "Individuative-Reflective" faith (usually mid-twenties to late thirties) a stage of angst and struggle. The individual takes personal responsibility for their beliefs and feelings.

Stage 3: "The Socializing Mind"

  • Capacity for abstract thought
  • Authority is external
  • Orients to inner states
Stage 5 – "Conjunctive" faith (mid-life crisis) acknowledges paradox and transcendence relating reality behind the symbols of inherited systems

Stage 4: "The Self-Authoring Mind"

  • Authority is internal
  • Conflict and critique as productive
  • Responsible for and can regulate inner states

Stage 6 – "Universalizing" faith, or what some might call "enlightenment".

Stage 5: "The Inter-Institutional Mind"

  • Orientation toward dialectical, paradoxical
  • Underlying morals and values that precede social institutions
  • The self as incomplete, in process evolving

Note that in both frameworks the understanding is that very few people ever reach the final stage. . . . . have you. :)


By the way, the example the speakers used to illustrate the transition from a three to a four (under Kegan's framework) was Nora from Ibsen's A Doll's House, which is available on DVD in a version starring Anthony Hopkins. (#*#)