Department Of Are You Mortal?
Moiself, too. So, why do we act as if we think are not?
I highly recommend the latest edition of the podcast Clear + Vivid. In a moving and candid conversation – frequently seasoned by laughter (which might be surprising to some, given the subject matter) – podcast host Alan Alda talks with his guest, author and Rabbi Steve Leder, about the inevitability of death, and grief. These are subjects people usually avoid, which, Leder says, only adds to the losses people inevitably face in life.
At one point in their conversation, as Alda and Leder discussed the importance of acknowledging our mortality, Alda said, “Talk some more about this. ‘Cause you still haven’t convinced me to die.” Leder’s response, which prompted laughter from both men, was, “Well, I don’t have to.”
Leder has written a book (“The Beauty of What Remains: How Our Greatest Fear Becomes Our Greatest Gift”) which Alda describes as “…a moving, inspiring and often funny book about the loss of loved ones.” Although Leder has officiated at more than 1,000 funerals, he found his own preconceived notions of grief – what it is and “how” to do it – challenged when his beloved father died.
I love it when Someone With Experience And Authority ® confirms a suspicion I’ve had for years. Thus, thank gawd (sez the atheist) that Leder disagrees with the “Five  Stages of Grief” mythology. Leder says we have “been done a terrible disservice” with this idea that there are stages or phases of grief, which implies that grief is a linear process (“First you will deal with Stage A, then you will feel Stage B…”).
Grief is non-liner; Leder declares. It is much more analogous to waves:
“They come very close together and are very large at first. They do spread out, and sometimes you even get beautiful, calm seas for a day, a week, a month, a year…. And then sometimes, when your back is turned, there can be a massive wave of grief that takes you down. And that is not ‘stages.’
Before my father died, what I used to say to people is, ‘Look, the most honest and helpful think I can say to you right now is that it won’t always hurt so much.’ And I don’t say that anymore. Now I say, ‘It won’t always hurt so *often.*’ Because when it hurts, it hurts every bit as much.”
* It’s who we have, not what we have, that matters.
*The beauty of the flower is that it fades.
*The meaning of life is that it ends.
* Understanding the ephemeral nature of life – choosing to acknowledge that we don’t have forever – makes things great and small (our children and friends; a hot fudge sundae) more precious, not less.
These and other observations which Leder shares and expounds upon are no less profound for their relative simplicity. Check out the entire interview: “Make the End a Beginning” Clear + Vivid.
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Department Of Reality Checks
As in, my attempt to provide one. No doubt I will need one as well, if moiself thinks that my feedback will either get a response (I doubt it/am not expecting it) or make a difference (I hope it will).
Dear Mr. Vedantam,
Love your show; regular listener here. As per your interview on “Useful Delusions,” re your upcoming book of the same name, I cringed to hear you give credence, even in the context of how people respond to stress, to that “…old proverb, ‘There are no atheists in the foxhole’….”
Yes, it is an old proverb. Old, insulting, and lousy – as in, inaccurate.
I wish you’d do a story on that.
An atheist-themed festival drew hundreds of people to an Army post in North Carolina on Saturday for what was believed to be the first-ever event held on a U.S. military base for service members who do not have religious beliefs.
Signs in support of atheism are seen during the “Rock Beyond Belief” festival at Fort Bragg army base in North Carolina March 31, 2012. The atheist-themed festival drew hundreds of people to Fort Bragg on Saturday for what was believed to be the first-ever event held on a U.S. military base for service members who do not have religious beliefs.
Organizers said they hoped the “Rock Beyond Belief” event at Fort Bragg would spur equal treatment toward nonbelievers in the armed forces and help lift the stigma for approximately 295,000 active duty personnel who consider themselves atheist, agnostic or without a religious preference.
Defense Department policy holds that all service members have the right to believe in any or no religion. But those gathered at the event described being ostracized and harassed in the military community for not believing in God and worried about getting passed over for promotions if their secularist stances were widely known.
( “Military nonbelievers’ event shows there are atheists in foxholes.” (Reuters)
“This award was suggested by Vietnam War vet…Steve Trunk, to combat the ridiculous myth that there are no “atheists in foxholes,” and, in particular, to recognize activism to defend the constitutional principle of separation between state and church which every soldier takes an oath to uphold.”
To repeat: there are and have always been “atheists in foxholes;” however, they often have compelling reasons to remain in the foxhole/closet while they serve in the military. Religion-free soldiers can feel that they face an equal or greater danger from their fellow soldiers and commanding officers than from enemy fire, if their religious comrades discover that they are not religious believers.
“When Specialist Jeremy Hall held a meeting last July for atheists and freethinkers at Camp Speicher in Iraq, he was excited, he said, to see an officer attending.
But minutes into the talk, the officer…began to berate Specialist Hall and another soldier about atheism….
Major Welborn told the soldiers he might bar them from re-enlistment and bring charges against them….
Specialist Hall and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group, filed suit in federal court in Kansas, alleging that Specialist Hall’s right to be free from state endorsement of religion under the First Amendment had been violated and that he had faced retaliation for his views. (Specialist Hall) was sent home early from Iraq because of threats from fellow soldiers.
( “Soldier Sues Army, Saying His Atheism Led to Threats,” NY Times )
Staff Sgt. Richlin Chan, who served in Afghanistan, is an “Atheist in Foxhole” who was profiled in the FFRF’s newsletter, Freethought Today (June/July 2010). Chan told this story:
In 2007, a soldier named Jeremy Hall was threatened and persecuted by fellow soldiers and a higher-ranking officer for holding an atheist meeting in Iraq. After a firefight in which a protective screen deflected enemy fire, his commander later asked him if he believed in god. Jeremy responded, “No, but I believe in plexiglass.”
If you’re interested, other resources include the MAAF (Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers); “I was An Atheist in a Foxhole,” (American Humanist Association) ; “The US Military Has a Problem With Atheists,” (The Week); “Military atheists seeking the rights and benefits offered to religious groups”(Stars and Stripes).
Yours in the never-ending battle to temper inaccurate proverbs with reality checks,
* * *
Lest you think my picking that certain nit  spoiled the podcast for me, it did not. I found the (rest of the) episode (Hidden Brain: Useful Delusions) quite enjoyable. Of particular interest to moiself was Shankar’s exposition on the adaptive or “useful” effects that delusional thinking can have, as well as the phenomenon of “naive realism.”
Naive realism allows us to judge others for engaging in what we’d call delusional thinking, while we convince ourselves that we, even in the same position as a desperate person, would never, say, vote for a demagogue or buy a snake oil potion/miracle cure, etc. Vedantam illustrates this with a personal story of his own. Several months ago, while travelling several hours from his home, Vedantam suffered a retinal detachment. He had to seek emergency medical care, without having time to check reviews or get recommendations for a doctor or weighs pros and cons of treatment options. He found a doctor who was willing to open his practice up at 9 pm and see him. The doctor said Vedantam had to have emergency surgery ASAP or he would lose his eyesight. And so, Vedantan did….
“…what all of us do, in positions of great vulnerability: I put all my faith and trust in this doctor. Now, as it turned out, he was a brilliant surgeon and he ended up saving my eye, for which I am profoundly grateful. But imagine for a moment that he had not been a brilliant doctor; let’s imagine if he had been a charlatan. Would it have been any less likely for me to put my faith in him? And I would argue the answer is no, because my faith in him did not arise because of what *he* did, my faith arose because of what *I* was going through.
I was going through a period of great vulnerability, a period of great fear. Trusting him made me feel better…. Expand this in all kinds of ways, and you can see why people sometimes gravitate to beliefs that are false, to demagogues and false prophets. It’s not so much because of the demagogues and false prophets, it’s because of their own vulnerabilities.”
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Department Of My Favorite Euphemisms
Dateline: last weekend, listening to a podcast in which anthropologists discussed the DNA sequences found from human bodies in caves in Siberia, Spain, and Croatia.
What the anthropologists found shows evidence of human-Neanderthal interbreeding as far back as 100,000 years ago. What I found was a delightful, heretofore-unknown-to-moiself, synonym…genteelism…rewording.
According to scientists, early humans and Neanderthals engaged in
“gene flow events.”
This substitute term should be a relief to teens everywhere. Despite their legendary taking of delight in shocking their elders by singing along to salacious pop song lyrics, teens are notoriously squeamish, to the point of disgust, when it comes to even thinking about the fact that their parents might have hooked up with one another in order to produce their offspring. Chill, Ethan and Emma: your mother and father didn’t get it on. They merely engaged in a gene flow event.
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Department of, Bingo!
But when Abby and I announced our relationship, the first article…said, “Abby Wambach in love with Christian mommy blogger.”…So the rest of the world picked up that one — and now on my tombstone, no matter what else I do, it’ll say Christian mommy blogger…. I feel like it’s the most misogynistic, ridiculous title ever. Because no male activist or New York Times bestseller is described as a daddy…or by his religion.
( Glennon Doyle, from the podcast, Sway, 2-25-21)
I’m somewhat new to Sway, but after listening to a few episodes I’m impressed with the variety of guests and topics. Hosted by Kara Swisher, “Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist,” the podcast’s focus is “power: who has it, who’s been denied it, and who dares to defy it.” In the episode whence the above quote, Swisher interviews Glennon Doyle, best-selling author and activist previously best known – or rather, labeled – as a Christian-LGBTQ-friendly blogger and “confessional” writer, and most recently getting (unwanted) tabloid-type attention in the past few years for divorcing her (cheating) husband and marrying US soccer star Abby Wambach.
The reason for Doyle’s interview On Sway was Doyle having been named by many of Joe Biden’s campaign strategists as the person whose campaign endorsement, they believed, would influence women the most. The part of the interview that interested me the most was when Doyle shared her reactions to the male-values-dominated worlds of publishing and book reviews and publicity.  Doyle rejects the labels that have been put upon her, including “self-help expert” and “mommy blogger,” as reductive and misogynistic.
“…I think that it’s very often the case that when a man puts work out into the world, the world looks at the work and says, ‘Is this work worthy?’ And I think that when a woman puts work out into the world, the world looks at the woman and says, ‘Is this woman worthy of putting out work?’
For example, the first big article that was put out about (her new memoir) in a big newspaper, the headline was, ‘Glennon Doyle writes third memoir?’ Question mark, question mark.”
“As if you shouldn’t have many memoirs in you. That’s the suggestion.”
“Like, ‘Jesus Christ, this woman is going to say a *third* thing? We already let her say two things. She said two things, and then she’s going to come back and say a third thing. Who does this person think she is.’ Right?’
Sedaris came out with his new book, and it was like, ‘David Sedaris releases 158th memoir.’ Not, question mark, question mark.”
* * *
Department Of It’s Not My Fault; My Mind Just Goes To These Places
Apropos of nothing I can think of, while coming back from a walk the other day I mused about ways to get junior high school aged students interested in “classic” works of literature. I’ve heard many a teacher say that engaging that age group (particularly for the boys) will determine whether reluctant readers will show interest in, for example, the plays of William Shakespeare.
So, considering the age group, I humbly suggest this approach:
֍ Shakespearean Gas Theater ֍
English, literature, and drama teachers can search the internet databases for well-known Shakespearean lines which can be altered and/or…uh, illustrated…as per the theme.
From Twelfth Night, the name of character Sir Toby Belch fits right in with those certain enhancements which tween actors could give to the delivery of Sir Toby’s classic lines:
”Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous,
there shall be no more cakes and….Baaaaaaaarrrrrrraaasaaaapppp…ale?
And, let’s face it, few 12-year-old boys want to play the lead male role of Romeo and Juliet‘s 14th century lovestruck Italian teen. But when the line Romeo calls out to Juliet (in the famous balcony scene) is transformed, boys will be jostling for the opportunity to raise their arms in supplication and cut the cheese with romantic gusto while reciting,
“What wind thorough yonder window breaks.”
Then again, maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t pursue a career as an Arts in Education consultant.
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Pun For The Day
When a road construction worker farts, don’t blame him – it’s his asphalt.
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May you write as many memoirs as you have in you; 
May you appreciate the beauty of that which will fade;
May you be lucky enough to have an atheist beside you in the foxhole;
…and may the hijinks ensue.
Thanks for stopping by. Au Vendredi!
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 Or nine…or seven…or twelve. Different self-appointed grief experts have different numbers, but most people are familiar with psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross‘s five stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
 The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a non-profit founded in 1978, is the nation’s largest association of Atheists, Agnostic, Freethinkers, Humanists and Skeptics .
 This particular issue is more the size of a glacier than a nit, as the number of the non-religiously affiliated and atheists – and thus the number of people insulted and mischaracterized by such inaccurate adages – continues to grow/be revealed.
 A subject about which I have both opinions and experiences, as regular and/or long time readers of this blog may know.
 Well, maybe not 158.