The Alchemy of Joy

I remember the first time I heard Handel’s Messiah. Seeing everyone stand when the choir began singing the Hallelujah Chorus was wonderful, but it was the closing – Worthy Is the Lamb and  Amen Chorus that brought goosebumps. That is when I wanted to stand. When our Select Choir sang it during my junior year of college, I did not want the concert to end. I wanted to keep singing that song over and over.

Isn’t it a wonderful thing to get goosebumps? I attended a couple of concerts a week ago, and had goosebumps in abundance. I was experiencing surprise in the form of wonder.

Surprise is one of the six core emotions of humans. All six come to us when external stimuli create a physiological response in our bodies. The six core emotions are happiness, sadness, anger, fear, surprise, and disgust. All six create different types of physical responses – goosebumps, a dry mouth, a rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms, hair standing up on the back of your neck.

Feelings are different from emotions. Feelings are our own personal reactions to the emotions that come to us. Our feelings are our personal response to emotions, and they are based on our personal experience. Brené Brown has identified 150 different feelings that are derived from our emotions.

One of the core emotions is happiness. I remember Christmas when I was in the fifth grade. I was hoping beyond hope for a new bicycle. I came downstairs and there it was, a JC Higgins 26″ Tank Survivor with saddlebags and streamers from the handlebars and I was happy, very happy.

Happiness comes when you expect it. You get a raise and you’re happy. You go on vacation and you’re happy. You get a new bike, and you’re happy. Happiness comes when you expect it. Joy, on the other hand, has a mind of its own.

Just a month before I got that bicycle, my maternal grandfather died. He was an Eastern Kentucky farmer and though he was gruff and spoke a total of 10 words a year, whether he needed them or not, I adored him. And I was devastated. At his funeral I was filled with sadness and fear. It was the first time I ever encountered the death of someone I knew and loved.

At the funeral I leaned hard against my father, and he gave me a half pack of peppermint Lifesavers. We went back to the house and my mother and aunts got talking about their dad and telling funny stories and they laughed hard, before dissolving in tears again. And then they told more stories and laughed again, and I was filled with wonder that these women I knew to be so stoic and guarded were laughing and crying in turn, and I was grateful to see them like that – expressing their true emotions with abandon.

I don’t know that I would have known what to call the feeling I had then, but I know now what it was. The feeling was joy. That is when I discovered that fear, followed by wonder, followed by gratitude, creates joy. Fear, wonder, and gratitude are the alchemy of joy.

It was that way for the shepherds who were there at the birth of Jesus. When the angel came to them, they were utterly terrified. But then when they saw what happened at the manger, they were filled with wonder. In gratitude they told everyone what the angels had asked them to speak – that the Lord had come. And Luke tells us, they were filled with joy.

The same thing happened two years later with the Magi. They were not kings, but wise leaders from Persia, probably Zoroastrians, another monotheistic religion that believed in a moral duality of right and wrong.

They followed a star and when it led them to the toddler Jesus, they were filled with wonder. They brought frankincense, gold, and myrrh, to show gratitude. But they also felt fear. When they were on their way to where Jesus was, they stopped in Jerusalem. Herod asked where they were going, and before they realized it had been a bad idea, they told him. He said, “Make sure to come back through and let me know where you find him?” I believe it sent shivers down their spines. When they were ready to leave where Jesus was, they had a nightmare telling them to return another way, and they did. Again, it was fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that brought joy.

Fear, replaced by wonder, coupled with gratitude, that is what I experienced on the day of my grandfather’s funeral. That is what I have experienced so many times since. It is the alchemy that produces joy.

May this Christmas season bring you great joy.

This I Believe

Ever since I finished Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, I have been reading additional sources that support his belief that there are three moral standards in the world. In my opinion his thesis is accurate.

The first and oldest moral standard is that there is no greater moral good than to protect the integrity of the tribe. Since we never grew rapidly as a species until we moved from the level of blood kin to the level of tribe, keeping the integrity of the tribe was critical to the development of civilizations. People surrendered their personal freedom to the leaders of their tribe.

What brought us together as a tribal species was not the need for safety, but our search for meaning. Which brings us to the second moral standard of our species, that there is no greater moral good than to obey the teachings of the gods. This is the moral standard of all fundamentalism, particularly the fundamentalist expressions of the desert religions, which began as religions of scarcity, and remain so in their fundamentalist forms. With this moral standard, people handed over agency to the religious leaders who spoke on behalf of the gods.

There is a much younger third moral standard. It is the standard of most of Western Civilization. It is the standard that says there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual. This standard permeates most of Europe, the United States, particularly its northern tier, and all of Canada, Australia, and New Zealand. It was the moral standard of America’s founding fathers, and its principles are woven into the US Constitution.

René Girard, the late anthropologist and philosopher, wrote a book called Violence and the Sacred, in which he talked about tribes and religions, and how those in power figured out how to remain in power. They created scapegoats within the tribe that only they could identify, who had to be expelled for the sake of the tribe’s or religion’s security. “It’s not a good time to change leaders. Only I have the unique ability to root out our enemies and banish them from the nation.” This mimetic theory, as Girard called it, is at the foundation of all power metanarratives.

A metanarrative is a big giant story that explains the meaning of life. In power metanarratives, the victors write history, determine the nature of truth, identify and elminate scapegoats, and force their narrative on the entire culture. At its worst, it is Germany’s Third Reich. An example of a religious power metanarrative would be today’s American evangelicalism, in which leaders claim the moral authority to condemn LGBTQ+ people as scapegoats who need to be expelled from the community.

Scapegoats are always the powerless. In today’s evangelical America, they are transgender children, only .58 percent of the population, but with a suicide completion rate 13 times higher than their peers. They are America’s most vulnerable population, yet they have become the center of America’s culture wars. The scriptures say absolutely nothing about being transgender. But this is not about what the scriptures say. It is about the arbitrary decisions of those in power about who is and who is not a threat to the community, and therefore a scapegoat.

And yes, it is not lost on me that I am a scapegoat in the evangelical metanarrative. Someone who was respected as a national leader was immediately ostracized upon announcing they were transgender. It happened because the leaders of that religion decided all transgender people were not fit to be leaders. It cost me a huge pension, all of my jobs, and almost all of my friends.

In his study of power metanarratives, Girard made a fascinating discovery. There was one major metanarrative, and only one, that was not a power metanarrative. In fact, its hero was a scapegoat. His words were about caring for widows, orphans, and the poor. His followers were social outcasts. 

Girard was very taken by that scapegoat and his followers, if not the religion that eventually grew out of his life. The religion became just another power metanarrative. The scapegoat himself, and the message he brought, were truly revolutionary. The scapegoat taught that you should love your enemies, and those who wanted to be great had to become servants of all.

I still believe in the life and teachings of that scapegoat. I can think of no better way to live than loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. I believe it is the teachings of that scapegoat that gave birth to the moral standard of the entire Western world, that there is no greater moral good than to protect the freedom of the individual.

Because we are open to everyone on the spiritual journey, some people assume Left Hand Church is a Unitarian/Universalist fellowship or a Unity Church. We are not. We are a Christian church. We follow the scapegoat and his teachings. We eschew the power metanarratives and embrace the one who said the first shall be last and the last shall be first.

Yes, after everything I experienced at the hands of the evangelical church, I am still a follower of Jesus. Because Jesus is not the evangelical church. Jesus is the one who fought for the freedom and dignity of every single individual. Jesus told us that above all else, love wins.

It is that Jesus I worship during this, the darkest of days. It is that Jesus, born in a stable in an out of the way village in an obscure nation over 2,000 years ago, who turned power metanarratives upside down and gave our species it’s only hope – that the way forward is through love.

That is the Jesus who I celebrate in this holiest of seasons.

A Message to Bring

I am putting together a couple new keynote presentations for my work as a speaker. That world continues to be good to me. During 2022 I’ve spoken at Spirit Aero Systems, Wittkieffer, Medtronics, Pipeworks, Proctor and Gamble, Colas Canada, Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, CBS/Viacom, Owens-Corning, NN Netherlands, TEDWomen, and several other companies, conferences, and universities.

I usually speak for 30 minutes and do Q&A for another 30 minutes. Since Covid, most of the conferences have been virtual, but in-person events are coming back. Almost all my talks are about gender equity. A few are about LGBTQ+ issues. One of the new talks I am considering is entitled, “Lost is a Place Too.”

In that new talk I want to say that our problem in life is usually not the thing we fear. It is that which gave birth to the thing we fear. Beowulf’s problem was not the sea monster, Grendel. His problem was the even more hideous sea monster, the mother of Grendel.

What is the mother of your presenting fear, the one you see clearly before you? If your presenting fear is failure, the mother of that fear may be the deep-seated conviction that if you are not successful, you are not worthy of love. That is a fear of many, born of parents who chose to love conditionally.

What is your core wound, the one that follows you through your days? That is the fear you must face by dropping down into the deep, dark lagoon for three days and three nights and maybe longer, until you finally slay the mother of all monsters.

I want to talk about the courage it takes to answer that call, the one you have been avoiding. No call is easy to answer. The first call is always a call to “out there.” It is a call to the high seas. The problem is “other” to you. The first call is frightening, foreboding even, but it is “out there” and therefore manageable.

The later call, the one you have been avoiding, is the call inland. It is the call of Odysseus to take an oar inland until he found no one who knew what an oar was. Then he was to plant it in the ground as an offering to the sea god, Poseidon. Only then could he return to his beloved Penelope and live into “sleek old age.” His trip inland was exhausting.

The journey inland is always exhausting. When the call is inland, the journey is contained within the unexamined borderlands of your soul. It is a journey you must take alone. No one can travel with you.

It is the journey that comes after Dante’s awakening at the beginning of the Divine Comedy: “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in a dark wood where the true way was wholly lost.” It is the call that takes you through the existential pain of Shakespeare’s MacBeth -” Life is but a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

The call inland will always be to a place in which you do not think you have the tools to succeed. That is because you do not, in fact, have the tools to succeed. You will only find them in the middle of the battle. Beowulf didn’t defeat the mother of Grendel with the helmet and sword King Hrothgar gave him. He had to let go of those tools. He slayed her with a sword he found during the battle, attached to a chain on the wall of her lair. He never would have found that sword if he had not let go of the useless tools.

People progress in therapy when they answer the call inland. They grow when they take responsibility for their own choices and stop blaming others and stop expecting rescue from them. They grow when they allow themselves to be filled with doubt. Doubting everything is the beginning of wisdom. Tennyson said there is more faith in honest doubt than half the creeds. Doubt is the necessary fuel for change.

What does life look like after the journey inland? It looks like serving from your overflow. It is about healing others from your own wounded places. It is knowing when to step in and rescue, and when to step back and trust the flow. It is trusting your intuition because your intuition is in touch with your soul. The soul resides beneath the ego and its demands for power and safety. The soul is the realm of the inland journey.

My problem is that I am not exactly sure how that will play in the corporate world. Will the CEOs in Singapore get it? What about the executives in the Netherlands? I know the leaders who steer from their souls will respond well, the ones who dream into the distance instead of managing from quarter to quarter. George Washington would get it. So would Abraham Lincoln. There is a reason we celebrate their birthdays and not the birthdays of, say, James Buchanan or Herbert Hoover. Yvon Chouinard gets it. I’m not sure Jack Welch did. Edwin Colodny got it. I’m not sure Doug Parker does. I know, now I’m down in the weeds of specific company executives past and present.

And I’m not sure I get it. I process information quickly and hold onto it well. I know a lot of stuff. Yet I am far too sensitive to all the voices around me, shouting their bad advice. I am prone to listening to the voices from without, not the one from within. If I’m going to get ahold of that, it better happen soon. I don’t have another seven decades to figure this out. Still, I know I have something to offer. I’m like that pitcher that bounces from team to team, good enough to have a long career in the big leagues, but not good enough to land in the hall of fame.

Which brings me back to why these corporations want to hear from me in the first place. I do have one area of unique expertise. I know what it is like to live both as a man and as a woman, and I can tell you with great certainty that it is a lot harder as a woman. Women from all seven continents have thanked me for that little piece of information.

When people want to hear from me beyond that narrow sliver of knowledge, I am always surprised. I’m just not that good. I have gained some wisdom, but not the wisdom of sages. I’m more like the prophet that says, “This is the only way. No wait, a minute. That also might be a way over there, you know, way over that way.” It takes the luster off your prophesying.

Nevertheless, I think I’m going to go with the new offering, Lost Is A Place Too. It may sit there untouched by any willing takers, but then again, there may be a few out there who think, “Wait, that’s just the voice we need.”

And so it goes.