Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Truths from one of my favorite Atheists

Do you guys listen to This American Life on NPR?

More often than not I come away from my weekly listen deep in thought.  It raises excellent questions, has very good reporting, and explores some captivating cultural corners of this country.  I learned early on that its host is a staunch atheist.  It doesn't keep me from having a super-geek crush on this married man with a nasal voice and insightful storytelling powers.

He was raised by Jewish parents, but he doesn't support religion in his own life.  However, on his show, from time to time, I hear him say things and I think, friend, who are you kidding right now? I was listening to their 500th episode in which a bunch of the producers got together and compiled some of their favorite stories from over the last 18 years (the show began in 1995).  In this retrospective, the idea of unconditional love came up twice.  And I drew in one story from a past episode because it's an incredible exchange.  I'll lead with that story.  But it occurred to me that the reason I like this show so much is that often it presents a deep truth.  I find that Ira and I often agree and this reinforces for me that, no matter how you package it, the truth doesn't change.  I'm what you would call religious, and he is not, but the truth cannot change, no matter how you approach it.

TRUTH #1 - You are made more free by making irreversible commitments.  

This is straight out of the Paradox of Choice book I just finished reading that I keep mentioning.  This is essentially the author's thesis, boiled down to one sentence.  It sounds counterintuitive but think about how we agonize over purchases.  We are constantly second guessing ourselves about those choices.  Is there someone/something else out there that better meets my needs?  I won't commit until I find it.  More and more it feels like no decision I ever make is good enough because there is a nagging suspicion that I missed something or there is something else better that I could have if I only looked harder or the right things come together.  I heard it explained beautifully in the Valentine's day show in February of 2012.  I use it often as an illustration for why I think marriage is so important.  The whole audio of this segment is included here:

But if you don't have time to listen to all 19 minutes (you should though! it's a fascinating story...), here is an excerpt from the transcript of the show with the most relevant bit:

Kurt Braunohler

I do have a theory now. I do have a theory about if I do get married in the future. What I think I would want to do is have an agreement that at the end of seven years, we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years, it ends. And we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.

Ira Glass


Kurt Braunohler

Because I think you get to choose and I think it would make the relationship stronger.

Ira Glass

I don't know what I think of that. Because I think, actually, one of the things that's a comfort in marriage is that there isn't a door at seven years. And so if something is messed up in the short-term, there's a comfort of knowing, well, we made this commitment. And so we're just going to work this out. And even if tonight we're not getting along or there's something between us that doesn't feel right, you have the comfort of knowing, we've got time. We're going to figure this out. And that makes it so much easier. Because you do go through times when you hate each other's guts. You know what I mean?

Kurt Braunohler

Of course you do. Yeah.

Ira Glass

And the no escape clause, weirdly, is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought before I got married.

Kurt Braunohler


Ira Glass


Kurt Braunohler

I had never thought of it that way. I like thinking about it that way, you just see so many examples of where people don't think that way.
Yes, yes, yes. While this sounds like prison to many, and even just the words that are used make it sound confining, it is in fact freeing.  That there is no escape, no choice but to dance with the one that brung you.  It calls for an accountability and a reckoning that is healthy, forces us to be less selfish, to forgive, and to clear things off our hearts.  It frees us to love, truly.

Chesterton supports this truth in his book Orthodoxy:  "Love is not blind; that is the last thing it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind... 'My son give me thy heart' [Prov 23:26 reference] the heart must be fixed on the right thing: the moment we have a fixed heart we have a free hand."

The next two examples are from the retrospective episode.

TRUTH #2 - Children can be examples for us.   

Listen to this beautiful story a Dad tells about teaching his little girl about the lives of Jesus and Martin Luther King, Jr.

It's not very long, about 4 minutes.  I ALWAYS forget how wonderfully clear the mind of a child is.  That's what this whole episode was about - kid logic.  Thinking like a child and often getting a lot further by doing so.  This little girl gets it immediately, and has learned an invaluable lesson through a father spending time with her, answering her questions, and helping her to truth without spoon feeding it to her. Let's look at what Jesus actually said about children.  In Matthew 19:14, the disciples have just rebuked Jesus for bringing the little children to him and praying for them.  And he says in response, "Let them come to me and do not hinder them..."  The adults discounted the value of the children and thought that the adults should take precedent but Jesus sees in them the inherent value of their lives and thoughts just as they are, not their potential value when they are older.  Children don't hide things, they ask straightforward questions.  They lack guile and express joy with reckless abandon.  We should all be so unbound in our expression.  Paul implores his followers in Corinth to do so in his second letter to them:

11 We have spoken freely to you, Corinthians, and opened wide our hearts to you. 12 We are not withholding our affection from you, but you are withholding yours from us. 13 As a fair exchange—I speak as to my children—open wide your hearts also. (2 Cor 6:11-13)

This is what we learn from children, to open our hearts and eyes WIDE.  It seems the author of this short story learned a lesson as well.  I will not forget your question, little one, and neither will your dad, and probably lots of other people who heard your story on the radio.  Thank you.

TRUTH #3 - We seek love and acceptance, and need it to thrive.  

The last is again straight from the mind of Mr. Glass himself.  Here's the sound clip:

But I will again include the transcript here (emphasis mine).

Ira Glass

And so are you done? Are you in? Is that it? Like you used that joke to kind of get you over the hump, and now is it through?

Tami Sagher

Um, I felt like I'm more in, yeah. I don't know that I'll ever feel like I'm in with everybody. [LAUGHS] But no, I have felt like I'm more in. I have felt a marked difference. I mean, do you ever feel like you're totally in with anybody?

Ira Glass

Dude, I'm married to somebody who I feel like I'm constantly in a situation of having-- I feel like-- and she doesn't feel this way, but I totally feel like every day I have to prove myself anew.

Tami Sagher

Really? Well, here's one more thing, though, that is kind of sucky about it, though, is by constantly checking in with what the other person's opinion of you is, you're not just being with that person. There's a level of removal there that is sad.

Ira Glass

Totally. That's totally my personality. For me, I think that something went wrong when I was a kid, where I think that other people, they just accept that they're in. They accept that this other person likes them, and they don't have to keep proving themself.
Whereas for me, it's entirely temporal. I'm constantly judging the whole thing moment by moment. And it could always fall apart. For me, it never ends.

This is the difference between someone who knows God and someone who doesn't. Right here.  What more do we want in this life than to be accepted and loved? I can't prove to you concretely the existence of a God I have come to know more personally and deeply in the last few years than ever before.  But I can tell you that He answers this question of acceptance once and for all, if you let Him.  

The same needs and the same remedies are coming up today as they did ages ago.  I guess what I want to say is that even people who don't accept the idea of a God feel a need for what He provides. We want today and have been wanting for ages, the same things.  And I think these truths point to the answer and give us a guide for how to flourish during this life, regardless of what you believe.  Thanks for reminding me, Ira and friends.   I'll keep tuning in.  

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