Worst Practices

Worst Practices

by Philip Siddons

Joseph still hasn’t shown up.

a-jpg“Of course” says the pageant director flippantly. “Gabriel? Where’s Gabriel?” she calls to the back of the church over her shoulder. “Gabriel” she musically calls again as if she’s calling her child for only the second time for dinner.

“Oh” Gabriel says from the back of the church as he stumbles hurriedly down the aisle.

“I was showing her how to keep her ribbon on” he explains with more earnestness than the task would normally command.

The director comically tilts her head sideways and says “Ya? . . . ya?” as if to mock him for his failure to be up with the other angels who are, at this point, rolling on the stage floor with the shepherds who are supposed to be asleep on the hillside but have somehow missed their morning dose of Ritalin

As speakers number 4 and 5 rapidly mumble through their lines, it’s clear that once again, nobody in the church will hear anyone say anything from the front. The fact is, they’ll be cute and it won’t matter. It’s the doing of the pageant that makes Christmas.

bJoseph is still not here and a couple of the angels are missing in action. How many had to show for the original nativity scene? Did God have to have a last minute rehearsal and sit them all down, barking out, “Now during this scene, you can’t talk to the person next to you. And don’t pick your nose. And if see any Gameboys® I’m going to take them away from you and you won’t get them back. So take that back to your parents or you’ll never see it again.”

The director rattles through the order of events once again, obviously confident that their photographic little minds will methodologically and nimbly string the coming sequences of pageant segments together with the precision of Microsoft’s latest video editing program.

The mid-teen Joseph slowly waltzes down the aisle. “Joseph is finally here” the director says with some relief. “We’re glad you made it” she says, softening even more. Perhaps her real life experience of the male absence or unreliability has taught her to work with what she’s got.

Suppose the original Joseph hadn’t shown up and Mary would have to go through the birth alone in the stable? Who would have wiped off the cow drool? Would she have screamed at the weird little drummer boy to go practice anywhere but in the stable – “like go play in the DMZ of the West Bank or something!” she could have blurted out.

OK, so no little drummer preadolescent or any a-rump-pa-pa-dums in the original production.

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They should really make this last-minute pageant rehearsal THE pageant. Most of the parents are here anyway and the director’s expectation that this production will be anything other than what it is now (only without her prompting everything and everyone across and off the stage at the right time) is the most spectacular act of faith in the history of Christendom. “Come see a faith that can move mountains” the bulletin board outside of the church should say. People ought to get out of their beds and come here to see the futility of this rehearsal.

cThe children are herded back to the Sunday School classrooms to change. We expect more of the same to happen only back out of sight. But we know that with the addition of costumes, the in-the-wings nervousness of their peers and a sanctuary packed with their family clan and a host of unknown adults grinning, the volume of their spoken lines will dive down to zero, the prompters’ shouted whispers will be even more embarrassing and the pauses before the hoped-for movements of groups of bathrobed or haloed children will seem painfully strained.

So when central characters didn’t enter stage right in the original production, what did the Almighty do? Whisper little prompts in their hearts? Did Joseph suddenly snap to attention out of a distracted moment and say “Oh yea” after hearing an inner prompt just before lurching over to stand by his wife who had creatively used the cow’s manger for a cradle?

How much stage whispering did the Cosmic Producer of this first nativity have to do to remind Joe and Mary that these overworked and rambunctious contracted sheepherders are supposed to be crashing their barn encampment in the middle of the night and just after the baby finally got to sleep?

“Mary, stop breast-feeding – there’s a bunch of guys coming in here!” Joe probably said.

And later on, not long after their boy would ace His bar mitzvah at the temple and be offered an internship as the youngest teaching assistant in the history of the temple’s education department – why did Joseph disappear?


Did all the pressures of being the parent of a icon drive him to drink?

Maybe Joe had a gambling problem and when the young Jesus started turning angry bully’s thrown rocks into birds before they hit their victim, Joe started making bets.

“I bet you my boy can out-argue a member of the Supreme Court” he’d wager and win several hundred shekels. Maybe Joe, one day, got a little cocky and bet the whole wad and lost to some pretty heavy hitters and ended up at the bottom of Lake Galilee wearing clay overshoes.

Whatever happened to Joe must have been a major embarrassment to the Apostolic Fathers for them not to even mention him after a certain point. Maybe Joe got Alzheimer’s and the gospel writers couldn’t figure out why Jesus, Who could raise the dead, couldn’t or wouldn’t bring clarity of mind to His mom’s husband.

But with all the botched lines, absences, miscues and frankly inappropriate behaviors, there was a first nativity scene with inattentive and clueless characters.

e“You work with what you’ve got” the Almighty must have mumbled to Self after every scene in the Messiah’s life.

Just before the pageant starts, the Reverend comes to the podium and announces to the congregants that “whoever has come in a blue Ford with a license plate that starts with NAZ has left their lights on.

This brings predictable and comfortable laughter among the assembly. With all of our life’s struggles and our obvious failure to be the next Dali Lama of our own faith expression, church is the one place where we can forget to turn off our car lights. Perhaps all of life is like one large Christmas pageant through which we stumble, forgetful of our parts or relevance to some unknown overriding theme.

The pastor flees the podium, just after expressing gratitude to all the children and the beleaguered director for what they are about to present.

As narrator number 1 begins to mumble through her hurried description of the scene where Joe is turned down by the inn keeper, (who has the Gameboy® in his bathrobe pocket), I think I hear something. It’s a voice but is it behind me? Perhaps a child speaking to their parent?

No, it’s internal. It’s within me. It’s like a quiet thought that suddenly comes to you like an almost forgotten matter that comes to you in a special and profound moment.

And the voice within me says, as if it’s my clue to the meaning of my life today and forever, “… and don’t pick your nose.”

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How Much Space Do You Need . . . To Be Happy?

How Much Space Do You Need . . . To Be Happy?

It seems that we don’t think much about our space requirements unless we see the inside of a multi-million dollar mansion in Santa Monica or Beverly Hills or we’re in a Zillow research for an apartment in New York City, Boston, Atlanta or Chicago. Or a nursing home where they aim to plant us in a tiny room with another disabled person so we don’t stray and cause more work than we already do for their staff.

Personal space. How much do we really need? And how does that need relate to our happiness?
Initially, when we fantasize about winning a mega lottery, we’d go for one of those Beverly Hills mansions with three-story vaulted ceilings and every opulent room looking like it came out of a coffee table magazine. The long walks from any one of the several living rooms all the way back through a kitchen large enough to park several cars and eight walk-in refrigerator-freezers. The exercise in going from one end of the house back past the indoor pool, the six- bedroom suite for guests and the polo field beyond the outdoor tennis courts would get us half way to our Fitbit step goal for the day. “Now THAT would make me happy!” we tell ourselves.

But throughout life, we’ve already heard “Money Can’t Buy Me Love” (The Beatles) or “You can’t take it with you” (a comedic play in three acts by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart; film with Jimmy Stewart; album by As Tall as Lions or “This World Is Not My Home I’m just a-passin’ through” (by Albert E. Brumley 1952).

Our mansion fantasy fades with our first real pay check. Our dram of having an extravagant and luxurious living space is left to live out its short existence on the rectangular television screen. And even though those video actresses and actors are raking in a million dollars an episode, have you ever noticed the apartments and hallways just outside of their studio set living spaces? Think “Friends.” Think “The Big Bang Theory.” Even these hallway studio props are plan, small, drab and a little dingy – nothing memorable. They’re just like what we end up with when we have to rent.

I have loved ones living in apartments in LA. Neither they, nor anyone they know, could ever afford
to purchase housing there without direct and committed involvement with the criminal elements of society. If you move to the convenience and stimulation of urban living, downsizing is a way of life.

You know that you end up with less as change comes. You figure that what you lose in living space, perhaps, you’ll gain in career and social stimulation. Otherwise, why would we sell our mostly owned houses and move to a lifestyle we can’t afford with dramatically less space?

Increased happiness?
Observation #1.

We will not achieve happiness by getting more space in which to live.
Then there’s the life-long commitment to the idea that we want to stay in one place while we are aging. I’m not talking about wobbling geriatrics who live in constant fear of teetering down to the ground to break a hip or pelvis, followed by 6 months in a tiny rehabilitation room for five grand a week and no bandwidth.

I mean young and agile yoga-sculpted twenty-somethings who finally get their own apartment but quickly embrace the familiarity of the new surroundings, making it their new “home.” “Home” being defined by accumulating familiarity with the friendly coffee shop server; the drug store pharmacist who seems to know your name; the organic grocery market manager who smiles at you when answering your question; the clothing shop sales person who shared her story of her scare with breast cancer or our postal carrier who made small talk by jokingly apologizing about delivering only bills.
The familiarity of all of these things and people seem to be the fabric which gives substance to our sense of “home” and happiness.

Observation #2
We interpret our happiness by the level of our familiarity with things and people.
We are thinking that it isn’t the amount of space we have that brings us happiness. We may be thinking that familiarity is supposed to make us happy. That’s why, in every poll of the aging population, we all say that we want to “age in place.” To stay where we are. Avoid moving. Keep everything as it is, the way we know it is (and should be) simply because we are used to it being that way. But a parakeet in a cage lives that way!

But familiarity breeds contempt. “Long experience of someone or something can make one so aware of the faults as to be scornful. For example, Ten years at the same job and now he hates it – familiarity breeds contempt. The idea is much older but the first recorded use of this expression was in Chaucer’s Tale of Melibee (c. 1386).” (From the Free Dictionary.com)

But when we’ve been striving for something new and different, we are grasping, looking for something else. But then, “Nothing lasts forever!” Consider: “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal, …” (Matthew 6:19). From the wings of the stage come the Buddhists dancing in their red robed kick line chorus, singing: “Everything is temporary!”

‘Ok, we get that’ you say. ‘But you can’t live that way! Shouldn’t we try to live in happiness? What is this ‘circling the drain’ theme you have for a title of your blog? Are you some sort of manic depressive?

One of our problems with clinging to keeping everything the same as we’ve always had it is that everything changes, no matter what we or anyone else does. The changing world is totally independent of our preferences, our desires, our plans and our investments. Change is out of our control. We can only manage our response to it.

Yet we live as if we can control what happens in our lives. We are all a little schizophrenic in that way. We think or pretend that we can actually control most of the world around us. The folks who think they can (and should be able to control the world around them) are incapable of growing intellectually, socially and spiritually.

  • Put another way, people who frequently say, judgmentally, ‘We’ve never done it that way before!” are, sooner or later, abandoned by people around them.
  • People who continually treat those who are different from them as “The Other” are living examples of a “Wacky Plaks” post card I saw in the 1950’s: “People who are wrapped up in themselves make a pretty small package.”
  • The people who try to control spirituality and religious inquiry by imposing their dogma and creedal formulations on others – are, sadly, needy and boring control freaks who quickly drain all the joy, human compassion and creative beauty out of any moment in the atmosphere. They justify their social and intellectual death spiral judgmental behavior by claiming that they are earnestly trying to do “the right thing” while they lacerate to shreds the self-worth of the unfortunate others whom they lambast. Avoid watching FOX (so-called) ‘News!’

Observation #3
We don’t get our happiness through having more space or stuff. Neither do we attain happiness through familiarity or knowing, in a predictive and controlling way, how everything is going to turn out – as if we can know and control everything. Therefore, it must have to do with being content with what is and bestowing compassion.

This isn’t being complacent with what is. If that is all it amounts to, then we should just take our “Soma” pills, as in Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World dystopian work. “What about social justice? … Are you suggesting that we tacitly sit back and let bad and evil continue to oppress and ravage humanity?”

Contentment has to do with a complex presence of a number of things in our own head.
For one, it is the understanding that everything changes.
For another, it is the awareness that we don’t have the resources or the influence to change or even have an impact on most things or people.

The most power we have is over ourselves, our thinking, our feeling and our own behavior.
But we can’t skip off singing: “Que sera, sera; whatever will be, will be; the future’s not ours to see; que sera, sera; what will be, will be” (Roy Evans, 1956). We are not isolated robots, sputtering off in our unique programmed behavior, doomed to run out of our battery power and cease viability at some random end point before our parts are relegated to the scrap yard.

We find contentment, and therefore meaning, as we approach each moment of our lives with what Andy Puddicombe (of Headspace.com) explains as “beginner’s mind.” It is that space or openness within our consciousness that approaches everything with wonder and acceptance. It is that mindfulness and awareness that no matter what physical spaciousness or material opulence that may or may not be around us, we can find delight, contentment and breath-taking creativity in any moment as we approach whatever it is that is our next thing.

Some think of this as spontaneity. Some call it intellectual curiosity. Some see it in looking for outlets of compassion for anyone we meet. It’s all the opposite of living a life where you’re trying to control, compete, judge, frantically escape or hoard in order to vainly try to find happiness.

That’s the “Space” in which we will find happiness or contentment. It is the space that possesses an unlimited amount of compassion. That compassion, by the way, is what will change the world and transform people and things that have gone awry. That is the space we need to ‘be happy’ but each of us already have that space within us. We just need to be present in it, from moment to moment.