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“Schadenfreude – pleasure derived by someone from another person’s misfortune.”

I have a standing meeting on Sunday morning from 9AM to 10PM. I love to listen to National Public Radio on the way home because “Hidden Brain” is on air with the host, Shankar Vedantam. I’m fascinated by the topics and most all, by the science of why we do the things we do. More importantly, the things we have in common are far more numerous than anything that divides us. Today’s topic, envy, was no different.

Envy has a poor reputation. It made the infamous ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ list. Depending on who makes up the list, it usually ranks second or third on a scale of one to seven. No one wants to admit feeling envious, but we all do it from time to time.

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There are instances envy can have positive consequences. When used for social comparison it can motivate action leading to positive change that brings about happiness – ‘I wish I had what you had so I’m going to do what you did in order achieve it’. This is benign envy. It may be frustrating at times but leads toward action that is generally positive. It’s upside of the very human emotion of envy.

The other side is the one we are most familiar with: malicious envy. It’s the kind of envy that wants to pull a superior person down. That’s where schadenfreude, envy’s evil cousin, comes in – pleasure at another’s misfortune, laughing at another’s failure.

I could go into all the science, psychology, and sociology that explains envy, especially schadenfreude, but I’ll leave that to the experts. I couldn’t help but think about the Biblical story of Cain and Able. The story explains, either parabolically or literally, how envy reared its ugly head in human society.

The book of Genesis tells of two brothers, Cain, the older brother, and Abel, the younger of the two. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. Cain would offer the first fruits of his produce in sacrifice to God. Abel would offer the “firstborn animals of his herd, choice cuts of meat”. For whatever reason God accepted Abel’s sacrifice and not Cain’s. I often cited this story as the reason I didn’t like vegetables growing up! God obviously is not a vegan.

Anyway, Cain was peeved that he didn’t measure up (there’s the social comparison thing – kind of like ancient Facebook). He headed for his room and sulked. “God spoke to Cain: Why this tantrum? Why the sulking? If you do well, won’t you be accepted? And if you don’t do well, sin is lying in wait for you, ready to pounce; it’s out to get you, you’ve got to master it.” (Genesis 4.6-7 The Message).

I can only imagine what Cain was thinking, but I’ve been there, as much as I hate to admit it. We all have at one point or another. Growing up in a fundamentalist Christian denomination I get it. I know what it’s like to ‘never measure up’. I could never be ‘good’ enough to get on God’s good side. It wasn’t until many years later I discovered that there was absolutely nothing I could do anyway, nor did I have to. God’s good side is called grace and it is totally free. It can’t be earned, but that another story…

Most of us know the rest of the story. Cain experiences a severe case of schadenfreude. He not only wants to pull Abel down: Cain kills his own brother. Envy, malicious envy, puts Abel in the ground. Cain tries to deny his involvement, but ultimately faces the consequences of his action. I’ve been there.

In my younger years I chased a lot of pipe dreams out of envy and delighted in schadenfreude when those I viewed as competitors failed. I’m glad Facebook and social media wasn’t available back then. Comparison to the projected images on social media would have killed me. There’s no way I could ever measure up.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve experienced envy and schadenfreude far less than I used to. It may simply be the result of getting older and hopefully, wiser. Robert Fulghum once wrote that one day he walked out to the mailbox in his old bathrobe, bunny slippers, and bedhead hair and didn’t care what others thought of him. He said it’s either “going to seed” or “the beginning of wisdom”. I can relate.

It’s not that I don’t care what others think of me. It’s that I have no energy or time left for chasing images. I’m content with reality these days. Life is simpler, full of gratitude, and drama-free. My quiet time on the porch and my days at the farm are filled with peace and serenity. Life is good…

Ultimately, it’s not important what you think of me or even what I think of me. The most important thing is what God thinks of me. Because of his grace, I know He not only loves me, but He’s especially fond of me. I don’t have to compare myself to anyone else, because He’s especially fond of all His kids.

I maintain a presence on social media. I have a business and Opal’s Farm. Heck, my blog even gets posted on them. I simply wish others well when they get to have fabulous vacations to exotic places. I don’t get the check-ins and pictures of dinner, but I still get envious when I see someone eating a pint of Bluebell Chocolate ice cream…

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What’s the Difference Between “Us” and “Them” (Part One)

Before I proceed with today’s post I want to wish my bride a very Happy Anniversary! I am one of the most blessed men in the world. When I was single, I didn’t think life could get much better. I was happy and content. My life was full, it was good, but it changed for the better on March 2nd, 2013. I love you, Margaret!

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This morning I’m awaiting what hopefully will be the last hard freeze of the winter. I’m enjoying the forty-degree weather in anticipation of the arrival of our Arctic neighbor sometime this evening with its accompanying wind chills in single digits. It looks like coveralls and wool hats are the proper attire for the next couple of days.

I try to stay away from my newsfeed on the weekend. It’s often difficult given my news addiction. I’ve tried to practice moderation in viewing such things, but I always look despite my best efforts. I feel like the rubber-neckers on the freeway when there’s an especially bad accident. I just have to look.

My friend Jim used to tell me that, “when you get hit by a train it’s not the caboose that kills you”. My newsfeeds a bit like that train. Usually it’s one of those positive stories like people being kind toward strangers or animals that draws me in and then BAM! I’m confronted with the chaos that makes up the news. After all, I live in Trump’s America. Enough said.

What really puzzles me is that, first, he actually won the election and two, that some people actually believe him. It got me thinking about human nature and an interview I heard the other day about animal consciousness and self-awareness. You’re probably wondering how we got here from news addiction, but stick with me…

I’ve often pondered what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom. I’ve heard all the theories – free will, self-awareness, etc. – and seen them cast aside by new evidence. Now I’m no expert or scientist, but I often wonder if the main difference is that humans can believe a lie, especially one about themselves. Hear me out here…

It began at the dawn in human history, at least that what the creation story tells us. It seems that God, the great cosmic artist, was extra busy one week (at least in His concept of time) and started creating this thing called a universe. There were stars and galaxies, planets and moons, and all kinds of beauty in the heavens. The cherubim and seraphim oohed and aahed at the artistry, but He wasn’t done yet.

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He picked one particular planet (that we know of anyway) to make oceans and mountains, savannahs and thick forests, all kinds of unique plants and animals. The angelic hosts were astounded by the majesty of the blue whales, the brilliance of the reef fish, and cunning of the sea otters. They laughed at the giraffes and the platypus and wondered what lit this creative fire in the Big Guy. After a few days of sculpting God announced that the grand finale would be tomorrow, and He wouldn’t disappoint.

The dawn of the sixth day broke. All the heavenly host gathered round. A hush fell over the crowd as God reached down and grabbed a handful of dirt. He spit on the mound of dirt and slowly began shaping and turning the wet pile. After some time, He closed his hand, cleared his throat, and addressed the assembly.

 “Can I have your attention please? I decided to create a creature in our image, one to love and take care of the rest of creation, and I’d like you all to help him out. Can you do that?”. Heads nodded in agreement and the anticipation was overwhelming.

God slowly opened His hand. “Behold, Homo Sapiens”!

A collective gasp resounded through the crowd. Some of the less reverent Cheribum snickered, wondering if this was another of the Boss’ jokes. Everywhere else there was stunned silence. The Archangel Gabriel leaned over to his cohort Michael and whispered, “He must’ve been working too hard. What was He thinking? This thing is next to worthless. Look at it, it doesn’t have claws or fangs and it obviously can’t run fast with just two legs. How will it survive out there?”

Even Jesus was heard to remark, “I don’t get it but if Dad asked me to die for them I would”.

Now I’m no theologian, but I think it’s at this point Satan turned in his keys to the executive heavenly washroom and stormed off mumbling “I’d rather be a snake in the grass than help those things out”. More on that later…

God leaned back on his heavenly throne and pronounced His creation was finished and it was good, not perfect, but good.

Fast forward a bit and God decides it isn’t good for His man Adam to be alone, so He knocks him out, takes a rib, and forms a woman for him to hang out with. Then He puts them in a garden, so they have a great place to live and all their needs are met.

Now if I’m Adam, I have it pretty good. I get to frolic around naked with this gorgeous woman called Eve and hang out with God in the evenings. There’s no such thing as shame or guilt. I can pretty much do anything I want to except eat off this one tree. Talk about paradise…

Everything is going long fine. Adam’s off doing whatever Adam did back then. Eve’s lounging in the shade when a snake slithers up and strikes up a conversation. Now a talking snake might have set of warning lights for most folks, but Eve didn’t think anything about it.

“S-s-s-o Eve, how do you like the garden?”, the serpent asked.

“This place is pure heaven”, she replied. “Every day is a new adventure.”

“I-m s-s-s-sure it is”, he hissed. “Well, I best be on my way”.

“Wait, snake. Are you hungry? Want to join me in a little snack?”

“What are we having?”, he asked as he turned back toward Eve.

“I don’t know. There’s so much to choose from. What’s your favorite?”

“How about some of that fruit there?” he asked excitedly.

“Oh, not that one. God said we can eat anything except fruit from that tree”, Eve replied innocently.

“I’m not s-s-s-surprised”, said the serpent. “It’s just like God to keep you away from that one. He doesn’t want any competition”.

“Competition. What do you mean?” Eve was puzzled.

“It’s obvious isn’t it? That fruit will make you like God. No wonder he made it off limits. Oh well, I got to go”, and he slithered off into the underbrush.

Eve pondered his words and a frown came on her face and an irritability she hadn’t experienced before. She wasn’t happy and it probably had something with being told no. She looked at the fruit and turned to look for Adam. She was overcome with desire and indecision.

Please understand I’m not here to expound on ‘original sin’, assign blame to Eve, or any of that stuff, but I have a pretty good idea what happened next. Adam came back and wondered why Eve looked so different. He wasn’t sure what to think, but he somehow knew he had to fix it. Men have been trying to ‘fix’ things ever since.

To make a long story short, they discussed what the snake had said and made a decision to “just take a bite” and see what happened. Man has been trying to be “God” all through history.

I don’t know which was worse – eating the forbidden fruit or believing they could become like gods. In either case, the results are the same: paradise is lost, living in the real world is often difficult, and the human possess the ability to believe in something that just isn’t true. I’m just saying…

(Part Two tomorrow)

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Happy Anniversary My Dear

Thoughts From the Porch: It’s a wee bit chilly on the porch this morning. Overcast skies make for a dreary opening for the month of March. The good news is that I saw my first Robin this week. They tend to be a more accurate predictor of Spring. It may be cold but today is the unofficial beginning of Spring in my book. It’s time to get busy.

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I’ve been a bit reflective of the last six years. You see, tomorrow Margaret and I will have been married six years. It’s hard to believe. It’s sounds so cliché to say it seems like yesterday, but in a way it does. On the other hand, my life without my beautiful wife seems like eons ago. That’s a good thing. I can’t imagine life without my bride.

I love telling the story of our “whirlwind” relationship. We started dating on December 1st and got married three month later. I tend to leave out the part that we’d been friends for many years prior to dating. It’s more romantic that way.

I also tend to leave out the part about my proposal. It wasn’t so romantic. Fortunately, when you get married in your fifties, practicality has its own rewards. I debated whether I should include that part in this post, but since many of our friends know about it anyway, here goes…

Margaret and I were at my house getting ready to go out to a recovery function. We were running late so both of us were in the bathroom getting ready. We were in rather inglorious positions, she was getting ready and me shirtless, shaving away. It felt a bit like an old, married couple. I laughed to myself, looked at Margaret and said, “You want to get married?”

She looked over and said, “Are you serious?”

I looked back at her. She looked radiant, despite the awkwardness of our locale. “Yeah, I think so”. The rest my friends, is history.

She still teases me to this day about my ‘romantic’ proposal. I freely admit it wasn’t one of my stellar moments, but it was the most important question I ever asked in my life. The trajectory of my life changed in the bathroom that day and it definitely changed for the better.

There are a couple of reasons I’m sharing this story today. One is that we both had been single for many years prior to our marriage. Each of us had reached a point where we thought that’s the way it would be, and we were each okay with it. Life was good, but companionship would be great and love even greater. We were both complete human beings loving the gift of life and recovery as precious children of God. We were happy and content just the way we were. We didn’t need someone to feel whole. Had we started dating earlier (and believe me, I thought Margaret was hot and way out of my league), neither of us would have been ready for the relationship we have today. It was on God’s time and not ours.

Sometimes it feels like God’s time passes far too slowly. I always want answers to life’s questions now, but it rarely works that way. I knew how to fail in marriage, but I had no clue as to how to have a successful one. If I’m honest, the only thing I knew for sure was what I didn’t want in a relationship. Experience was a great teacher in that regard. Like Tom Petty sang, “the waiting is the hardest part”.

Looking back, I had so much to learn and it took a lot of growth, both personally and spiritually, to even be ready to meet someone special like Margaret. I had to be led through the process of “becoming”. By the time we began dating I had grown in my relationship with God and, consequentially, was ready for someone like Margaret. Patience truly is a virtue. What I’m trying to say is that Valentine’s Day may not be your favorite holiday when you’re single, but it becomes one when you learn to treat yourself as worthy of love.

Secondly, even the simplest, most awkward of times can be holy moments. I often think of how I would’ve liked to have proposed to Margaret. I really can be romantic at times. Still, I wouldn’t change a thing if it meant life would be any different. Margaret and I married eight days later. I was scheduled for a craniotomy to remove an AVM that was bleeding in my head. Even though it was to be a routine brain surgery by one of Fort Worth’s most respected neurosurgeons I couldn’t fathom the idea of passing away without Margaret being my wife. Our friends came together and planned a beautiful wedding in that time. Over a hundred of them came to our wedding and we love each them dearly.

Thinking about tomorrow I find myself wishing to shower Margaret with gifts, kisses, and thanks. I can do the wishes and the thanks, but the gifts are going to be slim. We are struggling financially right now so I can commit all my efforts to our non-profit for the farm. We prayed about it and know this is what God wants us to do. That never would have happened in my past life – the prayer that is. God orders our steps today. That’s what makes ours a wonderful marriage – God is the center of it. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “a rope of three cords is not easily broken”. Thanks to my beautiful, thoughtful, and loving wife for making a home of three cords: God, Margaret, and I…

One of my favorite pictures
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MLK Day 2019

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.”

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Today is the holiday commemorating Dr King’s birth. Festivities are planned in Downtown Fort Worth later this morning. My grandkids have the day off from school. Government offices are closed, although not only because of the holiday. Some have been closed for a while. Thirty-one days to be exact…

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What defines us?

Thoughts From the Porch: I’ve spent a great deal of time in reflection over the last couple of days. I’ve experienced a lot of gratitude this weekend. Quite honestly, I wondered whether I should share it with a wider audience.

Saturday, December 1st was the thirtieth anniversary of Worlds AIDS Day. The theme this year was “Know your status”. According to the World Health Organization, over a million people a year die from AIDS because they either didn’t know their status or started treatment too late. HIV/AIDS doesn’t need to be a death sentence. Advances in treatment have made HIV/AIDS a treatable chronic condition. AIDS patients know that adherence to treatment regimens help them lead long, productive, happy lives. But that doesn’t happen is one doesn’t know their status.

You can only address the problem when you recognize the problem.

AIDS rarely makes the news anymore. Lack of coverage doesn’t mean it’s gone away. In fact, in sub-Saharan Africa, a girl between the ages of15 and 24, becomes infected with HIV every minute of every day. Every minute. Every day.

Mark World AIDS Day 2018 by “knowing your status”.

Having said that, December 1st also marks thirteen years since my personal rebirth. On that day I began a journey I thought impossible for someone like me. I’m one of the few who get to live “two lives in one lifetime” as Margaret often reminds me. It was ironic that it was also World AIDS Day, but I wouldn’t see the irony until five months later…

Professionally, I refrain from discussing the events of all those years ago for a couple of reasons. One, to do so is somewhat suicidal in the business world. Self-disclosure, particularly of one’s failures, even when followed by success, is frowned upon in the professional community. Secondly, many misconceptions and fear lead to conscious and unconscious prejudices that are somewhat detrimental to business owners such as me.

However, I have difficulty separating my professional life from my personal life. The events of my sixty years, and particularly the last thirteen of them, have shaped who I am today.

 Saturday marked thirteen years of my recovery journey, and more importantly, my relationship with God. That may not be a big deal to many folks, but it is to me. I never thought it possible. Looking back, I’m incredibly grateful for the “gift of desperation”.

 I remember when I celebrated my first year in recovery, I proudly told my mom I hadn’t used any mind-altering substances for a year. She looked at me and said, “So, I haven’t used them in seventy-seven years”. She always had a way of putting things in perspective. Seeking recognition for something that most people do normally seems kind of foolish when I think about it.

However, to diminish the miracle of recovery would be just as unwise. I still remember the hopelessness, degradation, and desperation I felt the day before I began the recovery journey. I also know what it is to experience the depth of God’s infinite grace. To refrain from sharing it would be quite selfish, and selfishness is not something I wish to entertain any longer. Besides, the more I share, the more there is to receive. Go figure. The more I give the more I have. Let that one sink in…

Life didn’t stop showing up just because I began the recovery journey. I’d been clean and sober for about five months when the consequences of my past caught up with me. I was diagnosed with AIDS. Not HIV positive, mind you, but full-blown AIDS.

The level of CD-4, or T-cells, those wonderful components of the immune system the HIV virus attacks and destroys, determines whether one receives an HIV or AIDS diagnosis and thus, the treatment protocol. Simply put, AIDS patients have a CD-4 count of less than two hundred, while HIV positive individuals have a count above the two hundred mark.

Everything I knew at the time about HIV/AIDS was that people who had it died. Thirteen years later, I see it a little differently. I learned my status and I could do something about it.

 I live a pretty marvelous life these days. My wife Margaret and I are what’s called a “magnet couple”. She’s negative and I’m positive, HIV speaking. I’m a good husband, father, and grandfather, at least I hope so. I have a wealth of wonderful relationships that I didn’t think possible all those years ago. I’m not defined by my failures, but rather, refined by them. No one should be. Think about that next time you look in the mirror or think about the person in front of you…

 

 The irony of having the same clean date as World AIDS Day isn’t lost on me. It’s a constant reminder that choices have consequences. It enables me to make better choices (at least I hope so…). It’s also a daily reminder of “who’s” I am and that His grace is what defines me today…

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Labor Day…

The air is thick with humidity this morning and ragweed season has begun. I’ll spend as much time on the porch as my allergies will allow, but it tends to be somewhat shorter in duration this time of year. It’s a little frustrating because Fall is absolutely my favorite time of year, and a perfect chance to enjoy the quiet of the porch. Spring is nice, everything coming back to life and all, but Fall beckons me to introspection and reflection on the past year. It begins slowly and reaches a crescendo by the Christmas holidays, just in time to look forward to the New Year.

Fall in North Texas may be different from others’ experience of the changing seasons. Fall officially begins on the autumnal equinox and occurs around September 22nd each year, although it may not feel like it until late October or November. Even then, it may only last a couple of days or weeks until the cold of Winter moves in. Now that the average temperature for each year seems to be one for the record books, the seasons can’t be forecast accurately anyway…

Fall, or at least the timing of it, brings a sense of urgency to living fully and enjoying the blessings in life on an even deeper level. Looking backwards, I can see missed opportunities and instead of regrets, I learn to be more vigilant. It’s easy to fall prey to tunnel vision and miss the doors that God has unlocked along the way, especially when it comes to family and friends. Fall brings clarity and renewed purpose to live life well.

I turned sixty a couple of weeks ago. It’s probably not as big a milestone as I’ve made it out to be, but it feels like it to me. Last year, I decided to step away from the contracting business, go back to school, and re-start my writing career. The last year hasn’t been easy, at least financially. Although I’ve stayed busy, starting a business is never easy. It takes a lot of grit, determination, and perseverance, especially for introverts like me. Although I’m far better at being social when business is involved, I still have difficulties, especially cold-calling and networking. Fortunately, most of my work is from home.

Most of stem from internal issues like believing I’m worthy. I’ve struggled with that for a very long time. I typically don’t like the word ‘self’ in front of things like esteem or worth. Not that healthy self-esteem or valuing one’s self is a bad thing, mind you. It’s just that I tend toward an inflated sense of self if I’m not careful. Holding myself in high regard tends to add the words ‘ish’ and centeredness after the hyphenated ‘self’. I begin to think of my own abilities rather than the gifts I’ve received from God. I forget where ego and pride have taken me in the past.

My friend Edgar often tells me that “I’m not a slow learner, I’m a fast forgetter”. I’ve always known I was reasonably intelligent. Given that it took so long to learn how valuable I am to God, I’d he nailed me down well. It’s easy to forget my successes are the direct result of plugging in to a far greater power than myself.

I may have issues when it comes to self-esteem, but I know without a doubt, that God sees me differently. When I remember who’s I am and how much He treasures me, I begin to accept myself for who I am a bit more and everything becomes easier. I treat myself a little better, forgive my failures a little more, and experience far less fear of the outside world. It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s sure gained speed as I progress further in life.

Remembering who I am makes me ‘right-sized’, as my dad used to say. I used to run from one extreme to the other: either I was the better than anyone else or I was a piece of crap. Today, I’m okay being human. I make mistakes, try to learn from them, and move on to the next thing in front of me. It also makes me far more capable of doing that both personally and professionally. I’m certainly not the best, but I do it well and perform in my own unique way.

When I was a child, my father used to tell me how special I was. I was adopted – a chosen baby. As I ventured out into the world I found out that no one else thought I was that special, and that proved to be a disappointment. I was well into my adult years before I knew what he meant. I was just like everyone else, but I was special to my father, whether it was my adopted father or my heavenly one…

So, as Fall approaches I have the opportunity for another season of introspection and reflection, not that it’s seasonal, mind you. My friend Jim (I really miss him…) always told me that’ “Self-examination, coupled with prayer and meditation, followed by vigorous action, produces favorable results”. I’ve learned just how right he was. I’m ready for Fall…