Eat and be satisfied

Eat and be satisfied

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Recovering the Manhood Ritual

Lake Schmidell, Desolation Wilderness
After attending the bar mitzvah of a friend of Caleb's earlier this year, I got excited about doing some kind of manhood ritual for him.  It was my first bar mitzvah and I was deeply moved by the experience. I identified two aspects of the Jewish coming of age ceremony where the adolescent male invests in the process. First, he must sing a large section of the Old Testament in Hebrew from memory. Second, he must perform a community service project and present a report during the ceremony. There was incredible symbolism throughout the worship service. Everything is sung in Hebrew and the rabbi did a great job explaining the meaning behind the objects. The Torah is held up and people touch it as it passes to demonstrate reverence and obedience. This ceremony represented the confluence of four distinct identities: spiritual, ethnic, family, and gender. The closet Protestant equivalent is baptism, if baptism were also ethnic and gender-oriented. As a pastor, it was exciting to participate in a religious ceremony from which our faith is derived and witness the myriad ways in which our faiths are intertwined.

Three things impress me about the manhood ritual

1) The status of manhood is conferred by another: Ideally it is given by a boy's father. It can come from other male mentors and role models. But these are all surrogates for our ultimate and intended father God. But the purpose of the manhood ritual is that a male doesn't just declare himself a man one day but that one becomes a man through a rite of passage or manhood ritual. 

2) The manhood ritual involves separation, transition, and re-incorporation: Separation means saying good-bye to your former life and distancing yourself. It means you leave your childish ways behind you. The military uses boot camp and particularly hell week to create separation. Transition is the testing phase. It's where you endure pain and hardship. When you emerge, you're re-incorporated into the rest of the community. You're no longer the person you used to be.

3) A rite of passage is costly: The more a person invests in the process, the more appreciative he is of the new status. In order to make manhood meaningful, something must be given up. The South African tribal tradition of ritual circumcision can result in the death of the initiate. I'm certain it's an experience you never forget.  It helps me understand why fraternities and sororities haze their pledges - the more something costs you, the more devoted you'll be to that identity. After all, you value what you pay for.

I have no role models when it comes to these kinds of ceremonies. My dad is the most non-traditional Chinese person I've ever met as he was born in Hong Kong and raised apart from both his biological and adoptive father. He literally has no rituals that he grew up with. Consequently, he is ruthlessly pragmatic and skeptical of tradition and up until my brother and I started going to school, he never celebrated any holiday including Christmas and Chinese New Year. One year my mom forced him to buy a fake Christmas tree and my brother and I began demanding birthday presents from them at an early age.

Protestant Christianity also eschews tradition and rites of passage because we're so suspicious of anything that might reek of idolatry. Kissing a scroll as a symbolic gesture of faith is akin to burning incense in front of a statue of fat Chinese man. We're scared that anything we do might be construed as legalism. My church background is also dramatically sparse in tradition. A friend shocked me one year when she asked me to dedicate their infant child. I had never attended a baby dedication and had no idea what to say. It turned out to be a significant spiritual event that I am grateful to have been part of.

I'm not throwing Caleb the Protestant equivalent of a bar mitzvah (whatever that is) when he turns thirteen in November. But I wanted him to experience a rite of passage that would mark his foray into manhood and give him memories for years to come.  

Three years ago, I read about how Warren Buffett's father would take each of his  kids (he had three) on a trip anywhere in the country to celebrate their tenth birthday. It inspired me to want to do the same thing for each of my kids. Judy gave me the green light, so when Caleb turned ten, I told him excitedly about my idea. Unfortunately he couldn't think of anywhere to go.

In the past year, one of my friends took his twelve year old son to hike Half Dome. Another took his thirteen year old son on a five-day bike ride down the coast to Los Angeles. Another friend shared the joys he experienced backpacking the John Muir trail for two weeks just him and his dad. So recently Caleb mentioned that he'd like to do a backpacking and fishing trip. We've been backpacking a couple times before but never accompanied by dropping line. Caleb loves fishing. He doesn't even mind when we don't catch anything. I hate anything requiring attention to detail, delayed gratification, and the possibility of rejection. Fishing is all of that but learning to angle has helped build my character and my son wanted to do it. So I started planning.

I picked the Desolation Wilderness area southwest of Lake Tahoe. I went there on a five day fifty mile boy scout backpacking trip after my sophomore year of high school. I have fond memories of the excursion including breaking my finger on the third day while doing trail maintenance. For the rest of the trip I wore a yellow glove like a 1980's Asian Michael Jackson. It was definitely a rite of passage for me. I remember beaming with pride when Mr. Shough, the dad leading the trip, thanked me for helping the group navigate a treacherous snow descent. I felt so freaking manly. 

Disappointed with two pathetic little trout
Not one to have realistic expectations, I looked forward to lecturing Caleb about biblical manhood, courage, the meaning of life, philosophy, gender roles, how to talk to girls, all the kinds of things I'm an expert in. I made a list of of thirty or so ideas ranging from personal hygiene to puberty to understanding women and dispelling the soul mate mythology. I envisioned the two of us gazing at the stars while discussing Plato and open theology.

The first morning I told him we were going to do a devotional after breakfast and he did a half-grunt, half-sigh of resignation. I had barely read Genesis 1-3 when his eyes started rolling back into his head and his body language screamed wanting to crawl down a hole and die. It dawned on me that both the physical pain of the hike and the emotional pain of my lectures might overwhelm him and he might not survive to manhood. I shortened my lecture to cover the finer points of body hair and odor and we got back on the trail. 

We also got caught in a fifteen-minute storm that felt like an hour. We were knee-deep, fishing in a shallow pond when the sky darkened. There is nothing like being caught in a thunderstorm in the Sierras. When lighting strikes in the mountains, the thunder clap is deafening.  Few encounters are more terrifying (i.e. bears and avalanches). Caleb quickly learned to count the seconds between flashes and cracks to judge how far off the strikes were. 

Here's the primary manhood lesson I impressed upon Caleb over twenty miles, 2000 feet of elevation gain, and three days and two nights: As Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen once said, adventure is just bad planning. Our trip was unintentionally costly to Caleb. He learned meal rationing because I miscalculated how many freeze-dried dinners to bring. He learned to share light because I dropped and broke my headlamp in the trail head parking lot before we even got on the trail. We couldn't do a proper bear bag because the rope I brought was too short. We ended up hiding our food under large rocks and fortunately, no animals got to it. I forgot cooking oil and open fires are not allowed so we stove burnt the two little fish we caught. My poor planning offered numerous opportunities to overcome adversity. 

Caleb is excited to spend three days with his dad
Caleb is an amazingly responsible, helpful, and reliable kid. He helped with cooking, filtering water, setting up and breaking down camp, orienteering - pretty much everything and often without me asking. He is in ridiculously good shape and has great mental toughness. He did not complain at all even when his eczema flared up and his hand became a big open sore. It will be very different with my other two sons but it's nice to practice on the easy one. 

Looking back, I pretty much failed on all three aspects of the manhood ritual. Caleb didn't get a diploma, certificate or seal as a result of the trip. I doubt he remembers anything I said. The hike was strenuous but didn't cost him very much and I didn't get him involved in the preparation as much as I should have. The separation was limited and somewhat superficial. And we didn't have the deep, profound conversations I had imagined.

But it was a step.
I'm looking forward to taking further steps when I celebrate his next phase of manhood - high school graduation. I'm thinking to invite some other father-son friends to come along so that together we can exponentially multiply our bad planning and thus, adventure. 

When we returned to the trail head parking lot, Caleb turned around and high-fived me. We made this trip happen together as a team. Caleb and I are traveling companions to two different destinations - he strides towards manhood while I stumble around fatherhood. In this journey, if he wins so do I.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Olaf and the Negative Mood Cycle

Olaf, the gregarious but clueless snowman, does not wrestle with depression in the movie Frozen. However the actor who plays him, Josh Gad, does play an addict in the 2013 comedy Thanks for Sharing.

Thanks for Sharing has an ambitious premise. It attempts to portray the journey of three sex addicts (Gad, Mark Ruffalo, and Tim Robbins) in a humorous way. It does a decent job but the last 30 minutes are Hollywood-predictable. 

There's one main reason I would recommend watching it - Josh Gad's writing scene. Gad has the rare ability to convey insight with humor. And in about three minutes, he's able to express nonverbally exactly what it feels like to be caught in an addictive pattern. And it's hilarious too.

For the past couple weeks, I've taught about the negative mood cycle, a term coined by my seminary professor, David Eckman. The negative mood cycle describes the addictive pattern. It starts with some kind of negative emotion - boredom, depression, fatigue, or anxiety. Out of that state, a person craves some type of fulfillment to either medicate the pain of the mood or a chemical boost to push through it. The lust is either escapist or stimulating or both. The sin is the execution of the desire. To put it in spiritual terms, sin is the attempt to occupy the vacuum in our hearts that only God can fill. We may not be sex addicts but we are all sin addicts.

Gad's character, Neil, is a member of a sex recovery group but lies to them about his days of sobriety (no uncommitted sex, masturbation, or porn). His sponsor asks him to write about his addiction. In his apartment, Gad stares at the workbook and his anxiety is palpable. A few minutes later, he's masturbating to a porn scene. Then he's back staring at the blank workbook, reminded again of his inadequacy and failure. He is craving some kind of satisfaction, a chemical boost. He eats compulsively. From there, the cycle accelerates in ways that will resonate with anyone who has wrestled with sin patterns. The scene ends on a comically shocking note.

The scene works best seen in the context of the movie so you can get a sense of Gad's character. You'll also see how the addictive cycle drives one to rationalize his behavior. The addictive pattern is catalyzed and sustained by deception. The other person worth watching in the movie is Pink. She is so good. It's as if she's playing her artistic self - angsty, loud, passionate, and raw.

Critics have attacked the movie because sex addiction seems so banal compared to substance abuse. Sex is a primal urge so how can it be an addiction? But that's exactly the point of what the Bible teaches about sin and the negative mood cycle. Sin is the corruption of a good, natural desire. It is not the sin behavior itself that God abhors, it is the appetite that drives the actions. 

So whether your particular fancy is sex, porn, video games, food, shopping, paranoia, perfectionism, Korean soap operas, travel, isolation, social media whoring, work, or religious activity is not the most relevant detail. Those are windows into the addictive pattern. It's the fact of the addictive pattern that matters. We have a tendency to look to certain activities to save us from our negative moods. That is idolatry and what Jesus meant when he said the truth would set us free. He sets us free from the addictive pattern and its lies.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

7 Questions Jeremy should NOT ask Kobe

1) Can I crash on your couch tonight?

2) You know Taiwan and China are different countries right? 

I'm Taiwanese American AND Chinese American. My parents are from Taiwan but originally from mainland China. It's actually two different countries. Taiwan is recognized by the United Nations as a nation but the People's Republic of China, that is, mainland China, sees Taiwan as a renegade province. Thus, Taiwan has a big chip on its shoulder when it comes to sovereignty and foreign affairs. The two countries have this strained relationship. But it's been better recently. It's all kinda complicated. 

Kobe, why are you walking away?

3) When do you think Yellow Mamba will catch on?

4) So I read you make 900 jumpers a day. Do you ever, like, you know, do the same thing with passing?

5) Like I was wondering could we maybe work something out like for every 10th pass I give you, maybe you could send one back my way? 

I could make like one of those frequent buyer cards, I give you 10 passes, you give me one back. What? 10s not enough? OK, how about 20? 50? 100? 

6) How about we do a pre-game handshake together? 

Except instead of putting on glasses and pocket protectors, we can both pretend to sign a piece of paper and then tear it up. You know like how Vanessa did after she filed . . . . OK, you come up with something.

7) You remember that Colorado rape thing that you've put behind you? 

I can totally relate. 

OK, not the adultery thing cuz I'm not married. And not the one-night stand part because I don't do that. And no, not the sexual assault charges part either.

But see you met this girl who was crazy about you. She wants you and makes it known. I mean, she pretty much throws herself all over you. And you have this encounter, which you thought was mutually beneficial but later on, she completely turns on you. She goes insane and acts like you're her worst enemy. It's wild when someone is so high on you then later goes completely cold and stabs you in the back.

Yup, that was Houston for me.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

When Depression is Sin

Depression is not sin. That's what my wife told me in response to a statement I made during my sermon this past Sunday. I should not have categorized depression as a sin behavior. 

My wife was right. Depression is not sin. But it is often accompanied by sin. Just as it's difficult to masturbate without lustful thoughts, it's difficult to be depressed without self-hatred, mistrust, or fear.

I had been giving a talk about the negative mood cycle. For example, if confronted with a difficult writing assignment, every fiber of our being resists putting words on the page. In order to address our negative mood, we lust after some kind of solace, some chemical boost that will give us the energy we need to start working or avoid thinking about it altogether. From there, we pursue self-medicating behaviors - eating, social media, TV, pornography, video games, substance abuse, etc. Some of those behaviors are overtly sinful (porn, substance abuse) and some are only sinful when consumed as as a means of salvation. 

Depression can be, paradoxically, a type of salvation. The feeling of being depressed can act as a form of avoidance or self-medication. It is often a by-product of a certain pattern of thinking. I understand depression can have a biological/chemical foundation (ex. post-partum depression) but what we do with  our thoughts is our responsibility. We own our thoughts in the same way we own our actions.

Dan Allender, in his book The Wounded Heart, addresses adult victims of sexual abuse: 
Abuse provides the raw data that seems to prove that God is not good [emphasis his]. . . The abuse victim's fundamental enemy then, is sin: the fearful refusal is to trust a God about whom she is deceived. The Spirit of God is hard at work in her to reveal God's true nature and confront her fear and mistrust, but His work is a battle that requires her cooperation. 
Depression, like abuse, is not the fault of the victim. My aim is not to make people feel guilty or ashamed about depression. But in a similar way to abuse, depression provides the raw data that seems to prove that God is not good. That raw data can arise biologically or as a by-product of our mistrust of God. Either way, the negative emotion tempts us to turn away from God. 

I'm convinced that most types of depression are sustained by a pattern of thinking that does not acknowledge who God is and who we are in Him - new, righteous, and beloved children. 

We battle against depression, like all sin, by opening our eyes to the reality of God's nature and what Christ has accomplished on our behalf. The broken crust of wilderness is not of our choosing but where we place our trust is.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Emotional Bandwidth

Having the emotional capacity to focus on something besides one's own needs. In a social interaction, emotional bandwidth is the ability to divert attention away from how one is being perceived (and one's interests) towards attending to the other person. It means feeling secure enough with who you are that you can focus on another person's verbal and non-verbal language. In a conversation, it's crucial to have enough emotional bandwidth to observe the other person objectively. 

An example: Although Victor is a perceptive person, he doesn't have the emotional bandwidth to notice whether people are interested in what he's talking about. If he felt more secure as a person, he would be freed up to listen empathetically to others.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Time Management = Emotional Management

Time management help: For as long as I can remember, I've struggled with procrastination, lack of focus, and the inability to complete tasks. As the latch-key kid of Chinese immigrant parents, I knew the drill - come home from school, have a snack, and then do homework and practice violin until dinner. 

Yeah right.

Instead I would lounge around, snacking and imitating the moves I saw on MTV (my generation learned dance from music videos not Youtube). I would try to start an assignment only to be distracted by something going on outside. My friends would come over. If we had social media, it would have been game over.

I always believed my problem was time management. If I could only organize my time more efficiently, I would be far more productive. If I could only set up a plan where I  allocated a specified number of minutes to important tasks, I would be able to get things done. 

It never worked. 

No matter how well I planned, the boost in productivity might last a day or two (or an hour or two) and then I would lapse back into frittering away my time.

It's easy to observe that I lacked discipline, perseverance, and self-control. These qualities compose the foundation of effective time management. It takes discipline to hold to a schedule.  Perseverance helps one stay focused on tedious assignments. And self-control gives one power to refuse the temptation of distractions and impulses.

Amy Chua and impulse control: Amy Chua understands this. In her book Triple Package, impulse control is one side of the cultural success triangle. She writes:
But study after study— and there’s been a prodigious amount of research— confirms that overall, Chinese immigrants parent far more strictly than non-Asian Americans, making discipline, high expectations, perseverance, and self-control part of their children’s daily lives.
And Chinese parents enforce these values with their kids in several tangible ways: 
Chinese American preschoolers and kindergartners engage in a “focused activity” at home about an hour a day, compared to less than six minutes per day for white American children the same age. Chinese American children watch about one-third less television than white Americans.
And look down on American parents who don't: 
In a nationwide Pew survey, over 62 percent of Asian Americans agreed that “most American parents do not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school.” In fact, Chinese (and other Asian) immigrant parents sometimes perceive American parents as lacking in the very work-ethic and diligence they are trying to instill in their children.
This is not news to anyone who grew up with Chinese immigrant parents. Chua devotes an entire chapter to the psychological problems that impulse control can wreak on a person's self-esteem. She cites dress designer Vera Wang's sentiment that growing up in a Chinese family felt like a prison - where you never meet your parents' approval.

After all, Chinese culture basically negates the role of a person's emotional life. Emotions, especially negative ones, are distractions from the ultimate goal of hard work and success. They should be suppressed as much as possible for the sake of group harmony and focus. I've worked with so many Chinese American youth who, as they mature into adulthood, feel emotionally stunted by their upbringing. They are extremely competent in almost all areas of life but lack vulnerability and emotional vibrancy and expressiveness.

Time management is emotional control: The better you can manage your emotions, the easier it will be to exercise discipline, perseverance, and self-control. Perhaps it's even more accurate to describe self-control as equal to emotional control. Basically, you work hard and focus when you feel good. For example, while doing a tedious homework assignment, you can medicate boredom one of two ways - 1) give in and find something more interesting to do (Facebook, video games) or 2) suppress the pain of boredom, buckle down, and get through it. The first approach does not foster discipline, perseverance or self-control. But the second approach is soul-numbing and can threaten autonomy, self-reflection, and creativity. 

This is pretty much the East-West cultural divide. Eastern culture places high value on impulse control by suppressing emotional life. Postmodern western culture minimizes impulse control by elevating the emotional life over everything else. Chinese culture says it doesn't matter what you feel. Western culture says what you feel is the only thing that matters. 

Christianity has a third way - your emotional life is vital but it does not control you. Christ set us free from the tyranny of the negative mood cycle. . We are no longer prisoners to depression, guilt, shame, insecurity, and worthlessness. Boredom is painful but it does not have the power to dissuade from what is most important. Emotions are a window to the soul and negative emotions indicate areas where we need to experience Christ's victory over sin and death.

What does this mean practically?

1) Receive God's abundance of grace in regards to emotional management: Your worth is far more than how we use our time and our emotional highs and lows. Find people who would give you encouragement in how express your emotional life - people who will listen to you and empathize with how you feel.

I have to continually remind myself when I feel like I completely wasted my day surfing on-line, that my worth is not in what I do. It is in these moments where the high expectations of Chinese culture are not my friend. But high expectations are not the enemy - it's the shame, guilt, and insecurity that results when we fall short. 

2) Respect how God uniquely constructed your emotional temperament: Cultivate awareness concerning your impulses and evaluate them. God gives us impulses for a reason. As an extrovert, I have an almost constant impulse to be around other people. I need to respect that by putting appointments in my everyday schedule. I like variety and I need to change up my routine and/or reward myself when I complete a task.

If I could do it over again and advise my parents on how to raise me, I would have told them to customize tasks according to my emotional temperament.  I would have them build time into each day to do something different, spontaneous, and unexpected. I would affirm the value of those moments of "distraction". I would give a child like me space to indulge my curiosity without feeling guilty or ashamed about wasting time. I would offer encouragement that although not all my impulses were good, the power of my impulses were a blessing. God made me a passionate and curious person and these qualities have both fleshly and spiritual aspects. At the same time, I would put boundaries in place to help me develop self-control, discipline, and perseverance. I would give myself encouragement and tactics to help me stay focused and work through obstacles.

This has great importance when I consider two of my sons, with whom I share a similar emotional temperament. I want them to know that their emotional life is a tremendous gift from God, that they have freedom in the Spirit to express their emotions, and that there is abundant grace and forgiveness when they do not. And I begin by receiving grace for myself first.