Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Under the Influence

I often wonder why I became a Catholic-Christian. Sometimes I am stumped for an answer, or find it hard to articulate just what it was that drove me knocking at the Church's door. No doubt there were influences along the way. Here's the story of two particular friends who complementarily influenced my decision to become a Christian and, ultimately, join the Catholic Church.

Andy was my best friend growing up. He attended the local Presbyterian church in Doylestown. He never preached Jesus to me or anything, but I always knew he was active in his church's youth group. Andy had his church friends and his secular friends, and they didn't mix too much, though we did occasionally get together to play football at Fonthill. They were all pretty cool, I guess, though were that kind of "Christian cool," like, going to Christian concerts and mission trips and not smoking or drinking but playing sports and acting like regular people otherwise. They were ok to hang out with I guess, but in all honesty I felt more comfortable with our non-church friends. But they all had values, for sure.

Andy was a kind of model of what was good for me. We got into all kinds of trouble (we once drive-by paintballed the school and got chased by the janitor in her truck, had drag races, stole intertubes and built a raft and sailed down the delaware, etc.), but he was always reaching out to people who weren't popular, and going against the grain when it came to peer pressure. He didn't talk much about Jesus, but I sensed he was trying to live a good life, but not in a generic be-a-good-person kind of way, but modeling after someone's life in particular. He was following a different kind of way, as if there was an afterlife we were preparing for, as if what we were doing in this life counted for something. He was always accepting and forgiving, and even when I shafted him or treated him bad, he never held it against me. I was curious about his faith, I guess, but the youth-group thing kind of turned me off--I knew Andy thought it was cool but I didn't--and if that's what being a Christian was, I didn't want any part of it.

I had another friend, Brian, who I ran cross country and track with. He went to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, the local Catholic grade school, til 8th grade, I think, then went to Lenape and West. He had a lot of brothers and sisters who were older than him, and his parents were pretty old. He also had a pool, and lived across the street from Andy.

Brian was a junior when I was a senior, and I convinced him to spend the summer after my graduation hiking the Appalachian Trail with me. It was a great adventure. I don't ever remember Brian sharing anything religious or Christian with me, though I knew he was Catholic. I didn't know what a Catholic was then, really, only that it seemed to be like this exclusive club. It was made up of Christians who maybe didn't care much about Jesus or being good or anything like that, but could always fall back on their special status with their membership card or whatever. I once badmouthed the local Catholic church while I was in the car with my dad ('Everyone goes there,' I said with disdain) and he harshly reprimanded me for my lack of reverence. I didn't know what it was about Catholics, but I didn't like them because I was secretly jealous of not being in their club.

Brian's mother was a pious woman. She had pictures of the Sacred Heart and the Immaculate Heart and Jesus and Mary all over the walls, the St. Christopher sticker in the car, the crucifixes over the beds, the rosaries, all of it. I couldn't tell, but it seemed like she was really into the Catholic Club thing, like it was a nationality or something. I was secretly fascinated, and would ask her about the Catholic stuff, and she delightfully indulged me. I wanted to be part of the club, and she knew it.

Andy gave me the general model for living and believing in what was Good. Brian (and his mom, moreso) gave me the specific (intellectual and theological) backbone for putting my general faith in a specific context, and, subsequently, in a particular community of believers. I think both are important.

We don't live in a vacuum. Everyone comes to faith through the influence of someone or something in their lives that affects their experience; faith comes alive through experience. Experience isn't everything, but I do think it's important. I have been influenced by others and, hopefully, I have influenced others as well to come to have a personal relationship with Jesus. I have learned from Andy that living by example can have powerful effects, and from Brian's mom that those pious devotions can sometimes spark enough curiosity in someone as to incite belief.

Never underestimate your influence.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Living Beyond Our Means

I think drug addiction is a scourge of humanity. I'm starting to think the same about credit.

Think about how lenders were pushing easy credit before the sub-prime mortgage crisis the way a drug dealer peddles addictive drugs--looking for easy targets, vulnerable people, wanting to make money and not caring how it wrecks a persons life. Credit card companies targeting college students (who have little to no source of income).

Our materialistic culture, where wants have become needs, is the perfect petrie dish for this virus to grow. Make people feel entitled and you can get them to buy all sorts of things they can't afford.

I use a credit card. I love being able to pay for things with it because it is super convenient. But I pay it off each month; never had a balance, hopefully I never will. If I can't afford something, I don't buy it. I like to consider myself responsible. But what about those people who aren't responsible or financially educated, who spend more than they make on a consistent basis, or buy houses they can't afford, and find themselves in major debt or foreclosure, or even find themselves addicted to credit cards?

It's been bothering me because it affects society as a whole, for the worse, and I feel powerless to do anything about it except lead by example. I feel bad for the guy who has been faithfully paying his mortgage and is surrounded by foreclosed houses, driving down the value of his house. That could easily be us. I find myself judging, and angry. We all have to live with the fallout.

Everyone knows the story of the ant and the grasshopper. The ant was responsible, working all summer to save food for the winter while the grasshopper didn't. Winter came and the grasshopper comes asking for help because he has nothing saved. The grasshopper is suddenly poor, but it's his own fault. What is the Christian response? Do we let the grasshopper lie in the bed that he has made, forcing him to be accountable for his actions, or help him out of a sense of Christian charity to 'the poor', turning a blind eye to what got him in this mess in the first place?

I don't know the answer. I have been wrestling with it since this whole financial crisis began. I feel for the poor, those who have lost their house, etc., but I want people to be held responsible for their bad choices, and their spending rather than saving, as well. I can't do all this without judging, either, which makes things worse (Granted, not all poverty is related to bad choices. Misfortune, disability, losing a job, etc all contribute to sudden poverty). But do you just turn a blind eye to it? Aren't we forced to judge to make prudent decisions?

In the 20's, during the Great Depression, people didn't have the same kind of access to credit that we have today. That means that if you didn't have the money to buy something (and a lot of people didn't), you didn't buy it. You suffered because of it. You learned how to stretch your money because you had to. As the saying went, "Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without." How often do we do that today?

I know this sounds preachy, or superior or whatever, but I don't know how to make it sound otherwise. I'm pissed with the state of our economy, and how it got this way in the first place, and I'm looking to blame. It has me feeling sour...

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cure for Pain

Medical marijuana proponents tout the drug for its ability to treat pain; getting high just happens to be a nice by-product. But what if you could treat pain with a cannabinoid without the accompanying mind-altering high?

Now you can! Sativex, a cannabis-based nasal spray developed by GW Pharmaceuticals, has been proven to be effective at managing pain for people suffering from MS and cancer treatment without the accompanying marijuana high. It has been approved for use in the U.K. and Canada.

Isn't effective cannabis-based pain managment at the heart of the legalization fight? Not really. Pain managment is the front--getting high is what people really want. Take that away and it is like sex without orgasm: functional, but not much fun.

The development of Sativex is not good news for pot-smokers seeking refuge for their "chronic pain" under the umbrella of medical marijuana. According to a recent article in TIME, "The moment Sativex goes on the market, the need for medical dispensaries, caregivers and growers--and all the confusions and prevarications that attend them--disappears."

I visited a medicinal marijuana dispensary in Oakland once with a friend who was a cop. It was kind of a joke. According to my friend, there is a "doctor" upstairs who you pay $100 or something and he writes you a prescription. It could be for anything, but "chronic pain" or "depression" is kind-of the catch all. Then you go downstairs and get your "medicine." Then you go home, take out your bong, and treat your pain.

Personally, I think the medical arguments for legalizing marijuana are weak. I agree with Christian Thurstone, a psychiatrist in Denver, who said in the aforementioned TIME article, "If we want to legalize marijuana, then let's legalize marijuana and call it a day. Let's not sneak it in the back door, dragging the medical system into it."

Marijuana can be used to treat pain, but so can meditation. Meditation requires effort...smoking a joint is, well, relatively easy. Meditation is good for mental clarity; marijuana, not so much so (any good Buddhist will tell you that). Is it any wonder why most people will jump on the bandwagon towards the path of least resistence?

Most of us don't want to make friends with our pain, whether it is physical, emotional, or psychological. It is seen as something "bad," having little or no value, something to get rid of as fast as possible, whether than involves popping a pill or smoking a bowl. I think Jesus taught us to see pain, suffering, and discomfort as something different, something to be embraced rather than run from. Teachers come in the subtlest of guises; perhaps pain has something to teach us after all.