1% Christian History

My old college roommate and I started a tradition last year. Each Christmas, we buy each other a book that we think would be beneficial reading. I didn’t know what to expect from my greasy friend but waited patiently for my gift to arrive. One day, I walked up to my porch and saw a package that looked like a wrapped encyclopedia. I wasn’t too far off; my dirtbag roommate bought me a 1000 page book on the history of Christianity – Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years by Diarmaid MacCulloch. This book loomed over me all year and I kept putting off what seemed like a Sisyphean task. By the end, it took me about 50 hours spread over a month.

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Christian history is difficult because it isn’t like normal history – it is a weird dance of facts, figures, and eternity. Having eternity involved complicates everything because you either have to take the Thomas Jefferson route and get rid of all supernatural events or take the Jack Van Impe route and prepare for the apocalypse. These two extremes frame the gamut of Christian beliefs and preface why Christian history is one continuous story of division. From the moment Jesus died on the cross, his disciples went out and preached the Gospel – within a generation, groups were already disagreeing on the intricacies of theology. The Christian church as we know it today is like a box of peanut-brittle that has been shaken by a two-year-old. Originally there was one solid chunk but now there are thousands of variant morsels. This post will only focus on one tiny but very important nugget of Christian history – as the title surmises, this book could fill 99 more blogs.

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The 1% we will cover is one of the most important moments in the Christian church – the Chalcedonian Schism. The Council of Chalcedon met from October 8th to November 9th in the year 451 AD. This Council was called by the Roman Emperor Marcian as an ecumenical meeting for all the important churches at the time – the Eastern Orthodox, Catholic, and Oriental Orthodox. At this point in history, the Christian church needed to clarify theological doctrine and adjust the power roles of western and eastern leaders. The main reason for this meeting was to clarify the true nature of Jesus.

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How could Jesus be both God and man? Before the meeting, there were groups who believed Jesus appeared on earth as a man disguised as God (Docetism) while other groups believed Jesus was, in reality, a normal man chosen by God (Adoptionism). These beliefs led to Nestorianism (which viewed Christ as having some mixture of divine and human elements) and Eutychianism (which viewed Christ’s divinity as completely consuming his humanity like a drop of vinegar in the ocean).

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The Council of Chalcedon sided with a watered down Nestorian view which became known as Dyophysitism – which states that Christ is one person in two natures – “distinctively” man and God in one. This led to the creation of Miaphysitism which held the belief that Christ is one nature and that nature has “inseparable” components of man and God. Confused yet? Again, Dyophysitism believes that Christ is one person with two separate natures while Miaphysitism believes that Christ is one nature which is both divine and human.

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This Dyophysitism decision at the council was agreed upon by the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. However, the Oriental Church broke off from this definition and became known as Non-Chalcedonian. The Oriental Church includes the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church, Syriac Orthodox Church, Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church. This schism had drastic effects on the eastern church as a whole by shifting power to the west and decreasing overall cooperation. This separation was one variable that allowed the new religion of Islam to take over eastern strongholds of Christianity; the west would not realize their mistakes until the first crusades 600 years later.

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Our current world is shaped by the decisions at this council: The politics of countries, the religious makeup in the Middle East, and the West’s ignorance of the Oriental Church. So what can we learn from the Council of Chalcedon? One huge lesson is that Christianity can come in many different flavors, shapes, and sizes. Christians shouldn’t be divided into little pieces of peanut brittle. Christians should work together under one absolute truth – Jesus is the son of God who died for our sins so we can have eternal life and spread His message of grace; in a world still divided, we need to focus on that point more than ever. Don’t get hung up on the details and throw your hands in the air thinking religion is stupid. If you focus on loving others, you will obtain the other 99%. 

 

Destroy Your Life Timeline

Have you ever been depressed or saddened by your life course? Have you ever wanted to go back in time and change previous decisions? I play that game a little too often; “If only I would have stuck with pre-med…I could be a doctor right now,” “If only I would have enjoyed that stage in my life and not have rushed through it,” “If only I would have been more patient I wouldn’t be in this current predicament.” This game can be both good and bad depending on whether you learn from your mistakes or just continue sulking in a theatre of regrets.

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Another dangerous game to play is making a timeline for your “life.” By 22 I will have my college degree. By 25 I will be married. By 30 I will have my first baby. By 35 I will be a manager at work. This all too familiar timeline can be an excellent guide for our life goals, but many times it becomes a barbed-wire measuring stick. If your life goes off the tracks, you can feel lost and frozen with fear of the unknown. “What am I going to do now…I’m already (fill in the age)!” Age controls us more than we like to think and I am by no means immune to the pressure; just the other day I was thinking about going back to school but thought myself too old for the endeavor. So what is one to do if they find themselves flying off the tracks of their ideal timeline?

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The distinction between the past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
-Albert Einstein 

One of my most favorite things to do is to read about what other people have experienced in past lives. For example, what if you were really stressed out about not getting pregnant? Did you know Marie Antoinette took SEVEN years to consummate her marriage and the whole time she was freaking out about not having a baby? What if you stressed about not having the career you dreamed of? Did you know the first time Winston Churchill ran for office, he lost and subsequently became a war prisoner in South Africa? Or what if you think love will never come knocking on your door? Did you know Queen Victoria, thinking life was over after the death of her husband, fell in love with a Scottish servant?

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The point is that whatever you are worried about, someone has already lived it and come out of the situation better than ever. We are not on an isolated island; the past is there to help us as if it were an experiment – all different problems and scenarios tested over and over. We need to put this historical knowledge into practice by fostering patience and hope. What if Winston Churchhill had just given up hope? What would the world look like today? Your timeline might look like crap but do you really think it will never get better? Do you really think anyone has a perfect timeline as if life were a conveyor belt at Disney World?

We will not have failure – only success and new learning.
-Queen Victoria

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To Hope and Wait is to be human. We are most human in groups, and we must always look to others for wisdom. To be human is also to be present. What does the “future” have to do with the current moment? Your age is just a number but more than that, the future is just an imaginary pretext. The future is something in our heads, and there is truly nothing besides this moment in which these words are being read. That is a hard concept for people to grasp but when it is correctly understood life becomes disentangled from a timeline.

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An example of this is whenever old people get married. I think this is one of the best ways to tangibly understand the “present.” A 90-year-old bride doesn’t care about her timeline. She gets married so she can enjoy the here and now. Of course, this is all easy to write about, but it ‘s hard to put into practice. Again I remind everyone to Hope and Wait. Enjoy today and believe that tomorrow will be even better. Appreciate your timeline and be grateful for what you have instead of what you do not have. You will get through this stage in your life and one day smile at how far you have come; maybe your shaky timeline will provide wisdom and motivation for someone else.

 

When Death Surprises Us

It is always remembered as that definitive moment in time. That very instance in which bad news was learned. Before the news, life seemed normal. After the news life seemed forever tinged. Very few things in life bother us more than an unexpected death; the death of a person whose time should not have come. When death surprises us it is one of the most shocking and disorienting moments of our existence. We see our lives as journeys that have some sort of predictive storyline: go to school, get married, have kids, move up the ladder, travel, retire, die of old age. When this plot suddenly falls off the tracks, we tend to pause in befuddlement – questioning our destiny. Usually, we try to rationalize an unexpected death. We convince ourselves that there was a “cause.” We try to put order to a thing that just seems random. Death caused by something is better than death caused by nothing. Randomness is scary and we quickly rush for explanations to help us rationalize our control on life. It’s like watching a scary movie and saying that we don’t live in that haunted house so we couldn’t possibly be killed.

Of course, there are sensical things to be done to avoid death. We know not to stand in the middle of the road, play with venomous snakes, smoke 10 packs of cigarettes a day. Along with the obvious, there are daily health habits which can help a person reach old age: eat fruits and vegetables, exercise, limit stress, etc. In general, people tend to live longer and healthier lives than past generations. It is for these reasons that we tend to forget about the inevitable – death. We think that if we follow a formula that the outcome will be fireside chats with grandkids and a peaceful death at the ripe age of 95. More than ever we believe that our “own” choices can dictate our future. Unfortunately, we have absolutely no control of the future. Sure, we can do our best to live healthy lives in the “hope” of old age, but there are no guarantees. This may sound fatalistic, but it is the truth – we have zero control over the future. Our lust for control is why unexpected death always sends us into an internal panic. We reassess our goals and look at our loved ones in a new light. It is this mindfulness that is always so fleeting but yet so vital to our existence.

A very special co-worker of mine died this weekend, and I feel almost frozen with questions of why. Why did she have to die so young? Why did God take someone so smart and amazing? Why did it seem so random? Grief is a complicated beast, and I had to write this post to tweeze through a lot of my thoughts. I miss my friend, and I do believe she is in heaven. Life teaches us to never take for granted the present. What we have today is not guaranteed tomorrow. It is ok to make plans for the future but never rush through your days trying to get there. We can’t escape death, and we can’t control our futures. Love deeply whenever you can because you may never get a second chance.

 

Waiting to Die

My whole life feels like one big waiting game. I could not wait to get done with High School. I could not wait to get married. I could not wait to buy a house. I could not wait to eat my dessert. I am always waiting for something in life and it is not good. We all tend to do this to some degree because we are uniquely gifted with the understanding of the “future” tense. No other animal is consciously waiting for some future event – they are always responding to stimulus in a programmed manner. The ultimate example of the waiting game is that guaranteed end point – death. I am scared that I will eventually run out of exciting things to wait for and ultimately begin to wait for my last breath. It sounds macabre but isn’t that what a lot of elderly people are doing at this very moment. There are nursing homes around the world full of people that have one last future plan. I don’t want to rush through life anymore and try to speed up what is already a fast-tracked existence.

On any given day, I am waiting for a myriad of future events. In the middle of the night I wake up waiting for my alarm. In the morning I wait for lunch time. In the afternoon I wait for the end of the work day to get done. In the evening I wait to eat dinner. While lying in bed I wait for my favorite TV show. While I close my eyes to sleep I wait for my dreams. When I’m waiting for the aforementioned events, I am waiting for even more things in the distant future: blog posts to write, books to read, plans to be made, sex to be had, money to be saved, and chores to be completed. During my waking hours, I probably spend 75% of the time thinking about things in the future or things that are unrelated to the present. Even when I am doing something fun, I catch myself waiting for it to be over so I can move onto the next activity.

When I was in college, I was in a huge rush to get done and start my life. I could not wait to never have to write a stupid paper or turn in an assignment again (ironic now that I blog). I did everything I could to graduate early and now I look back with deep regrets. I missed out on seeing my friends whom I rarely ever see now. There was nothing for me at the end of the process – all I had was that habit of waiting for the next step. Are we all destined to wait out our lives until we’re dead in the ground? I am realistic and know waiting will always play a role in my life. How could I ever plan for the future without daydreams? How could I ever better myself without future goals? I will never stop looking forward but I need to find a way to balance my gaze more towards the present. What is the best way to be mindful? The number one way to get out of the waiting game is to notice the details. Your brain is almost always on autopilot and can function pretty well with minimal concentration. Whenever you take your brain out of its autopilot you begin to concentrate and focus on the here and now. My top two ways of doing this is by focusing on my breath and focusing on specific details. For example, my mind was wandering while writing this blog so I focused on my breath for a couple of inhales. Almost immediately, I began concentrating on the task at hand and was completely present. If you find yourself in the waiting game focus on something extremely particular. I love looking at the sunrise or the stars when I let Max out to take a crap. Focus on one thing and just analyze it for a couple of seconds. You will be present and your thoughts will stay in that state for quite some time thereafter.

I know this is all stuff that people have heard before but I personally always need reminding. Practice being present and stop waiting for the next step. Life is a river that you float down; every bend is unique, some bends are bad, some bends are good, but you can only stay at each for a certain time – once you pass one it is gone forever.

Chihuahua Super Powers

Max, our pea-brain chihuahua, has been a member of our family for almost two months now. I wrote about Max in a earlier post and since then our friendship has grown significantly. Initially, I saw our friendship as one sided-being that I fed and loved the dog on a regularly basis. But over time, Max has returned the favor by teaching me a key life lesson-contentment. It is hard to be content in this world that always tells us we need “more.”  Max has a very simple life and for all intents and purposes seems quite happy. He is either in a complete state of relaxation on the couch or in a complete state of ecstasy while eating-especially when its tortilla chips. From my observations he never thinks about anything except what is happening right in the present moment. If he is on the couch, he owns that couch. If he is on a walk, he doesn’t even know the couch exists. Max is a master at being present. Now, this may be because his tiny brain can’t handle too much thought but nevertheless it is a skill that I am learning from my new friend. At any given moment I am trying to get somewhere, do something, or thinking about the future. It is rare that I am actually a witness of the present and fully taking in my surroundings.

When Max eats a tortilla chip, his one neuron must be overwhelmed by all its intricate details-the saltiness, the crunchiness, the deliciousness, the sheer heaven that is fried corn. When I eat a tortilla chip I usually am not thinking about the chip but rather how fat I will feel after eating the whole bag and whether it is weird to be eating them while taking a shower. When Max goes on walks it is like he is running through a field filled with magical grass and hypnotic trees. When I take a walk, I am thinking about tomorrow’s schedule and questioning whether or not I had pooped that day. My point being, Max is content and I am not. If I were content I would take in each moment and not feel the need to have “more.” I wouldn’t be constantly worrying about the future or trying to upgrade my material possessions. I would be happier and more at peace because all I would need would be the present moment. The next time you eat a tortilla chip, try not to think about anything else, use your “Chihuahua Super Powers” of thoughtlessness. Take a bite and see how much better it tastes. It may be the first time that you have ever consciously tasted something. Who would have thought that my dog, who I thought would never teach me anything, is now helping me see the world in a better way? Thanks Max for your limited mental capabilities, they are helping me to find greater contentment.

Made in Brazil-Paulo Coelho

Just this last Christmas my Mom bought me a very interesting book-Paulo Coelho: A Warrior’s Life. My lovely mother had the best intentions with this book but I don’t think she knew exactly what the book was about. I say this because my Mom and I had never heard of Paulo Coelho and she didn’t realize the book was a biography of his life. So, the book has been collecting dust on my shelf for the past 5 months and I have honestly had no desire to crack it open. Knowing that I would eventually have to read the book, to ensure future Christmas presents from my Mom, I decided to read some of Paulo Coelho’s fiction. I went to the library and checked out The Alchemist, Veronica Decides to Die, and 11 Minutes. As most of you know, I am not the biggest fan of fiction and it is rare that I get into books that do not teach me about philosophy, psychology, or history. Well…I devoured these three books like a fat boy devours cake on his birthday. Paulo Coelho is a amazing writer and his books dig deep into the human psyche. His writing is very philosophical and intricate while simultaneously entertaining. It is no wonder that he has sold over 200,000,000 copies and has published over 15 award winning books. I currently have 9 more of his books checked out from the library and have finished reading the 500 page biography my Mom bought me for Christmas. Thanks Mom for introducing me to this awesome author!

Paulo Coelho de Souza was born August 24th, 1947 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He was a very eccentric, odd-looking young man who grew up during the tumultuous times of dictator rule. Coelho came from a wealthy family but he was a problem child who disobeyed his parents and lived life on his own terms. His parents would eventually have him forcefully committed to a psychiatric ward on three separate occasions where he was given electroshock treatment and a myriad of psychotropic medications. Coelho did have many quirks about him but he was not mentally insane-just a rebellious kid raised in the hippy-era of the 60’s. Eventually, he moved out of his parents house and began a bohemian lifestyle that included copious amounts of drugs, sex, and counter-culture activities. He would become a amateur Satan worshiper in his 20’s and publish many articles for magazines with hidden messages about alternative societies, UFOs, and psychedelic beliefs. Brazil at the time was very strict about media censorship and on two separate occasions Coelho was apprehended by the police for his publications. On one occasion he was thrown into a car with a black bag over his head and subsequently threatened with torture during a week long interrogation. Following this scare, and a supernatural encounter with the Devil, Coelho denounced Satan worshiping and went back to his Catholic roots.

Coelho started his artistic career as an actor and producer in small production plays. He would eventually move on from the theater and make a large amount of money writing lyrics for popular Brazilian songs. From the time he was a young boy, he wanted to become a famous writer and throughout his young career he never lost the desire to write. It wasn’t until he was 35 that he published his first book and it wasn’t until he was over 40 that he became famous with The Alchemist which sold over 80 million copies and has been translated into 67 different languages-the world record for most translations of a book by a living author. At current, Coelho has published 30 books which are published in 170 countries throughout the world. I admire his tenacity and ability to maintain his passion for writing; it is no easy feat to continue a dream as you get older. The sad fact is that I never had heard of him nor any of my friends. I highly recommend his books because you will gain a deeper appreciation of life, relationships, imagination, and your own passion. Start with The Alchemist-you won’t be disappointed.

Guaranteed Happiness

Do you want to be happy for the rest of your life? Do you want to live each day as if you were a overly-positive camp counselor? Do you want to wake up Monday morning feeling like you could wrestle a bear or win an argument against a jerkhead? I do! Who wouldn’t want to best a pachyderm or better yet crap glorious poops on a regular basis? To get closer to my goals of blissful happiness, I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert. Most of you know who Daniel Gilbert is because he is the slightly older gentleman on all those Prudential retirement commercials; “How much is in your pocket, go put it on that board so you can see how big it will get in 5000 years when you can finally stop working.” Gilbert is a frick after my own heart and I really like his style of writing. This book was not an easy read and honestly it could be a semester long course with how many research studies it cites. However, because of Gilbert’s explanations of how we think, I now understand happiness much better than before.

To truly understand what makes us happy we must first understand how we perceive the world around us. We have flawed thinking about the past, present, and future.

  1. We look into the past and only remember high points and low points which doesn’t give us an accurate history of events. For example, we remember the highlights of the vacation but forget the mundane parts like sitting in the car or eating ham sandwiches.
  2.  In the present, we naturally compare our emotional state with others seeing only the things that reaffirm our beliefs. For example, we want a new car so we note to ourselves every time we see someone who appears happy with a new car-while disregarding all the unhappy people.
  3. We imagine the future without exact detail, which fools us into thinking that our emotions will be stronger then they actually will be. For example, we imagine that our sadness would be extremely high the day after our team loses the big game but in reality we are not that sad because we didn’t include in our imagination all the other things we would do in that day like have sex or eat a big cheeseburger.

In addition to our lack of accurate past, present, and future perceptions, we have an excellent knack to defend against negativity. We have an emotional immune system which helps us rationalize negative stimuli. For example, you find your best friend in bed with your woman. You will be mad but eventually your emotional immune system will rationalize the event in your head: “She was a whore, I’m so glad I figured this out sooner then later…she wasn’t good enough for me anyways…she did always have a weird cat smell.” We also surround ourselves with people who reaffirm our beliefs and this further helps the emotional immune system do its job of keeping us positive.

So what the frick does all this crazy psychology have to do with happiness? To put simply, our perception of the world is influenced by our own world view and we will seek to reaffirm this view at all costs. Since our views of past and future are fuzzy at best we really can only reference the present for accurate indicators of happiness levels. How the heck do you reference the present if you are trying to figure out your future happiness? The best way is to look at people who are experiencing your imagined future in the present. For example, you are wondering whether having children will make you happy, or whether having a new car will make you happy, or whether getting that weird hipster haircut will make you happy. You need to find someone who currently is in that state and glean information from them regarding their state of happiness. Daniel Gilbert calls this “Reporting Live from Tomorrow.” I told you this book was a difficult read and hence a difficult subject to sum up. In addition to these tips on happiness, I want to add my own small opinion on the subject. Guaranteed happiness can only come when you appreciate your blessings that have already come to be while having the mentality that no blessing in the future is guaranteed-making every new experience an awesome surprise gift. Life-long happiness is not expecting much from life but relishing whenever you do crap glorious poops on a Monday morning.