Laughing Buddha, Grinning Jesus

At the Resilience outposts, we like to laugh.  We laugh together , we laugh at silliness; we laugh at ourselves. Laughter cures disease, some believe.  Certainly laughter is good for the soul.  We all need a good laugh every day.  People who laugh are more likely to be resilient, to overcome challenges. Most religious texts are short on laughter, though.


The shortest verse in the Bible is “Jesus wept.” I sometimes wish there were a verse like Jesus grinned.  Jesus certainly had a sense of humor.  It’s hard to think of a camel squeezing through the eyes of a needle without thinking someone is pulling your leg.  The bible never says Jesus laughed or Jesus grinned, but it does say that joy is one of the fruits of the spirit.  According to Galatians 5, you can spot a Christian because they are joyful (also peaceful, loving, patient, kind, gentle, faithful, good and have self-control

I don’t cotton to the idea that Christians should be serious and dour. One fruit of having the Spirit in you is joy.  So cultivate joyfulness.  Enjoy life.  When you goof up, laugh about it and do it right next time.  Be silly now and then.  Help others see the joy in life.

While we’re on the topic of joy, the Buddhists tell us the roly-poly laughing statue you see in some Chinese restaurants is not really a buddha.  Instead the statue is of a traveling monk in China who loved to laugh.  Chinese restaurants have adopted him because he is good for business.  People think they get luck by rubbing his belly.

Maybe that traveling monk was really a Galatian Christian.  That could explain why he loved to laugh.  He had the joy, joy, joy deep in his heart, as the old hymn goes.  Instead of rubbing the statue’s belly, a more lasting fix would be to get the Spirit.  Then you’ll know the joy and peace we all love to know this time of year.


Go to the wilderness

Those of us who live next to wild areas are living as everyone did when the world’s major religions were established.  Wilderness was right outside the door for most people in those days.  Jesus, for instance, needed and loved the wilderness.

He frequently withdrew to the wilderness to pray, according to the physician Luke. Matthew also tells us: After He had sent them away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray. When evening came, He was there alone.  Other accounts tell us: Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and He spent the night in prayer to God. He took Peter, John, and James, and went up on a mountain to pray.

jesus being tested in wilderness

Jesus was lucky, he had wilderness right outside his door.  By the time of Jesus, people had already spread over the entire Earth, but wilderness was still accessible to nearly everyone.

And Jesus needed it.  Often the crowds of people became too much and he sought the wild places.  Or he just needed to climb a mountain and pray.

Some of us are lucky like Jesus, but most of us aren’t. I can go a few feet outside my door and be in wilderness.     Bear and coyotes, skunks and armadillos, deer and raccoons are regular visitors to our land.  There are no close mountains to climb for prayer, but plenty of wild places nearby.

There was no need to preserve wilderness in Jesus’ time.  There weren’t enough people to overwhelm the wild places.

Today, with the Earth’s population doubling every 40 years, wilderness is being destroyed, or is already gone, in many countries.  Thanks to our ancestors, our country has preserved at least some wilderness.  Appreciate it.  Get out in it.  Go see it.  If you get the chance, live next to it.

Be like Jesus.  Go into the wilderness and pray.

Armenia, Iran, Turkey and freedom

The sun is rising here in Armenia and it looks like another beautiful day.  Armenia gets 300 days of sun a year.  Much like Southern California, where there are so many Armenians that the street signs in some neighborhoods are written in Armenian.  Armenians came to live there because the Turks had taken over part of Armenia and the Christian Armenians had run for their lives.  Even today the border is highly fortified and no one can travel between Armenia and Turkey. America’s famous Armenians, the Kardashians, recently came back to Armenia to commemorate the destruction of Western Armenia by Turkey.


From much of Armenia, you can look out on Mount Ararat which was historically Armenian and is now a part of Turkey and can’t even be visited by Armenians.  Armenia was the first Christian country–with monasteries and churches almost 2000 years old.  Later, enemies overran Armenia and all the countries around it, but somehow the Armenians survived and reestablished their country though almost surrounded by Moslem countries.  In addition to Turkey, Armenia also has closed borders with its Moslem neighber Azerbaijan, due to a war after the Soviet Union broke up.

But Armenia is good friends with many Moslem nations today.  Many Americans are surprised to learn that Iran and Armenia share an open border.  I traveled the road to Iran and saw mileage markers written in Iranian numerals.

Iranians love to come to Armenia because they can take off the headscarves and long robes, drink, eat pork and see recent movies–all prohibited in Iran. Armenians like all the money Iranians spend and welcome their visits.

Many Americans believe Iran is our enemy and Armenia is our friend, yet Iran is Armenia’s friend. Many forget Iran used to be our friend and for centuries invaded, destroyed and fought Armenians. Things get confusing in the real world.

Iran decided in the 1930s that people shouldn’t call it Persia.  Until then, the West had always known it as the Persian empire.  This empire swept through Armenia, destroying monasteries, universities and libraries.  The ones which survived were in remote mountainous regions.  I’ve visited many of them and they are hard to get to even today.

The Persian Empire included territories from Greece to China and was the largest empire the world had ever known. The religion of Persia in those days was Zoroastrianism–the first widespread monotheistic religion.  Zoroastrianism was severely repressed when the Moslems took over Iran.  Nearly all Zoroastrians fled to India and the US.

The lack of freedom in Iran is such a severe contrast to the freedom of Armenia. You might wonder why the Iranian government doesn’t close the border with Christian, freedom-loving Armenia.  The answer seems to be that the yearning for freedom is so great in Iran that the government must leave some outlet.  So it leaves the border with tiny Armenia open so those who need a taste of freedom can come and enjoy it.

I’ve traveled all over Armenia and everyone has been gracious and helpful.  I’ve yet to hear a harsh word from anyone–except for the lady who reminded me I was walking by without paying at Geghard Church.  I was glad to pay about 50 cents for the privilege of seeing a church carved into stone with a sacred spring arising in its middle.

Peaceful, hard-working, freedom-loving Armenia has managed to keep its Christian traditions while trapped between hostile Moslem countries. What a contrast to the US, where Christianity is declining with no Moslem countries within thousands of miles. Americans have a lot to learn from Armenia.

Loving your country: Armenia, US, and Neshoba County

In the US, it is fashionable in some circles to disparage the country and blame all the ills of the world on America.  If an Armenian did that in Armenia, he is the one who would be disparaged.  I asked a group of Armenians why Armenians are so much more patriotic than Americans.  They said it’s explained by 1500 years of fighting for your existence among hostile enemies, a genocide at the hands of your neighbor, and being under the thumb of other counties for hundreds of years.armenia US flagsSo maybe Americans will be patriotic in 1500 years if we become surrounded by enemies.  It certainly helps to have an enemy to gin up patriotism.  In recent times, Americans were most proud of their country right after the attacks of 9/11.  Polling today records the lowest numbers ever of Americans saying they are proud to be an American.  Over the years, Republicans have maintained the same level of high pride in America.  Those calling themselves Democrats are the least patriotic.  Less than half say they are extremely proud to be Americans in the latest poll.  This is the lowest level ever.  The second lowest for Democrats was during the Bush administration.  Some Americans’ patriotism appears to be determined by whether they control the White House.

Armenian patriotism has nothing to do with who is in power.  True patriotism never does. Armenians judge their politicians by whether they help the country.  Some in US judge the country by whether it helps their politicians.

Another perspective on patriotism is expressed in a 1926 article called “Patriotism and the Soil.” The author contends that true patriotism is expressed in how much we care for the soil and forests and other renewable resources of our country.  He says, the true patriot builds up his country by literally building up the soil of his country.  Maybe we should judge our politicians and ourselves by how much we care for nature in our country.  Maybe the Democrat who builds up the soil in his garden and supports sustainable agriculture in the US is more patriotic than those say they love America yet destroy our soil and forests and air.

Maybe a more lasting sort of patriotism is built on first loving the actual soil and forests and landscape where you live. In studying US counties where sustainability and resilience are highest (such as Neshoba County, Mississippi), we’ve found that people really love their counties. They don’t want to leave.  If they do leave they want to come back. They care for the place they live and its resources.  When trouble hits, they help each other and bounce back.

Maybe this attitude is the strongest root for enduring patriotism.  And for a patriotism which really improves your country instead of just being flag waving.


Trees are penetrating pastors

“For me, trees have always been the most penetrating pastors. I revere them when they live in tribes and families, in forests and groves. And even more I revere them when they stand alone. They are like lonely persons. Not like hermits who have stolen away out of some weakness, but like great, solitary men, like Beethoven and Nietzsche.
oak in charleston
“In their highest boughs the world rustles, their roots rest in infinity; but they do not lose themselves there, they struggle with all the force of their lives for one thing only: to fulfil themselves according to their own laws, to build up their own form, to represent themselves. Nothing is holier, nothing is more exemplary than a beautiful, strong tree. When a tree is cut down and reveals its naked death-wound to the sun, one can read its whole history in the luminous, inscribed disk of its trunk: in the rings of its years, its scars, all the struggle, all the suffering, all the sickness, all the happiness and prosperity stand truly written, the narrow years and the luxurious years, the attacks withstood, the storms endured. And every young farmboy knows that the hardest and noblest wood has the narrowest rings, that high on the mountains and in continuing danger the most indestructible, the strongest, the ideal trees grow.

“Trees are sanctuaries. Whoever knows how to speak to them, whoever knows how to listen to them, can learn the truth. They do not preach learning and precepts, they preach, undeterred by particulars, the ancient law of life.

“A tree says: A kernel is hidden in me, a spark, a thought, I am life from eternal life. The attempt and the risk that the eternal mother took with me is unique, unique the form and veins of my skin, unique the smallest play of leaves in my branches and the smallest scar on my bark. I was made to form and reveal the eternal in my smallest special detail.

“A tree says: My strength is trust. I know nothing about my fathers, I know nothing about the thousand children that every year spring out of me. I live out the secret of my seed to the very end, and I care for nothing else. I trust that God is in me. I trust that my labor is holy. Out of this trust I live.

“When we are stricken and cannot bear our lives any longer, then a tree has something to say to us: Be still! Be still! Look at me! Life is not easy, life is not difficult. Those are childish thoughts. Let God speak within you, and your thoughts will grow silent. You are anxious because your path leads away from mother and home. But every step and every day lead you back again to the mother.

“A longing to wander tears my heart when I hear trees rustling in the wind at evening. If one listens to them silently for a long time, this longing reveals its kernel, its meaning. It is not so much a matter of escaping from one’s suffering, though it may seem to be so. It is a longing for home, for a memory of the mother, for new metaphors for life. It leads home. Every path leads homeward, every step is birth, every step is death, every grave is mother.

“So the tree rustles in the evening, when we stand uneasy before our own childish thoughts: Trees have long thoughts, long-breathing and restful, just as they have longer lives than ours. They are wiser than we are, as long as we do not listen to them. But when we have learned how to listen to trees, then the brevity and the quickness and the childlike hastiness of our thoughts achieve an incomparable joy. Whoever has learned how to listen to trees no longer wants to be a tree. He wants to be nothing except what he is. That is home. That is happiness.”

Sometimes you read something that you just have to share.
If you can read German, you can find more of this in Hermann Hesse’s book: Bäume. Betrachtungen und Gedichte.

Fire is release to permit rebirth; it’s a response to accumulation

Fires destroy, but the land will reawaken, and with it many of our homes. Our valleys and hillsides will recover much more quickly than we will, and will take on a character different than what we knew. Our cities, towns and rural areas will be new places. We will need to work at creating home for ourselves and for everyone.

This reflection was by a farmer whose vineyard was just destroyed by the ongoing California wildfires.  It’s hard to imagine being so philosophical after such a loss, but that’s what resilient people do.


Even harder is to realize that fire’s destruction is required for the rebirth of the area.  Just as any disturbance encourages and supports reorganization and innovation.

The accumulation of reserves and infrastructure (the A in our CLIMATED model of resilience) is always countered by the need to build new structures.  Any accumulation of reserves and infrastructure is always accompanied by the forces which seek to use that accumulation as resources to build new structures.

A tree grows rapidly, reaches maturation and then dies when it can no longer maintain itself. Fungi invade and change the tree’s wood into mycelia and mushrooms. The mycelia then provide nutrients for other organisms to grow and mature. Fire is a short-cut to breakdown of the accumulated reserves and infrastructure and release of the nutrients.

The vineyards and housing developments in Sonoma and Napa Counties in California provide reserves and infrastructure which are the object of processes like fire which breakdown reserves and infrastructure into resources for new growth.  The model below (explained in more detail here) shows the relationships between the eight qualities of resilience and the four stages of the adaptive cycle.CLIMATED model

Last night I dreamt I was a politician in a fire.  Fire was breaking out all around the town where I was running for office.  At first, I was trying to use the crisis to benefit my campaign.  When I quickly realized that wasn’t working, I soon just joined in helping put out the fire.

We all want to help our neighbors and put out fires when they are in trouble.  Later, when the crisis has passed, we can think about what led to the fire.

Perhaps, California’s fires will help people reconsider the over-building in a fragile ecosystem which provided the tinder for the fire.

National allegiance is always threatened by the tribe

When you’ve worked in rural areas of 36 countries, you see a lot of similarities but one huge difference.  In the US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia, rural areas are dotted with farms occupied by single families living safely separated by some distance from any other families. I grew up on such a farm and thought that was how all rural areas are.  Until I got outside North America.  Then I realized how unique we are.  Across the world, most farm families live in villages and go out from the village every morning to work their plots. The lone family living by themselves is extremely rare in any rural area.

In the US, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, you can live far out in the country by yourself or you can live in town close to lots of people.  Throughout most of human history, and still today in most of the world, this is not the case. Rural people in nearly all the world live in villages.

a village and mountain in Malawi near Moz border

Before Northern Europeans came to the North American continent, the native people lived in villages. American Indians’ allegiance was first to their village and then to their tribe. Even today, visitors from Ukraine and Africa and Asia often ask us: what is your village? It’s another way of asking: Where do you come from? Who do you belong to?

Even many sophisticated city people in other countries will tell you the village they belong to. They go back on holidays, to decorate graves, to participate in rural traditions. Though you live in the city, you know it is expected you will love your village. One of the smartest people I met in Kenya assured me that he was still very much attached to his village, though he had lived in Nairobi all his adult life. One of the most sophisticated city women I met in Ukraine told me in the most sincere terms, “I love my village”, as we hiked the muddy streets of her poor little hamlet with no church and seven places to buy moonshine.

Throughout the world, nearly all rural people prefer to live in villages. When the communists first gained control of Russia, they tried to apply the American model of individual farmers on individual plots of land. They saw efficiency in having farmers live on the land where they work. But the people rebelled. They wanted to live in villages like they always had. They wanted to talk to their friends every day whenever they wanted to. They wanted to work together, have someone to talk to and someone to help make daily tasks easier.

So the communists gave up and went back to the archetypal village. The village has old roots. Throughout most of human history, everyone lived in bands of 50-150 people. Why? For protection. First we gathered together as protection from wild animals. If you are part of a group, it’s harder for lions and wolves and bears to attack you successfully. Later the only real predator of man became other men. Villages have always been needed to defend from predators.

Before agriculture existed, people were nomadic, following the animals they hunted and the ripening of plants they gathered. Hunting and gathering was humanity’s first and most successful adaptation, occupying at least 90 percent of human history. It was done in bands of at most 150 people.

Anthropologists, who have studied countless villages and bands across the world, call 150 Dunbar’s number. This number was first proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By using the average human brain size and extrapolating from the results of primates, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain only 150 stable relationships. Dunbar explained it informally as “the number of people you would not feel embarrassed about joining uninvited for a drink if you happened to bump into them in a bar”.

Throughout human history we have lived in groups of 50-150 people. Languages as different as Old Norse and Middle French used variants of the word band to describe groups of people that were bound or bonded together. The ancient Romans called a cohesive ethnopolitical unit a tribus (from which our word tribe).

For countless generations, men have lived in groups to avoid extinction. Many stronger enemies with sharper claws and teeth would long ago have destroyed mankind unless we had allegiance to our band or tribe. Only recently have we not lived in small groups bound by ethnic ties and readiness to defend that group against attack.

Our brains are still hard-wired by the experience of our ancestors–even though most of us live in huge cities. As our species became better and better at protecting each other and finding or growing food, our bands grew beyond 150. When we were still nomadic, a splinter would split off and form a new band–much like small rural Protestant churches today.

However, fertile soils and irrigation systems can’t be easily moved, so as agriculture developed, villages grew beyond the 150 limit. No longer could personal relationships maintain allegiance to a group.

When you live in a small group you know everyone. You can trust people you know. Our natural tendency is to trust and help people. We all see that in young children. Just as we must teach children not to trust strangers, the leaders of tribes taught their members: you can only trust your tribe, not those outside. You just can’t trust those outsiders.

As numbers grew in settled agricultural regions, some peoples developed clan structures to maintain the connections to a small band within a large town. In the absence of clans, the political elite used sets of similar customs and beliefs to tie people together and keep them working for the good of the town (or at least the good of the elite).

These sets of customs and beliefs, often still combined with blood relations or at least ethnic similarity, continue to bind people in most of the world today. Most people in the world still have allegiance to their tribe, though they don’t call it a tribe. Today a tribe is a group you identify with. All people, except the most alienated, identify with a group of people with similar beliefs and customs.

Often this identify is ethnic. Chinese, Armenians, Koreans all maintain their ties to the group that acts and looks like them. Others, such as liberals and conservatives, identify with tribes often outside ethnic groups.

The trouble is that the groups maintain their identity by enforcing conformity to the group’s beliefs. Study after study indicates that people change their beliefs to match the group they identify with.

We like to think that we answer questions such as “do you like avocados” from memory. That we think about the taste of avocados and remember how enjoyable we found that taste. But experimental results suggest that sometimes we use a more indirect strategy when we identify closely with a particular group. Rather than think about, say, nuclear power and see whether we are well-disposed to the thought, we think about parties (or people) we admire or identify with, and try to imagine what they would say.

The US, Canada, New Zealand and Australia all began with a common heritage and a common set of beliefs. In our case, it was Christianity which broke down the tribal barriers and enabled creation of nation states based on common acceptance of basic beliefs across ethnic groups. These customs and beliefs were agreed to by the group and those who didn’t believe were cast out. Among these beliefs, in the United States, was an allegiance to the flag and the principles it represented.

America today is breaking up into tribes. We are falling back on the way we are hard-wired. Instead of one nation, indivisible, we are becoming separate tribes with divergent beliefs. We see people we like kneeling for the national anthem and we do, too. We are becoming tribal and losing our nation.

As we fall apart into tribes, we will also adopt other qualities of tribes.  Tribes never forgive. The Hatfield and McCoy feud is legendary in Appalachia, but occurs everywhere people have allegiance to a tribe.  An eye for an eye is still the operant philosophy in tribal relations.

Tribes don’t have principles, except allegiance to the tribe.  A denomination changes its attitude on an issue and most of the members also change, or they are forced out.  The loyalty of church members is to the church, not to principles.

The tribe, hard-wired in us, is always tempting us to come back. Come back to that group where everyone thinks the same, where we are all alike and we all help each other.  Our genes remember tribal life, even when we think we have gone beyond it.

Nations can only be built when tribal barriers are broken. When a religion like Christianity explicitly breaks tribal barriers, it has the power to build nations.  This power built nations in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and enabled the spread of empires through nearly all the world.  The common religion provides a new set of basic beliefs and customs to build allegiance to.

But tribal identify, often based on ethnicity, is always pushing to assert itself.

The trouble is that the qualities of the tribe can only tear down; they cannot build up.  The tribe always identifies enemies and enforces conformity to its changing standards.  There are no principles for a tribe, except allegiance to the tribe.

We have seen the extreme version of this in the Middle East. Tribal members believe it is right to hurt, even kill, those who are not of their tribe. They build their own tribe by the destruction of others.

In addition to the village structure of rural areas, I was also surprised to find that walls surround every house when I began to travel overseas.  There are no suburban houses with yards.  Walled compounds are the norm everywhere.  In cities, many hotels have several strands of electric wire on top of the walls.

This is the endpoint of societies built on the groupthink of tribes.  America is headed in that direction.