All posts by Michael Kuna

Rose And Thorn

Another morning at Starbucks.  Another Tall of Pikes Place with too much half and half added.  The Spotify playlist is especially engaging this morning.  Music from the 40s.  Judy Garland, Satchmo, Billie Holiday.  I imagine that I’m grabbing a cup of coffee at a local diner before I head off to work in a wartime aircraft factory. My illusion only shattered by the computer in front of me.  Perhaps I can pretend that it is an Underwood portable typewriter.

Last night…

I wander into the family room.  It is around 7 PM and my family is in its post-dinner routine.  They are roughly arranged in the shape of an isosceles triangle. Grace has commandeered the “dad chair” by the french doors. She is humorously reading off a worksheet from her economics class. Yes, it is possible to find humor in macroeconomics. Will is on one end of the couch with earbuds in and face invisibly tethered to his iPhone.  Julie is on the opposite end of the couch.  She has built a nest.  Macbook, a hardcover book, a couple magazines, and a small bowl of precisely ratioed Smartpop and bean chips filled out her space.

I engage them and they are happy to reply, but in the short bursts that people do when they are trying to be polite but involved elsewhere.  I survey the landscape and realize that the only other comfortable space available would involve having Julie and Will move their belongings from the center of the couch. I do a quick benefits analysis and decide to recede to my own space and plug into my electronics.  I grab the latest Time magazine with the hopes of reading the cover story. I make a mental note that it may be a good topic for this month’s podcast. The quiet evening continues with my eventual conclusion of sleep.

I’m sure that this scenario is playing itself out in the other houses up and down my suburban street.  A typical evening in typical America.  And that is why I’m grateful for “Rose and Thorn.”

What is “Rose and Thorn?”  It is a conversational device that our family has been using for about 10 years. The rules are simple, the objectives are not.  Let me tell you how it works… but first I have to set the stage.

Those family members who are at home at dinner time are expected to sit down with the rest of the family and eat.  We try to avoid electronic devices at dinner (try, is the operative word). We say Grace. We settle in and follow our respective “start-up” routines.  Will checks out the meal’s protein source, Gracie carefully picks out her favorite pieces of cut up fruit, Julie sets up a plate that may include choices outside the regular dinner offerings, I start to assemble my salad “casserole.”

We start to talk…  “Will, why don’t you tell us your rose and thorn today?”  Will will then talk about his rose, something good from the day.  He will then say his thorn, a negative from the day. He may also say a leaf, something neutral.  Questions may be asked about his replies, and side conversations may erupt.  We go around the table until all willing participants have had their turn.

The vast majority of rose and thorns are pretty routine.  For instance, these are mine from yesterday:

Rose: I got to talk to people that I care about.

Thorn: I had to say goodbye to patients who I have become fond of.

Leaf: Dinner (a McDonald’s Southwestern Salad).

Other family members quizzed me about my responses. In this example, most of the questions were about my thorn, and I was offered some TLC about my loss.

The whole process of “Rose and Thorn” doesn’t take too long, but it serves an important family function.  It acknowledges that we each face ups and downs in daily life.  It allows my family to talk about those events, and to support each other.  It gives us a structure to talk to each other.  Naturally, we chat about other things too, but “Rose and Thorn” gets the ball rolling.

By the time dinner was over I knew what was happening in my family’s life.  It was OK that they were connecting elsewhere after dinner.  I didn’t need their undivided attention, and I was perfectly happy to drift into my own introverted space.

Sometimes simple traditions like eating together and having a conversation starter can become some of the most important things we do to maintain the relationships in our lives.  If you want to have a real relationship with someone you have to relate to them (duh).  The personal connections that we have with others are not business connections that rely strictly on growth goals or profit.  They enrich us by their sheer existence. They don’t happen magically, they require work, like any other good connection.  

People often make the false assumption that once a connection is established it should stand on its own.  This is not the case.  When we want a plant to grow we pay attention to it.  We water it when it is dry, we move it so it can be warmed by the sun, we prune off the bad parts and encourage new grown.  It is no different with the important relationships in our lives. What are your rose and thorn today?


Finding My Way Back To God

I started to randomly write this morning and this came out

I am one of those people who tends to find meaning in things. I was the guy in English class who the teacher would call on when they wanted someone to explain the meaning of an author’s metaphor. I’m pretty sure that my ability to see past the obvious is to due to what my wife (Dr. Julie) has referred to as my autistic brain.

“So Mike, are you trying to tell us that you are autistic?” …No, I am not autistic. I relate to others and I have too much self-awareness to carry that diagnosis. However, it is clear to me, and to those close to me, that my brain is wired a bit differently.

If pressed, Julie would redefine her statement and say that my brain functions differently. Most people tend to think in a very efficient linear way. A cause and effect way of thinking. “If I do this, then I will get that result.” It makes sense to think this way, as most of the world functions in a linear fashion. “1 + 1 = 2,” “I have to bake a cake before I can eat it,” “I have to study to do well on my exam.” This way of thinking is very useful because once you learn a rule you can generalize it and apply it to many other scenarios. “I have to bake a cake before I eat it. Therefore, I also have to bake bread before I eat it.”

My brain is not contemporary. Instead of thinking linearly I tend to think globally. I pool information. Information is placed in categories, and the same piece of information can reside in many pools. All pools connect with each other, the level of connection changes as required. When I solve a complicated problem I have to chug through massive pools of information. Connections between pools of data form and dissolve and reform again. Eventually, solutions start to appear. Solutions can be workable or unworkable. They can be reasonable or unreasonable. They may be possible, or not yet possible. It is interesting that people think that my solutions to problems are due to some sort of high intelligence. They are really due to a different way of processing information. I’ll call this type of processing relational processing. I see how things relate to one another rather than how they affect one another.

This way of thinking can be inefficient when solving simple problems, and so I have trained myself to think in a linear fashion. I envy those of you who do this automatically. After practicing this skill for more than a half of century I have gotten better at it, but I still feel like a “lefty” trying to use scissors designed for a “righty.”

Just like the thoughts and facts that interconnect in my brain, I have also come to the conclusion that we are all connected with each other and the universe around us. By what glue? Here you can fill in the blank with the term that you find most comfortable. “The cosmos.” “Mother Nature.” “The collective unconscious.” I choose to think of the binding agent as “God.” Why? Because God is the most logical solution that I can come up with. Are there other easier solutions? Of course! However, none are able to explain existence as well.

We lived in an ordered universe. Everything works together from the smallest subatomic particle to the largest galaxy. We fantasize ourselves as masters of the universe because we have discovered a few odd facts in physic. With that said, we don’t even know if there are additional planets in the far reaches of our own solar system. The arrogance of ignorance can be intoxicating. When intoxicated it is easy to make decisions based on a limited data set. As a scientist, I can tell you that this happens all of the time. When I was growing up I was told that life could not exist without sunlight/photosynthesis. Therefore, planets that were too far from the sun could not support life. Then we discovered plenty of life at the bottom of our oceans in areas completely devoid of sunlight. These organisms used chemical sources of energy instead of solar sources to fuel their existence. Time to rewrite the science books.

So where am I going with all of this? Growing up my childlike concept of God was what I was taught in school. An old guy with the beard sitting on a throne made of clouds. My spiritual life was synonymous with my religious life. My religious life consisted mostly of rules. In my child’s mind, most of the rules were of the “do not” category. Long lists of commands that if broken would send me to directly to Hell. Miss Mass on Sunday? Hell… Eat meat on Friday? Hell… Have impure thoughts? Hell… Despite being a pretty good kid it appeared that I was going to Hell. The impure thoughts alone would probably land me in the deepest levels of damnation.

It was also evident that religious rules could be different depending on a person’s position or rank. Those enforcing the rules seemed to have absolution. Even common folk could get a dispensation. Meat on Friday = Eternal Hell. Meat on Friday with appropriate dispensation = enjoy, life is good. Additionally, most of the world’s population wasn’t Christian, so the rules said that they were all going to Hell. Unbaptised babies could not go to Heaven or Hell, they would go to Limbo. An all-loving God who is sending most of his beloved children to Hell? This confusing and contradictory information made me reject the entire concept of religion and (by association) the concept of a Higher Power. I did not have the sophistication to separate the two. Religion equaled God in my child’s mind.

I was raised Catholic, but I’m not bashing Catholicism. I am saying that the limited information (rules) that I was taught were incongruent with the evidence (data) that I was gathering. The hypothesis of “A loving God is active in our lives” had been disproven.

With God out of the way, I had to find another structure to hang my world on. I was already moving away from creative pursuits and embracing science. Science appeared to be the perfect foil to the above incongruence and inconsistencies of religion, and I jumped onboard. Unfortunately, science is extremely limited and completely insufficient to define many aspects existence.

With the frameworks of God and science removed as overriding explanations for existence, I was pretty much out of options. Science might explain how nitrogen bases were formed, and how their sequencing made up DNA, but it couldn’t tell Michael Kuna what my purpose or significance was in this universe. Religion could explain my purpose and significance, but it did so by non-sensical rules and threats of eternal damnation.

It is a hollow feeling to view life aimlessly. I used science for the order that it could give me, I felt that was about as good as I could get. But good was not good enough, and so I started to explore other aspects of myself and my universe. I started to quiet my mind and listen to the background “noise” around me. I demanded God to show himself if he existed and if he gave a damn about me. No burning bush appeared. However, I did start to become aware of something, what it was I wasn’t quite sure. Something quiet and peaceful. Something that seemed to be part of me, but at the same time not. Strangely, I remembered similar feelings in the past. Sometimes during times of real crisis, these feelings would appear. Sometimes along with a solution to a problem that would just pop into my head. Sometimes the feeling would allow me to trust someone and let them into my life. Sometimes they would make me feel less alone when I felt that I had nowhere to turn. I had passed off these feelings as coincidence, random bursts of dopamine and nothing more.

As I opened my mind I became more in tune with this force. Sometimes it was so quiet that I could barely feel it, and at other time it became so insistent that I absolutely could not resist it. My life was far from perfect, but it seemed to be where it should be. I have come to believe that force is God in my life. A presence that was with me even when I completely rejected him.

Are my feelings just wishful thinking? Are they delusional, the product of a psychotic mind? You may believe what you wish. To me, they are more than real. But what evidence do I have? Is it even possible that something like God exists?

These are some of my thoughts:

-It is highly unlikely in our vast universe that life exists only on our little planet.
-It is impossible to believe that intelligent life only exists on our planet.
-It is impossible to believe that we are the highest form of intelligent life in the universe.
-It is impossible to believe that the only kinds of life in the universe must somehow resemble us. Intelligent life can take many different forms.
-It is extremely likely that there are forms of life are so advanced that they can directly interface with us if they so choose to.
-The above is logical, even scientific. However, it requires faith to believe that a superior intelligence is interacting with us and doing so with purpose.

So who is God? A guy with a white beard on a cloud thone? A collective group in intelligent life forms? A singular entity? The Trinity? Is God completely separate from the universe? Is he a creator who resides elsewhere, if so where? These decisions are important for theologians who make their living pondering such questions. They are less important to me.

I do believe that something greater than myself has guided me. At times my limited mind has been unable to comprehend why I’m being pushed in what seems to be the wrong direction. Eventually, that wrong direction turns out to be the correct one. Weird, but a good kind of weird.

Do I ascribe to any particular religious beliefs? I was raised Christian, and this is where I hang my hat. How good of a Christian am I? I’m still a work in progress. My global brain gathers information and finds relationships between random facts. It tells me that my experiences are not random, as they have a clear pattern. My brain also tells me that many of my pushes have happened because of a force outside of me.

My global thinking makes me look at large chunks of data, instead of tiny fragmented pieces. If the Bible is the inspired work of God, then I believe that it was written to be understood in totality. The New Testament is a book of important lessons, not a lot of fragmented phrases.

People find secret messages hidden between the lines of Scripture, not me. I’m also not one to build a whole faith or belief system on a couple of passages. It is too easy to misinterpret such things, and it is even easier to manipulate others with a fragmented “Word of God.” The basic concepts of the New Testament are those of love, peace, caring, inclusion, forgiveness, help, and acceptance. When a religion talks about exclusion, division, and rejection, I run. If you believe differently, that is your prerogative.

So where does science fit in with religion? For some odd reason people feel a need to exclude one from the other. I see no logic in this. In my mind, scientific facts and spiritual beliefs exist quite nicely together.

I continue on my journey. I await what God has in store for me. I pray that I can keep my mind open. I wish you peace.


Another Monday

Another Monday morning. I sit sipping my coffee at a little round table and listen to streaming music at the Starbucks on Chicago Avenue. Today’s playlist is pretty upbeat and happy.

The last few weeks have been interesting to me, as my thoughts have been in both the past and in the future… less so in the present. There is a famous slogan in Alcoholics Anonymous that says, “If you have one foot in the past and one foot in the future you are pissing on the present.” There really is no way to sanitize this phrase without losing its impact. If it offends you, I am sorry. I’m also sorry about what I am doing to my present.

My past has been front and center. It came crashing back when I watched the Vietnam documentary on PBS. Further pushes came from some events in the news, and an invitation to my 50th-grade school reunion. Conversely, my future is ominously present with my looming partial-retirement in a few months. A confusing time for an old doctor who should be in the here and now.

The strange thing is that I feel that it is important for me to be reflecting on both time spaces. Important, but it has been hard.

You may recall that I was raised Catholic. For a large chunk of my adolescence, I oscillated from being agnostic to atheist. I rediscovered God kicking and screaming. Basically, He wouldn’t take no for an answer. I gave in.

Back to the post…
I find myself being in situations that are conducive to long conversations with people very close to me. People are bringing up topics completely out of left field. The strange thing is that they are exactly the topics that I should be talking about. I’m trying a new level of honesty with those that are close to me. A no holds barred honesty. I am finding words just coming out of my mouth with little preparation or thought. Something very unusual for me.

I am finding the process stressful, it seems more directed by my Higher Power than anything else. I worry that I will lose the people that I most care about in the process, but I also feel that I have no choice in the matter. This fear goes back to, “If you truly knew me, would you still care about me?” An ancient tape that I thought was long resolved. Strange that I would be facing such issues at 64.

Life is so interesting. You think you have the answers, but when you open up yourself you discover that instead of answers you have more questions. This post is not meant to be a cryptic, although it may sound that way. I’m just fascinated that I’m still pondering my existence at a point in time when others seem to have everything in place. As I retire my life is changing, but I am still looking for a purpose. Perhaps a new purpose.

I thought I had a plan of action, it seems like God may be pushing me in a direction. I’m uncertain if it is my original planned direction, or something completely different. I still don’t know what I will do when I grow up. So much for 24 years of formal education! Time to “Let go and let God.”