Feeling like the Apostle Paul

It’s not that I haven’t tried to address the issues detailed in my late-night laundry list, I told my spiritual advisor at our second meeting.

My bookshelves literally overflow with self-help books: First Things First, Meditations for Women Who Do Too Much, Take Back Your Time and Stop Screaming at the Microwave! My husband and I like to joke that we’re powerless over self-help books and that our bookshelves have become unmanageable. However, I don’t need a self-help book or a therapist to tell me I should practice self-care and set better boundaries.

I know intellectually what I need to do to get my life in order: eat right, exercise, get enough sleep, stay away from toxic people or environments, pay more attention to my relationships and practice self-discipline. The challenge lies in translating that intellectual knowledge into action. I’m usually so immersed in all the dramas of my life that I ignore problems until they become a crisis that can’t be ignored any longer. My life seems to be in crisis mode about half the time.

Periodically I grab myself up by the scruff of the neck and resolve to do better – on New Year’s Day, the first day of Lent, my birthday, the first day of spring or summer or fall, or any month in which the first day falls on a Sunday or Monday. I vow I’m going to turn over a new leaf, get my priorities straight and start doing things differently. My reform efforts may work for a week or two, or if I really buckle down, for a month. But then my life returns to the same chaotic reality that has become the new normal for me in recent years.

Sometimes it seems as if my life has been reduced to crossing items off endless To-Do lists: my To-Do List for volunteer work, my To-Do List for household chores, my To-Do List of personal self-care routines, my To-Do List of urgent matters, even a Master List to keep track of all the To-Do Lists. This elaborate system of lists was suggested by the day-planner I carry around constantly and jokingly call “my conscience.” I’m constantly juggling so many balls in the air, I’m convinced I have to keep these multiple To-Do Lists or I won’t remember to do simple things like brush my teeth. Despite all the To-Do lists designed to help me hold myself accountable for how I spend my time, I can’t seem to keep up with all the demands.

Repeated efforts to get my life under better control often leave me feeling more frustrated than ever, I told my spiritual advisor. I’m reminded of the Apostle Paul, when he says in Romans 7: “I don’t understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.” Yep. That’s me, all right.

The good news is, I’m nowhere near the state of spiritual bankruptcy I was in 25 years ago, when the combination of psychic pain and fear for my future led me to put down the booze and start attending 12-Step meetings. Nor does my life feel quite as out of control as it did prior to my retirement, when I was juggling the 24/7 demands of running a social service agency, caring for an aging parent and trying to have a life at the same time. My current state feels more like a case of spiritual sleepwalking alternating with existential questioning.

But I also know I need to make some changes if I want the next chapter of my life to amount to more than eating, sleeping, dodging other people’s dramas and crossing items off To-Do lists.

 

Late-night laundry list

The other night I gave up on sleeping, after tossing and turning until 2 a.m., and began journaling instead. Using the “Clutter Mountain” graphic I created earlier as a starting point, I listed those areas of my life that felt not-so-well-ordered:

My relationships. My family and friends are scattered all over the U.S., and even in a couple of other countries, so it’s hard for me to visit them as often as I’d like to. I keep in touch with many of them on Facebook, but I know that’s really no substitute for face-to-face conversations.

Our house. I’m a packrat married to another packrat. In this case, one plus one does not equal two. One packrat plus one packrat equals ten tons of rubble! (My friend Patti came up with that gem.) Clothes, dishes, books, office supplies, unopened mail, knick knacks, stacks of paper and boxes marked “miscellaneous” clutter nearly every surface, especially in the basement. When I even think about trying to sort through the whole chaotic mess, I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or stick my fingers in my ears and scream at the top of my lungs until the frustration dissipates.

My schedule. Since I’ve retired, my life hasn’t slowed down much at all. In fact, retirement mostly means I’ve replaced full-time paid work with full-time work I now do for free. The support group I facilitate for adults with autism and their family members has evolved into a 501(c) 3 organization offering recreational activities and life skills training, and my “job description” has expanded accordingly. Meanwhile, people looking for volunteers at church wink, nod and say “you know how those retired people get busier than ever” as they suggest another obligation to stuff into my chock-full calendar.

My talent for procrastination. I always have some deadline hanging over me – bills to pay, tax returns due, a volunteer commitment – and a talent for putting things off until the last possible minute. This means that when little things go wrong – a computer hard drive needs replacing, the iron stops working, the refrigerator starts leaking water all over the kitchen floor – I’m so overloaded with urgent tasks that must get done immediately, I throw up my hands and scream at the offending appliance, “No!!! I can’t handle your crap right now!!!”

My writing. So much for all those articles and books I planned to write once I retired. A gazillion ideas ricochet around in my head competing to be written down first, but I can’t seem to get my thoughts organized enough to finish an article, let alone focus on one idea long enough to write a book.

Our finances. The stock market has become increasingly volatile in recent years, which makes me constantly nervous about the portion of our retirement nest egg invested there. The advisors who handle our investments tell us we’re in good shape, but ever since the Crash of 2008, I have great difficulty trusting financial institutions or advisors.

My health: I have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, on and off-again high blood sugar, hypothyroidism, periodic muscle cramps, aches and pains everywhere, and a mystery rash on my skin that no one can explain. I suspect some of my health problems don’t just stem from the fact that I’m aging, but from the fact that I need to take off a lot of weight. I keep making efforts to get on track with a healthy eating plan, but have been unable to sustain it for more than a few days or weeks at a time.

My emotional life. With all the bickering among my Facebook friends in response to our current political situation – on top of the stress resulting from too many commitments on my calendar – my resentment machine has been working overtime cranking out surly thoughts. When I’m not wallowing in resentment, I’m stewing in anxiety: Has climate change gone beyond the point of no return? … Is North Korea going to blow us all up? … Did I remember to turn the oven off before I left the house? Some days I feel like I have become a walking bundle of fears and resentments.

The outside world: When I was younger, my friends and I knew exactly what our life purpose was. We were going to change the world – nothing more and nothing less. We marched for civil rights, for environmental awareness, for peace. Now all our efforts seem like a cosmic joke. Members of Congress can’t agree on even the most trivial issues. War rages in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and God only knows where else. Each week it seems, we hear about another terrorist attack or mass shooting at a mall, a concert or even a church. The gap between the rich and poor has become a yawning chasm.

My spiritual life: I mostly like the people at my church, but am not sure I agree with parts of the theology – something I’m reluctant to share with the others in our adult Sunday School class. And on those nights when I’m lying awake at 3 a.m., the doubts and questions proliferate: How do I know Christianity is the one true religion? … Will I go to hell if I make the wrong denominational choice or agree with the wrong person’s interpretation of certain Biblical passages? … What is God’s will for my life, now that I’ve most likely lived roughly two-thirds of it already? … Who is God, anyway?

I know my life will continue to feel chaotic, and I will continue to experience both physical and spiritual angst, until I slow down, learn how to stop letting myself be pulled in 20 different directions, and make time to answer (at least for myself) some of those existential questions. And I’m beginning to think my spiritual director – whom I meet again at the end of this week – has her work cut out for her.

 

Clutter Mountain

One of the first assignments my spiritual director gave me was to come up with an image that best symbolizes my present spiritual condition.

An image came to mind almost immediately. I saw myself buried under a mountain of clutter – piles and piles of papers and boxes and boxes of miscellaneous stuff. I transferred the image in my head to the computer screen using Photoshop. (I always love a good excuse to play with Photoshop.)

As I created this image, I realized the clutter in my life consisted of more than just the endless piles of paper and other physical items. It also included the various distractions that keep me away from my priorities.

For example, I could spend hours mindlessly surfing the Internet, getting locked into political fights with friends and total strangers on Facebook, or actually clicking on “news” articles about Miley, Taylor and the Kardashians. I am particularly likely to do this when I’m anxious or subconsciously avoiding a task on my to-do list. I added a computer to the graphic, with the words “Click Bait” on the screen.

Junk food could qualify as nutritional clutter, I decided. When I put it into my body, it clogs my arteries and accumulates on my hips and around my waist. I added a bag of chips to the image.

My calendar presented another source of clutter. Some of the commitments really matter to me: time with my husband, a meal with family or friends, the autism support group I facilitate, singing in the church choir. But several other commitments have crept into my schedule because I can’t say no to people who must think I don’t have enough to do now that I’m retired. I tossed a To-Do list onto the pile.

I added a rope to the image to represent the tug-of-war over everything from my time to my personal values caused by competing demands and continual conflict.

Underneath the papers and boxes, I placed several boulders with labels on them – fear, resentment, pain – to represent the steady stream of anxieties and resentments that keep me awake at night and pre-occupied during the day. I added some baggage for good measure.

Sticking out of Clutter Mountain, my arms juggled several balls in the air: family, friends, volunteer work, the house. A couple more balls had been dropped and were nestled on the ground at the bottom of the heap: my writing, self-care, God.

00a Overwhelmed SMALL

So how would God react to this image I just created? Am I about to provoke a bolt of lighting? Seriously, my sense is that God already knows what’s going on and might even be glad to see me acknowledge this reality.

God is there, of course, but after creating this image, I can see vividly how clutter blocks my spiritual path.

Getting started

My spiritual director and I spent most of our first session getting acquainted. Her demeanor was very pleasant, and we immediately discovered one thing in common – we both grew up on farms.

She gave me a handout explaining her conception of what spiritual direction is and isn’t. It is NOT therapy or counseling, primarily informative or advisory, or a relinquishing of personal responsibility, she said.

Spiritual direction is a partnership in which one Christian helps another grow in a personal relationship with God, her handout said. It encourages us to “recognize, explore and unpack areas of darkness and unfreedom” that get in the way of this relationship. Ultimately, it can empower people to experience “greater interior freedom, deeper joy, a more integrated life” and more intimate relationships with God, self and others.

Spiritual direction does not focus only on the “soul,” but instead reflects the Hebrew notion of a “whole person” – body, mind and spirit – as reflected in 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “May the God of peace make you perfect in holiness. May He preserve you whole and entire, spirit, mind and body, irreproachable at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

And perhaps most important to me, it is not “directive” in the sense of telling a person what to do.

My first assignment, which she had already given me over the phone prior to our initial session, was to answer the question, “Where am I right now?” What got me to the place of seeking spiritual direction?

I shared a brief synopsis of my reasons: the transition in focus and priorities prompted by my retirement, the internal tug-of-war over my own values brought on by the increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society, the “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something and losing loved ones, and the questions about faith and a church’s true purpose raised by reading the Bible from cover to cover and serving on my church’s evangelism committee.

I also described the chaos that seems to permeate my life, stemming from my own challenges with organizing skills, my difficulty saying “no” to demands on my time, and my penchant for getting sucked into other people’s dramas. “I feel like I’m buried in STUFF!” I told her. “I live in a beautiful home, but it’s always a mess.”

She listened to this without negative judgment – at least none that I was able to detect, and asked me, “Have you ever questioned the existence of God?” She didn’t flinch when I said, “Oh yeah. More than once.”

So far, so good.

My spiritual director explained how the process will work. Since I’m a writer and journal during my morning meditation sessions, I can write my thoughts on a series of suggested topics, if I choose. Or, since I’m a rather “visual” person, I can use imagery to describe what I’m experiencing at any given time. She will also suggest resources to read.

At first we will meet every couple of weeks, a period during which we decide whether we are compatible and can work well together. Gradually we will move to meeting once a month.

She ended the session by giving me a variety of suggestions for homework assignments to help get me started, allowing me to choose which ones I’d find most helpful.

And thus begins my journey.

 

Pesky questions

On my birthday, during communion at church, I made a commitment for the coming year: Develop a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be, and live accordingly.

My husband and I attend church almost weekly. I’ve read the Bible from cover to cover, along with a shelf full of books on religion and spirituality. I’ve developed a morning meditation ritual – sitting in my recliner in front of the fireplace with a cat in my lap and a cup of coffee by my side while I journal about my priorities for the upcoming day. For years, these activities have helped center my thoughts and keep me focused on what’s important.

But lately, I have found myself journaling about the “big” or “ultimate” questions: What do I actually believe about God and why? What is God’s purpose for my life? What are my values, or what should they be? How do I live my life in a way that is consistent with my beliefs and values? Apparently, these are not questions I’ve been able to answer for myself once and for all.

When I detach myself from the daily drama of my life long enough to think about it, I realize several factors have led to this renewed questioning of beliefs I’d previously taken for granted:

My recent retirement – a major transition. I know one thing for sure. Now that I no longer punch a time clock, I want my life to mean something more than sleepwalking through my days while I rush-rush-rush to meet one deadline after another so I can spend my paycheck accumulating more stuff than the neighbors have and wind up at the top of some proverbial heap. I’m entering a new chapter of my life. What should it look like?

The increasing divisiveness and polarization in our society. Neither the liberal nor the conservative ideologies align completely with my own worldview. However, I’ve felt more and more pressured to adopt positions I don’t totally agree with on a variety of issues so I can be ideologically correct and fit in with the people around me – or at least avoid being the target of shouting and name-calling. As people on either side of the political/ideological divide – including people who are close to me – pressure me to take sides, I’ve come to realize how much my own belief system has been shaped by the people around me. Now I’m asking myself: Should I continue holding onto these beliefs and values? Should some of them be changed or discarded?

Reading the Bible from cover to cover. As I read through the entire Bible a couple of years ago, I kept encountering passages that prompted me to say, “So that’s where [Lutherans, Catholics, Pentecostals, fill in the blank] get their beliefs.” In some ways, this only raised more questions than answers.

Serving on my church’s Evangelism Committee. The committee’s (and congregation’s) priority seems to be attracting more young families to join our church so we can increase the number of members by a certain percentage. But are numbers and demographics the appropriate areas of focus? What is a church’s purpose, anyway? What should it be?

The “time is limited” epiphany that comes with being 60-something. While I’m back to discerning God’s will for my life, I know my purpose consists of much more than eating, sleeping, mindless Internet surfing, getting sucked into other people’s dramas and endlessly checking items off to-do lists. Lately, it seems even church has become an item to cross off the to-do list as soon as the service is over. This needs to change.

I plan to use my Morning Meditation sessions to journal about my beliefs and values, why I hold those particular values and what impact this should be having on how I conduct my life, so I can answer those questions in a way that satisfies me. I want to develop a value system that works for me, rather than simply a value system that lets me fit in chameleon-like with my surroundings.

For me, this starts with questioning a lot of things I think I know, along with values other people want me to hold – whether those other people be liberals or conservatives, Lutherans or evangelicals or some other religion that is Christian or non-Christian. I’m not interested at this point in what various philosophers or other academic “experts” think. I want to come up with answers that I can honestly believe.

To help me sort through these questions, I’ve decided to engage a spiritual director. According to Liz Budd Ellmann, M.Div., former executive director of Spiritual Directors International, spiritual direction helps us “learn how to live in peace, with compassion, promoting justice, as humble servants of that which lies beyond all names.”

I must admit the idea of working with a spiritual director makes me a bit nervous. While I would encourage this person to ask the hard questions, I don’t want someone who will merely push me to adopt their own belief system. I need this person to be nonjudgmental and open to the idea that I’m questioning all kinds of dogma from the spiritual to the political to the ideological.

A couple friends of mine have gone through this process and reported that it was a positive experience for them. Since number one on my list of priorities for the coming year is to improve my relationship with God, I’m going to take a deep breath and give it a try. Wish me luck on my journey …

My priorities

In what has become an annual birthday tradition, I like to start my “personal New Year” by reviewing my priorities. Are they the same as they were last year, or has something changed?

As I sat in my recliner earlier this week, with a cat on my lap and a morning cup of coffee next to me, I started by identifying what is important to me right now:

 Developing a better understanding of God, so I can fulfill God’s purpose for my life, discern what my values should be and live accordingly.

  Staying healthy for as long as possible and helping my husband do the same.

  Staying in contact with family and friends and maintaining good relationships with them.

  Creating and maintaining a beautiful home that serves as a sanctuary for ourselves, our family and friends, and maybe even a stranger or two I can turn into friends.

  Writing – articles, essays, blog entries and, yes, at least one book.

  Using at least a portion of my time, money and talent in a way that helps others and creates positive change in the world.

  Eliminating the backlog tasks and clutter that keep my life more chaotic than it needs to be.

  Achieving serenity by practicing mindfulness and finding at least one thing each day to be grateful for.

These will be my priorities for the coming year – a personal relationship with God, self-care, family and friends, our home, my writing, service to others, elimination of needless clutter, and serenity.

Over the next few days, I’ll reflect on why each priority matters to me and set some goals. Then, about every month or so, I will check in and see how well my daily activities reflect these priorities.

For several years now, this little exercise has helped me stay focused so extraneous STUFF doesn’t crowd out what’s most important in my life.

Time for some good orderly direction!

Thoughts on turning 62

Unlike many people “of a certain age,” I still get excited about birthdays. I have always considered my birthday to be a personal holiday. My husband will play Happy Birthday to me on his dulcimer. My mother will come for a visit and take us out to my favorite restaurant. And I will meditate on what I’ve learned about life. So here are some thoughts as I embark on a bright, shiny new year:

Time is limited. Of course I’ve always known – intellectually, at least – that we’re not immortal. But in recent years, this has started to register on a deep-down level with the loss of Dad and a best friend my own age. Bottom line: nothing’s guaranteed. I need to let family and friends know how important they are to me and how they’ve impacted my life. I need to do this now.

I survived adolescence once already, thank-you. These days, I swear I’m experiencing more bodily changes than I did as a teenager. My husband and I have acquired a new pastime – looking up medical problems on the Internet after the doctor sends us for tests based on the latest unnerving symptoms. We’re fond of joking that aging lends a whole new meaning to the term “drug salad.”

Perfection is an illusion. All my life I’ve struggled with perfectionism in areas ranging from my diet and my housekeeping to my career ambitions. But I probably need to face the fact that our home will always look like real people live here, no matter how much time I spend cleaning. There will never be a time when my house is in perfect order inside and out, including the closets, the garage and the basement.

So is eternal youth. Is 60 really the new 40, as Baby Boomers proclaim? Some say my generation is redefining old age. But truth be known, I have wrinkles. I have gray hair. There are some things I can’t do anymore – like burn the figurative candle at both ends and get away with it. Actually I wasn’t getting away with it when I was younger either. I just thought I was.

Perhaps I should say I’ve survived adolescence twice. I did have one of those midlife crises the shrinks talk about – that second adolescence complete with acne at age 45, identity struggles and acting out behaviors (red car, drastic career change). As I prepare to enter this new territory called Senior Citizenhood, I’m thinking maybe it’s time for my flaming midlife crisis to be over already! On the other hand, a friend sent me a Facebook meme that advised, “If you haven’t grown up by the time you’re 60, you don’t have to bother.” Whew! Maybe I’m off that hook.

I do not spend all my time wishing I were younger. Yes, there are days when I wish I had my 20-year-old body – especially when my arthritis flares. But only if I could keep my 62-year-old mind and all the experience and wisdom about life that I’ve accumulated. Older women tell me the 60s can be really good years. I’m old enough to know what’s important and young enough to act on it. Besides, when I am 80, I will most likely wish I still had my 62-year-old body, so I might as well appreciate it now.

 “Respect your elders!” never sounded so good. I can tell I’m getting older whenever I’m tempted to direct that admonition to 25- and 30-year-old kids. Oops! I mean colleagues and service people. On a serious note, it’s gotten more scary to encounter young adults who see their elders as people who either need to move out of the way or be thrown away rather than people to learn from and respect.

It’s time to let go of regrets. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t have picked up that first cigarette. I would have spent fewer of my prime years striving and competing for that brass ring that didn’t seem so shiny once I succeeded in grabbing it. Alas, I can’t change what happened decades ago. What I can do is make better decisions in this 24 hours. When my father turned 75, he said, “I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.” I hope I can say that when I’m 75!

I have set some boundaries with the fashion world: 1. Clothes must be easy to care for. If they need dry-cleaning, forget it. 2. They must be comfortable – nothing that binds or scratches. 3. They must look good on a 60-something woman who’s never been a size 0 and never will be. 4. Since I don’t have time to constantly shop, my wardrobe must stay in fashion for longer than a month. If clothes don’t fit all these criteria, I leave them on the rack, no matter how many cute young things are wearing them! 

I’m much less materialistic than I used to be. If there’s one thing I don’t need, it’s more THINGS!!! If I need to be reminded of this fact, I can go to my basement and gaze upon the 64 boxes marked “miscellaneous” that make me scream when I think about sorting whatever is in them.

But there are some things I continue to want. I want to spend more time on what’s important – traveling with my husband, entertaining family and friends – and less time mindlessly surfing the Internet. I want the courage to stand up for my values and let the chips fall where they may. I want to stop worrying about what my peer group thinks. I want to stop fighting with my own body.

Yes, I still have dreams. I have never been in a better position to achieve dreams like writing a book or making a constructive contribution to our society. The time to do these things is now, not some future date when everything will have settled down and fallen into place so I can start living my life in earnest. (See “Time is Limited” above.)

I’m entering the Age of Wisdom. Or so I’m told. When I was in my 20s, I had the world figured out. But the older I got, the smarter my parents got, just as Mark Twain predicted. Now I’m convinced only God has all the answers, and it’s my job to keep asking the questions.

I have a LOT to be grateful for. I have a terrific 32-year marriage to the best man on the planet (I’m only slightly biased here). I have wonderful enduring friendships. I have a beautiful home and – for the first time in my life – some real financial stability. I’ve had a successful writing career, followed by a challenging career in human services, followed by fulfilling volunteer work. Despite minor ailments, I’m relatively healthy. And I’m thankful God has given me another year.

How I like to start my day

Nothing like a stroll in my yard on a summer morning. I like to start my day by feeding the birds (and squirrels), then feasting my eyes on some flowers. This time of year, all kinds of lovelies are blooming:

And showing off:

Since I always like to have something blooming, I liberally sprinkle annuals in all the flower beds:

But there are some advantages to my perennials, which faithfully come up year after year whether I’m busy or not:

I love the way my pollinator bait attracts hummingbirds, butterflies and bees: 

I even like the flowers some folks would consider weeds. The rabbits who live in our yard like them too, which means they stay out of my gardens and flower beds.

Sure beats watching the news and arguing with complete strangers on Facebook. I do need to spend more time in my yard!

This is church?

As I said in my previous article (Political correctness, tone policing and censorship! Oh my!) I recently joined an invitation-only Facebook page for church people. And felt like I’d entered the Twilight Zone.

From the “About This Group” description, it was clear the administrator had originally envisioned the group as an outreach and evangelism tool: “This is an approach to social media where everyone in the [denomination deleted] can meet, hang out, and share faith together,” it said by way of introduction. “Welcome to the conversation. Let’s make this a free church. May whatever confusion results be liberating, salutary, and evangelical.”

Though I suppose nothing should shock me in the current political climate, I have to admit I was more than a little taken aback as I encountered the flame wars on this site. 

The screen shots below are a small sampling, but unfortunately there were many, many more equally outrageous posts I could have chosen to include here. They are taken from a “conversation” between several liberal and conservative church folks who apparently have been mauling each other for quite a while now:

Screen grab 3

Of course, not every post contained the F bomb. Some stuck to good old-fashioned ad hominem attacks. Take, for example, this discussion on why some people might be uncomfortable with the “sharing of the peace” ritual that is part of worship services at many churches:

Passing the peace gripes edited

And then there were the na-na-na-na-na playground insults.

Screen grab 1

I have to admit a few snarky remarks came to mind as I posted these. But in the end, this leaves me more sad than anything else. So I decided to let the images speak for themselves.

The church denomination and its Facebook page shall remain mercifully unnamed in this article, and the perpetrators’ names have been blocked as well, because the point here is not to shame a particular group of people. It’s to get those of us who call ourselves Christians to ask ourselves some serious questions.

Yes, I get that Christians come to church precisely because they aren’t perfect. That church is a hospital for sinners and all that.

But there has been a lot of talk in our congregations in recent years about the increasing numbers of young people who identify as “none” when asked their religion. If we were an unchurched young person and came across something like this, would we want to come to church?

 

Political correctness, tone policing and censorship! Oh my!

I recently joined a Facebook group made up of church people – and felt like I’d entered the Twilight Zone. Several conversation threads consisted of little more than name-calling and expletives not deleted. “You are the anti-Christ” and “shut your f–ing mouth” were just two of the lovely sentiments expressed by these self-professed Christians, some of them clergy.

When I responded to one of the nastier threads with the observation that we could all use a bit more civility, I was met with the kind of hostility one might expect if I’d suggested we all start cooking and eating puppies.

As a Christian myself, I wish I were making this up.

Implore people to stop the mean-spirited political rhetoric fracturing our society, and culture warriors of all stripes – even some church people, it seems – will shame us for daring to ask for courtesy:

“This political correctness is getting out of hand,” conservatives complain.

“Enough with the tone policing,” liberals lecture.

“Censorship!” everyone cries.

I understand political correctness, tone policing and censorship exist. But both liberals and conservatives have hopelessly twisted these concepts.

Left-of-center activists first used the term politically correct to satirize their tendency to adopt uniform opinions and causes, thus poking fun at their own rigid insistence on ideological purity. Alas, in recent years, some conservatives have hijacked this term and hurl it indiscriminately at anyone who suggests that common decency and respect for others are still virtues worth cultivating.

I’ve been told I overdosed on political correctness when I forgot to laugh at a patently offensive joke or sought to debunk a stereotype. The accusations go something like this:

Excu-u-u-u-se me if someone thought that joke was offensive. I guess nobody could accuse me of being politically correct.

Well excu-u-u-u-se me, but calling a woman a fat broad isn’t politically incorrect. It’s just plain rude.

We can’t open our mouths anymore without some member of the politically correct thought police yelling, “Racist! Sexist! Homophobic!” People are so oversensitive these days.

Hmmm. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, guess what it is? I’m not saying oversensitive people don’t exist. However, most people I know would prefer that ethnic slurs not become socially acceptable again.

But conservatives aren’t the only folks good at doing The Twist. Liberals do a pretty good dance too.

Wikipedia defines tone policing as an attempt to detract from the validity of a statement by attacking the way it’s presented rather than the message itself. One example is to tell people they’re being “divisive” for merely raising issues such as discrimination in the workplace. But lately, the term gets thrown at us like a hand grenade by some liberals who feel oppressed if we fail to listen while they scream profanities at us.

A Tumblr post circulating among several progressive groups illustrates this trend:

… Hearing ‘I hate men’ shouldn’t make men stop being feminist. Hearing ‘f– white people’ shouldn’t make white people stop opposing racism. Your opposition to oppression should be moral and immovable. Your belief that all humans should be treated with equal respect shouldn’t be conditional based on whether or not individual people are nice to you.

Okay, let’s unpack this statement, a variation of which has been shouted repeatedly at people on the above-mentioned church page. I wholeheartedly agree that we should treat all human beings with equal respect, whether or not every individual in a particular group acts like a nice person. And I’m not going to stop opposing racism because one person says something hateful about white people. But if someone drops the F bomb on me, I will tell them I find this behavior abusive, regardless or their race or mine.

Here’s another example, making the rounds on Facebook:

If you use that “background color” shit, STOP! It blocks EVERYONE who relies on screen readers and/or text-to-speech programs from accessing your posts! These programs, for some reason, CANNOT read the text in those backgrounds and thus your blind/low-vision friends CANNOT find out what you have to say! This is an official “yelling at your friends to not be assholes” post.

Whoa! If someone out there really does lie awake nights thinking up ways to oppress blind people, I seriously don’t want to know them. But I’m pretty sure most people who use the background color feature on Facebook don’t even know this poses a problem, and there are far less abrasive ways to spread the news.

Regarding censorship, some people – conservatives and liberals alike – simply do not tolerate disagreement well, and will consider any overt expression of opposing views to be a violation of their free-speech rights. I’ve heard variations of the following more times than I can count:

It’s my First Amendment right to state my honest opinion of (Dumbocrats, Rethuglicans, fill in the blank). My freedom of speech trumps your hurt feelings.

These people seem to forget the same First Amendment protects our own right to say, “I don’t agree with you” or “I find your language offensive.” While the Constitution does indeed guarantee one’s right to say whatever one wants, it doesn’t force the rest of us to listen. And dissent in and of itself does not constitute censorship.

Note to conservatives: Racism is not “politically incorrect.” It’s immoral. Liberals: Refusing to listen while someone calls us names is not “tone-policing.” It’s setting a healthy boundary. Everyone: Deleting rants full of ad hominem attacks from the comments section after our blog posts is not censorship. It’s exercising our right to set standards for our own publications.

To anyone who thinks their passionate beliefs entitle them to spew hostility, here’s the deal: If you want me to listen to you, please remove your middle finger from under my nose. Then state your concern minus the name-calling and profanity. My attention span will improve dramatically.

Especially if I’m on a church site.