Category Archives: Faith / Spirituality

Everybody wants to leave their mark … here’s what gets in the way

     If everybody wants to leave their mark,
     If everybody wants to make the world a better place,
     If everybody wants their lives to count …
     Why aren’t more of us doing it?

Turns out it’s not so easy. Many influences in our lives, both within and without, keep us stuck in passivity. In fact, there are so many roadblocks and distractions, it’s a wonder people do as much as they do! Here’s a partial list of the things that get in the way:

Barrier 1: Fear

We’re afraid of all kinds of things, and that fear keeps us stuck.

  • We’re afraid of failure…
  • We’re afraid of what other people might think…
  • We’re afraid of change…
  • We’re afraid that we won’t have enough time to do the work we want to do…
  • We’re afraid we won’t have enough money…

The list is endless.

You might think that having more information would help dispel your fears, but that’s not how it works. Especially today. Much of the “information” we’re exposed to is in the form of sensationalist media, which preys on our fears in order to capture our attention. The more attention we give to this kind of information, the more frightening and dangerous the world appears.

It can be helpful to have vast amounts of knowledge available to us, but it can also be debilitating. For most of recorded history, people were only aware of the circumstances of a small tribe or nation of people — the people in their own immediate area. But now we have access to information about people and nations all around the world.

At any given time, somewhere around the world, somebody is going through unimaginable tragedy and suffering. And because the “news” is mostly fixated on problems, tragedies, and violence, if there are bad things going on somewhere, we’ll find out about it.

The more media we are exposed to, the more bad news we take in. The more bad news we take in, the bigger and more unsolvable the problems seem to be, and the more there is to worry about.

The result of all this? We sit behind our screens and smartphones, overwhelmed by fears of problems and tragedies that might happen to us. We stay in our own sheltered, safe environment, watching more bad news, shaking our heads about how bad things are “out there,” and repeat the process. Our fears keep us stuck. (More on this point later.)

Barrier 2: Distractions

There are so many things that pull us away from our goals: movies to watch, television shows to keep up on, social media to interact with, video games to play, web sites to surf. We want to leave our mark in the world, but then we realize there are new episodes of our favorite show, so we watch them instead of taking the next step toward our dreams.

Instead of pursuing our own dreams and changing the world for the better, we sit passively, watching other people live out their dreams in movies, reality shows, sporting events, YouTube videos, and social media posts.

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ARE YOU REALLY HAPPY
OR JUST REALLY COMFORTABLE?

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In ancient Rome, the ruling class came up with the idea of holding gladiator contests as a way to keep the populace busy and distracted. These games took up people’s time and energy, reducing the likelihood of political unrest by distracting the citizens from creating problems for those in power.

Regardless of how intentional the Romans were, you have to recognize what an ingenious and cynical strategy this is. Keep people busy and distracted watching the games, and they’re less likely to realize how empty their own lives are, and/or do anything about it. In other words, keep them so busy and distracted with entertainment that they don’t feel the need to change the world.

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It’s virtually impossible for any social movement to take off today:
there’s too much good stuff on TV, too many sporting events
to watch, and too much social media to keep up on.

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You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to see how this could apply in our culture today. This could be happening, even without a mysterious, uber-powerful group orchestrating events from their secret lodge. Instead, think of our society as a system — a system that’s too complex for any small group to control, but a system nonetheless. In our system today, one key factor keeps the status quo in place: Everybody is busy and distracted by the entertainment that’s available to them. It’s virtually impossible for any social movement to take off today: there’s too much good stuff on TV, too many sporting events to watch, too many movies to go to.

Barrier 3: Demands

It’s not simply a matter of being distracted by entertainment. We’re busy trying to make ends meet. This is where many of us get caught in the trap of overwhelm: Our lives are so full doing the things we think need to be done that there is no time or energy left for anything else. Our lives are so full of work for our career, errands, healthcare, and home management, at the end of the day we have no time or energy left.

It feels like a vicious cycle: We’re killing ourselves and getting stressed out with tasks during the week, so that on the weekend (which seems to be getting shorter and shorter), we’re too tired and depleted to do the creative and challenging work of serving others. And on those weekends where we’re not too depleted? We fill those with travel to visit extended family, sporting events for the kids, and various homeowner tasks that need to be done.

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“Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work
and driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for —
in order to get to the job you need to pay for the clothes
and the car, and the house you leave vacant all day
so you can afford to live in it.”
– Ellen Goodman

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Stay tuned: this is part one of a two part series! Next time I’ll share four more factors that get in the way of us making our mark in the world.

By the way … this is an excerpt from my forthcoming book,
“Leaving Your Mark Without Losing Your Soul.”
Look for it later this year.

What Followers Expect from Spiritual Leaders

People today have profoundly mixed — and dysfunctional — views about leaders.Especially spiritual leaders. On the one hand, we idealize them. We project onto them qualities of wisdom, spiritual zeal, and impeccable morality. We really want them be close to God, to exemplify the virtues that we struggle to live out. We want them to be uber competent in their role, but we also want them to exemplify all the virtues and character qualities that we deem to be important. We want them to be larger than life! To think about them struggling with the shameful things we struggle with robs us of the hope that we can “get over” our problems.

There is a word for this: childishness.

This is what kids do. They adore the adults around them, assign them magical qualities, and feel the need for the adults around them to be all-knowing, and completely virtuous. Part of the process of growing up involves becoming disillusioned about our parents and teachers … discovering (often to our great dismay) that they are human and flawed, just like we are. After recognizing this, we learn to come to terms with it, and begin to relate to them in a more mature way.

But there’s another side to our view of spiritual leaders, which, by the way, is the inevitable consequence of idealization and projection: we are quick to judge and condemn them when we see their flaws. There is a secret part of us that loves to read about the downfall of people in high positions. We naturally resent hypocrisy, so when people in positions of moral or spiritual leadership are found to be lacking in the very qualities they espouse, we have no mercy.

We want our leaders to be air-brushed models of morality and spirituality. We react strongly when we see their flaws. More than once I’ve heard the truism stated: “If you want a spiritual leader you can admire with no reservations … make sure that person is dead.” That way, you don’t have to worry that you’ll find out things about them that let you down.

But wait! That’s not even a safe strategy: I’ve found out things about Gandhi, John Wesley, and Martin Luther King, Jr. that I sort of wish I hadn’t known.

Maybe we should amend the saying: If you want someone you can admire with no reservations, make sure that person is dead … and then don’t study their life too closely. Learn too much about them and you might just discover that they were human after all.

I have a better idea: how about we adopt the perspective that the writers of the Bible seem to have adopted — stop making human beings the heroes of our stories, and let them be flawed characters. Let Jesus be the hero and model, and be okay with flawed human leaders like the confused disciples, pricklish Paul, wavering Abraham, prideful David, and so on.

How about we give our spiritual leaders — and ourselves — an important gift: the gift of humanity. We still hold them to standards of teaching and living; but we let them be human, with strengths and weaknesses, with admirable qualities and limitations.

Several years ago I was invited to consult with a church whose pastor had been accused of misconduct. The pastor went through a process of repentance and restoration (which unfortunately was cut short, but that’s another story). In the course of this work, I preached a message to help people come to terms with his leadership and teaching, in light of the knowledge of his struggles and sins. You can see the video above.

I hope this sermon can help you — and others, if you share it — develop a more spiritually-mature, discerning view of spiritual leaders.

Before watching, note this important qualifier: By giving a message like this, I’m NOT intending to give leaders a “pass” on the need to exemplify what they teach.Far from it. One of the foundational principles in the Thriving Leader Blueprint program I run is that the power of our influence comes from our being — our very lives — not our words. You can read more about this in my article: “Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It.

The message above is for the rest of us, for those on the receiving end of spiritual leadership and influence, who are trying to come to terms with the humanity of those leaders, when they (inevitably) fail to live up to this.

Spiritual Leadership: What it is and Why We Need It

We are in desperate need for spiritual leadership. We need religious leaders to be spiritual leaders. We need parents to be spiritual leaders. We need teachers, coaches, therapists, managers to be spiritual leaders.

The term “spiritual” and “spiritual leadership” mean different things to different people: let’s not get hung up on various definitions. Here’s what I mean when I use the term: “Spiritual leadership” is leadership that emerges from the heart and soul of a person who has done the hard work of inner transformation through spiritual connection. It is based on that person’s attunement with the Spirit of God, and therefore it flows naturally from who they are.

Spiritual leadership carries a certain authority, but that authority emerges organically. It flows from the respect we engender when people see our integrity and feel our love. It is not about how we project our strong personality to others, how we charm, flatter, or impress them. These are all stratagems of the ego — projecting the strength of our personality, our confidence, enthusiasm, intelligence, persuasiveness, or appealing to the ego of the other person through charm and flattery. It’s not about crafting a certain kind of persona that is calculated to get people to like us, or want to be on our side, because they only see our strength and cleverness.

Spiritual leadership emerges when we drop our pretense, and dial back the tendency of our ego to dominate. The focus is instead on the Spirit, on the True Self that is touched on through our soul. Some might call this “leading through soul.”

It’s hard to define this, but you know it when you see it.

Spiritual leaders have authority, but that authority coincides with a certain tenderness and vulnerability. They have enough humility to not need to be the center of attention, and not to project certainty when there is not certainty.

Spiritual leadership involves a blending of qualities that might seem opposed to one another. For example, spiritual leaders are often characterized by humility and openness to others and other ideas … while also exhibiting a steely resolve. There can be a sense of urgency, but without the accompanying anxiety that often dominates high-energy organizational cultures.

“He who has found authentic peace within himself is in a position to assist others who are still seekers, but he who has not yet transcended mere theories and erudite studies about peace can only give them some more thoughts to add to the burden that they already carry. … He who is unhappy in himself, or whose home is discordant and unhappy, can show the way to happiness only out of the intellect, not out of experience.” – Paul Brunton

The influence of spiritual leaders flows from who they are … not what they say, and not from a few selected behaviors designed to “make a statement.” This is the heart of what Gandhi was offering to the world when he said, “My life is my message.” This is the heart of what Martin Luther King was offering to the world when his speeches calling for civil rights were clearly emerging from his own pursuit of civil rights, and his own sacrifices and willingness to face risks and dangers. This was what gave Nelson Mandela the authority to speak and influence people … because he had lived what he talked about.

None of these leaders were perfect. They all had their flaws, as does every human being. The point is that their power emanated from something within them that was deeper than skill or personality. They were able to motivate and encourage others on a path because it was a path that they themselves were taking. In that sense, they were offering moral leadership … leading by example as well as by words.

But spiritual leadership encompasses that, and goes even deeper. It involves having strong character, and leading by example, but there is something more. That “more” is the leader’s understanding of of spiritual realities, experience of personal transformation as these realities are lived, and the ability to articulate them to others. People around the leader, who themselves are seeking to live in attunement with the Spirit, as opposed to the ego (what the apostle Paul called “walking by the Spirit” or “keeping in step with the Spirit”), will recognize and resonate with the leader whose own life manifests that attunement.

“If we merely repeat the words of our teachers, we become like parrots and our own teaching will be empty, without direct experience.” – Frans Stiene

People in our time are desperate for these kinds of leaders. This has been true since the beginning of time, but it seems especially important now. I don’t have the interest or ability to diagnose what’s happening to churches in our culture, or with followers of other religions, or the “spiritual but not religious” crowd.

But I fervently believe that all people have a spiritual core, and when political, community, or religious leaders fail to recognize and develop this core within themselves, they will fail to nurture it in others, and the culture will be impoverished. The religious organizations will diminish in power, and eventually in size as well.

Why WE Need YOU to Have More Solitude and Quiet

We need more solitude in our lives — not just for our own well-being, but for others. Talking about this is tricky today, because many people struggle with loneliness and isolation, and the pursuit of solitude could make things worse for them.

Our lives revolve around two poles: community and solitude. A healthy life includes both. Let’s be clear about that as we begin. Rabbi Eliezer Shore describes this balance:

“Most true spiritual seekers, at some time in their journey, must struggle with the dilemma posed by these two opposites [community and solitude]. While personalities differ, tending some towards solitude, others to community, most of us waver uneasily between the two, constantly searching for the proper balance in which we might best serve God. … An emphasis on community in no way denies the validity of solitude, rather it seeks to engage the contemplative in an even higher purpose, namely, that of bringing the entire community into an enlightened relationship with God.”

Some people tend toward isolation, and their need is to nurture more healthy relationships. Several years ago I wrote an article in Leadership Journal about this need for spiritual leaders. What’s true for spiritual leaders is true for many others as well: we struggle to develop healthy relationships, which creates challenges in our pursuit of healthy solitude.

Then Why is Solitude so Important?

For many reasons, but here I am going to focus on just one: we need solitude in order to know ourselves, to come to clarity about what we think and believe; so that, as we move out to relate with others, we can bring our thoughts and perspectives into the relationship, and not simply be absorbed into the thinking, relating, and value patterns of those around us. This allows us to be interdependent without being codependent. Continue reading Why WE Need YOU to Have More Solitude and Quiet

Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

 

I don’t normally respond to people who comment on my writing. I used to be diligent about this, but now I don’t have enough time. However, I’m making an exception here, because the following comment from a reader of my email newsletter raises a helpful and important distinction. The reader’s comment was about a quote from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. First, here’s the quote:

“It is very important that you only do what you love to do. You may be poor, you may go hungry, you may lose your car, you may have to move into a shabby place to live, but you will totally live. And at the end of your days you will bless your life because you have done what you came here to do.

“Otherwise, you will live your life as a prostitute, you will do things only for a reason, to please other people, and you will never have lived. and you will not have a pleasant death.”
— Elisabeth Kübler-Ross

Continue reading Does God want you to do something you hate doing?

Who is your “spiritual teacher”? Do you even need one?

“The missing element in many spiritual quests is the spiritual guide. … When a person finds out that all his efforts at self-improvement are movements around a circle, that the ego does not really intend to give itself up in surrender to the Spirit and therefore only pretends to do so, he realizes that left to himself he cannot succeed in really changing his inner center of gravity. Help is needed from some outside source if he is to free himself from such a hopeless position.”
– Paul Brunton

We use different terms for it in our various circles, but do you have a spiritual teacher, or guide? Is there someone who is helping you grow in your spiritual life by modeling that kind of life (even if imperfectly), by teaching you about it, helping answer questions, and showing you things about yourself that you might not have seen otherwise? Who is the person who helps you make sense of the deeper questions about meaning and purpose in life, who helps you sort out the problems and questions that you run into?

Some circles use the language of “discipling,” others spiritual direction, still others “shepherding” or pastoring, and others spiritual teacher or master. In Jesus’ time, serious spiritual students had “rabbis” or “teachers.”

Ever since coming back into church ministry in 2011, after going through a time of spiritual disillusionment and then renewal, I’ve been reflecting a lot about the role of the pastor in churches and in people’s spiritual lives. I’ve come to believe that, all too often, what churches look for from their pastors, does not really encompass this role (of “spiritual teacher”).

Churches look for pastors to do three things: (a) provide teaching from the Bible in the form of sermons (b) provide leadership for the church organization, and (c) be available and compassionate in crisis situations, like hospitalizations or deaths. Depending on the congregation, (a) and (b) are sometimes switched in order of priority, and (c) is usually a distant third.

The role of spiritual teacher (or “discipler” to use the language some use in Christian circles) doesn’t really fit here. The “teaching” part of being a spiritual teacher — at least as I’m thinking of the term — is more than just preaching. It’s not about simply presenting concepts (like a preacher does from the pulpit) … it’s about helping people apply those concepts to their lives. If the church numbers in the hundreds or thousands, there’s no way the pastor can have enough interaction with people in the church to know what’s going on in their lives and help them with their questions and challenges.

Here’s my concern: If the pastor is not fulfilling this role, who is? Most pastors I know will say, “I’m not able to provide that kind of personal attention and care to each person in my church … that’s why we have small groups. People get that kind of care in their small groups.”

But do they really?

Let’s assume a church is divided into active small group Bible studies, or support groups. Can the small group leaders — who have other jobs, and often get very little training or preparation for their role as small group leaders — really fill this role of being spiritual teachers for people in their groups?

I’m sure that sometimes they do … but usually not. Usually the leader’s role is more that of facilitator or host. Plus, small groups shift around so much, and fizzle out so often, that the percentage of church attendees with a long term relationship in a small group — let alone one with a small group leader who functions as a spiritual teacher for them — is rare indeed.

I’m not sure what to think about this … and I really do want to know what others think. Do you think this is a problem? Do people even want to have someone who functions as a spiritual teacher in their lives? Or is it enough to have a pastor who is more of a figure-head and example at a distance? I’d love to know if it’s just me who thinks this role is really needed.

 

Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

 

If you are seeking to do important work in the world, but feel overwhelmed by it, this is for you. If you are challenged by anxiety and stress, and struggle to balance your service with the rest of your life, this is for you. If you want to lower your stress level without lowering your performance level, this is for you.

What: Free Teleseminar / Webinar  (you can access audio only by phone, or also see video)

When: Wednesday, June 7

Time: 7:00pm – 8:30pm (central time)

(REGISTER HERE – OR AT THE BOTTOM OF THIS PAGE)

Here’s what you will learn:

Continue reading Free Teleseminar: Changing the World Without Wrecking Your Life: a blueprint for overcoming stress and anxiety

Are you ‘losing your faith’ or is your faith being refined?

 

Just over a decade ago I began a journey, disillusioned by my experiences with “church” and the type of Christian faith and practice it advocated. I was a pastor, and thus a spokesperson for this brand: through teaching, preaching, and counseling. The crisis for me came in having to admit that what I had been taught — and was teaching — wasn’t really working in my own life. The faith and spiritual practices weren’t adequate to deal with the struggles and challenges of my life, or in coming to terms with the traumas of my past.

On a leave of absence from my ministry position, I committed myself to face — with “ruthless honesty” — the spiritual questions I had been unwilling and/or unable to face when I was preaching and leading a church.

It’s not my intent to chronicle this journey: there have been many twists and turns, and it’s still ongoing. But what’s important to say is this: What has emerged is not a story about faith that was lost, but rather a faith that has been refined. What is emerging is something that is — I think — deeper, more real, and more precious.

My observation is that many people go through similar process in their experience of recovery. And now that I’m back working as a pastor, I’m also seeing many people go through a similar process of spiritual transformation that starts out looking more like spiritual disillusionment, doubt, and/or “giving up on church.”

It feels like the end of something, but it could be the beginning of something better.

Your tribe does not have exclusive rights to “Being a Christian”

I am learning that following Jesus is a multi-faceted process, and that “Christianity” is a much larger tent than I had realized. I fell into the error of assuming that what I had experienced and learned was “the Christian faith,” and when I saw its failings and inconsistencies, I assumed that the only alternative was to dismiss the Christian faith as a whole.

After a year or two of drifting, I began to see that things are much more nuanced than I had been led to believe. I discovered that there are many people like me, with the same questions and reservations about the version of Christianity I had. What they did … and what I’m doing … is living out a different expression of Christianity.

So one of the things that’s emerging for me is a deeper appreciation for what I would consider to be the mystical core of the Christian faith. That is, the mysterious connection between the human and divine. That is, the experience of the mystery of “Christ in you, the hope of glory” that Paul talks about in I Corinthians.

In his excellent book “Answering the Contemplative Call” Carl McColman writes this:

“We need to be like Mary of Nazareth, offering ourselves up so that our very bodies can offer hospitality to Christ. Like Mary and Martha of Bethany, like Zacchaeus the tax collector, like Simon the leper, we are invited to receive God?—?within us. This is not a mental game, as if we just have to think, ‘God is inside me,’ to make it so. After all, God is everywhere, so God is already inside you (and me, and everyone else) whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not.

“Therefore the key is to learn how to recognize God’s presence, and, in recognizing that presence, choose to embrace it, respond to it, and love it. And the only reason to love God’s presence is because we love God.”

What I’m finding is that this mystical heart was missing for me. Make no mistake, I was certainly taught about the importance of having a “relationship with God,” and the need for having daily “quiet time.” But this was basically set aside time to read and study the Bible, and then pray. And of course “prayer” was essentially an act of speaking to God in my mind and asking Him to do things for me and for other people. Then I would get confused and disappointed because so often God would not do the things I was asking Him to do.

This is a process

I think there is so much more going on … so many more depths available in our spiritual life. There is an essential internal work, where I focus on God’s activity of bringing healing and insight and strength to my heart. That is the essence of it: the experience of inner transformation. This is what the Bible calls “sanctification:” the ongoing process of having my own ego laid aside, and the divine nature of the Spirit emerge and live out more fully in my being.

This is what was going on in Jesus’ life when he spent that 40 days in the desert, and when he would go off to lonely places in the night, and in early mornings to pray. He didn’t just sit and make lists of things he wanted from the Father. There was some kind of internal shaping going on. And this internal shaping is at the heart of the experience we can have as Christians. This experience relates to a set of beliefs that we espouse, but it goes much deeper.

I’ve been a Christian for decades, and it’s astonishing for me to realize how much is there that for all these years I just missed. Maybe the mystical core wasn’t being taught in the circles I was in, or maybe it was there, and I wasn’t listening.

These days, I’m listening.

 

More spiritual doesn’t always mean more peaceful

In writing the book “Not so Overwhelmed: changing the world without wrecking your life” I’ve been struck by the presence of paradox in so many aspects of the spiritual life. As a Christian leader I’m focusing the book on spiritually minded people who want to do good in the world.

But here’s the question: Do you want to not be overwhelmed, or do you want to do good in the world?

“Wanting to do good in the world” is often what puts us in situations where we feel overwhelmed. The solution for being overwhelmed might seem to be “cut back and do less” … but on the other hand, isn’t doing things to change the world our goal? Somehow we’ve got to deal with this tension: The Bible promises that followers of Jesus will have a “peace that passes understanding”, yet sometimes following God’s call into serving others brings more challenges, not less.

One of the dangers along the spiritual path is viewing God’s work in our lives primarily — and even exclusively — as a healing journey. Pushed to the extreme, this archetype can create the expectation that the purpose of God’s work in our lives is to make

the hard things in our lives easier, to make the painful things go away. It doesn’t always work like this.

As I say later in the book, rather than make our lives easier, simpler, and more comfortable, sometimes following our calling and being open to God’s work our lives makes things harder and more complicated.

Author Belden Lane writes about the insights we can gain from ancient monks, nomads, and pilgrims living in the desert. This collected body of wisdom is often referred to as “desert spirituality.” Desert spirituality is focused on having a meaningful spiritual life even in the midst of challenges and hardship. Here’s what Lane writes:

“My fear is that much of what we call ‘spirituality’ today is overly sanitized and sterile, far removed from the anguish of pain, the anchoredness of place. Without the tough-minded discipline of desert-mountain experience, spirituality loses its bite, its capacity to speak prophetically to its culture, its demand for justice. Avoiding pain and confrontation, it makes no demands, assumes no risks. … It resists every form of desert perversity, dissolving at last into a spirituality that protects its readers from the vulnerability it was meant to provoke. The desert, in the end, will have none of it.

“One of the scourges of our age is that all our deities are house-broken and eminently companionable. Far from demanding anything, they ask only how they can more meaningfully enhance the lives of those they serve.”

The paradox here is that being followers of Jesus actually does make our lives better, easier, more full. We do experience the “peace that passes understanding.” At the same time, being followers of Jesus sometimes takes us into desert places, hard places. It helps us overcome overwhelm, and in contributes to overwhelm in its own way.

In her book Soul of a Pilgrim, modern mystic and “urban monk” Christine Valters Paintner writes: “Sometimes we need to be uncomfortable. Sometimes we need to remember a God of wilderness who calls us beyond our edges to a landscape where we might discover a passion and vitality we never knew we could experience….Developing the capacity to endure and remain open to difficult feelings is part of the movement toward spiritual maturity.”

This is not a tension that is ever resolved in this life. Following Jesus simplifies, but also complicates our lives. The work of God in our lives brings inner peace, even as this work also creates challenges of its own. Maybe the simplest — and most honest — promise we can make is this: Following Jesus will make our lives better, but not necessarily easier.