In my Sept 14 post, Now that the Buffalo are Gone, I said Americans had lost sight of the ideals that once held the country together and were dangerously fracturing into warring tribes. I then suggested that the demise of old ideas was not necessarily a bad thing if we replaced them with better ones. Caught up in my stubborn idealism and inspired by the image of our little blue planet, I went as far as proposing a new narrative for humankind, transcending country, race, and religion.
I was right, wrong, somewhat right, and ahead of my time…
Brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.
Twenty-four hundred years ago, Socrates, infamously known as the gadfly of Athens, was condemned to death for thinking too much and urging his fellow citizens to do so as well.
Fifth Century female scholar and philosopher Hypatia was hunted down by Christian men who brutally stripped off her clothes, beat her with tiles, skinned her alive with oyster shells, then dragged her body through the streets of Alexandria, Egypt, until she died.
The Church forced Italian scientist Galileo to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.
“The Church says that the Earth is flat, but I know that it is round, for I have seen the shadow of the earth on the moon and I have more faith in the Shadow than in the Church.” – Explorer Ferdinand Magellan
Echoes of Galileo’s trial can be heard in the current debate on climate change where today’s Inquisitors dispute the consensus of science on no other ground than their fear of having their cherished notion of progress challenged and not knowing who they would be or what they would do once they give up their toys and recover from their addictions.
In the 1930’s, Nazis conducted a campaign to ceremonially burn books viewed as being subversive or representing ideologies opposed to Nazism.
In the early seventies, Chinese poet Mu Xin was imprisoned and tortured during China’s ‘Cultural’ Revolution that placed intellectuals last in the “Nine Black Categories” (or castes) deemed inferior by the government of Mao Zedong. Mao mobilized high school and university students known as Red Guards to humiliate and torture teachers and scholars. Claiming that “the more knowledge a man had, the more reactionary he would become,” Mao also had millions of ‘educated youth’ sent down to the countryside to receive reeducation from the peasants.
The Killing Fields in Cambodia are lush green, fertilized by the corpses of more than a million people killed from 1975 to 1979 under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Many were slain just because they read. Even wearing eyeglasses could cause your death. You Nerd!
The benighted ghost of anti-intellectualism is once again spreading its shadow on the world threatening mankind with a new Dark Age.
It’s raising its ugly head in President Trump’s attack on journalism, his mockery of science and truth, and his allergy to the written word (except Tweets).
It howls through Brexit proponent Michael Gove, U.K. Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary (2015-2016), when saying: “People in this country have had enough of experts!”
It lurks in Governor Scott Walker’s recent attempt to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
I understand people’s exasperation with those who perch high-and-mighty on their ivory towers presuming to know the ‘right way’ and who hurl their godlike knowledge down upon us lesser mortals as an indictment on how we live our lives. But to use these condescending windbags to sneer at those whose talents and inclinations happen to be better suited to serve humankind through academia, is foolish and dangerous.
A bit ironic too. For these modern day Inquisitors, these champions of ignorance, will rush to a medical scientist the minute they sneeze; drive to a mechanic to repair their car; trust a nutritionist more than their gut for what to eat or not, or stand in line for hours at an Apple store to have a Geek fix their iPhone.
It was bacteriologist Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin.
British scientist Sir Richard Doll who first linked smoking and lung cancer.
It was geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson who stopped us from being further poisoned by increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain.
Writer and marine biologist Rachel Carson who saved us from the adverse effects of the indiscriminate use of pesticides and launched the environmental movement.
The Hellenistic philosophical schools in Greece and Rome – Epicureans, Skeptics, Stoics – all conceived of philosophy as a way of addressing the most painful problems of human life.
And it was psychologist Linda Caporeal’s curiosity that finally linked an outbreak of rye ergot (a fungus blight that forms hallucinogenic substances in bread altering behavior when consumed) to the odd conduct of 15th Century women in Salem, Massachusetts, which condemned them to the gallows. Too late though.
All brave thinkers, tinkerers, and insatiably curious. Nerds, if you will.
Verbal intelligence, the ability to analyze information and solve problems using language-based reasoning, is linked to open-minded thinking. Close-minded thinking, on the other hand, allows opportunists to manipulate your emotions to control your thoughts and actions. They will, warned Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, make you believe absurdities and so make you commit atrocities, like burning books or hanging ‘witches,’ skinning female scholars, and shooting four-eye nerds. Or its more contemporary versions: mailing pipe bombs and shooting inside places of worship to annihilate those who you are told are the enemy.
Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim and how strongly you should believe it.
Willful or lazy ignorance is an insult to the gift of reason, a danger to democracy, and a grave threat to our survival. Compounding this ignorance with the deprecation of those who do think, is outright contemptible.
If you don’t want to read or think, that’s fine. Your loss. But the next time you see someone reading an actual book inside a coffee shop or walking down the street with a slide-rule, pocket protector, and adjusting his glasses, I suggest you salute him as you would a brave soldier for he might be close to discovering something that will heal or save your life.
Barring massive economic mobilization and rapid transition to more efficient technologies, we are in serious trouble.
After I first ranted about this, then followed up with a second one at the peak of the summer’s heat wave, I stuck my head in the sand and ignored any article dealing with this issue because I felt there is nothing I could do.
I’ve also been numbed by fear.
But I can’t turn my back and ignore it, can I? Like you, I hold one share (of 7.5 Billion) in our planetary venture and feel it my duty to do something. If anything, out of gratitude for my luck of living in such a beautiful place.
I don’t know about you, but I really like this little blue planet, which, as far as I know, is the only home we have.
As it is, my carbon footprint is as shallow as Paris Hilton. I like meat, don’t have many devices plugged in, own an iPhone 5 whose battery just ran out…again, don’t own a car, don’t conform to latest fashion, and can’t line-dry my clothes. What to do?
Call a legislator and rant? Write a letter to the United Nations? Pope Francis?
Good luck with that.
From their track record, it is clear that the powers that be are too unwieldy – or spineless – to bring about the rapid transition we need to stave disaster. It’s been twenty years since many of the world’s leaders adopted the Kyoto Protocol to reduce greenhouse gas concentrations and here’s what they’ve accomplished:
Pretty grim, I know.
I decided to find out what the largest sources of greenhouse-gas emissions are, and then figure out what the average Joe can do about it.
Since I cannot afford an electric car nor house on which to install solar panels and double-pane windows, I focused instead on Industry and Electricity which constitute 50% of the problem.
The Industry sector produces the goods and raw materials we use every day and its main emissions are produced by burning fossil fuels for power or heat. So stop buying unnecessary stuff, and don’t upgrade my iPhone5. Check!
The Electricity sector emissions are also released when burning fossil fuels, such as coal, oil, and natural gas.
Burning fossil fuels, then, is the common denominator; the main culprit, and the most carbon intensive fossil fuel out there is coal. In the electricity sector alone, coal accounts for 67 percent of CO2 emissions yet only generates about 30 percent of U.S. electricity.
What now? Call Rob Murray, Coal-Boss of Murray Energy, and rant?
Instead, let’s contact the person in charge of our 401K or pension plan to instruct him/her to divest our portfolios of anything having to do with coal and switch those investments to companies which are leading the pack in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Or, if you live, say, in Norway, Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, or China, call the officer who manages your country’s sovereign wealth fund and tell him the same thing (Okay, maybe not China).
Retirement accounts and foreign investors – primarily sovereign wealth funds – own close to three-quarters of U.S. corporate stocks. They control the spigots that flow with the capital companies need to invest and grow.
If we all wiped our portfolios clean of coal, we might have a chance.
Desperate times call for stealthy measures.
Once the CEO’s of these companies see their capital flows run dry and stocks plummet, they might wake up and move towards more efficient technologies. After all, they should know that they are not in the coal business per se, but in the energy business. All they need is some imagination and a little push to evolve.
As for those employed in the sector, governments must step-in to ease the transition. A combination of a temporary guaranteed income and intensive retraining should work. The U.S., for example, employs about 80,000 workers in the coal industry. At the country’s median income, the country would need to come up with about $5 billion to cover a year’s worth of salaries. If the U.S. government has $3.1 billion to spare on vacation for federal employees placed on administrative leave, I’m sure it can make this work.
For all other investments in your 401K or pension plan portfolio, make sure the companies you are supporting are aligned with your values by becoming a conscious investor as Vinay Shandal suggests in his humorous TED talk.
Margaret Mead famously said we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Rachel Carson published ‘Silent Spring’ in 1962 as a warning to the nation about the adverse effects on the environment of the indiscriminate use of pesticides. Silent Spring was met with fierce opposition by chemical companies but spurred a reversal in national pesticide policy, led to a nationwide ban on DDT for agriculture, and launched the environmental movement.
In 1965, geochemist Clair Cameron Patterson tried to draw public attention to the problem of increased lead levels in the environment and our food chain. In his effort to ensure that lead was removed from gasoline, Patterson fought against the lobbying power of the Ethyl Corporation and against the lead additive industry as a whole. Following Patterson’s clarion call, he was refused contracts with many research organizations, including the United States Public Health Service. In 1971, he was excluded from a National Research Council panel on atmospheric lead contamination, even though he was the foremost expert on the subject. But he persisted, and by 1975, the United States mandated the use of unleaded gasoline resulting in the phaseout of lead from all automotive gasoline by 1986. Lead levels within the blood of Americans dropped by up to 80% by the late 1990s.
“The world is not dangerous because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything” – Albert Einstein
Inspired by these courageous figures, I have sent my ‘No More Coal’ letter to my pension fund.
As an outsider, I have a bird’s-eye advantage of looking down at the fires raging across the American political landscape and the internecine clashes which threaten to tear the “United” States apart.
Being a-moral, un-ideal, non-religious, non-partisan, and pledging allegiance to nothing else than the Earth and all living beings, I sit far removed from the circus arena and watch the clowns and carnage while munching on metaphysical popcorn.
A shrill tragicomedy unfolds before my eyes on this Theater of the Absurd.
For several weeks, the main act featured the clash of two puppets, male and female, Kavanaugh and Ford, whose strings were manipulated in shadow by the doctrinaire forces rending the fabric of this nation. Meanwhile, exploitative reporters thronged the front row feeding spectators raw meat and venom which devoured their entrails and made them vomit it back without once passing through the sieve of their intellectual integrity. Thus poisoned, and burning with self-righteous rage, they cast doubt on the testimony of these two players, based not on objective evidence, but in blind allegiance to the dark forces pulling their strings. One side claiming there should be a statute of limitation for wrongdoing, while the other insisting on imposing perfect morals on imperfect beings, they precipitated their judgment, and, like Roman Emperors, lowered their thumbs condemning their despised to death.
Consider drugs as another example. Since 1971, the United States has wasted 1.5 trillion dollars on its “war on drugs,” but done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Why? Because addiction is not a “drug problem” but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the self-destructive manifestation of despair. A country with good imagination would invest its treasure on mental health, not ineffective wars.
What about guns and mass shootings? Here again, this country faces a problem of anguish, one which mostly afflicts young men. Bad imagination would have government confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans or have teachers carry concealed weapons at recess. The good kind would focus attention on the underlying issue.
What about walls? Bad imagination conjures idiotic ideas that immigrants are determined to take over the country or are somehow afflicted with irrepressible wanderlust and must therefore be stopped at the border with ever-higher fortifications. Good imagination understands that most immigrants originate from neighboring countries as yet not sufficiently developed to afford everyone the opportunity to provide a decent living for themselves and their families. “Tough luck!” Bad imagination would say. “Not our problem. Build that Wall!” forgetting that necessity is the mother of invention, so, while laying another row of bricks, the ground beneath their fortress becomes tunnel-riddled like Swiss Cheese. President Truman’s 1949 inaugural speech outlining his vision to assist developing countries is a perfect example of good imagination:
“We must embark on a bold new program for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas. More than half the people of the world are living in conditions approaching misery. Their food is inadequate. They are victims of disease. Their economic life is primitive and stagnant. Their poverty is a handicap and a threat both to them and to more prosperous areas.”
How those intentions were later translated into action is a perfect example of bad imagination.
Climate change is yet another example, pitting those who insist on wasting time trying to pin the blame on humans against those who deny it, often with such vitriol and vehemence it reminds me of the Spanish Inquisition. To my mind, it is not ultimately a matter of who is responsible, but what we do about it. Whether man-made or not, it is a phenomenon which poses a serious threat to human survival, so we might want to stop splitting hairs and, instead, roll-up our sleeves and get to work before it’s too late.
The forces of bad imagination — preferring strife over compromise, war over healing — now control the United States and threaten to tear it apart. One can only hope that the millions of puppets under their spell will soon wake up from their hypnosis, start thinking for themselves, take back power, and unleash the right kind of imagination on their country.
I’ll still be perched here, munching on metaphysical popcorn, to report on the awakening, or watch in disbelief as Rome continues to burn.
Aching for slow beauty to save us from our quick-quick life!
Tired of hearing old people pine for the good old days, frustrated, really, from sensing that I have somehow missed the boat, I decided to ask what they meant.
Aside from the predictable nostalgia for their carefree days of childhood, one answer topped their list:
SIMPLICITY: The good old days of civility, tight-knit communities, only 3-TV channels and 2-cylinder cars, the 30-minute newscast, rotary phones, human operators, physical maps, doctor house calls, limited choices of mates and breakfast cereal, little regulation and much self-reliance and self-responsibility.
Attempting to make our lives more convenient, free-up time, and expand our choices, it seemed from their leading answer and clarifying definitions that us “young ones” have made matters worse by transforming our world into a kind of giant, impersonal Rube Goldberg contraption, performing simple tasks (calling a friend, getting from point A-to-B, remedying a cold, choosing a partner or cereal) in convoluted, impersonal, and dizzying ways, often riddled with frustrating redundancies, and, in many cases (dating, entertainment), with so much to choose from, we end up tied up in a knot, unable to choose.
I had to admit they had a point.
But what about all the free time we’ve gained thanks to our technological advances?
If that is so, why are most of you, “young ones,” so overwhelmed, harried, stressed and burnt out? Why, for instance, has the number of vacation days taken by the average American worker declined from twenty to sixteen in the last forty years? And if, in fact, you’ve gained free time through all your techno wizardry, it appears it’s been claimed by new and meaningless distractions…a tossing welter of irrelevance.
Ok…but! I pressed on, in valiant defense of our times…technology helps bring families, friends, and communities closer together.
(Phlegmy scoffs followed by huge eye rolls behind thick, smudged eyeglasses held together with duct tape).
Ok, not that then. But what about regulation? You can’t deny it helps curb abuse and blatant irresponsibility from others.
Aha…but the excess to which regulation has been taken has come at the steep price of self-reliance and self-responsibility…the loss of agency.
I can have a meal or book delivered in less time than it takes you to rinse your octogenarian dentures!
And you’ll eat your meal and read your book – if at all – in less time, and soon forget what you ate and most of what you read while suffering from heartburn.
I never get lost thanks to Google Maps!
Some of the most memorable adventures in our lives have occurred precisely because we got lost.
We have so much to choose from now.
And you never settle for anything.
We have gut-cleansing Kombucha, Mushroom Coffee, and Colored Toast! I bet you never had that in the “good-old-days,” huh? (mocking voice…finger doing air quotes).
By then, I felt like Charlie Chaplin in ‘Modern Times,’ struggling to repair the Giant Machine.
It does feel that our world is evolving, not from simplicity to complexity, but to chaos, or entropy.
As explained by James Clear, entropy is the natural tendency of things to lose order. Sand castles get washed away. Weeds overtake gardens. Ancient ruins crumble. Cars begin to rust. People gradually age. The inevitable trend is for things to become less organized and more so over time. This is known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics, one of the fundamental laws of our universe.
I decided to pose the same question to someone a bit ‘younger,’ my sixty-year-old brother:
“When you hear the phrase ‘Good Old Days,’ what comes immediately to mind?”
Before I reveal his answer, let me say that my brother’s nickname is ‘Turtle,’ not only because of his weathered countenance, but, especially, for his calm and plodding approach to life.
Here’s what he said after ruminating for a long time while sipping his signature Crown Royal whisky and puffing a fat cigar:
“Hmm…the good old days…
I’d say right now, this moment!
Ask me tomorrow and I’ll say the same thing.”
When in doubt, always ask a turtle.
My brother’s simple wisdom immediately brought to mind one of my favorite poems:
“MY HERO” by Billy Collins
Just as the hare is zipping across the finish line,
And old thunder. – From ‘A Buffalo Skull’ by Ted Kooser
At one point their population numbered in the tens of millions.
Hunted to near extinction by American market hunters, the once massive bison population was reduced to a mere 1,000 by the turn of the century.
Sanctioned by the United States government, the widespread slaughter was proposed to effectively weaken the Native Indians of the West whose livelihood was tied to the bison – central to their culture and heritage.
“Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone,” said Columbus Delano, the Secretary of the Interior in the early 1870’s. “The rapid disappearance of game from the former hunting-grounds [will] favor our efforts to confine the Indians to smaller areas and compel them to abandon their nomadic customs.”
The American settlers realized Native Americans could perhaps be eliminated if the bison were exterminated. Thus, the American government set out to destroy the plentiful buffalo population while enforcing a reservation system to confine the Indians to a tiny fragment of their ancestral lands.
Crippled by the scarcity of bison, the culture of the Plains Indians and other neighboring tribes unraveled.
“When the buffalo went away, the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” records Crow Chief Plenty in his personal biography. “After this, nothing happened. There was little singing anywhere.”
There is little singing in America today because it, too, has lost its Buffalo: a common mythology and shared identity; the story, ideals, and illusions which once bound the country together. And an era can be considered over once its basic illusions have been exhausted, playwright Arthur Miller said.
Shut away as we are becoming in impenetrable fortresses of tribalism, nationality, identity politics, gender, class, race, ethnicity, and rigid ideologies, the glue is coming undone and the center cannot hold as poet John Keats warned in ‘The Second Coming,’ adding, prophetically, that mere anarchy is loosed upon the world and everywhere the best [men] lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.
There was plenty of passionate intensity after 9-11, but a nation glued together by hatred does not hold together regardless of how righteous.
In a recent opinion piece, conservative columnist David Brooks wrote that the western civilization narrative, at least in Europe and North America, used for most of the past few centuries to explain their place in the world, came with certain values — about the importance of reasoned discourse, the importance of property rights, the need for a public square that was religiously informed but not theocratically dominated. It set a standard for what great statesmanship looked like. It gave diverse people a sense of shared mission and a common vocabulary, set a framework within which political argument could happen and, most important, provided a set of common goals. Now, Brooks adds, the basic fabric of civic self-government seems to be eroding.
A similar phenomenon is occurring with men’s old notions of masculinity which are rapidly eroding under a rising tide of the rightful demands from women to once again be co-authors in the human story. Yet, absent a new definition of what it means to be a man in this evolving narrative, many men are bewildered. This might explain why middle-aged men are committing suicide in greater numbers, and why many young men, as described by Stephen Marche in the Guardian, are mostly feral boys wandering the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, howling their misery, concocting vast nonsense about women, and craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.
The demise of timeworn ideas is, in my mind, not a bad thing. Who misses the Roman Empire, for example, or cries over the demise of monarchical rule in Europe which ushered in the age of liberty and democracy?
The danger is failing to write a new and better story out of the vacuum left behind by the demise of old ideas, ideas that seem to be running their course under the rapid changes our world is experiencing.
But as it happens, across the world today, we are handing the pen over to “strong men,” allowing them to author the new story, and we, unwitting characters, are cheering them on with tribal glee. Higher, more impenetrable walls are being built, deeper moats are being dug around our fortresses, and a new arms race is under way as the scorched-earth assault on our planet ramps up.
In a recent conference, author Chetan Bhatt dared his audience to refuse their identity myths.
What if we reject every single primordial origin myth and develop a deeper sense of personhood, Bhatt questioned. One responsible to humanity as a whole rather than to a particular tribe, a radically different idea of humanity that exposes how origin myths mystify, disguise global power, rapacious exploitation, poverty, the oppression of women and girls, and of course, accelerating inequalities?
Do we really need identity myths to feel safe?
What if the plains Indians would have diversified their diet? Or been less dogmatic about their choice of totemic animal?
What about you, now, listening to this? Bhatt challenged further. What about you and your identity? One stitched together with your experiences and your thoughts into a continuous person moving forward in time. This person you are when you say, “I,” “am,” or “me,” doesn’t this also include all of your hopes and dreams, all of the you’s that could have been, and includes all the other people and the things that are in the biography of who you are? Your authentic self, if such a thing exists, is a complex, messy and uncertain self, and that is a very good thing. Why not value those impurities and uncertainties? Maybe clinging to pure identities is a sign of immaturity, and ethnic, nationalist and religious traditions are bad for you. Why not be skeptical about every primordial origin claim made on your behalf? Why not reject the identity myths that call on you to belong? If we don’t need origin stories and fixed identities, we can challenge ourselves to think creatively about each other and our future.
For the past eighteen months, I have been playing Jenga with my Self.
Jenga is a game where players take turns to remove a block from a tower and balance it on top, creating a taller and increasingly unstable structure as the game progresses. But rather than placing back the old blocks, I have examined, removed and discarded all my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed, all which were impeding a more authentic self to emerge. It’s been an unsettling but liberating experience, one which has cleared the way for me to replace those old blocks with new values – my unique values – and write my own script.
As for the world, what if we started by replacing our cherished Buffalos with ‘Earthrise,’ the most famous photograph ever taken?
That was Earth, our irreplaceable planetary home, which it is now wholly in our remit to destroy, wrote philosopher Alain de Botton when contemplating that iconic photograph taken on Christmas Eve 1968.
“Suddenly humankind was able to view its habitat with a gaze hitherto reserved for the entity we have termed God, and it’s only us now who are responsible for ourselves and our fragile home. We may have to adopt in and for ourselves some of the attitudes we once projected onto divinities.”
I say it is time to snatch the pen out of the callous hands of “strong men” and write a better story for humanity and our planet.
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Of the many insights gained through writing my life’s story, the excess of unpleasant over pleasant memories has stood out like Al Sharpton would at a KKK rally or Trump as the guest of honor at a Cinco de Mayo fiesta in Tijuana. It has been such a striking, baffling, and irritating sore thumb, that I needed to find out why.
It’s not as if I grew up in Dickensian squalor or drought-stricken Ethiopia with a distended stomach and a permanent ribbon of flies on my lips. On its surface, anyone would call my life privileged.
So why does the number of unpleasant memories far outnumber the pleasant ones?
In their paper, ‘Bad is Stronger than Good,’ research psychologists at Case Western Reserve University and the Free University of Amsterdam suggest that survival requires urgent attention to possible bad outcomes, but it is less urgent with regard to good ones. Hence, it would be adaptive to be psychologically designed to respond to bad more strongly than good.
Put another way: it won’t matter how lovely the tall green grass swayed on the Savannah the day your best friend was mauled by a Saber-Toothed Tiger when you were out hunting together, but forget where it happened, and you might become its next meal.
‘Bad’ has a longer Shelf Life
A widely accepted account of the impact of life events was put forward by American psychologist Harry Helson and called adaptation level theory. In this view, the impact of substantial changes in life circumstances is temporary. Change produces strong reactions, but the circumstances that result from the change gradually cease to provoke a reaction and eventually are taken for granted.
Applying this theory to human happiness, psychologists P. Brickman and D.T. Campbell postulated a “hedonic treadmill” by which your long-term happiness will remain roughly constant regardless of what happensto you because the impact of both good and bad events will wear off over time.
In testing the hedonic treadmill, however, it emerged that bad events wear off more slowly than good events. Brickman and Campbell interviewed three groups of respondents: people who had won a lottery, people who had been paralyzed in an accident, and people who had not recently experienced any such major life event (the lottery wins and accidents had occurred about one year before the interview).
Confirming the hypothesis for positive events, the lottery winners did not report greater happiness than the two other groups. The research proposed that this result was due to habituation: The euphoria over the lottery win did not last, and the winners’ happiness levels quickly returned to what they had been before the lottery win. Ironically, the only lasting effect of winning the lottery appeared to be the bad ones, such as a reduction in enjoyment of ordinary pleasures.
No man has been shattered by the blows of Fortune unless he was first deceived by her favors. – Seneca
In contrast to the transitory euphoria of good fortune, the accident victims were much slower to adapt to their fate. They rated themselves as significantly less happy than participants in the control condition. The victims continued to compare their current situation with how their lives had been before the accident (unlike lottery winners, who did not seem to spend much time thinking how their lives had improved from the bygone days of relative poverty). Brickman et al. called this phenomenon the “nostalgia effect.”
The seeming implication of these findings is that adaptation-level effects are asymmetrical, consistent with the view that bad is stronger than good. After a short peak in happiness, we become accustomed to the new situation and are no more happy than we were before the improvement. After a serious misfortune, however, we adjust less quickly.
Put another way, you are more upset about losing $50 than you are happy about gaining $50.
The Stories We Remember and the Words We Choose
Returning at dusk from the hunt and settling around the campfire with your clan, the pleasant memory of the swaying Savannah grass, if recalled at all, will be perfunctorily described. But you will go to great length and in exquisite, emotion-wrenching detail when recounting the death of your best buddy. How helpless and pained you felt at seeing him try to fend-off the slashing cuts of the Saber-Tiger’s razor-sharp teeth; the harrowing screams which will forever haunt your sleep; the terror of watching the grass darken with all his blood.
In 1975, James R. Averill, psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, constructed a Semantic Atlas of Emotional Concepts by an exhaustive compilation of 558 emotion words. When he had participants rate them, he found that there were one and one-half times as many negative terms as positive ones (i.e., 62% negative vs. 38% positive).
Spend five minutes writing down as many emotion words you can think of and you’ll probably arrive at a similar result.
Human recall for positive versus negative emotions was studied in 1990 by psychologists D.L. Thomas and E. Diener. They found that people tended to underestimate the frequency of positive experiences, but not negative ones, which is consistent with the view that the relative weakness of positive emotional experiences makes them more forgettable. Across two other studies people reported bad events over good events by about a four-to-one margin.
It may also be, however, that positive experiences are so much more frequent than negative ones and that the greater frequency accounts for the relative underestimation. How often do you recall being first in line at the cash register in your local supermarket versus all those times you waited behind the lady with the fat wad of discount coupons, or behind the old man wanting to rid himself of all the pennies he’s collected since World War II? The relevance of underestimating positive experiences will be made clear further on.
The inordinate amount of effort we expend on describing unpleasant memories is similar to the one we expend to change our moods. Research shows that people use many more techniques for escaping bad moods than for inducing good ones which is consistent with the hypothesis of the greater power of negative emotions.
Dragging-out the pleasant memories of my childhood from the dark pit of memory often feels like looking for gold in a coal mine. Mostly, what I find are minute, scattered flecks, such as a smell, a flashing image, an emotion viscerally recalled. These I must then carry in my mind for a while until they begin to coalesce into a clearer, more complete memory. The task is arduous and time-consuming, and I know – and saddened to know – that many of what I am sure were wonderful experiences are now irremediably lost.
But what I can do – and have been doing and perfecting for the past five years – is prevent the gold of my present to suffer the same fate.
It began by writing down – almost daily – any positive moment or experience I had had in the recent past, along with three things for which I was grateful.
As I recorded these moments, I realized that the more detailed and vivid my descriptions were, the more lasting the memory. This exercise has made me realize how much we impoverish our lives by underestimating or taking for granted our positive experiences by considering them mundane and commonplace, “the most unphilosophical, irreligious and immoral word in the English language” according to author John Cowper Powys.
In her book ‘On Looking: A Walker’s Guide to the Art of Observation,’ Alexandra Horowitz says that to the child, as to the artist, everything is relevant, little is unseen.
By striving to recover my childhood capacity to see everything again for the first time, refusing to label a single one as “commonplace,” and adopting the habit of recording my positive moments in vivid language, I have not only begun to counterbalance all the oppressive weight of “bad” memories, but have been rewarded with two other precious insights:
Any day I fail to recall a recent positive moment makes me realize, with great alarm, that I have lived without awareness, dishonoring the gift of life with callous inadvertence. This has made me more attentive to simple joys and pleasures enriching my life as a result.
Being of an analytical bent, I categorized the 118 positive moments I have recorded to determine the type of experiences which had provoked an emotion strong and memorable enough to make me want to write them down. The result was stunning, inspiring, but not altogether surprising.
A third were moments of kindness and love (given and received), making someone happy, or involving meraki, a word that modern Greeks often use to describe doing something with soul, creativity, or love — when you put something of yourself into what you’re doing, whatever it may be. Many were moments when I cooked and shared a meal and stories with loved ones.
A second third have been moments of utter calm and serenity. No dramas, no emotional upheavals. Where the future – with all its wants and wishes – was totally annihilated. A state of mind known in Greek as ataraxia, a lucid state of robust equanimity characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry. These usually occur out in Nature.
One tenth were moments when I celebrated the successes of others.
Close behind were times when I experienced “flow,” the mental state in which I performed an activity (writing usually), fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process.
Moments when I displayed grit and discipline in tackling challenges comprised six percent of my positive experiences.
A similar proportion when I rewarded myself.
I was up to 97%, and money, fame, and meaningless thrills and distractions were conspicuously absent.
I discovered what truly brought me joy.
Remembering such a moment, author Henry Miller wrote:
“Christ, I was happy! But for the first time in my life I was happy with the full consciousness of being happy. It’s good to be just plain happy; it’s a little better to know that you’re happy; but to understand that you’re happy and to know why and how, in what way, because of what concatenation of events or circumstances, and still be happy, be happy in the being and the knowing, well that is beyond happiness, that is bliss, and if you have any sense you ought to kill yourself on the spot and be done with it.”
Rather than kill myself, I now purposely seek out the experiences that I know bring me joy and hoard those positive memories in vivid language to ensure they never fade into oblivion.
There are days when you feel stretched to your breaking point. When nothing makes sense and nothing works out. It feels like being trapped in a snow globe full of sharp rocks being shaken by a brat. Yesterday was one of those days.
I knew it was bound to be bad the minute I woke up and stabbed my toe against the edge of the closet door. The pain was amplified by an email with the seventh rejection to my Memoir and the pre-dawn realization that my credit card debt is reaching its limit which means that, soon, I won’t be able to write full-time and be forced to find a ‘real’ job.
I tried adding my daily thousand-words to my second book, but nothing seemed good, nor worth anyone’s time, so I wasted the morning reading other people’s stuff which only helped heighten my sense of inadequacy.
Surfing for hours across the roiling pages of the Internet – my senses jarred by all the chatter, outrage, and flashing images inside this bleak, abstract landscape we call cyberspace – only added to my distress.
Dizzy and with a pounding headache, I reached for my antidote: the hundred pages of quotes and poetry fragments I’ve collected for ten years.
The poet, Robinson Jeffers saved the day:
“A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time for us to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies,
Let the rich life run to the roots again.
I will find my accounting where the alder leaf quivers
In the ocean wind over the river boulders.
I will touch things and things and no more thoughts,
That breed like mouthless May-flies darkening the sky.”
All this time, not once had I unglued my face from my laptop to contemplate the verdant scenery expanding in front of the screened porch in which I usually write in spring and summer. Beckoned by its peaceful countenance, I knew what I had to do.
Fortunate to be living temporarily in a house surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness, I closed my laptop and turned off my cell phone. Within twenty minutes, walking across the forest, I reached my favorite spot on the river, where it bends, almost at a ninety degree angle, bordered by a tall, sheer rock wall.
The river’s rush over a natural fall managed to deafen the overhead roar of jets, and the shrill and harrowing sounds of jackhammers, weed-whackers, and leaf-blowers with which humans blazon their dominion and relentless encroachment into the wild.
I took off my shoes, rolled up my pants, waded across the other shore, and sat down, staring at the shaded deep pool carved by the river in front of me. Too cold for a swim, I thought. My clothes will get wet.
This time, writer GK Chesterton came to my rescue:
“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly understood.”
I slid into the chill water and felt an instant current of primordial excitement. Childlike, I floated with the flow staring up at the overhead canopy which gleamed in a variegated kaleidoscope of shades of green I had never seen before. Or perhaps seen, but never apprehended. The air was honeyed by the scent of wildflowers. After swimming a few short laps, I waded across a flatter section scanning the sandy and pebbled river bottom, my eyes attracted by shimmering golden glints of rock flakes. I lay down on a sunny patch of sand with my bare feet inside the water. I closed my eyes and, soon, felt soft, pecking nibbles. Tiny, silver fish were feeding off my skin. I laid back down and turned my head away from the overhead sun. Inches away was a damselfly with a drowsy, hinge-like motion of its gossamer wings.
I did not want to return to the madhouse. All my earlier, petty tribulations had been rinsed by a simple ablution and keen awareness in this small pocket of enchantment. Did not wish to read or write one more thing about the human condition; about flourishing, purpose, happiness, or despair. The answers were crystal out here: balance, harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation. Every living thing content with just being.
Not one who takes Prozac or Xanax, this has always been my therapy for my first-world laments, and current science endorses my remedy.
Stanford researchers recently scanned the brains of volunteers before and after they walked for ninety minutes, either in a large park or on a busy street in downtown Palo Alto. The nature walkers, but not the city walkers, showed decreased activity in the part of our brains tied to depressive rumination. The lead researcher believes that being outside in a pleasant environment takes us outside of ourselves. Nature, he says, may influence how you allocate your attention and whether or not you focus on negative emotions.
Stephen and Rachel Kaplan at the University of Michigan argue that it’s the visual elements in natural environments—sunsets, streams, butterflies—that reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. “Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode,” wrote the Kaplans—and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.
I headed back, wet, serene, and lighthearted. My predicament hadn’t changed, surely. The eighth rejection to my Memoir was waiting for me in my inbox. The debt had not vanished. But my outlook underwent a dramatic transformation. The perspective of my tribulations was altered by my soft fascination with river, rock-glimmer, wildflower, fish, and damselfly.
My thoughts no longer swarming like “mouthless mayflies darkening the sky,” I ended my day with a thousand words, which, while perhaps inadequate or mediocre, speak with the authentic voice of my sense of wonder.
It’s 97 degrees today with 93% humidity. The forest is eerily silent, the atmosphere is laden and sticky, the sky phosphorous yellow, the A/C is shot, and I sweat and rage.
As I write this (7.6.18), the heat dome extends its red and orange mantle across most of our planet. It’s the proverbial gasping canary in the coal mine. Ominous. How many must choke until we get it?
During the Great Smog of London in 1952 ten thousand had to die before the country woke up from denial and did something about it. I’m not talking canaries anymore. Nearly three-hundred people had to die from smog pollution in New York in 1953 for the Clean Air Act to pass years later. We had to reach the point in which 30% of our drinking water was unsafe – as were two-thirds of the country’s lakes, rivers and coastal waters – for the Clean Water Act to become law two years later.
Why do we do this? Why do humans wait until smacked on the face to wake up?
Ecological Scientist, Dr. Jason Bradford offers this explanation in ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’:
“Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought.
Emotions motivate and guide us.
When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards or punishments and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our mental models, setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are.
When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption.
Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal.
The conscious brain is not a simple dupe however. It can actively participate in the act of denial or rationalization. People can erect fancier houses of cards and hold on to their cherished beliefs even in the face of overwhelming contrary evidence. Many will admit that is what they are doing by resorting to the expression, Well, I just have faith, even when the subject is not overtly religious. This signals that the mental model being challenged is very important for the person, and to remove it would cause a serious and painful identity crisis.
Because scientists are challenging fundamental assumptions of our culture, such as the basis for progress and the consequences of [untrammeled] economic growth, many cannot agree with [them] without losing their identity. This threat to the mental model is simply too great to accept. Hence you encounter two modes of response from those accepting the prevailing paradigm: (1) the scientific data are not reliable, and (2) faith in technological progress and/or human ingenuity.”
Think of Italian scientist Galileo, forced by the Church to recant his discovery of a heliocentric universe which challenged the notion of the time that humans were at the center of everything.
Or Giordano Bruno, the Dominican-monk, who was burned at the stake for claiming that the earth’s sun is just one of many stars.
These threats to human preeminence and grandiosity were just too great for some to accept making them kill the messenger as I wrote in ‘Off with Her Head!’
Some claim there are as many “credible” scientific studies out there that prove humans are not altogether responsible for the warming of the planet as those proving the contrary. Even if true, who gives a shit? It’s like discovering a giant meteorite hurtling towards earth and doing nothing about it because we did not cause it. Even if scientists were to confirm that it was only highly probable – but not 100% certain – the meteorite would impact earth, wouldn’t it make sense to do everything we can to prevent it?
After 9-11, both the American and British governments borrowed a page from the Green Movement and adopted its ‘precautionary principle,’ which says that not having the evidence that something might be a problem is not a reason for not taking action. It requires imagining what the worst might be and applying that imagination upon the worst evidence that currently exists. You don’t take out car insurance because you believe you’re a shitty driver but because you consider the roads to be chock-full of morons.
What both Bush and Blair argued was that faced by the new threat of a global terror network the politician’s role was now to look into the future and imagine the worst that might happen and then act ahead of time to prevent it. If it made sense to use the precautionary principle to preempt a terrorist threat, why not apply it to an existential one?
Others argue that as long as other countries continue spewing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere without abatement, the U.S. is right in staying its course. While self-destructive, the argument would hold water if the country – with only 4% of the world’s population – was not responsible for almost a third of the excess carbon dioxide heating the planet. It’s like you trashing your neighborhood in an all-nighter and refusing to clean up because you saw one neighbor throwing an empty beer can into the mess.
Finally, there are those who faithfully assert that mankind will eventually get its act together. It might, but at what cost, and will it be too late? We are but a monstrous locust plague, and no matter how valiantly she struggles to heal after every onslaught, the earth’s regenerative magic is no match for the speed and intensity of our rapacity.
Crises are a matter of bad imagination over good imagination. The United States used to be a country of undaunted imagination, one which never shirked when confronted with a worthy challenge. Throughout history, the ingenuity and can-do attitude of Americans have led the world in times of great need or opportunity. It’s in their DNA. Or perhaps was. It could well be that this once indomitable spirit has been tamed by lashings of selfishness and greed. It seems we are living, not in the midst of an advanced culture and heroic civilization, but inside a feverish ant-heap made of concrete, steel and silicon, ruled only by the imperative and ideology of a cancer cell: growth for the sake of growth.
What’s frustrating is that I believe we are wrong to consider the challenge of global warming as one asking us to retrench; one requiring a drastic degradation of our way of life. Quite the contrary. I believe that the country with the courage to lead the effort towards a sustainable economy, planet and future will not only reap great material rewards but will be looked upon with great respect and admiration by the rest of the world. Were it to resuscitate its fighting spirit and lead the way, the United States could then rightfully claim its cherished exceptionalism.
I say this not only because of this country’s feckless leadership, ruling corporate special interests, and our collective silence, but out of guilt. For what have I really done to contribute to the solution? Not enough, I’m afraid. True, I don’t own a house or car, and my possessions could fit in two boxes. But this choice is selfish, motivated by my desire to live a simpler, unencumbered life. Much as I love this place, Earth did not weigh in my decision.
All this makes me want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, limb-locked with a swarthy native girl, wait for Armageddon while I enjoy what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet…the only inhabitable one we know of.
By the way, my 87-year-old father can’t afford to repair the A/C because he lost most of his savings in the stock market crash and Great Recession of 2008. That’s progress for you.
In my country we call it feeling like caked dogshit on someone’s shoe. (Think of sneakers with deep grooves).
As I began submitting my second book for publication last month, I remembered the pain and sense of defeat I felt years ago as the mailman kept delivering pithy rejections to my first one. Adding to the sting, I then recalled the dejection I experienced during my sorry days of online dating.
But this time around I armored myself for this second, anticipated onslaught.
Tempering my expectations seemed like a good start. They are, as philosopher Alain de Botton says, “reckless enemies of serenity.”
Level-headed realism was next. When it is your first novel, author Jim Harrison warned, and assuming you are not witless, you know well that the odds of your work being published are ten thousand to one against, and even when it is published the reactions from friends and relatives are often puzzled and evasive. (Tell me about it).
Despite digging myself into a deeper financial hole through this process, and now and then, I confess, daydreaming of an advance payment to save my divinely foolish ass, I keep reminding myself that my decision to reinvent myself as a writer was not spurred by the potential monetary reward (that’d be funny), but because it is the only thing I wanted to do with whatever is left of my “one wild and precious life.” (Mary Oliver).
One must love a thing very much if he not only practices it without hope for fame or money, but even practices it without any hope of doing it well, wrote G.K Chesterton. Such a man, he added, must love the toils of the work more than any other man can love the rewards of it. This is the root meaning of ‘amateur’ – from the Latin amare: to love.
An amateur has only one reason for doing something: the genuine fire and unbridled passion, concluded Chesterton.
After all, one doesn’t sing because one hopes to appear one day in the opera. One sings because one’s lungs are full of joy. No one can be paid to irradiate joy. – Henry Miller
Besides the joy and exhilaration I feel when doing what I love and fires my passion, I insist on never calling my writing work but ‘Ofrenda’ – Spanish for anything done as a contribution to something greater than oneself. Writing the saga of my love and existential tumult is my way of lighting William Faulkner’s match.
Literature is like a match out on an empty field at night, the author said. While it barely illuminates, it makes us realize how much darkness surrounds us.
It is my way to add brightness to the lodestar shining with the wisdom of sages, poets, and writers who help us navigate – away from distractions and beyond our delusions – onto saner shores.
Finally, from day one, I vowed to never allow the romance of my journey to be dulled by the obstacles I sensed would make the path hard and steep. After all, the view is still magnificent!
I felt – and still do – that if I stay true to its course and true to myself the path will eventually ease its angle of ascent and turn generous, although, as writer Paulo Coelho promised, it will never turn smooth and secure but always gift us new challenges. I hope he is right.
As I begin harvesting rejections (3 so far), I find it easier to think in metaphors so cannot but think back to my childhood when I first braved the treacherous riptides and large swells of the Pacific Ocean pummeling the black-lava beaches in my country. Young and brash, I stubbornly tried to dive over the oncoming waves to reach the calm waters beyond the crashing surf only to be humbled, roughed-up and tumbled back to where I first started while my father watched and smiled.
“Dunk under,” he repeated his patient advice. “Just dunk. Otherwise you’ll only get hurt and never reach the other side.”
So I’ll dunk, and report back to you when and if I get there.
Should you wish to receive frequent updates and writing tips I pick up along the way, CLICK HERE.
I consider myself intellectually rigorous which is why I only post every other week or so. On that occasion I was plain lazy and picked between the two versions of Jefferson prevalent in the national discourse. Being an inveterate iconoclast, I chose ‘Slave-owning Hypocrite,’ over the one portraying him as an untouchable ‘Godlike Founding Father.’
Already in my mid-fifties, it is troubling to realize that I can still slide at times into the comfortable embrace of confirmation bias and agree with E.F. Schumacher who said that there is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought.
What’s worse, I wasn’t even thinking of giving Jefferson a break until persuaded by a favorite writer of mine to check out Ken Burns’ documentary of the man. Far more egregious was the fact that I hemmed and hawed for days before watching it. I didn’t want my bias to be challenged. It’s the reason many stick to either Fox News or MSNBC.
While deeply moved by Jefferson’s great suffering and stoicism, the documentary’s greatest impact was that for the first time, I was presented with an image of him as an ordinary human being: flawed, failed, irresponsible, epicurean, contradictory, conflicted, and moved by irrational desire, on the one hand, while industrious, humble, wise, generous, and triumphant on the other.
For the first time, he was brought down from the pedestal to walk among us imperfect mortals. Jefferson became accessible in all his flesh-and-blood. I could finally relate, which now makes it possible to emulate.
Same thing with Jesus.
In my book, Querencia, I recount this fulminating soliloquy I had with Christ Crucified on a beach in Mexico:
Where is yours by the way? Your shadow, I mean. Where is it? Why is it that you are presented to us scrubbed and sanitized of all impurity, imperfections, conflicts, and appetites? No light, no shadow… How are we, creatures of desire, ever to attain the perfection you commanded us to seek? I prefer you as the flesh and blood, angry man, who entered the temple, and overturned the tables of the moneychangers. I can identify with that fury…with that Jesus! Or with the one whose carnal body battled with his spirit as he lusted after Mary Magdalene…the one that forgave the adulteress…the man who was full of doubt. Him I can follow and strive to emulate, because he’s one of us.
I wish the Catholic Church would replace the Crucifix with Rodin’s sculpture of Christ and the Magdalene.
For I would feel less guilt – unshakable and ultimately useless guilt – and more emboldened and inspired to learn about his ministry and adopt his radical gospel of love and forgiveness.
“Where the myth fails, human love begins.” – Anaïs Nin
The Western mind, laments Barry Spector in Madness at the Gates of the City, divided the primal unity of the indigenous soul into irreconcilable opposites: mind/body, male/female, white/black, culture/nature, and ultimately, Christ and the Devil. Gone was the memory that in the great cycle of existence, darkness or chaos is the necessary precondition of rebirth.
My self-righteous remark on Jefferson was the result of that split, and my hubris and faulty memory. In a slick move, I ignored my deep flaws and inner-demons which often lead to despicable behavior.
We will continue to despise people, Martin Luther King Jr. said, until we have recognized, loved, and accepted what is despicable in ourselves.
Until we confront our shadows and arrive at a cease-fire between the angel in ourselves and the devil in ourselves, will we never fully understand nor learn from the struggles and triumphs of exemplary individuals. This task, warned Portuguese writer Pessoa, might take a lifetime. I only have, at best, three decades left.
I was wrong about you Mr. Jefferson, and for that, please accept this as my humbled apology.
Fire sparks our imaginations and brings us closer together.
Two weeks ago (now an annual tradition), our family descended on my father’s property in rural New England.
The year before, one of my nephews built a firepit on the lawn facing a grand view of the tall trees lining its edge and sloping down to the meadow and further below to the roaring river gorged with snowmelt and April storms.
The reunion was like a short lived but dazzling meteorite shower striking the property for a few days, leaving in its wake a small crater with half-burned Tiki-torches and cigar stubs, and globs of molten glass from the bottles we shattered against the firepit’s stone rim. Absolute cathartic madness!
A merry band of revelers, joined by love, lore, and myth, and aided by dangerous levels of alcohol, we let loose our wild spirits, giving uninhibited wind to our singing voices (in convincing Mariachi), howled to the moon, hurled burning torches at the star-studded sky, dug sharp canines into sizzling meat and freshly-caught trout, and pretty much made total fools of ourselves. It was a veritable reenactment of the Greek festival of Anthesteira, celebrated at the beginning of spring, honoring Dionysus, the God of Ecstasy.
But besides the mischief and fire, there were stories.
In our frenzied modern-day lives, enamored as we are with our technological prowess and gadgetry, we forget that for 99% of human history our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Sometime around 400,000 years ago, we learned to fully control fire which not only changed our diet – fueling rapid brain growth – but also sparked our imagination.
A study of evening campfire conversations by the !Kung people of Namibia and Botswana suggests that by extending the day, fire allowed people to unleash their imaginations.
Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Polly Wiessner took detailed notes on the !Kung day and nighttime conversations. She reported that whereas daytime talk was focused almost entirely on economic issues (money), land rights (real estate), and complaints about other people (gossip), 81% of the firelight conversation was devoted to telling stories.
Tales told by firelight puts listeners on the same emotional wavelength, Wiessner writes in her paper, eliciting understanding, trust, and sympathy.
On one of those nights by the flames, my brothers and I finally lifted the veil over the false legend by which our mother lived during her entire life. But rather than disappointment, my heart grew in understanding and sympathy for her tragic childhood.
The ancient Greeks understood the importance of telling stories which were recounted through their many comedic and tragic plays. Stories which dealt with the follies and dramas of human existence.
The word ‘Entertainment’, at root, means to ‘hold together.’ It is a ritual renewal of the community through shared suffering, or joy, or both, wrote author Barry Spector. Athenian audiences, he added, viewed the clash of unbearable human contradictions and conflict, held that tension, and laughed, or wept together.
Had I, for instance, read Sophocles’ play Philoctetes before temporarily moving to my ailing father’s house to help care for him, I would have been armed with greater empathy.
Had I been told or read Diodorus’ myth of Icarus as a young boy, I would have probably avoided plunging into the abyss at age 36 for having soared too close to the sun on waxed wings of hubris, envy, and greed.
And we could all learn to satisfy our soul’s longing with something more satisfying and durable than our relentless consumption by reading the story of Tantalus who the Greek Gods condemned to the Underworld where he must lie below a tree bearing delicious fruit. When he reaches up, the branches also rise, then fall back, almost within reach, ‘tantalizing’ him forever.
Fire also brings us closer together.
Past the mayhem and revelry, after the enchantment of fire, wine and music, the banter and stories, wisdom and folly, the tears and laughter, after all that much-needed zaniness died down and our family dispersed, the few days us savages shared left behind an indelible mark: a reminder of the invisible strands that bind us together and the comforting feeling that the strength of those bonds – irrespective of wealth, faith, or fame – are the only links which we can rely upon in times of need or solace.
So, go build yourself a firepit, gather firewood and your loved ones, turn off your cellphones, and share your stories.
Someone just called me bitter for writing about this country’s failings.
“Why don’t you just move back to your country?!” Has been another knee-in-the-groin. And my favorite: “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat!”
It seems I’ve been rocking it too hard, making some passengers quite uncomfortable.
Truth does seem to hurt. But it chiefly ruffles the feathers of those standing on shaky ground and not firmly on convictions examined over-and-over again with honesty, humility, and the impassive light of intellectual courage. If you lived in a brick house you wouldn’t worry about the wolf huffing and puffing.
Certitudes are comforting, but one only learns and grows by doubting and questioning. Otherwise, as Alan Watts warned, you go from having a conviction to being a conviction.
There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. – E.F. Schumacher
I’m not rowing because the boat smells of fish-rot, is full of holes and sinking, many are seasick with paranoia, anxiety, or depression, the rest are yelling at, or fighting one another with righteous anger, and no one seems able to tell me where we are going but insist we must get there with ever greater speed.
In any case, I’m a writer, not a galley slave.
And writers must go on though Rome burns, wrote Somerset Maugham. “Others may despise us because we do not lend a hand with a bucket of water; we cannot help it; we do not know how to handle a bucket. Besides, the conflagration charges our minds with phrases.”
I recently wrote some phrases on the Mueller-Russia-Trump mudsling hoping to steer the focus away from what is common practice among powerful nations (election meddling), to what I believe is more crucial: the failings of our antiquated and ultimately useless primary and secondary public education system, arguing that what was alarming was not that a foreign power tried to influence our electoral process with false propaganda but that many voters were so easily duped. I said it was urgent to develop critical thinking skills in America’s youth to protect the Republic from future attempts to usurp it, both from without and within.
My views had nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with the affairs of the polis or people.
One member of the polis responded that I was just part of:
“Uuuuhhh marxist morons preaching hate and fascism for the last few decades have resulted in armies of self absorbed little morons that tear up cities when they don’t get what the plantation wants. Thats you. Thats your education system dum dum. Good thing we have GEOTUS here to clean up THAT liberal cesspool as well. SJW = Ugly, weak, pathetic, dumbass, brainwashed burnouts.”
In case you didn’t know, GEOTUS stands for “God Emperor of the United States,” referring to this country’s current President.
SJW stands for “Social Justice Warrior” which I assume was meant as an insult. I’m still trying to decipher what he meant by “plantation.”
Pathetic little moron, indeed.
A few weeks before, spurred by the mass-shooting at Parkland, Florida, I took the time to understand what causes these young men to break and go on a killing spree, hoping to come up with common-sense solutions. I suggested that the problem was not necessarily guns or the failings of background checks but one of shattered illusions and despair.
Within a few hours, my post was flooded with charts and statistics contrasting mass killings in the U.S. with those in other countries, suggesting that on a per-capita basis things here weren’t really that bad. I guess they were telling me to cheer up.
Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable. – Breyten Breytenbach
Writers, by nature, are dissatisfied. We focus on things-as-they-should-be, instead of things-as-they-are. We stretch our imaginations to conjure better worlds, greener, more sustainable worlds, harmonious and more just worlds. We are not comforted by the notion that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
“Without the person of outspoken opinion, without the non-conformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay,” said Lithuanian-born American artist Ben Shahn. “Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. Nonconformity is the basic precondition of art, as it is the precondition of good thinking, and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present – and tolerated – in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.”
In other words, we need people to slap us on the face now and then to wake us up and keep us sane. Your mother for example. Or think Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Clair Cameron Patterson, and Rachel Carson. Or that ugly, old philosopher who twenty-four hundred years ago was condemned to death for being a royal pain in the ass. The charges brought against this gadfly were impiety and corrupting the youth of his city when all he was trying to do was urge everyone to question their biases and presumptions.
“High on the list of presumptions that Socrates had aimed to unsettle was his fellow citizens’ certainty that their city-state brooked no comparison when it came to outstanding virtue,” wrote Rebecca Goldstein in ‘Making Athens Great Again.’ “To be an Athenian, ran a core credo of the polis, was to partake in its aura of moral superiority. Determined to interrogate what being exceptional means, Socrates dedicated his life to challenging a confidence that he felt had become overweening.”
But Athenians were in no mood to be told their shit also stank, so they killed him (actually, he poisoned himself).
Seventy years later, the Athenian Empire collapsed.
Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Book of Proverbs 16:18
American exceptionalism began its career, not as a boast, but as a question, said David Frum.
As a young boy my mother used to tell me I was a genius. Never once did I question why that was. I just basked in the Golden Child aura of my unearned, thus unwarranted preeminence.
When I turned thirty, my father tried to shake my haughty spirit with the best piece of advice I never listened to. He warned me that if I did not wake up, I’d be “going straight into the abyss” by age thirty-five.
He missed the mark by only twelve months.
Maybe that’s why I rock boats and can’t cheer up.
Two years before his death at age 85, Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in ‘A Man Without a Country’:
“The biggest truth to face now – what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life – is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as member of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.”
Perhaps I am still young and naive enough to remain a little hopeful, and, increasingly, do feel uneasy about the muck and wreck we’re leaving behind to future generations.
I want my grandchildren to regard me with admiration, not contempt, which seems a pretty good reason to keep huffing and puffing.
PostScript: A few hours after I finished this post, news broke of yet another young man who killed ten of his classmates in Santa Fe, Texas.
I’m not bitter.
I’m sad and outraged. Outraged by our spineless political class, and disgusted with the NRA and those who demonized, terrorized, intimidated, and ultimately silenced the brave students who rocked the boat by speaking out after the massacre at Parkland.
That’s 200 people killed so far this year.
Harry and Meghan are getting married today so I’ll just bake myself some crumpets, brew some tea, and watch the royal event wearing a tiara on my head.
Having rushed, leaped, and tumbled down the peaks of my life’s spring and summer, my river – more serene now – flows across its valley towards its inexorable embrace with the ocean where I will lose my name.
My eyesight is failing, my eyebrows thinning, and I wear a permanent flesh skull-cap on my head. My toes turn black-and-blue in the cold, and my left fingers tingle at night. Occasionally, I am thrown off the bed by Charley Horses. My skin has the rugosity of the bark of an old tree or alligator, and the backs of my hands are splotched like a Jaguar’s pelt and wrinkled and rough as the inside of a Starbucks cup holder. If I had to date again, I’d need to first become an expert in Photoshop.
Aging is a privilege denied to many so I’m not complaining but attempting to discover what the point is.
I figure I have three options:
I could try, with the desperation of a drowning man, to cling to what little remains of my youth.
I could turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
I could learn how to be old.
When I was young I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old. – Phillip Wylie
Having totaled several cars, dabbled in drugs, lived in three countries, proposed to three women, married one, divorced, fulfilled my procreative imperative (two wonderful girls), helped raise them, and made and lost fortunes, is there a purpose to this final run?
Modern-day American culture doesn’t seem to think so. Youth-enthralled, centomaniac (obsessed with the new), and thanatophobic (afraid of death), it insulates itself by either confining the elderly in retirement homes, or by ignoring, shunting, or disdaining their doddering presence and advice.
Which, in my mind, is tantamount to either locking-up or burning all history books.
Faced with such rejection, many of our elders are increasingly turning to option 1.
The United States is the country with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, growing from around 1.6 million in 1997 to almost 13.7 million in 2016. Those aged 35 to 50 account for 39 percent of all procedures on which Americans spend more than 15 billion dollars every year.
It does not surprise me that the practice gained popularity in the 1970’s in the wake of the youth revolt of the previous decade. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was one of the favorite slogans.
While granting that the senior leaders at the time were making a huge mess of things (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident), fast-forward thirty years and those once young, rebellious whippersnappers – by then at the helm and all over 30 – were leaving behind their own impressive wrecks: the Savings and Loans crisis (1986-1995), the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash (1987), the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989), the Dot-Com Bubble and Bust (2000), and a much warmer climate, to name just a few fuckups. Groovy dudes, thanks!
Although I engage in regular exercise (for strength, energy, clarity, and calm), I have chosen to opt out of effacing the proof of time’s passing on my body. The word ‘Character,’ I’ve learned, is derived from the Greek kharassein: to sharpen, cut, engrave. Character is the etching of life’s trials and tribulations into our faces, bodies, and souls. Think of it: if you needed serious advice, would you ask a wizened man, or one whose face was as smooth and unblemished as porcelain?
The way-station of old age, said the Persian poet Hafez, is one that must be passed cleanly. “Don’t let the urgencies of youth stain the whiteness of your hair,” he urged.
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
‘Sabi’ is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. In many cases, it is a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other. – Carl Jung
What about Option 2?
Not really an option, but a direct result of our unwillingness to accept the conditions laid out at the moment of our birth. After all, aging and death are terminal illnesses that strike each one of us the moment we’re conceived.
I believe the reasons for the bitterness, cynicism, anger, and pessimism evinced by so many elders are twofold: they feel devalued by society, and they need the outside world to reflect what they believe is their decaying, dark reality. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Desiderius Erasmus.
“After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents – all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”
I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated. – Virginia Woolf
Which brings me to the matter of purpose – Option 3: Learning to Age with Grace.
I am not talking here about dignity or refinement; I am using the term ‘grace’ as it refers to the bestowal of blessings.
I agree with Jung and philosopher Hermann von Keyserling who said:
“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly. At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage, at which he can go no further in the former (material) sense, and the question presents itself: whether he is to stagnate entirely or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted, is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”
But I believe that to stop there, basking in the glow of our increased self-awareness and hoarding the treasures obtained in our quest for greater depth, not only fortifies the dividing wall between young and old, but denies future generations the accumulated wisdom that could avoid a future crisis. It deprives the world of blessings.
When the seed is ripe, its hold upon its surroundings is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it. Birds peck at it and it is not hurt, the storm plucks and flings it to the dust and it is not destroyed. It proves its immortality by its renunciation. – Rabindranath Tagore.
A few years ago I wrote this to my daughters as they entered adulthood:
“I know the world for you right now seems chaotic, ruthless, unjust, and fraught with danger. Imagine you’re dropped into the depth of a jungle. What would you do? How would you feed yourself? How would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? How would you protect yourself from the elements? Now imagine that the only thing you can take with you are either tools (knife, waterjug, flint) or a survival manual written by a hunter-gatherer who lived in that same jungle years ago. Which would you choose?”
Weeks later, driving one of them home from work (berating her for something she had done – or not done) I asked her why it was that kids refused to learn from the wisdom of their parents. If we had already traversed the jungle, been battered and wounded, fought and slain tigers, and crossed victorious over to the other side, why insist on going through the same suffering? Isn’t that the value of adaptation in the process of natural selection?
In her characteristic wisdom, she responded:
“Because they wouldn’t be nor feel like our own victories. We want to have our own scars suffered in honorable combat with our own tigers.”
I was stumped…
And then wrote her my response:
“There are wounds you do not want, trust me.
I am not proposing to be your North Star or compass, but simply your lighthouse, because:
An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never. – Philip Larkin
My intention is to spare you from the deadliest tigers.
In primitive, oral cultures, the young find their orientation in their world through stories and songs. They learn about their origins, how the world was created, how the human emerged, and – to my point – how to survive.
In the mythology of Aboriginal Australia there is something called ‘Dreamtime’: the dawn when the totem Ancestors first emerged from their slumber and began to sing their way across the land in search for food, shelter, and companionship. These meandering trails, or ‘Dreaming Tracks,’ are auditory as well as visible and tactile phenomena. The Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it. The song is thus a kind of auditory road map through the wilderness. To make its way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming.
In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land. If the songs are forgotten the land itself will die.
I propose that an unsung story awakens the Tiger.”
The slumber of the ancestors is the involution Keyserling wrote about; it is Jung’s withdrawal of the sun in order to illuminate itself, it is Woolf’s withdrawal and concentration.
But the purpose, to me, is not to remain in slumber, but to emerge and sing our map to the young helping them find their way through the land.
Given my track record, there is not much I can say about what the right thing to do is, but I certainly have enough scars and wounds to which I can point so they’ll know what not to do. These are the only blessings I can bestow.
My period of involution is near its end and I’ve begun to write down my ‘Dreaming Track’: the chronicle of my tribulations, my joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments, victories and defeats, and of my most exalted as well as most ignominious moments.
Writing a Memoir is not the only way. Although they don’t say it, young people (especially men) are longing to be initiated into adulthood by the elders of the tribe; they hunger for the ripened fruit of their wisdom. The bestowal of blessings can come from mentoring a young boy or girl at a school or community, reading to children in a public library, or being more present in the lives of nephews and grandchildren.
At best, we might prevent a looming calamity, or at least, have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” as we watch them getting mauled by a tiger.
“Old age, calm, expanded,
broad with the haughty
breadth of the universe.
Old age flowing free with the
delicious near-by freedom of death.
I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly
I’m in Spain dropping off my daughter at a Masters’ Program.
Before arriving, I wanted to learn about the country, especially, the moments in its history that shaped its national psyche or soul – those events people can’t stop talking about no matter how much time has passed. If a foreigner asked me what he should learn before visiting the U.S., I would point him toward the Civil and the Vietnam wars.
When I study history, I choose to focus not so much on the what-and-when but on the why-and-who. I prefer to focus on the protagonists, rather than on specific events.
One of the moments that shaped Spain’s psyche was its three-year civil war that ended in 1939. Its principal protagonist was General Francisco Franco.
I watched several documentaries, and in one reenactment, was struck by the tenor of the voice used by the actor playing the role of Franco. Girlish and high pitched, I found it incongruent with the man who was ultimately responsible for the death of 500,000 of his countrymen. I suspected that I was in the presence of a wounded child, so switched from the documentaries, to dig into Franco’s childhood.
How to Build a Monster
The day Franco was born, his violent and alcoholic father was in a whorehouse. Franco Senior picked on his son’s feeble figure and high-pitched voice, calling him names like “Paquita” (female/diminutive version of Francisco), and “Marica” (slang for homo). When drunk, his father would entertain himself by pinching his younger son’s penis and asking his older brother if he could see anything between his legs. His brother would top-off the humiliation by calling his brother dumb and “little match” because of his large head and sticklike body. Franco’s mother would rescue him, and he would rush behind her sucking his thumb. As a result, young Francisco idolized his mother, even going as far as asking her to marry him when his father left the family for another woman. While Franco served in the military he lost a testicle which may have been the beginning of his prolonged sexual shortcomings. When Pilar Eyre, author of a biography on Franco, interviewed his Doctor about the incident and possible repercussions, he said: “My experience in this field leads me to believe his sexual life was nonexistent. He wasn’t interested in sex, he silenced his desires with his hunger for power and was therefore able to remain celibate almost all his life. Ambition replaced orgasms in his particular case.”
Before leaving for Spain, I had written two articles on mass shootings in America, linking several of the tragic events to the absence or abuse of fathers, the troubled childhoods of its perpetrators, and the absence of positive male role models or mentors in their lives. After reading-up on Franco, I wanted to continue my exploration by learning about the young lives of other infamous figures in world history.
Adolf Hitler was 14 when his father died. He had a poor record at school and failed to secure the usual certificate. He then spent two idle years in Linz, where he indulged in grandiose dreams of becoming an artist while not taking any steps to earn a living. His mother was overindulgent to her willful son and even after her death, he continued to draw a small allowance with which he maintained himself for a time. His plan to become an art student was foiled when he failed twice to secure entry to the Academy of Fine Arts. He earned a precarious livelihood by painting postcards and advertisements, and drifting from one municipal boardinghouse to another. During this period, he led a lonely and isolated life. In these early years, Hitler showed traits that characterized his later life: inability to establish ordinary human relationships; intolerance and hatred both of the established bourgeois world and of non-German peoples, especially the Jews; a tendency to passionate, denunciatory outbursts; and a readiness to live in a world of fantasy to escape from his poverty and failure. In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich. Temporarily recalled to Austria to be examined for military service, he was rejected as unfit; too weak to bear arms. Hitler greeted the war with enthusiasm, as a great relief from the frustration and aimlessness of his civilian life. He found comradeship, discipline, and participation in conflict intensely satisfying, and was confirmed in his belief in authoritarianism, inequity, and the heroic virtues of war.
The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was a frail child born into a dysfunctional family in a poor village in Georgia. Permanently scarred from a childhood bout with smallpox and having a mildly deformed arm, Stalin always felt unfairly treated by life, and thus developed a strong, romanticized desire for greatness and respect, combined with a shrewd streak of calculating cold-heartedness towards those who had maligned him. He always felt a sense of inferiority before educated intellectuals, and particularly distrusted them.
Italian strongman Benito Mussolini was born into a poor family and lived in two crowded rooms on the second floor of a small, decrepit palazzo. Because Mussolini’s father spent much of his time in taverns and most of his money on his mistress, the meals that his three children ate were often meagre. A restless child, Mussolini was disobedient, unruly, and aggressive. He was a bully at school and moody at home. Because the teachers at the village school could not control him, he was sent to board with the strict Salesian order at Faenza, where he proved himself more troublesome than ever, stabbing a fellow pupil with a penknife and attacking one of the Salesians who had attempted to beat him. At rallies—surrounded by supporters wearing black shirts—Mussolini caught the imagination of the crowds. His physique was impressive, and his style of oratory, staccato and repetitive, was superb. His mannerisms were theatrical, his opinions contradictory, his facts often wrong, and his attacks frequently malicious and misdirected.
These four characters – Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini – were directly and indirectly responsible for the death of close to 100 million people.
In a nutshell, war and suffering is the price humans pay for unresolved boyhood traumas.
Lessons of History
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
For me, there are two lessons to be learned – and never forgotten – in studying the lives of these villains: one political and one personal.
The political, is never to choose a leader without first learning about his/her past. In fact, I propose that along with medical checkups and tax returns, we should require every candidate for high office to undergo – and make public – a thorough psychoanalytic examination.
On the personal side, much is to be learned about working with our shadow.
“The Shadow” is a concept first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung that describes those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. Aggressive impulses, taboo mental images, shameful experiences, fears, irrational wishes, unacceptable sexual desires— things we all contain but do not admit to ourselves that we contain. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).
Once we repress, we project, seeing in others what we are unaware, or won’t admit, lies within us. Although our conscious mind is avoiding its own flaws, it still wants to deal with them on a deeper level, so we magnify those flaws in others.
HITLER: “If the Jews were alone in this world, they would stifle in filth and offal; they would try to get ahead of one another in hate-filled struggle and exterminate one another.” (Chapter XI of ‘Mein Kampf’)
ANDREW JACKSON, 7th President of the United States: “[Indians]…have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” (At fourteen, Jackson was a tall, skinny, freckle-faced youngster with red hair and steel-blue eyes. He drooled when he talked, especially when excited. Because of this failing he was the butt of many cruel jokes, against which he could retaliate only with his fists. At sixteen, Andrew inherited three to four hundred pounds sterling from his wealthy Irish grandfather. This sum he wasted on high living, gambling, and horses).
DONALD TRUMP: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
In his ‘Little Book on the Human Shadow,’ Robert Bly says that as children we are living globes of energy, but one day we notice that our parents, our teachers, and our culture, do not approve of certain parts of that energy, so we carry an invisible bag behind us where we put all that unwelcome stuff. We spend much of our life, Bly says, deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. The bigger the bag, the less the energy. If we identify ourselves as uncreative, for example, it means we took our creativity and put it into the bag.
Eating our Shadow
How do we empty the bag and eat our shadow?
When I was in my early teens, my parents’ relationship had hit the skids, but no one dared talk about it. Among my siblings, I must have been the one who tiptoed to our parents’ bedroom door and pressed my ear against it to hear them moan to make sure everything was all right. When those reassuring noises went silent, one night, while we were watching an episode of Bonanza (a western) and eating dinner, I had the temerity to ask my father why he no longer made love to my mother.
His eyes narrowed and lit up with rage.
“What did you say?”
I remember wanting to shrink and disappear within the folds of the reclining chair on which I sat, or that little Joe Cartwright (my favorite character in the show) would get shot dead right then and fly off his horse. Anything to deflect my father’s burning stare. Without a word, he got up and walked out of the room. Unintentionally, I had lifted the veil covering the romantic sham of my parents’ relationship. I must’ve been scared from seeing my fantasy of a happy family dissolving. My question had been an honest one, one desperate for an answer, but I got none.
I placed that moment into my bag and can’t tell you what specific hurt I caused for putting it there, but I’m sure I did.
Several years ago, I decided to look into the bag of my unconscious and bring out its content. I did it slowly, having learned that eating one’s shadow in one bite causes mayhem.
Guided by a modern-day shaman, I relived the episode with my father. As the therapist guided me back and deep into that fateful moment, the scene morphed in stages. The first descent did not do much to change the stage, scripts, actors, or feelings; I was still a frightened child cowering under my father’s enraged glare. But by the second and third descent, I began to see him, not as an overpowering, forbidding presence, but as another child who had simply been caught telling a white lie. With my eyes closed, I saw him weeping, and heard him tell me about his own childhood wounds. Bound by a common heritage, we embraced and became friends. I took his hand and we walked away through an open field conspiring for a world without adults.
I then told my wounded child the words he wanted to hear that night: that while true that his parents did no longer love each other, he had nothing to do with it and nothing to be be afraid of since their love for him would forever remain intact.
The Wounded Child
In ‘The Dance of Wounded Souls,’ Robert Burney writes that the inner child we need to heal is actually our “inner children” who have been running our lives because we have been unconsciously reacting to life out of the emotional wounds and attitudes (the old tapes) of our childhoods. We can do that by working on developing a relationship with those wounded parts in us. So long as we are judging and shaming ourselves we are giving power to the disease. We are feeding the monster that is devouring us.
The first step is to open a dialog. The adult must become a kind of wizard or mentor to the wounded child. Its own Yoda.
“Our lives are determined less by our childhood than by the traumatic way we have learned to remember our childhoods.” – James Hillman, Archetypal Psychologist
Shadow work is the process of making the unconscious conscious, gaining awareness of our impulses and then choosing whether and how to act on them. We begin this process taking a step back from our normal patterns of behavior and observing what is happening within us.
The next step is to question, “What does this outburst of anger or sadness want from me?” When we observe ourselves reacting to psychological triggers, we must learn to pause and ask, “Why am I reacting this way?” This teaches us to backtrack through our emotions to our memories, which hold the origins of our emotional programming. As we work to understand and accept our shadows we can then seek to unlock the wisdom they contain. Fear becomes an opportunity for courage. Pain is a catalyst for strength and resilience. Aggression is transmuted into warrior-like passion. This wisdom informs our actions, our decisions, and our interactions with others. We understand how others feel and respond to them with compassion, knowing that they are being triggered themselves. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).
Ordinarily in Western culture we have only two ideas: either we express, or we repress. Either one expresses anger or one represses it. Zen practice points to a third possibility: in meditation one might allow the anger to come in, so that the whole body burns with anger. The anger is not repressed; your whole body is anger. When the meditation ends, one has the choice of expressing it or not, but expressing it might not involve the lashing scene in which you scream at someone and wear tracks on your mind; it does not contribute to the disintegration of your own psyche. (Robert Bly, Little Book on the Human Shadow).
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas.
As I’ve continued emptying the bag, not only have I found repressed emotions, but distinct personalities, much like the famous case of Sybil Dorsett.
Beating Sybil by two, I have thus far discovered and catalogued eighteen such fragmented soul parts, which, when repressed or denied, have made me say (or not) and do (or not) things I’ve regretted. I call them ‘My Bestiary’ and have given each a proper name. Next to their name, I have listed the negative expressions of their energy and identified compensating qualities that I work to strengthen to keep them from running amok.
This reintegration amounts to re-establishing a conscious relationship between these fragmented soul-parts, or splinter personalities. One can’t be rid of them and shouldn’t. Our wounds, after all, parent our destinies and keep us in the body, and in the world. This re-centering does not obliterate conflict or multiplicity of soul but allows for the coexistence of a more central and detached vantage point from where an untouchable core of the personality serenely views the conflict.
Properly channeled and synthesized, these unconscious psychic energies enrich our lives, make us recover our polytheistic souls, or wholeness, and resurrect the incandescence hiding inside our hurting, dull, and rigid clay statues.
Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini carried enormous, heavy bags behind them. Unemptied, 100 million people died as a result.
We’ve scratched the surface of the “drug problem” by injecting it with $1.5 Trillion since 1971, and it has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction.
We can confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but mass killings won’t stop because the despair felt by many young men will still be there.
We can Band-Aid the “immigration problem” by building a wall all the way to the Moon and across the entire southern border; it will be riddled like swiss cheese with underground tunnels in no time. Hunger is a powerful motivator. Think East Germany and the Berlin Wall.
We will not stop Russia or any other foreign power from attempting to influence our elections for their benefit, as they can’t, and haven’t been able to stop the U.S. from doing the same.
What we can, and must do, is arm our voters, especially those coming behind us, with a powerful antidote: critical thinking skills.
Here’s a sampling of social media messages posted during the last election by fake accounts with convincing names such as United Muslims of America, Black Matters, Woke Blacks, Heart of Texas, and Being Patriotic:
“… hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” (Clinton’s spelling by the way, is not a typo).
“American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims.”
Being Patriotic“America has always been hinged on hard-working people. If you remove jobs, you’ll remove our country from the world map.”
Heart of Texas: If Hillary becomes President of the US, the American army should be withdrawn from Hillary’s control according to the amendments of the Constitution.
Lastly, my favorite, from The Army of Jesus:
Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. – Voltaire
With their spread amplified by paid advertisements, some 130 million Americans saw at least one of the posts disseminated by Russian actors according to Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.
What most stuns me about these posts, is not their absurdity, but their lack of subtlety and sophistication. It’s as if those who wrote them believe the U.S. is mostly populated by village idiots.
In 1983, the Reagan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education wrote the following in their report: ‘A Nation at Risk’:
“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Little has changed, and since 1983, two generations of young adults have already marched through the assembly lines of our public schools and into our voting booths.
What is the purpose of education anyway?
Is it to produce new cogs and wheels to replace those that wear out inside the machine of our industrialized, tech-driven economy?
Or, is it to foster creativity, love of learning, grit, citizenship, and an open mind?
Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, believes the former, and tried to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system – known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ – by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim, and how strongly you should believe it.
In his paper ‘Teaching Critical Thinking, Lessons from Cognitive Science’, Tim van Gelder says “humans are not naturally critical thinkers. Indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity. Running is natural; nightclub dancing is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (‘Man is a rational animal’) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either. Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and Homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.”
But it can be taught, and even better, a growing body of research is proving that more so than intelligence, wise reasoning leads to greater wellness and longevity.
But our schools and universities don’t teach it, as they don’t much teach the Humanities anymore – the philosophies, literature, religion, art, music, history and language that help us understand ourselves and our world. These disciplines are rapidly being replaced by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
But I forget: rationalism is the new bogeyman, and most of us recoil when having to read anything longer than one page.
My concern with this whole ‘Russia Collusion’ thing is not with the threat outside influences present to our representative democracy, but more importantly, with the threats from within. An unthinking society is easier prey to homespun propaganda that triggers aberrant human emotions like fear, vanity, greed, envy, tribalism, scapegoating, and thirst for vengeance (Aldous Huxley must be smiling smugly in his grave).
When it comes to education, I side with our federalist (or nationalist) forefathers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, believing that something as vital to democracy as the education of its citizens must not be left to the vagaries of competing ideologies.
Here’s part of Jay’s essay ‘Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence’ published in the Federalist Papers:
“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first. I mean only to consider it as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquility, as well as against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kindarising from domestic causes. Let us therefore proceed to examine whether the people are not right in their opinion that a cordial Union, under an efficient national government, affords them the best security that can be devised against hostilities.”
Sadly, my vote for a unified approach to education is half-hearted, realizing that long-gone are the days when John Jay could confidently assure that “once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will consent to serve.”
But still…how we educate future generations in the Union, has, in my opinion, a direct bearing on the country’s security and prosperity so must not be left in the hands of philistines like Scott Walker, or the Texas School Board, which, in 2010, adopted textbook standards emphasizing the Christian influences of the nation’s founding fathers and diluted the rationale for the separation of church and state.
Despotism can only exist in darkness, proclaimed James Madison, and I agree. Our schools should be producing light bulbs, not mindless cogs and wheels.
So, Mueller, while you keep flogging that horse, you might want to consider what Mark Twain once said:
In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.
“My life didn’t start dark and twisted. I started out as a happy and blissful child, living my life to the fullest in a world I thought was good and pure…Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection,and unfulfilled desires.”
Elliot Rodger (22) wrote this in his Manifesto before stabbing three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to the sorority house in which my elder daughter lived and shot three female students, killing two. Next, he drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death, and then sped through Isla Vista, shooting pedestrians and striking others with his car. Rodger exchanged gunfire with police during the attack, receiving a gunshot to the hip. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” – Parker Palmer
What turned Elliot from a “happy, blissful boy”, into a rejected, angry young man, tormented by unfulfilled desires?
Who manufactured his desires and illusions?
On average, American children watch 20,000 commercials per year, 92% of teens are online daily, and eight out of ten men between 18 and 30 view pornography at least monthly.
This is the Magic Realm in which many young men now receive their initiation. It is their distorted window to the world.
As a young boy, Elliot was told by the Realm to be polite and kind; girls like that, they said. But Elliot would soon find out that: “In a decent world, that would be ideal. But the polite, kind gentleman doesn’t win in the real world. The girls don’t flock to the gentlemen. They flock to the alpha male. They flock to the boys who appear to have the most power and status. And it was a ruthless struggle to reach such a height. It was too much for me to handle. I was still a little boy with a fragile mind.”
The Realm creates the illusion that no matter your background you will be accepted. Again, Elliot’s illusions shattered: “I was a bit hesitant to invite anyone from Pinecrest to my mother’s house, because it was located in Canoga Park, a bad area, and most of the kids at Pinecrest were upper-middle class who would look down on me for living there. But I couldn’t back out of this once my mother invited Connor. He came over and all went well, we played a few video games for a couple of hours. But after that playdate, he would always rip on me for living in a “poor” house. He would also tell other kids at Pinecrest about it. This infuriated me to no end.”
The Realm tells us things will be just fine if you work hard, stay out of trouble, and play by the rules. My father did all those things, and now – at age 86, suffering from bladder cancer – he lies in bed wearing a ski-jacket and mittens because he cannot afford to run his furnace, having lost close to three-quarters of his life savings courtesy of the reckless greed and irresponsibility of those that contributed to the stock market crash of 2008.
In this Fairytale World, good always triumphs over evil, heroes never cheat, liars see their noses grow, princesses fall for street urchins, happiness comes in a bottle, you join the army and “become all you can be”, girls enjoy being denigrated and abused (porn), everyone around you seems to be having the time of their life and getting everything they desire (Social Media), and conspicuous consumption – and a funny cat video – earns you the admiration of thousands of fans …it really is a wonderful place.
So, what happens when the light of reality is turned on, when the magic fails and the pixie dust dims?
How do we make sense of a world where good doesn’t always triumph over evil?
Where cads become presidents and heroes cycle on steroids.
When we witness, not the growing noses, but the swelling bank accounts of those who lie, cheat, and deceive.
When princesses don’t normally fall for polite paupers like in Disney’s Aladdin.
When girlfriends refuse to perform like porn stars, or when the cheerleader of your dreams refuses to kiss you because you actually look like a frog so your only choice is to settle for Audrey, your portly classmate with the wide hips and sensible shoes.
When the challenges inherent in every relationship pop our pink bubble of “happily ever after”.
What if the glass slipper won’t fit, but shatters?
When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option – the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. – Barry Spector, ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’
Disgruntled and Wronged
Puberty is a bitch.
It’s a fragile time.
A time when young men are struggling to arrive at a sense of self; to think about what is possible, instead of what is real.
Humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, said that we all own a real self and an ideal self. The real self of course is what we are intrinsically. The ideal self is the self that we think we want to be, that we strive to be, and that we feel we are expected to be.
The problem arises when our ideal selves are too far removed from what we really are. When the discrepancy is huge, the resulting incongruence can lead us to become disgruntled and discouraged because the real self never seems good enough and the ideal self seems impossible to attain.
The typical personality attribute in mass murderers is one of paranoid traits plus massive disgruntlement, concluded Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist in New York after completing a study of 228 mass killers.
Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who consults on threat assessment for universities and corporations, said the most salient feature of mass killers was their belief that they had been wronged.
What wronged them?
The illusions propagated by the Magic Realm.
This feeling of being a failure implies that in the depth of our being we have accepted some objective, if not some worldly, standard of success. – Alain de Botton
Assuming unlimited opportunity makes us believe we can be anything we want to be. This is a characteristically American misinterpretation of the indigenous teaching that we are born to be one thing, and the task of soul-making is to discover it. (Spector)
15 Minutes of Fame
“Boys’ old sense of purpose—being a warrior, a leader, or a sole breadwinner—is fading. Many bright young men are experiencing a ‘purpose void,’ feeling alienated, withdrawn, and addicted to immediate gratification,” write Warren Farrell PhD, and John Gray PhD in ‘The Boy Crisis’.
Absent meaningful purpose, young men are desperate to find something larger than their small lives, and in the Magic Realm, one way to find it is by achieving instant gratification through notoriety.
“I’m going to be famous.” – Robert Hawkins (19), Omaha mass shooter.
“Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers.” – Adam Lanza (20), Sandy Hook.
“Seems the more people you kill, the more you are in the limelight.” – Christopher Harper-Mercer (26), Oregon mass shooter.
“Directors will be fighting for this story.” – Dylan Klebold (17), Columbine
50 people perished for their 15 Minutes of Fame.
Boys will be Boys
They are masculinized in the womb by a bath of testosterone, wrote Chip Brown in ‘How Rites of Passage Shape Masculinity’ for National Geographic.
As boys come of age, Brown says, they are in the midst of a momentous transition, morphing under a fresh influx of the powerful hormone into physically mature men: body hair, defined muscles, bigger shoulders, burgeoning sexuality, an appetite for risk, and potentially elevated levels of aggression. They are coming to grips with behavioral tendencies and patterns programmed by millions of years of evolution.
“Boys will play with dolls, but chances are the dolls will be getting into a fight.” – Joe Herbert, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Cambridge
To ignore or deny this in the name of a gender-neutral society is to neutralize the constructive – often lifesaving – force males can bring to the world.
Masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland shielding students from bullets as he pushed them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre in 2012, when three young men died protecting their girlfriends.” – Jason Farrell, author at The Federalist.
The World Doesn’t Count to Three
Is what my father used to tell us when we pleaded him to count to three before ripping off the Band-Aids covering our wounds.
Like other mammals, humans begin life in a maternal womb. This space, bathed in amniotic fluid and kept warm by the surrounding body of the mother, is the archetypal nurturing environment.
After birth, the household – the realm of the Mother – symbolizes the psychological environment needed during the first stage of a boy’s life. It is a protected space, an enclosure in which he can grow relatively undisturbed by toxic intrusions from the surrounding world until his body and mind are prepared to cope with the physical and social worlds into which he has been delivered.
While the mother occupies the symbolic center of the first stage of individuation or selfhood, the father assumes this position in the second stage. The father is needed by the growing ego to gain freedom from the nurturing containment offered by the mother and to instill the rigor of functioning and performance demanded for adaptation to the world.
“Fathers don’t mother,” Yale Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett wrote in Salon Magazine, and a growing body of research demonstrates how important fathers are in a child’s life.
Where the first stage of individuation is characterized by containment and nurturance (the Garden of Eden), the second stage is governed by the law of consequences for actions taken (the reality principle). A person who is living fully in this type of environment has entered the “father world”. This is not the world as ideal but the world as real. Not the Magic Realm, but the world we live in.
Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history were committed by young males. Of the seven, only one was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.
Who fills the void?
The Magic Realm.
Male Initiation in Traditional Cultures
As bridging institutions, schools in the U.S. increasingly play the archetypal role of the paternal parent to a growing boy, whose job it is to help him leave the family container when the years appropriate for nurturing are over and adapt to the demands of adult life in the larger world.
But 80% of teachers are women according on the 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Education.
Manhood, in other words, is something many American boys must now figure out for themselves.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. – African Proverb
Globally, traditional societies have observed rites of passage signifying the emergence of young men from childhood to adulthood – no concept of adolescence intervened between stages.
Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded into one of three fiefdoms of the Magic Realm:
For the well-off: into competitive consumers.
For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
At the lower rung: the gangs.
None of which makes room for the wider community, Nature, the Feminine, or any other concerns of the ideal, mature masculine.
Led by the elders of the clan, traditional initiation rites of passage seek to prepare young boys to become men in service to their community.
“Discovering your place in the greater web of things, you offer thanks for your gift and return to share it with your people. You take up your new place as an adult in your clan.” – Bill Moyers.
What Can We Do?
I support universal background checks despite Nikolas Cruz (the Parkland shooter), having passed his with flying colors. I support a ban on assault weapons and overhauling our mental health system, but do not believe these measures go far enough, just as the $1.5 trillion this country has spent on drug control since 1971 has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Because addiction is not a “drug problem”, but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the manifestation of despair.
We can go as far as confiscating the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but we will not see an end to the slaughter. The despair will still be there. The Magic Realm’s empty promises will continue disappointing and angering young men like Elliot Rodger, who, I remind you, also used a knife and his car to maim and kill.
And, NO, Mr. President, we don’t need teachers carrying guns. I worked with teachers for ten years. They seem congenitally incapable of operating anything with moving parts: copiers, laminators, etc. They are educators, not vigilantes. We cannot teach them to shoot, as we can’t teach you to empathize.
A Call to the Elders of our Tribe
In Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), good and evil do not correspond to what we typically think of as morally right or wrong but have an agricultural meaning and refer to fruit that is ripe (good) and unripe (evil).
America waits for its elders to ripen our young men by guiding them towards their own definitions of Self, worth, and individual and transpersonal purpose; remind them that it’s not their desires but their struggles that define them; to teach them to become the best original version of themselves, rather than an inferior copy of someone else; to shepherd them away from the Magic Realm and teach them to cope with the realities of loneliness, rejection, disappointment, and loss.
I say this half-heartedly. A quick inspection of the “men” leading our tribe will make anyone realize we’re in deep shit.
Schools need more male teachers;
More male mentors pairing-up with troubled teens;
Not a single student eating alone at recess;
Not more Tablets, but more recess and counselors;
Equal emphasis on social-emotional development as placed on academics, and
The goal of the jump is to land close enough to the ground that the diver’s shoulders touch the ground. Any miscalculation on the length of the vine means either serious injury or death. Land diving among the men of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Island, goes back nearly fifteen centuries. The purpose of the ritual is twofold: first, it’s performed as a sacrifice to their gods to ensure a bountiful yam crop, and second, it serves as a rite of passage to initiate the tribe’s boys into manhood.
Ok, maybe not that extreme, but American boys need ritualized outlets for the fresh influx of the powerful hormone: testosterone. Anything but lying on a couch in the Magic Realm, playing at gunning, stabbing, mauling, and dismembering on a video screen.
Pop-up Calls to Kindness
I recently purchased socks online.
Ever since, ads for socks keep popping-up on my screen.
If the Tech Overlords in the Magic Realm can figure out how to do this, why don’t we put their genius and wizardry to better use by having them flood the screens of cyberbullies with pop-up calls to kindness?
And while we are at it, let’s require kids who bully classmates on social media to perform 180 random acts of kindness – one for each day at school.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
Until we have the boldness to tackle the deeper issues that our young men confront, the flags will continue flying at half-mast.
If you are one of our tribal elders, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active, influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.
If, on the other hand, you are a young man entering adulthood and feel lost or disoriented, seek guidance from the older men in your orbit whom you trust and respect, Or find a mentor – your personal Yoda, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf. Or drop me a line. Perhaps I can help.
In “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”, Plutarch chronicles the battle of Triganocerta between the forces of the Roman Republic – led by Lucullus – and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia led by King Tigranes the Great.
As Lucullus’ forces advanced across the Tigris towards Armenia, Plutarch reported:
“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming, was so far from pleasing Tigranes, that he had his head cutoff for his pains, and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”
In the ongoing mud-slinging contest around climate change, many heads are falling.
“Why can’t we talk about climate change?”
Mary Thompson’s question weighed on my mind as I crossed a crystal landscape painted by a heavy snowstorm the night before, then frosted by early morning icy gusts. Every bare branch in the forest was garlanded with sparkling ice, and the snow crunching under my boots glinted like sifted flour of a full moon.
Why can’t we?
Mary is not only a dear friend, but a wild, wise woman, a modern-day Shaman and renowned author of the essential book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul’. More than the jargon contained in all the reports from the International Council of Science, to me – through her vivid landscape poetics – Mary does more to mend the umbilical cord that once tethered us to the Earth, and to evoke a visceral shudder when witnessing the consequences of our species’ rapacity and indifference born from our estrangement from the Wild.
“Another couple passes me, thighs like pistons. They’ve already climbed and descended two other valleys and are freely sweating. “It’s too warm for this time of year,” the woman tells me. I agree, and then hear their story: they live in Santa Rosa and only just escaped last October’s devastating fires. Heat and drought are not words they welcome; they have already been scorched. I say, “I’m afraid this is the new normal, the climate is changing.” The man looks away from me, quickly changing the subject. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to hear what I am about to say…”
I’ll tell you why I think he much rather cut off your head, Mary, than hear what you have to say (My emphasis on his gender is pertinent to the first part of my answer).
The reasons, I believe, are threefold: A twisted story, our neurobiology, and our addictions.
A Twisted Story
Myths are the dreams of cultures. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – our cultural DNA.
Here’s a sampling of the Western World’s stories of the ‘Great Mother’:
In the Olympian creation myth, Uranus (Father Sky) came every night to mate with GAIA (Mother Earth), but he hated the children she bore him. Uranus imprisoned Gaia’s children deep within Earth, causing pain to Gaia. She shaped a great flint-bladed sickle and asked her sons to castrate Uranus. Cronus, the youngest and most ambitious of her sons, ambushed his father and castrated him, casting the severed testicles into the sea.
In Greek mythology, DEMETER is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over the fertility of the earth. Demeter’s virgin Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, and, preoccupied with her loss and her grief, the seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.
In the religion of ancient Babylon, TIAMAT is a primordial goddess of the sea. She is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation. In fierce protection of her progeny, she rebelled against her husband. Her rebellion brought down the wrath of all the gods, and Marduk was chosen to defeat her in battle as she was perceived as the demon of chaos. This archetypal masculine hero rent her in two during the power struggle. He turned Tiamat’s severed body into earth and sky, took over rulership of earth, and recreated humanity ruled by an all-male divine council.
GAIA, DEMETER & TIAMAT are all archetypes of the Great Mother: elemental creator and destroyer – the Womb and Tomb of life. She is the vernal spring and the harvest, as well as the blasted landscape, ravaged by drought, fire, or flood. In myths she is often destroyed, as humanity fears her all-encompassing power, her desire to never relinquish her children and to keep them infantile forever. The ambivalent mother archetype is projected in infancy onto the actual mother, who is both loving and protective, and at the same time, all-powerful
My mother loved to bake. As a young boy, in Shop Class, I made her a wooden kitchen palette, painted it fire-engine red, and lovingly gave it to her on Mother’s Day. My brothers never forgave me. It became her chosen instrument of flagellation – always at the ready – landing on our tender hides with loud smacks until it finally cracked. No one messed with my mother.
Men fear the irrational, the capricious, the chaotic, and distrust intuition – all those mysterious forces that constellate their unconscious.
For psychologist Carl Jung, the transition from unconscious life to conscious life in the development of humanity and the individual is mirrored in the separation of the child from the mother: “The first creative act of liberation [of the unconscious] is matricide” (Jung, ‘Collected Works’ 1954c, p.96).
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28
In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector says that our world has been conditioned by 5,000 years of andocracy: a social system ruled by men, in which the stories are primarily of male heroes who create the world by killing Mother-Serpents.
These old, twisted, or lopsided narratives, were given greater authority by the Scientific Revolution’s conception that matter (from the Latin mater: mother) is lifeless.
When men agreed that the world was dead, the world itself became ‘Other’ – Barry Spector
“Progress typically runs from simple, dark, slow, primitive, and natural, to complex, light, speed, rational, and enlightened; in other words, from feminine to masculine. Our notions of masculinity are tied up with the myth of progress and the imperative to transcend nature.” (Spector)
That’s the reason, Mary, we don’t want to hear what you have to say.
“You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.” – Jonathan Swift.
Counter-arguments produce anxiety, because we perceive them as attacks upon our blind faith in progress. If one grows from wet/dark/feminine to dry/light/masculine, appeals to sustainability become entwined with threats to masculinity. (Spector)
If you would have asked the man, instead, about our species’ current-day plans for terraforming Mars and establishing the first human colony in outer space, he would have been all ears, cheerfully riveted.
Having befouled our Mother’s kitchen, left the stove burners on for days, and shattered her crockery, we wish to flee from our recklessness and her growing wrath. The scale of our destructiveness is so grand, we feel there is nothing we can do, so we pine for another chance, somewhere out there.
“History is replete with examples of social organizations, whether a business or a nation, that failed to perceive the realities of a changing environment and didn’t adapt in time to prevent calamity. Hubris and a self-reinforced dynamic of mass delusion characterize the waning phases of these once powerful groups. In hindsight we ask, “What were they thinking?” (Bradford, Jason. ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’).
Think back to the Great Smog of London of 1952, the Deep-Water Horizon Oil Spill, and The Bhopal Disaster. Now think ahead to June 4, 2018: Day Zero for Cape Town, South Africa – the day when fresh water taps are expected to run dry.
What are we thinking? Or better said: How are we thinking?
Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought. Emotions motivate and guide us.
When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards (feels good) or punishments (feels bad) and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our “mental models,” setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are. When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption. Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal. (Bradford)
You, Mary, are disrupting and threatening our cherished, “feel-good” notion of progress.
It also appears that humans are inveterate optimists. We like to see our glasses half full, our clouds silver-lined.
Using and MRI scanner, Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London, and neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.
A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. We hugely underestimate our chances of getting divorced, losing our job or being diagnosed with cancer. We expect our children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision ourselves achieving more than our peers; and overestimate our likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. (Sharot)
Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.
You are raining on our parade, Mary, so off with your head!
“The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.” – Erica Jong
And addiction, is the habitual avoidance of reality.
From where I now sit, at sunset, cross-legged on a hardened snow berm by the river’s bend, the reality of global warming seems dubious. It is 30 degrees out here. Ice falls are stuck fast to the rock wall, and ice floes rigidly to each other blocking the river’s flow at various points. Much like our opinions, to which we desperately cling, impeding rational, civil discourse.
“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” – Paul Mazur, leading Wall Street Banker. 1929
To consider the alternative reality, according to the prevailing – “full steam ahead” – narrative of those championing the status quo, would mean that we would have to give up our desires, comforts and conveniences, to scale back our consumption; to radically change our way of life. And we don’t want to do that, Mary, and that’s why we won’t talk about climate change.
We much rather be flattered and comforted, like King Tigranes the Great.
“As I consider my brother’s two houses, two boats, his devoted wife, three wonderful children, and his comfortable life enveloped in tropical balm, I wonder, with a slight degree of frustration, why it has fallen on me to be so restless and dissatisfied…always asking myself: Is this it?
The poet Stephen Dunn has a term for people like me: ‘Hunger Artists’ he calls us, “all going forward because the food they ate tasted wrong and the world was sad.” But I’m beginning to sense that moving forward is not enough. Finding better-tasting food to bring joy back to the world should be the purpose of any quest.”
The poem to which he refers reads:
“In spite of their lack of humor
I love Thoreau and Jesus, Marx
Malcom X. I love their obstinate courage,
Hunger Artists all, going forward
Because the food they ate
Tasted wrong, and the world was sad.”
“All the heroes, the saints, the seers, the explorers and the creators partake of it. They do not know where their impulse is taking them. They have been possessed for a time with an extraordinary passion which is unintelligible in ordinary terms. No preconceived theory fits them. No material purpose actuates them. They do the useless, brave, noble, the divinely foolish and the very wisest things that are done by man. And what they prove to themselves and to others is that man is no mere creature of his habits, no mere automaton in his routine, no mere cog in the collective machine, but that in the dust of which he is made there is also fire, lighted now and then by great winds from the sky.” – Walter Lippmann
Theo appears consumed by that “divine dissatisfaction” dancer and choreographer Martha Graham spoke about – “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”
Is it madness?
Or is it the only path available when you sense that the world is mad?
“Much Madness is divinest Sense –
To a discerning Eye –
Much Sense – the starkest Madness –
’Tis the Majority
In this, as all, prevail –
Assent – and you are sane –
Demur – you’re straightway dangerous –
And handled with a Chain.” – Emily Dickinson
Or nailed to a cross…or forced to kill yourself by drinking hemlock.
Like author E.B. White, who once said he held one share in the corporate earth and was uneasy about its management, Theo considers the scorecard:
From the year 1500 to 2000:
– Human population has increased 14-fold.
– Production 240-fold.
– Energy consumption 115-fold.
as author Yuval Harari asked after presenting those figures in his book ‘Homo Sapiens’: are we happier as a result?
“Did the wealth humankind accumulate over the last five centuries translate into a new-found contentment? Was the late Neil Armstrong, whose footprint remains intact on the windless moon, happier than the nameless hunter-gatherer who 30,000 years ago left her handprint on a wall in Chauvet Cave?”
If the answer is not a resounding and categorical “YES!”, what’s the point?
Theo is in the process of turning over his share – his membership card to the world – and is walking away.
But away where? What for?
He considers the legacy of other Hunger Artists:
“After Jesus, the Catholic Church, the Crusades, the Inquisition, pedophiles.
After Buddha, unbridled capitalism, sweatshops, call-centers, pollution, anomie – a consuming greed in both India (its cradle) and in China.
What about Socrates’ Greece: near financial collapse, unemployment, despair.
Thoreau’s Walden?: despoiled planet, life diminished.”
“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” – Jesus
“I am convinced that to maintain one’s self on this earth is not a hardship but a pastime if we will live simply and wisely.” – Thoreau
“The secret of happiness, you see, is not found in seeking more, but in developing the capacity to enjoy less.” – Socrates
Or Buddha’s second truth: Suffering is caused by selfish craving and personal desire.
“We have capitulated, in order to fit in.” Theo recalls his brother’s earlier words as they sit under a clear, starry sky.
Theo wants to “fit out”, and midway in his journey, he is still struggling to rid himself from the suffocating clutch of all the beliefs he’s unwittingly assumed.
“Mine,” he wrote in his First Letter to his crew, “is a spiritual journey, in which I intend to question all the conventions of our modern world – all the ideologies, myths, and illusions that shape our understanding of the world – and think everything anew, as if for the first time: What is Happiness? What is Love? Why Death? What’s the meaning of our short presence on this Earth? How can we live with greater joy, purpose, and presence? I am headed towards a new orientation to life, if you will.”
Some have branded his journey as “escapism”.
To which his response is to quote Henry Miller:
“The real escapist is the man who adapts himself to a world he does not subscribe to.”
Godspeed Theo! Stay hungry, and bring us better tasting food.
The Ideal, the Eidolon, a woman in the league of Mary Magdalene, Cleopatra, Bathsheba, and Helen of Troy, driving Kings, Emperors, Prophets and Poets mad, chewing them alive, then spitting out their bones with regal indifference. Women, as poet Robert Bly noted, who throw a spark into dry wood, pull energy from a stagnant psyche, and are capable of stirring the sea with a single hair.
Often incorporeal – in fantasies, books, and dreams – Theo has also projected this mysterious energy onto flesh-and-blood women whose features matched the blueprint in his imagination: black eyes (avid, plaintive, and supplicant), raven-black hair, and olive skin. Beyond the physical, such blueprint also contained intangible traits, that, upon projection, endowed these women with a fascinating and irresistible allure: exoticness, seemingly-innocent seductive cunning, primitive sensuality, graceful femininity, and maddening elusiveness.
Jungians call her The Anima: the unconscious image of ‘woman’ in the minds of men.
In her two-part essay, ‘The Archetypal Female in Mythology and Religion’, Dr. Joan Relke says that the “anima manifests as an inconsistent creature: appearing positive one moment and negative the next; now young, now old; now mother, now maiden; now a good fairy, now a witch; now a saint, now a whore. She can be cruelly provocative, taunting, seductive, and terrifying on the one hand, and gentle, solicitous, and wise on the other. She is an active protagonist in dreams and fantasies, and male projections.”
Think Marilyn Monroe.
“Thousands, even millions of men projected their internal feminine onto Marilyn Monroe. In the economy of Monroe’s psyche, her death was inevitable [because] no single human being can carry so many projections.” – Robert Bly, ‘A Little Book on the Human Shadow’.
Fed up with the turmoil, the sleepless nights, the dizzying fevers, the maddening arousals and ensuing disillusions; desperate to rid myself from the chthonic allure of the myth that had caused me so much trouble in life – like Melville’s Captain Ahab, but accompanied and aided, not by Ishmael, but by the psychoanalytic theories and case studies of Jung and Freud, I sailed across my dream-logs, journals, books – harpoon in hand – searching for the archetype, and for clues of where and when it had first infected me with the psychic parasite that feeds on dangerous infatuations, and that makes some men prefer to endlessly pursue a chimera, rather than tussle with a woman of flesh and blood, fury and tears, scars and wrinkles, and a fragile, fractured, but ultimately endearing humanity.
What Theo discovered was shattering but ultimately enlightening.
Pouring through his dream-logs he found this one of August 26, 2001:
She visited me again last night, in a long white cotton wrap-skirt like those worn by peasant girls or gypsies. I was sleeping in the dream, while she sat on the bed with my head nestled in the warmth of her crossed, bare legs, and caressed my hair. I began to dream-up stories, the words forming above us in wraithlike filigrees of smoke, which she rapidly copied inside a small, black leather notebook as her face looked forwards and backwards.
Like a powerful search beam, the last phrase illumed in his memory something he had recently read in Robert Bly’s book ‘Iron John’:
“When a man is ready to make a decisive move toward ‘The Legends,’ a feminine figure whose face looks both waysmay appear in his dreams. It is as if she has two faces: one looks toward the world of rule and laws, and the other toward the world of dragonish desire, moistness, wildness, adult manhood. This dream figure is not a flesh-and-blood woman but a luminous eternal figure. The Mysterious Hidden Woman loves privacy, overhanging trees, long skirts, the shadowy places underneath bridges, rooms with low lighting…she wants passion and purpose in a man, and carries a weighty desire in her, a passion somewhere between erotic feeling and religious intensity.
Again, Dr. Joan Relke:
“They are temptresses, using sexuality to drag one into the depths of the unconscious, to the destruction of the conscious will and ego, and into the wider world of the ‘Self’. The anima lurks in the unconscious, wielding her supernatural power to drive our lives either towards mystical knowledge, consciousness and individuation, or towards oblivion in sensual urges.”
All along, what Theo, time and again, had been searching for in vain, driven blindly by sensual urges with disastrous consequences, was not something, or someone outside himself, but an integral part of his psyche. More than simply “anima”, this luminous figure constellated the intuitive, non-rational and creative energies Theo had repressed for far too long, living one-sidedly in the world of reason, rules, and laws (I wrote about the dangers of such one-sided existence in Part III on my Series on female objectification).
Theo came close to oblivion.
Now, with growing knowledge, passion, and purpose, he journeys towards wholeness, looking to arrive at a synthesis of the World of Legends and the World of Rules; to achieve a harmonious balance between his duties and his dragonish desires.
As I write this, a powerful snow storm is pummeling the Northeast. A “Bomb Cyclone” by the name of Grayson, more fitting a pretentious British aristocrat than a winter hurricane.
In its wake, ‘Lord Grayson’ brings what looks like fast-falling white rain with wind gusts blowing snow from the eave of the porch in curling dust sheets and sheer clouds of sifted flour, covering with fresh powder all the tracks left on the back lawn by the residents of the surrounding wilderness – deer, rabbit, raccoon. If only it were that easy to erase man’s careless footprints…our mistakes.
This time, for once, I am hoping the Weatherman gets it right: that we do lose power and that the roads become unnavigable. I get a thrill when Mother Nature pinches our ears, reminding us who’s in charge and setting us right. She did it with record fury last year, and, I suspect, has greater calamities in store for us under her apron. Fed-up of being abused, she is turning on a dime from ‘Great Nurturer’ to ‘Great Devourer’.
Larger flakes fall. Stepping out feels like walking into a giant snowglobe. I carry a heavy load of firewood into the house just in case; a roaring fire already crackling inside the fireplace; my third cup of coffee by my laptop. I’m settling in, or hunkering down, to write this to you.
The world, for a day, might stop. No cars, emails, phone calls, blaring screens…no noise. If the snowfall tapers before dusk, I will enter the forest and nurture myself from its sepulchral stillness, suckle from its dreamlike quietude. Another thing to add to the endangered list: Silence, now mostly found only inside cathedrals or wood paneled libraries, in the ocean deep, or far in the fathomless universe…a blessed hush, capable of soothing our anxieties like a steaming bowl of your grandmother’s special soup.
Anxiety…I suffer from it, but it doesn’t assail me with a sudden, frantic, hyperventilating force. It’s more like an ever-present, throbbing toothache. What causes it? I wonder, as I read Theo’s introduction to Chapter 8 that begins right after he turned-down his last opportunity for employment:
“I feel like Wile E. Coyote, unwittingly having ran past the edge of a precipice while chasing the elusive Road Runner, and suddenly realizing that there is no solid ground under my free-floating feet. I no longer stand on the edge of the abyss, but have jumped, and must now quickly flap my wings to prevent a free-fall and crash. But I have no wings to flap, and even if I did, I wonder if it’s the flapping that must stop; the compulsive urge to propel oneself; the need to feel one is getting somewhere despite not knowing exactly where that is. Why not surrender to the wind, as novelist Toni Morrison suggests, and just ride it? More than fear, it is anxiety’s implacable hands which have me in their grip, squeezing my entrails almost to the point of suffocation. Yet, despite the uneasiness and uncertainty, I don’t remember having felt this alive.“
Theo’s renewed sense of aliveness tells me that there is a good kind of anxiety, one described by philosopher Soren Kierkegaard as “the dizzying effect of freedom”. Theo is leaving the familiar world to enter one of endless possibilities; a kind of existential paradox of choice. Hence the anxiety.
“Because it is possible to create — creating one’s self, willing to be one’s self, as well as creating in all the innumerable daily activities — one has anxiety,” wrote Rollo May in ‘The Meaning of Anxiety’, adding that “creating, actualizing one’s possibilities, always involves negative as well as positive aspects. It always involves destroying the status quo, destroying old patterns within oneself, progressively destroying what one has clung to from childhood on, and creating new and original forms and ways of living.”
But then, there is a different type of anxiety: an obsession with an uncertain future. A “wakeful anguish”, as poet John Keats called it.
I am prone to making dire predictions, with a worse track record than 16th Century French apothecary Nostradamus. Countless ones can be found within the 1500 pages of my journal that never came to pass, except for “I’m getting old”, which is not much of a prediction, is it? I couldn’t get a job palm reading at a country fair, much less be accepted into the world of gypsies.
What’s going to happen?, or more accurately, What’s going to happen to me? is anxiety’s quiet whisper, wrote Lisa Miller in her article ‘Listening to Xanax’.
Prescriptions for benzodiazepines, or ‘Benzos’, like Xanax, have more than tripled in the last 20 years to 94 million. They are the “greatest things since Post Toasties” said Stephen Stahl, chairman of the Neuroscience Education Institute in Carlsbad, California.
We have entered the Age of Anxiety.
‘Benzos’ suppress the output of neurotransmitters that interpret fear – an evolutionary adaptation. If our hunter-gatherer forebears would’ve taken Xanax before heading to work, we wouldn’t be here. Just imagine this scenario: “Hey! Let’s pet that cute Saber-Toothed Tiger.” “Yeah, cool, let’s do it!” Get the drift?
But we no longer face just simple-fanged threats, ones over which we have a clear choice to fight or flight. Today, we are besieged by situational anxiety from multiple threats that are everywhere and nowhere at once; many global in scale and seemingly abstract, e.g., the growing intensity and destructiveness of weather events, mass-extinctions, coral bleaching, icebergs calving, trucks ramming pedestrians on sidewalks, or cyberwarfare. While another form of denial, I cannot help but feel paralyzed and often guilty of choosing to no longer read the dire reports.
What to do, besides popping a chill-pill; a “I don’t give a damn pill”; a “Special Kiss from Mommy” as Miller called Xanax?
Ironically, anxiety researchers are beginning to circle back to a practice that is 2500 years old: “Mindfulness”; now a $1.1 Billion industry in the U.S. (Buddha should have patented that one). In a nutshell, mindfulness is the process of bringing one’s attention to what’s occurring in the present moment.
In his 1950’s book, ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’, philosopher Alan Watts, perhaps the foremost interpreter of Eastern disciplines for the contemporary West, said the future is an abstraction, a rational inference from experience which exists only in the brain.
“The primary consciousness, the basic mind, which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future.” – Watts.
It’s unlikely that the primary brains of the shivering animals outside are looking ahead at, and planning for tomorrow’s predicted sunshine.
Think about it. The future is just another story we humans tell ourselves, one that emerged, I guess, when we became conscious of the passage of time and our mortality; when we realized that things change.
“The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating, and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two.” – Watts
But there is a contradiction, Watts warned, in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. “If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet, it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. Running away from fear is fear. Wanting to get out of the pain is the pain.”
The only way out, it seems, is not out at all, but in, much like the practice of judo: you master a force by giving into it.
It is still snowing after more than five hours, and as I look out the window, I can feel the strain of the rigid branches of the pines from the weight of the accumulating drifts. If it gets any colder, and the wind intensifies, they might snap. In contrast, I imagine the supple willow by the nearby river; it’s springy boughs gently yielding, giving in to the force, dropping the snow, and bouncing back again. Like a dance.
How to become a Willow?
To understand joy or fear, Watts suggests, you must be wholly and undividedly aware of it (mindfulness). So long as you are calling it names and saying: “I am happy,” or “I am afraid,” you are not being aware of it. Understanding them requires a single and undivided mind.
“If thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light.” Matthew 6:22
The second thing to do is stop living in the abstraction we call the future. I know it’s hard, but I’ve discovered it helps thinking about it this way:
We don’t only read the last chapter of a book. We don’t attend a concert just to hear the finale. We don’t eat (although I sometimes do) with our mind focused on dessert. And we better not be making love only to achieve orgasm or while comparing it with previous sexual encounters.
“There are two ways of understanding and experience: compare it with memories of other experiences and so to name it and define it, or, be aware of it as it is, as when, in the intensity of joy, we forget past and future.” – Watts
When each moment becomes an expectation, life is deprived of fulfillment. Expectations are reckless enemies of serenity, wrote contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton.
But what about those larger dangers; those existential threats that have humankind in their crosshairs? Is there an alternative to being frozen by fear or numbed by helplessness?
Most of you, I’m sure, know the story of the old man by the shore that watches a young boy saving starfish by hurling them, one by one, back into the ocean. With cynical and apathetic detachment, the old man approaches the boy who is preparing to launch another starfish, and scoffs at his futile endeavor, pointing at the thousands that still lie on the sand.
“I’ve done this walk every day for ten years, and it’s always the same,” the old man says. “There must be millions of stranded starfish! I hate to say it, but you’ll never make a difference.”
The boy replies: “Well, I just made a difference for that one”, and continues with his work.
While we may not be able to solve all the problems that afflict humankind or our planet, we can – and must – resist detachment, lending our words, our voice, our hands and hearts, to a cause that resonates deeply within us: our chosen Starfish.
The town’s Weatherman joins me in the hall of the world’s most inept prognosticators. Grayson’s hissy fit is almost over. We did not lose power, and the snowplows kept the roads open. Yet, I am serene. I began writing this piece early this morning and have not felt the passing of the last seven hours. Not once, did I think of the future, but remained immersed in the present, telling you this story.
A fluffy white cushion, twelve inches deep, lies on the ground. I am not free to live in any moment but this one, so I am heading outside, to fall into its soft embrace.
Since I began this series, at least forty men, in entertainment, media, and politics, have faced allegations ranging from inappropriate behavior to forced sexual misconduct to rape. The list continues to grow and has caused the downfall of many powerful “men”. It has sparked an entire movement (#metoo), and led Time Magazine to name ‘The Silence Breakers’ as 2017’s Person of the Year.
It’s encouraging to hear young people such as comedian Sarah Silverman say we need to understand what’s behind all this, or watch actor Justin Baldoni give a poignant TED talk on why he’s done trying to be “man enough”.
Both are choosing the hard and long road of empathy, rather than the easy one of judgment and condemnation.
While my exploration of this issue has revolved around Millennial Men, it is not a stretch to imagine that they could well be on the road of being the Harry Weinsteins, Al Frankens, Roy Moores, or Matt Lauers of the near future.
In my mind, they all share one thing in common: they are uninitiated men, or more precisely, wrongly initiated into what it means to be a man.
Former NFL defensive lineman and coach, Joe Ehrmann, had this to say in the documentary ‘The Mask You Live In’:
“My earliest memory is my father bringing me down to my mother’s basement, putting up his hands and teaching me how to throw jabs and punches. It was there that he gave me those words: “Be a Man”. Stop with the tears. Stop with the emotions. If you are going to be a man in this world you have to learn how to dominate and control people and circumstances. I left the room in tears, feeling I wasn’t man enough. Football became a tremendous place to hide. You can hide inside the helmet. You can hide behind the roar of the crowd. You get to project this façade, this persona of what it means to be a man in this culture. I thought if I could manifest this hyper-masculinity, somehow, it would validate who I was. Certainly, my father would respect me; see how powerful…how strong I was. Then he’d give me the love and attention that I desperately wanted. I ask every man to think about what age they were, what was the context, when somebody told you to Be a Man. That’s one of the most destructive phrases in this culture, I believe.”
This issue not only impacts gender relations, but spills over into our politics and the sustainability of our future on this planet. It is why I am investing so much time on it. If my words – my voice – can be heard by more and more men (women too), and through them, I manage to prevent but one instance of sexual assault, I will have done my share.
In Part I and Part II of this series, we’ve listened to several young men explain why they often objectify women. We’ve talked about the holes in their psyches, and explored ways in which they can begin to heal. We’ve listened to their fears of rejection, intimacy and vulnerability. They have shared their sadness stemming from a sense of being split from their right-brained essence.
We’ll now deal with Ethan’s answer to why he sometimes objectifies women through pornography. We can as well substitute the word ‘objectify’, with harass, exploit, or rape.
ETHAN: “When I use porn semi-frequently, I do so whenever I am disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
This has everything to do with two very famous erections.
Meet Priapus, the John Holmes of ancient mythology
The God of Lust and Fertility, Priapus was the son of Aphrodite, which means that every hard-on is mothered by love and beauty. So far, so good.
Until Hera came along.
Hera is the queen and mistress of heaven. Brought up in a domesticated and orderly household, she is also the goddess of marriage and the family. Suspecting her philandering husband, Zeus, of being Priapus’ father, Hera deceptively offered to help Aphrodite’s delivery of Priapus. With just one touch of her finger on Aphrodite’s belly, Hera caused Priapus’s ‘deformity’ and unshapeliness. Horrified, his mother rejected her son, and banished him to a mountainside on Earth.
What does the myth point to?
We’re back to that eons-old, tug-of-war I talked about in my post on why monogamy is so damn difficult: between our desires and conventions.
As Goddess of Marriage, Hera likes only one kind of erection: the procreating kind within the bounds of conjugal love. To her, Priapus is living testimony of philandering. Therefore, indirectly, she made sexual imagination ugly and shameful, and banished it to the mountainside – our modern day Red Light District, Pornhub, Las Vegas, etc. In his lecture, ‘Pink Madness’, James Hillman said that the Hera archetype is what causes us to see Priapus as deformed and distorted.
Then came this guy, St. Augustine.
I wonder why he doesn’t look as happy as Priapus.
When he was sixteen, back in 370 C.E., he went with his father to a public bath, and there, had an involuntary boner. He called it inquieta adulescentia, or restless young manhood.
Imagining himself a soon-to-be grandfather, Dad was pleased.
Mom, a pious Christian, and the Hera in this story, wasn’t.
“She made a considerable bustle,” Augustine wrote in his ‘Confessions’, “to ensure that you, my God, were my father rather than him.”
A year later, when Augustine was sent to study to Carthage, his father died. Commenting on Sarah Ruden’s translation of ‘Confessions’, Stephen Greenblatt wrote in The New Yorker:
“If the grieving widow also felt some relief at his death—given that he was a dangerous influence on her beloved son—any hopes she might have had that Augustine would embark at once on the path of chastity were quickly dashed.”
“I came to Carthage,” Augustine wrote, “to the center of a skillet where outrageous love affairs hissed all around me.” (Sounds like Vegas)
Within a year or two of what appears to have been a period of feverish promiscuity, Augustine settled down with his mistress.
But his mother was still not satisfied. When Augustine was getting ready to leave Carthage to take a teaching position in Milan, his mother, Augustine writes, “was hanging onto me coercively, trying to either stop my journey or come along with me on it.” Lying, he told her that he was only seeing off a friend, and persuaded her to spend the night at a shrine near the harbor. “I got away, and got away with it.” A few years later, his mother sailed from North Africa to join him, and once settled in his household, sought to change her son’s life by getting rid of his mistress and finding him a suitable Catholic girl for him to marry.
In little more than a year’s time, Augustine had converted to the Catholic faith.
Then something really weird happened…
In the Roman port of Ostia, a few days before setting sail for Africa, Augustine and his mother were standing by a window that looked out onto an enclosed garden, and talking intimately. Their conversation, serene and joyful, led them to the conclusion that no bodily pleasure, no matter how great, could ever match the happiness of the saints. And then, Augustine recounts, “stretching upward with a more fiery emotion,” he and his mother experienced something remarkable: they felt themselves climbing higher and higher, through all the degrees of matter and through the heavenly spheres and, higher still, to the region of their own souls and up toward the eternity that lies beyond time itself. (Here comes the creepy part) “While we were speaking and panting for it, with a thrust that required all the heart’s strength, we brushed against it slightly.” It is difficult to convey in translation the power of the account, Greenblatt writes, and of what it meant for the thirty-two-year-old son and the fifty-five-year-old mother to reach this climax together. Then it was over: “Suspiravimus,” Augustine writes. “We sighed, and returned to the sound of our speech.”
Fast forward forty years or so, and Augustine still can’t get over his inquieta adulescentia, or unruly adolescent boner:
“But when it must come to man’s great function of the procreation of children the members which were expressly created for this purpose will not obey the direction of the will, but lust has to be waited for to set these members in motion, as if it had legal right over them.”
And this ardor, Greenblatt adds, to which Augustine gives the technical name “concupiscence,” was not simply a natural endowment or a divine blessing; it was a touch of evil. What a married man and woman who intend to beget a child do together is not evil, Augustine insisted; it is good. “But the action is not performed without evil.” True, sexual intercourse—as Augustine knew from long experience with his mistress and others—is the greatest bodily pleasure. But the surpassing intensity of pleasure is precisely its dangerous allure, its sweet poison: “Surely, any friend of wisdom and holy joys . . . would prefer, if possible, to beget children without lust.”
(Surely, if you say so).
Augustine’s tortured recognition that involuntary arousal (or hard-on) was an inescapable presence—not only in conjugal lovemaking but also in what he calls the “very movements which it causes, to our sorrow, even in sleep, and even in the bodies of chaste men”—shaped his most influential idea, one that transformed the story of Adam and Eve and weighed down the centuries that followed: originale peccatum = original sin.
This idea became one of the cornerstones of Christian orthodoxy.
Augustine went on to shape Christian theology for both Roman Catholics and Protestants,and to bequeath to all of us the conviction that there is something fundamentally damaged about the entire human species. There has probably been no more important Western thinker in the past fifteen hundred years. [Greenblatt].
“The insistence to obscure the true nature of our species’ sexuality leaves half our marriages collapsing under a tide of swirling sexual frustrations, libido-killing boredom, dysfunction, confusion, and shame.” – Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá: ‘Sex at Dawn’
Our insistence on opposing spirit and mind to both nature and sexuality, makes us become split (disconnected, in Ethan’s terms), and at war with ourselves and our instinctual appetites. Christianity, Nietzsche proclaimed, gave Eros poison to drink.
Pornography is now an industry worth tens of billions of dollars worldwide. According to Pornhub, in 2016, the human race consumed enough hours of porn to last 5,246 centuries! Porn, says James Hillman, is the return of the repressed.
“Our sexual tastes are much more psychologically deep, even tender and sensitive than is currently imagined. Crucially – in all cases of addiction, it’s never that we are simply greedy or lusty or depraved. The real reason is always more poignant and more worthy of sympathy: we get addicted because we’re sad.” – Alan de Botton
Sad, because, like Priapus, we have been exiled from our natural sensuality, so we now look for it through fantasy.
The problem is that the fantasy starts becoming more lifelike than the real, and we end up, as Alan Watts cautioned, “bestowing more metaphysical and aesthetic value to what is lifelike to what is life”.
Reality begins to disappoint us. (e.g. the movie ‘Her’)
In 2016, an all-new term shot into the top searches on Pornhub: ‘Overwatch’, in reference to the popular video game released earlier that year, known for its fast action and overtly sexualized characters. It appears that the trend is moving more toward fantasy than reality. ‘Generic’ porn is being replaced with fantasy specific, or scenario specific scenes.
Losing our Senses
My friend Theo, who I’m currently helping navigate across his own love and existential tumult, wrote this to me as he entered the wilderness after many days sitting in front of his computer:
“Ninety percent of our human story as hunter-gatherers, forgotten. We’ve retained all the fears of the Savannah, but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we now can’t find our way without a GPS. The world’s shrill cacophony roaring in our ears makes it impossible to listen to silence. The bark’s rugosity, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff, the silk of a leaf…unfamiliar. Our sense of smell and taste blunted by exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality. We now rely on labels to tell us what will nourish us. Our sight, bleared by glaring and flickering blue light, misses the forest’s secret clues and diminishes its rich depth…diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred daily by a lightning storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear – soon losing their effect, requiring more potent doses to keep us hooked – have made it impossible for us to know what exactly it is we are to do with ourselves in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored. Like a violin, discarded in the dusty attic of our past – strings slack, tuning pegs broken, and cracked bout – we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part in the concert hall of Earth. In that state of alienation, rather than attuning ourselves to her symphony and harnessing her power, we now are bent on her domination and destruction.”
Exacerbating our state of exile, our increasingly virtual world is pushing us deeper into Plato’s Cave.
In the allegory, Plato likens people to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets – the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are only the shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see. The prisoners mistake appearance for reality. They think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) are real; they know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
In its truest sense, Alan Watts suggested, American culture is the most ‘immaterialist’.
In his blog for ‘The Stone’, Richard Kearney asks if today’s virtual dater and mater is not more like an updated version of Plato’s Gyges, who can see everything at a distance, but is touched by nothing. “Are we perhaps entering an age of excarnation,” Kearney asks, “where we obsess about the body in increasingly disembodied ways? For if incarnation is the image become flesh, excarnation is flesh become image.”
Pornography, he adds, is paradoxically a twin of Puritanism. Both display an alienation from flesh – one replacing it with the virtuous, the other with the virtual. Each is out of touch with the body.
In his book ‘De Anima’ Aristotle pronounced that touch is the most intelligent sense, because it is the most sensitive. As such, it is the most universal of the senses. In this pronouncement, he not only was challenging his own previous conceptions, but the dominant prejudice of the Platonic doctrine of his time, which held that sight was the highest sense. Aristotle did not win. The Platonists prevailed, and the Western universe – our universe – became a system governed by the ‘soul’s eye’. Western philosophy (our ideas) thus sprang from a dualism between the intellectual senses, crowned by sight, and the lower animal senses, stigmatized by touch [Kearney].
We’re back to the battle between spirit/mind vs flesh/nature; Psyche vs Eros; between the ideas of the Myce and the Minos I talked about in Part II.
Enter the weeping, pre-Platonist philosopher, Heraclitus.
This guy is best known for his aphorism that one cannot step into the same river twice. But his more important doctrine, in my mind, is his commitment to the unity of opposites, whereby no entity, or person, can occupy a single state at a single time. While Heraclitus did not coin it, the concept of ‘enantiodromia’ has been attributed to him.
Enantiodromia (Ancient Greek: enantios – opposite, and dromos – running course), basically means that the superabundance of any force, inevitably produces its opposite. It is similar to the principle of equilibrium in the natural world, in that any extreme, is opposed by the system in order to restore balance. When things get to their extreme, they turn into their opposite. (For an example of this dynamic, between the interplay of male and female energies, read the excerpt of Elizabeth Zioga’s blog, included in Part II).
In analytical psychology, enantiodromia means that something that is repressed (a man’s natural sensuality, or instinctual appetites, for example), shapeshifts in the unconscious into something powerful and threatening. To wit: St. Augustine’s natural erection turning into the touch of evil.
Carl Jung had this to say about it:
“Enantiodromia. This characteristic phenomenon practically always occurs when an extreme, one-sided tendency dominates conscious life; in time, an equally powerful counterposition is built up, which first inhibits the conscious performance and subsequently breaks through the conscious control.”
How do we heal this split caused by Hera and St. Augustine?
Enantiodromia also refers to the process whereby one seeks out and embraces an opposing quality, internalizing it in a way that results in individual wholeness. This process is the crux of Jung’s notion, called the “path of individuation”. One must incorporate an opposing archetype (or essence) into their psyche to reach a state of internal completion.
“Mental or physical symptoms appear when we have forgotten something essential. They arise from the underworld – or the body – where they have been exiled by the mind. We convert neurosis (stress, depression, anxiety, or obsessive behavior) into authentic suffering, through active participation or soul-making. Illness indicates the need to establish a relationship with a particular deity” says Barry Spector, in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’.
Enter Hedone, Goddess of Sensual Pleasure, Enjoyment, and Delight.
Hedone was the daughter of Psyche (spirit or soul) and Eros (god of love and sexual attraction).
Sensual pleasure, enjoyment, and delight, are therefore, the products of the union and healthy balance between spirituality and sexuality, between mind and body.
Hedone is the deity with whom you, Ethan, must establish a relationship.
Full humanity, Richard Kearney says, requires the ability to sense and be sensed in turn: the power, as Shakespeare said, to “feel what wretches feel” — or, one might also add, what artists, cooks, musicians and lovers feel. We need to find our way in a tactile world again. We need to return from head to foot, from brain to fingertip, from iCloud to earth. To close the distance, so that Eros is more about proximity than proxy. So that soul becomes flesh, where it belongs. Such a move, I submit, would radically alter our “sense” of sex in our digital civilization. It would enhance the role of empathy, vulnerability and sensitivity in the art of carnal love, and ideally, in all of human relations. Because to love or be loved truly, is to be able to say, “I have been touched”.
The Road Back to our Hearts and Bodies
If you’ve been paying attention, Ethan, you’ll know right away that I am not going to suggest that we return to the sexual liberation of the 1960’s; to an unbalanced plunge into carnal pleasures. Enantiodromia, remember?
Though I am suggesting that we all flip St. Augustine the bird once and for all.
Meet Apollo, representative of logos, mind, reason, and intellect.
I know…not as impressive as Priapus’, but that’s not the point.
The point, as Alan de Botton said, is that the statue of Apollo gives greater prestige to a very important ideal. It pictures someone very successful, very admirable and competent – who is also highly sensuous. This ideal was meant to be in people’s minds as they grew up, as they judged themselves and others. The Greeks were presenting Apollo as someone who could combine being sexual with being clever and accomplished.
So, how do we find our way back to our natural sensuality?
I asked Theo this question and this was his prescription:
1. Learn to Tango, the most erotic dance in the world. You will shed, as the female poet Kapka Kassabova said, the crippling binary neurosis of Western modernity whereby in matters of body and mind we are either intellecting, or having sex.
“Never give a sword to a man than cannot dance.”
Just take a look at our current political mess, and you’ll understand what Confucius meant by that.
Or, if you prefer the French, here’s playwright Moliere:
“There is nothing so necessary to man as the dance. Without dancing a man can do nothing. All the disasters of men, all the fatal misfortunes of which history is full, the blunders of politicians…all this comes from not knowing how to dance.”
2. Read poetry every single day. Start with this selection. Then move on to Rumi, or Neruda, or Mirabai. Heck! Even the Bible’s ‘Song of Songs’.
3. Learn to cook, and when you do, use your hands to mix, blend, and knead, as if you were caressing a woman’s or man’s body. As often as you can, cook by an open fire.
4. Play music and sculpt.
5. Go out often into the wild, but go alone, and without your electronic appendages. See everything…smell everything…touch everything.
6. Give yourself permission to be who you are. Authenticity is a powerful aphrodisiac. Switch your existence from a mode of ‘having’ to one of ‘being’, and do not squander all your erotic and sensual energies in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power. In Chapter 6 of my journey, I recount a personal, blissful experience of this kind.
7. Have the courage to be vulnerable. One of the reasons why eroticism is dead in our world, as Alan Watts suggested, is because of our culturally-ingrained discomfort with vulnerability which we try to overcome by perfect self-control which is tantamount to a state of total paralysis. Control is a degree of inhibition, and a system, or person, that is perfectly inhibited, is completely frozen.
8. Fall in love with your body, no matter the shape it’s in. Fall in love with your lover’s body, and in its presence, assume it’s virgin territory, and you, a daring, sensual explorer. Discover it with your five senses, every time, for the first time. You’ll always find a new, adorable freckle.
9. Before lovemaking, do as Napoleon did, who once wrote to his wife, saying: “I’ll be home in three days. Don’t bathe.” Our natural scent is intoxicating.
10. And, finally, when you and your partner meet, in love, recite this to each other:
 In his essay, ‘Big Red Son’ written in the late 90’s by David Foster Wallace, he added this footnote to his coverage of the Annual Adult Video Awards:
“Dark’s and Black’s movies are vile. They are meant to be. And the truth is that in-your-face-vileness is part of the schizoid direction porn’s been moving in all decade. For available, more acceptable, more lucrative, more chic – it has become also more “extreme”. In nearly all hetero porn now there is a new emphasis on anal sex, painful penetrations, degrading tableaux, and the psychological abuse of women. In certain respects, this extremism may simply be porn’s tracing Hollywood entertainment’s own arc. It’s hardly news that TV and legit film have also gotten more violent and explicit and raw in the last decade.”
 Enantiodromia. (2017, August 28). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:52, December 10, 2017.
Two weeks ago, in Part I of this series, we imagined ourselves by an open fire, listening to Joe, Nick, Tyrone, Mike, and Alex, explain why they often objectify women.
They said they did to bond with other men, to avoid rejection, intimacy and vulnerability, to fill the holes in their psyches, and as a way to reject or deny their innermost feelings.
We will now listen to Charlie answer the same question.
CHARLIE: “I’m stuck in the belief that the feminine essence is outside of myself. I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.”
Before we attempt to understand and tackle these two issues, this is key:
Humans are hardwired to worry. One of the main functions of our primal brain is to protect us from threats to our survival, so our thoughts naturally go there first. In their book, ‘Words Can Change Your Brain’, Andrew Newberg, M.D. and Mark Robert Waldman, wrote that “a single word has the power to influence the expression of genes that regulate physical and emotional stress. Positive words can alter the expression of genes, strengthening areas in our frontal lobes and promoting the brain’s cognitive functioning. They propel the motivational centers of the brain into action. Using the right words can transform our reality.”
Therefore, Charlie, let’s rephrase your answers to properly frame the narrative:
Instead of saying [I’m stuck in the belief] use [I’m stuck with the belief]. Rather than [I’m alienated] try [I’ve been alienated].
You’ll notice that by changing just one word, you have turned yourself from victim, to potential hero, and the motivational centers of your brain have now externalized a ‘Dragon’ with which we can all battle.
Feeling something ‘out there’ that was once inside us, or feeling alienated, signals loss. And when we lose something (think car keys), it is always best to retrace our steps.
WHO was it that stuck men with the belief that the female essence is outside them? And WHEN and HOW were men exiled from their state of wholeness?
It appears the initial blame falls on climate change, the horse, and a volcano eruption.
The Origin of Our Stories
Ancient Greece was the cradle of Western Civilization. It is from where most of us get our ideas…our stories. And it was on the island of Crete where the first European civilization, the Minoans, emerged around 3000 years ago.
A bit earlier, in the Eurasian steppes, a nomadic, cattle-herding culture was on the move. Its expansion coincided with the taming of the horse, and climatic changes that made the steppes cooler and drier. A large group of these Indo-Europeans settled in the acropolis site of Mycenae, two hundred miles from Crete.
These two groups, the Minoans and the Mycenaeans, had very different ways of looking at the world, so a clash was inevitable.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Minoan society was especially prosperous, peaceful, and happy. The prominence of women in palace frescoes and the numerous figurines of goddesses found on Cretan sites, have even prompted speculation that Minoan society continued to be a female-dominated culture of the kind that has sometimes been postulated as the indigenous society of prehistoric Europe.
Hunter-gatherers first showed up in this area near the southeastern Greek seacoast about twenty thousand years before the present. Over the next twelve thousand years, the sea level gradually rose, and large game animals were no longer available, so hunter-gatherer populations came to depend increasingly on plants for their survival, and the problem became to develop a reliable supply. Whatever the ways through which knowledge of agriculture spread, Neolithic women had probably played the major role in inventing the technology and the tools needed to practice it, such as digging sticks and grinding stones. After all, women in hunter-gatherer societies had developed the greatest knowledge of plants because they were the principal gatherers of this food. In the earliest history of farming, women did most of the agricultural labor, while men continued to hunt.
Meanwhile, over at Mycenae…
Inspired by the Greek poet Homer’s tale of the Trojan War, during the 1870’s archaeologists uncovered the Bronze Age site of Mycenae in the Peloponnese. The discovery of treasure-filled graves pointed to a warrior culture organized in independent settlements ruled by powerful commanders, who enriched themselves by conducting raiding expeditions near and far, as well as by dominating local farmers.
Of Myce and Minos
What were the main differences between Mycenaeans (‘Myce’) and Minoans (‘Minos’)?
They spoke different languages.
Minos were by far more artistic.
The Myce made burnt offerings to the gods; the Minos did not.
Palaces in Myce were heavily fortified. Minoan were not.
Weapons were prevalent in Myce, hardly any on Mino.
Mino society granted women higher status (although it was not a matriarchy as some suggest). Myce, by contrast, were patriarchal.
Goddesses played a greater role in Minoa as evidenced by the large number of female figurines. In contrast, the Indo-Europeans that settled in Mycenae, had brought with them their most powerful deity: Dyḗus Pḥatḗr, literally Sky Father (Zeus in Greek mythology).
Then, a massive volcano eruption and tsunami, one that may have inspired the myth of Atlantis, spelled the end of the Minoan Civilization.
The Myce and their stories took over.
The Stories We Tell Ourselves
One common myth found in nearly all Indo-European mythologies is a battle ending with a hero or god (masculine) slaying a serpent or dragon (feminine).
The stories woven from these beings, as gods, goddesses, semi-mortals, heroes, and demons, constitute the myths and religious stories of humankind. Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who founded analytical psychology, postulated that myths about such archetypal entities constitute the ‘dreams’ of cultures, and that the stories and archetypes originate in the dreams and fantasies of individuals.
Of all the Greek myths, the one that is most relevant to Charlie’s dilemma, is the Myth of Athena, Perseus, and Medusa.
If any Greek goddess conforms to the classical anima – or archetype for the feminine side of man present in the male unconscious – it is Athena, goddess of wisdom and warfare.
Athena was born of the Sky Father’s (Zeus) head. As such, she is the anima of the high god, who is born directly from the male psyche without having to go through the intermediary and polluting experience of birth from a female body. She is spared the indignities of dependency, and emerges into myth as an adult: powerful, wise, and masculine. She protects all heroes without undermining their masculine power through sexual attraction. She is most certainly a male fantasy – no sidelong glance from her feminine eyes can drag a man into the murky, uncontrolled depths of his unconscious libido. Rather she protects men when at their most threatened – in battle.
However cerebral, Athena is deeply disturbed by Medusa, a beautiful mortal woman with lovely hair, who is seduced in Athena’s temple by Poseidon, Athena’s rival. Outraged, Athena curses Medusa, turning her beautiful hair into snakes. Thus, she turns Medusa into an underworld figure, and thereafter, should a man glance at Medusa, he turns to stone. Not satisfied with turning beautiful Medusa into a feared and ugly monster, Athena then sends Perseus to behead this Gorgon and bring back her head. To avoid looking at Medusa, Perseus sights her in Athena’s polished bronze shield, using it as a mirror.
Athena is consciousness (the mind, thought); Medusa is the unconscious (instinct, feeling, body). ‘Medusa’ means female wisdom, and traditionally, female wisdom means the wisdom of the body, instincts, emotions: the anima’s chaotic urge to life, and wisdom of a hidden purpose which seems to reflect a superior knowledge of life’s laws.
In teasing out multiple meanings of the Athena vs. Medusa myth, Medusa seems to be a maiden, demonized by the intellect’s rejection of feminine beauty and sexuality, and persecuted by the conscious intellect, with its a-sexual, non-instinctive ideals – the Apollonian, as opposed to the Dionysian principle. In the ancient world, Apollo represented the pagan logos, Dionysus the instincts.
Athena, therefore, is a female version of the Apollo principle – logos, mind, reason, intellect. These are the qualities of the sky, divorced from the world of instinct and non-rational human nature – without soul, hence Athena’s struggle with and ambivalent relationship to her own anima, Medusa.
There you have it Charlie, the answer to your predicament:
Q: Who made you believe the female essence is outside you?
A: The Myce.
Q: How and when were you exiled from your state of wholeness?
A: By changing the story, about 3000 years ago.
The Path Back to Wholeness
The most relevant part of the Athena/Medusa story is not the ascendancy of the masculine (Myce) over the feminine principle (Mino), but the symbolism of Athena’s shield.
Using Athena’s bronze shield as a mirror turns Medusa into a mirror image of Athena – the looking glass image, or the opposite. The configuration of Athena with Medusa’s head on her shield suggests the combination, or reconciliation of the conscious with the unconscious, of intellect (or ego), with the feeling, intuitive, instinctive, hidden aspect of the psyche – of male essence with female essence.
Athena is the ultra-conscious, intellectual, rational sky goddess; her unconscious counterpart is the snaky-haired, sexually-charged goddess of the underworld – Athena’s thwarted, wounded anima, or soul.
If we accept that the sky gods of the nomadic Indo-European herders (the ‘Myce’), usurped and subjugated the pre-Indo European agricultural deities of Greece which were predominantly female (the ‘Minos’), then we might see Medusa as an agricultural goddess of fertility, and Athena’s appropriation of her head as an attempt to integrate and liberate her own unconscious, pre-patriarchal femininity. Athena, identified with her patriarchal, Indo-European father, tries to recapture what Zeus (the masculine principle) in her has denied and destroyed.
Athena was looking for the same thing Charlie is.
Before we look for the path back to wholeness, I believe it is important that we realize the consequences of failing to do so. As Jesus warned in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector said that with the rise of patriarchy (the Myce worldview) our creative imagination polarized into the paranoid imagination and the predatory imagination. The first is based on irrational fear, the second on an insatiable drive for control. Both express a narcissism that objectifies and negates other perspectives.
British philosopher Alan Watts suggested that one of the most important tasks facing Westerners as individuals and Western culture as a whole, is to overcome the dualistic view that spirit (the Sky, Athena, Apollo, reason, ego) is opposed to matter (the Earth, Medusa, Dionysus, intuition, feeling, body). These ideas, Watts said, concern the interrelations of (a) nature and gender, (b) men and women, and (c) sexuality and spirituality.
Watts directly addressed Charlie’s sense of alienation from the larger truth of his completeness as a human being:
“Man’s feeling that he is an isolated being in an alien environment is a basic illusion that leads to other illusions. The West, victim of this illusion, looks down on all things associated with nature, including all things feminine. This, has moral consequences in terms of how we treat or mistreat that which we mistakenly consider to be apart from us.”
The ecological price we are paying for this split is self-evident.
The problem is not men’s alone. As more and more women enter the workforce, and compete in the arena of corporate capitalism, they find that they must surrender – or become separated from – their natural feminine essence, and embody more masculine energy.
In her insightful blog, ‘The Dance of the Masculine & Feminine: How to Harmonize the Polarity of our Relationships’, Elizabeth Ziogas writes:
“Every human being is comprised of both masculine and feminine energies, although we have one dominant energy that is more our true essence. [However], many women have developed masculine shells in order to build their careers, generate income and manage their families and households. A relationship functions like its own organism: It will strive to create balance and homeostasis to ensure its survival. If one partner is embodying their masculine essence, the other partner will subconsciously begin to embody feminine energy to create polarity, attraction, ease, and balance within the relationship. Like batteries, a relationship needs both a positive (masculine) and negative (feminine) pole to generate electricity and create attraction. So when we, as women, are embodying more masculine energy, we will notice our men begin to embody more feminine energy and vice versa. As we choose to express our femininity fully, our partners will naturally exhibit more masculinity to maintain the polarity of the relationship. Our nurturing and empowering feminine presence will actually inspire our men to rise into their true masculine essence; catalyze the evolution of their purpose and leadership.”
Watts emphasized the ways in which, in the Daoist yin–yang model, masculine and feminine gender traits are two poles of the same reality. Seen this way, they can be integrated in a harmonious and balanced relationship. To say that opposites are polar is to say much more than that they are far apart; it is to say that they are related and joined—that they are the terms, ends, or extremities of a single whole. Polar opposites are therefore inseparable opposites.
Here, I want to remind Charlie of the term he used in the second part of his answer: “I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.” You did not say “completeness as a man”.
When old narratives no longer make sense, we need to re-awaken our creative imagination to write new stories, or remember forgotten ones.
“Soul-making”, Spector says, “involves re-dreaming and re-framing our lives as healing fictions. Facts can’t change, but we can change their meaning through artful telling, so that we live not from our wounds, but with them. Cultures with living myths encourage infinite expressions of creativity. In a world that devalues the spiritual, many forget how to think mythologically and are drawn to its toxic mimic, addiction. By ritually enacting our myths, we may be able to keep ourselves from acting them out literally.”
In your case, Charlie, objectifying women is a literal acting-out of the Athena/Medusa myth. You are sending your Perseus, or your male archetype of the slaying hero, to cut-off Medusa’s head, instead of ritually and symbolically re-integrating her female wisdom and skills you feel you have lost. You are having your Myce overpower your Mino, thereby perpetuating an old, destructive story.
A Modern-Day Argument for Integration
Let’s go back about twelve thousand years to the time when climatic changes in Neolithic Greece were seriously impacting the availability of large game animals to hunt, and calling forth the gathering, ‘Earth’ wisdom of women. This scenario – in which drastic changes in the environment call for adaptation and new survival skills – is very much like the one we are experiencing today. In its 2016 report, ‘The Future of Jobs and Skills’, the World Economic Forum warned:
“Many of the major drivers of transformation currently affecting global industries are expected to have a significant impact on jobs, ranging from significant job creation to job displacement, and from heightened labor productivity to widening skills gaps.”
There are overarching shifts poised to change the nature of work itself over the next decade,” says Devin Fidler, research director at Institute for the Future. “They include a demand for new skills and strategies that could help people thrive in future work environments. It’s going to take a long time for robots to be good at soft skills, like social and emotional intelligence, and cross-cultural competency, which are hugely valuable in a world where you or I could go and be working with somebody in the Philippines within an hour. Virtual collaboration itself is really useful in that environment as well.
Social and Emotional Intelligence, Cross-cultural competency, Collaboration: all preponderantly feminine, or right-brained skills.
Therefore, Charlie, if my psycho-spiritual argument for balance doesn’t convince you, consider that the only way you’ll survive in the 21st Century, will be to recover and activate the right-brained power and wisdom you think you have lost.
I could leave it here, effortlessly accepting this dismissive (even if sometimes deserved) verdict by the extremes of Feminism; a movement whose once rightful outrage has been co-opted by a brittle ideology thundered by a new tribe of shrill Amazons who seem bent on nothing less than the extermination of the male gender.
“One reason we rush so quickly to the vulgar satisfaction of judgment, and love to revel in our righteous outrage, is that it spares us from the impotent pain of empathy, and the harder, messier work of understanding.”
I choose to understand, no matter how hard, messy, and time-consuming.
Which reminds me…if you’re impatiently looking around this article to figure out how many minutes this post will take to read, or furtively looking at the tyrant clock (there, at the bottom-right of your screen) let me save you precious time, politely escort you out the door, and point you towards the many ‘How-to’s’ and ‘Listicles’ out there; the ones that keep promising – in 1-2-3 easy steps – to make you instantly wiser, happier, sexier, brawnier, or brainier.
I don’t do ‘instant’ anything, be it coffee, oatmeal, sex, or wisdom.
To understand (from Old English understandan: “to stand in the midst of”), we must listen. But prior, we must have the boldness and humility to unburden ourselves from our presuppositions and prejudices.
We also need time: ‘Heart-full’ time.
I’m standing by an open fire, somewhere deep in a jungle, in the midst of a group of young men we call ‘Millennials’, between the ages of 20-35.
I ask them: Why Do Men Objectify Women?”
Sit by my side now, and listen carefully to what they have to say. These are, by the way, the voices of real individuals whom I’ve listened to in cyberspace. Only their names are made-up:
JOE: “Men bond around it.”
NICK: “I’m avoiding something…an avoidance of rejection. Intimacy takes work, courage and commitment. Objectifying is an “easy” road out of the potential of rejections.”
TYRONE: “It keeps me safe from [the] treacherous road of intimacy and vulnerability.”
MIKE: “Because I feel a hole in me and I want to fill that hole.”
ALEX: “It happens almost always when I have stuff to feel, deep down, that I simply don’t want to feel. If I am feeling some sort of unrest, I will seek to get something from ‘Her’: to ‘suck her beauty’ in some way, and that will somehow feed me/nourish me.”
CHARLIE: “I’m stuck in the belief that the feminine essence is outside of myself. I’m alienated from the larger truth of my Completeness as a human being.”
ETHAN: “When I used porn semi-frequently, I was doing so whenever I was disconnected from myself. Because I feel disconnected, less present, less in my heart, and less in my body.”
ADAM: “To avoid the terror of annihilation…of being reabsorbed back into the feminine.”
HENRY: “For guys who have very little ability to self-reflect, or limited self-awareness, [we] live seeing the entire world as object.”
ARTURO: “The women I typically objectify are the hardest ones for me to understand completely. The thing I notice, is how easily such a mysterious woman can [match] the ideal partner that I subconsciously created as a child.”
Now look deeply into their eyes, and dare to call them ‘Pigs’.
They are disoriented, that’s all, which is something I touched on in an earlier blog post.
1. Men objectify women to bond with other men.
2. They do it to avoid rejection, intimacy, and vulnerability.
3. To fill psychic holes.
4. As a way to reject, or deny, their innermost feelings.
5. It often occurs when they are disconnected from their sensuous selves.
6. Or because they’re afraid of being absorbed by – and are out of touch with – the feminine.
7. Because they lack self-awareness.
8. And because the objectified female reflects an imprinted, mysterious archetype in their beings.
How true, what Sam Keen said:
“The greatest underdeveloped nation in the world lies within the psyches of men.”
Grab your machete, strap on your headlamp, and follow me. We’ll attempt to slash our way through the jungle thicket of these young men’s muddle and darkest yearnings.
For the record, let me state that my last name is not followed by acronyms, such as MD., PhD, PsyaD, PsyD. Like most of you, I’m simply an ordinary human being – confused, contradictory, conflicted, flawed, failed, sometimes, I’ve been told, lovable – who just happens to have the time, curiosity, and inclination to grapple with what I consider some of the most fundamental questions that define us as human beings.
“If during the next million generations there is but one human being who will not cease to inquire into the nature of his fate, even while it strips and bludgeons him, some day we shall read the riddle of the universe.” – Rebecca West
I’m striving to read the riddle.
I’m also doing this for a friend, called Theo. He’s troubled, and has asked me to help him grapple with his own love and existential tumult.
One last thing before we head-in: I take issue with the insistence of defining Masculinity solely in terms of how men should relate to women. Not only is it condescending, but doesn’t advance anyone’s cause. It’s as narrow-minded as men defining Femininity on the shallow ground of physical attractiveness or sexual allure.
JOE: “Men bond around it.”
Our human genus led a nomadic, hunter-gatherer existence during ninety-nine percent of the time we’ve been on Earth. Such life, I imagine, offered men the needed space to let-off steam, prove their worth and mettle, and refine their cooperation and communication skills. Plenty of Bromance in the Wild.
All that has changed.
Spaces for men to bond with each other (I’ll simplify here for the sake of time) seem now limited to either (a) huddling around a screen to vicariously live out their fantasies through sports, or through reality shows in which tough guys get to do the ‘wild’ things men yearn, but most can no longer do themselves, (b) crowding around a beer keg, or (c) joining a gang, or the armed forces. Not particularly conducive to sincere, expressive, and meaningful conversations, nor to establish deep connections between men. What ends up happening is that they become emotional stutterers, as Sam Keen wrote in ‘Fire in the Belly’, using sexual or [violent] language to express their desire for communion.
“Friendship among men is the most modest and rugged of the modes of love,” Keen added. “Many American men, afraid of close friendships with other men, will become overdependent on women to fulfill their need for intimacy. But every single relationship that is expected to fulfill every need will become claustrophobic, cloying, and swampy.”
I don’t yet have a clear solution for more meaningful ways for men to bond, other than calling for more communal life and less individualism – more male drum circles, fire pits, wilderness retreats, and, most critically, to call for the return of our Wise Old Men, who can teach Joe how to truly bond with his mates, not by objectifying women, but by ‘subjectifying’ himself.
NICK: “I’m avoiding something…an avoidance of rejection. Intimacy takes work, courage and commitment. Objectifying is an ‘easy’ roadout of the potential of rejections.”
I came of age during a time when, at parties, boys stood pressed against one wall of the dance floor, while girls sat – primly on the opposite side – yawning and checking their nails, completely ignoring our jitters. There were no ‘loose girls’ crossing that seemingly endless floor to ask any of us out to dance (or grind). Most often, we struck-out. Boy, it hurt. I was stung by every painful and embarrassing rejection, but now realize how fortunate I was. Because, if I really wanted to get the girl, I had to keep crossing that scary floor, keep getting rejected, gaining more and more courage with every attempt, perfecting my courtship skills until I finally got it right. Which I did.
Here’s the thing Nick: The ‘easy road’ is really a path to degradation – the degradation of your nobility as a man. Yes, intimacy takes work (of the good kind, mind you), and courage, and commitment, but consider their opposites: sloth, cowardice, and indecisiveness = not attractive.
TYRONE: “It keeps me safe from [the] treacherous road of intimacy and vulnerability.”
From both Nick’s and Tyrone’s ‘easy vs treacherous road’ comments, it appears to me we’ve done a grave disservice to Millennials by insisting on paving for them a safe and frictionless road to the land of plenty and perpetual happiness; a road on which we protectively run by their sides (with sunscreen, trophies, and water of course) drip-feeding them constant recognition and reaffirmation of their personality and worth.
Memorize this, Tyrone.
“Fire is the test of gold; adversity, of strong men.” – Martha Graham
And what of ‘Vulnerability’?
To be invulnerable requires that we create a ‘safe’ distance between ourselves and the world, so it can’t touch us. But wouldn’t this so-called, safe distance, just exacerbate the disconnect Ethan blames for his occasional forays into pornography?
I agree with Todd May, philosophy professor at Clemson University, who suspects that most of us want to feel caught up in the world. “We want to feel gripped by what we do and those we care about. The price of this involvement is our vulnerability. We must stand prepared to feel the loss of what we care about, because that is part of what it means to care. Caring requires desiring for the sake of others, which in an uncertain world entails that that desiring can be frustrated.”
No pain, no gain, I guess is what he’s saying, and, what Zat Rana means by:
“The risk of vulnerability is balanced by the reward of ecstasy.”
MIKE: “Because I feel a hole in me and I want to fill that hole.”
We all have them Mike, to one degree or another. I should know; my psyche looks like a block of Swiss Cheese. In fact, I’ve discovered that even those whose last names trail acronyms like tin cans dragged by a newlywed car, are as pockmarked as the Moon. So chill, you’re not alone. But rather than allowing this recognition to cause you despair, you should learn to accept it as the gift of humility and understanding.
A good man does not have empathy, Keen argued. He is emphatic. “Since he has given up the illusion that he is self-contained, he naturally flows out to others. The result of coming to know yourself – to know the wounds of shame and guilt, the disappointments of love, the unfulfilled dreams – is that you recognize the same in others.”
The question Mike, is whether you recognize the holes in your psyche.
Have you taken the time to confront your shadows?
“Emotions that have not been properly avowed have a pernicious habit of wreaking havoc across our personalities.” – Alan de Botton, creator of the Book of Life
Botton goes on to say that emotions that remain disavowed and uninterpreted, manifest themselves as powerful, directionless anxiety. “Under their sway, we may feel a compulsive need to remain busy, fear spending any time on our own, or cling to activities that ensure we don’t meet what scares us head on.”
And if you do recognize the holes within you, what are you filling them with: Pornography? Easy-sex? Opioids? Alcohol? Compulsive eating or exercise? Video games? Objectification of women?
These are not of the same material, or essence, that was first dug out, causing the holes in the first place.
Mike, if one of your holes was perhaps caused by your absent father, who maybe never told you what kind of problems he wrestled with as a young man, what he felt, what it meant to him to be a man, leaving it up to you to figure it all out by yourself, that hole, my friend, cannot be filled with any material other than ‘father-stuff’. What do I mean? That you either return to your Father’s Castle to wrestle that guidance from him, or seek a surrogate – a Mentor, Hero, Author, Philosopher – any Man you admire and respect, and spend soulful time with him, scraping the right stuff off his experience and wisdom to fill that hole.
I agree that a big part of the problem today, as Robert Bly suggested, is that we have stripped the poetry away from our suffering, and replaced it with clinical names like anxiety, depression, stress, burnout. Casting our suffering in such sterilized, cold light might make pharmaceutical companies rich, but it leaves us numb and helpless, which might explain why they do it.
I much rather consider my suffering as a great battlefield, full of the material and symbols of mythology, and be like St. George – noble, valiant, fierce – as I too, battle my Demons and Dragons. That – not Prozac or Xanax – lights a fire in my belly, or under my butt, if you prefer.
Avoidance or Denial
ALEX: “[Objectification] happens almost always when I have stuff to feel, deep down, that I simply don’t want to feel. If I am feeling some sort of unrest, I will seek to get something from ‘Her’: to ‘suck her beauty’ in some way, and that will somehow feed me/nourish me.”
I’ll repeat Keen’s earlier words (here paraphrased): “Men who are afraid of close friendships with other men will predictably become overdependent on women to fulfill their need for intimacy. But, every single relationship that is expected to fulfill every need, will become claustrophobic, cloying, and swampy.”
Anthropophagy and Vampirism are not sexy either.
Here’s the rub Alex. Your unrest will still be there the morning after you’ve devoured Her beautiful flesh and sucked her blood. The Dragon will keep flaming deep inside you, until you clothe yourself in armor, trade your joystick for a sword, mount your steed, and, either tame it, or vanquish it.
Repressing, or denying our grief, not only is fruitless, but blunts our capacity to experience joy. We might look tough on the outside, but remain empty within.
Let’s rest and camp here. We’ll continue slashing our way through the thicket in two weeks’ time, when we’ll enter even deeper into the jungle.
In Chapter 4 of Theo’s journey, an opportunity presents itself for a one-night stand. He’s at a beachside bar in Mexico – the music pulses, a warm breeze flows, tequila shots and bared flesh abound. Theo is engulfed by an intoxicating cloud of ‘Opium’ worn by an alluring late twenties noirette sitting next to him. She’s celebrating her upcoming wedding with wild abandon in tropical paradise. Theo’s girlfriend is three-thousand miles away. No one would find out.
Or as G.K. Chesterton pronounced:
“The idea of monogamy hasn’t so much been tried and found wanting, as found difficult and left untried.”
Earth is about 4.5 Billion years old. Sex only emerged 1.2 Billion years ago. If we divide Earth’s current age into twenty-four hours, it was not until six hours before midnight that we stumbled upon sex. No wonder we are still mystified by it. It is of recent “invention”.
To our confusion, let’s add that monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate. Primates aside, only about three percent of mammals, and one-in-ten thousand invertebrate species can be considered monogamous. Birds are different: ninety percent are monogamous, or so scientists affirmed, until confronted with new, contradictory research results. Okay, whatever, we’re not birds anyway, last I checked. We are, as the authors of ‘Sex at Dawn’ suggest, the randy descendants of hypersexual ancestors.
To put it somewhat more elegantly: We are courtship and desire machines.
Nothing wrong with this, unless we insist on ignoring or repressing it, and so continue witnessing the failure of one-in-two marriages, or the tragic toll on young boys exacted by the mandate of clerical celibacy for those married to the Church.
Sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures
Do men cheat more than women?
Not anymore, according to a recent study by the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, and confirmed by the National Opinion Research Center. They’re just more discreet and discriminating.
I am convinced that a woman’s libido is as potent, if not more so than men’s. The only difference is that theirs is more like the appetite of a gourmand: they don’t yearn to eat just to stop the hunger, but look instead for unique satisfactions presented in imaginative ways. By this, guys, I do not mean twisting yourself into a pretzel while attempting to impress your wives or girlfriends with the sexual positions you half-memorized from that worn copy of the Kama Sutra. That will only strain your back. She longs not for your acrobatics, but your inventiveness.
“Love never dies a natural death. It dies because we don’t know how to replenish its source.” – Anaïs Nin
Let’s be honest: sex is one of life’s greatest pleasures; it is evolution’s most ingenious hat trick. You wouldn’t be reading this if it weren’t.
Here, I make no distinction between a full-fledged affair, and, say, a seemingly harmless, yet sexually-charged text-message exchange. Both hurt.
In Matthew 5:28, Jesus proclaimed that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully, has already committed adultery with her in his heart, and yet, he once challenged those that were about to stone an adulterous woman, by saying: “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” They all dropped their stones and walked away. So before anyone hurls stones at my inbox, be sure you’re free from all transgression.
If, on the other hand, you are as culpable as the rest of us, drop your stone, and let’s try to figure this out together.
The Origins of Monogamy
“When marriage was an economic enterprise, infidelity threatened our economic security. But now that marriage is a romantic arrangement, infidelity threatens our emotional security. Itshatters the grand ambition of love,” writes author and psychotherapist, Esther Perel.
“Adultery has existed since marriage was invented, and so, too, the taboo against it,” she continues. “In fact, infidelity has a tenacity that marriage can only envy, so much so, that this is the only commandment that is repeated twice in the Bible: once for doing it, and once just for thinking about it. So how do we reconcile what is universally forbidden, yet universally practiced?”
We’re back to the eons-old conflict between our desires and conventions; between Nature and Civilization.
Monogamy is a boon for Omega males. “It is a great democratizing institution,” evolutionary biologist David Barash asserts, “enabling men to have a wife and a chance at a family, the great majority of whom would otherwise be left out. The hypothesis thus goes that Western society (in particular) inculcated monogamy as a trade-off, whereby powerful men essentially agreed to forego polygyny – in which a man has more than one wife – in return for a degree of social peace and harmony. Monogamy is part of our egalitarian ethos.”
The Tenth Commandment does not say “Thou shall not covet another woman.” It is specifically concerned with protecting the rights of one’s neighbor, by keeping gallivanting men away from other men’s wives.” (Barash & Lipton).
In ‘The Myth of Monogamy’, authors Barash and Lipton propose that even if monogamy isn’t necessary for civilization, it is clear that public adherence to monogamous ideals is necessary for success and survival in current Western civilization.
But it still doesn’t fully explain why we cheat (in the broadest sense), nor how, or if, to stop.
So What’s Really Behind Cheating?
In his book, ‘Love in the Western World’, Denis de Rougemont challenges: “If the breakdown of marriage has been simply due to the attractiveness of the forbidden, it still remains to be seen why we hanker for unhappiness, and what notion of love this hankering must hint at.”
“Affairs are an act of betrayal, and they are also an expression of longing and loss. At the heart of an affair, you will often find a longing and a yearning for an emotional connection, for novelty, for freedom, for autonomy, for sexual intensity, a wish to recapture lost parts of ourselves, or an attempt to bring back vitality in the face of loss and tragedy.” (Perel).
Infidelity is not about sex. At least not so for humans. It is more about longing and loss.
In his journey, Theo begins to realize what women long for:
“To be listened to, not simply heard; to be held in the gaze of desire. Not just looked at, or checked out, but seen, as with the halting and eager attention of a blind man. They don’t want our “rent”, as the poet Jane Cooper wrote, but the radiance of our attention. Not a roof, but a field of stars.”
It is the longing of any woman to not have her sensuality become invisible under the stack of dishes or mounds of dirty laundry.
For men, especially after our twenties, I believe it is more about loss – the loss of our magnetic power of seduction. We’ll do almost anything to confirm we still have it, and many will go as far as wrecking their/other marriages or relationships – even their lives – in the process.
But are men losing it as they age, or are they squandering it? Might we not simply be expending all our erotic energy, our Eros, which at root means to love and desire ardently, in feverish pursuit of money, career, fame, and power, having little left when we return home from work?
“Our erotic imagination is an exuberant expression of our aliveness” – Esther Perel
But if we feel dead inside – dull, inauthentic, and devoid of purpose – what passion can we possibly bring to our relationships?
What Turns You On?
For her research, Perel traveled across different countries and cultures, asking one question:
“When do you find yourself most drawn to your partner?”
Across cultures, religions, and genders, there was a striking commonality in the answers:
I am most drawn to my partner when she/he is away, when we are apart, when we reunite, basically, when I get back in touch with my ability to imagine myself with my partner. When my imagination comes back in the picture, and can root that imagination in absence and longing.
When he or she is in his element. When she is doing something she is passionate about. When I see him hold court. When she is radiant and confident.
When I look at my partner from a safe distance – not too close or far – that she/he once again becomes somewhat mysterious, somewhat elusive. Between this space – between me and the other – lies the erotic élan (the vital force or impulse of life). Marcel Proust said that the mystery is not about traveling to new places but looking with new eyes. In this distance, there is no neediness. There is no caretaking in desire. Neediness is a powerful anti-aphrodisiac.
When I am surprised, when we laugh together, when there is novelty, but not novelty in the sense of new positions, or places, but in the new aspects of yourself that you bring out, because sex is not something you do but a place to which you go. It is a space you enter.
Note how there’s no mention of “hot body”, “big-rack”, or “six-pack”.
Lovemaking begins long before consummation. It is sensuous, not just physical, and its sublimity is reached only between two vibrant selves; two lovers meeting in the fullness of their being.
Inviting the Shadow Lover
In ‘Civilization and its Discontents’, Freud said that civilization is built on the repression of the instincts. Barash and Lipton suggest that perhaps, we should adjust our ideals of monogamy to accord with human inclinations. That instead of taking monogamy as the norm, and thus being “shocked” by adultery, we should see infidelity as the baseline condition, whereupon we might be free to examine monogamy, dispassionately, for the rarity that it is.
How do we examine it?
In ‘Mating in Captivity’, Perel challenges us to “Invite the Shadow”. Some couples, she reports, choose not to ignore the lure of the forbidden, they subvert its power by inviting it in. They have chosen to acknowledge the possibility of the third: the recognition that our partner has his or her own sexuality, replete with fantasies and desires that are not necessarily about us. When we validate one another’s freedom within the relationship, we’re less inclined to search for it elsewhere.
I think what she is suggesting, is that we have the courage to share our deepest longings and fears of loss with our partners, before a transgression takes place.
Just Say No
Since Monogamy is not natural, it is not easy, the ‘Myth of Monogamy’ concludes.
“But perhaps it is precisely when – and because – the flesh is weak, that the spirit ought to rise to the occasion.
The crowning glory of Homo Sapiens is its huge brain. This remarkable organ gives us the ability to reflect on our inclinations and decide to act contrary to them [as hard as I know it is].
There may be no way to affirm one’s humanity as effectively as by saying ‘no’.
By establishing a durable, long-term relationship with someone who not only cares, but also shares an expanding history, who understands our strengths, weaknesses, joys, and despairs, the successful monogamist assures himself and herself a companion for life, long after the children (if any) have grown, when work is no longer an option, when even sex may be mostly a memory.”
What’s the alternative? To jump from one bed to another; one lover to the next, sating our body’s hunger, perhaps, but starving our souls.
Leave that to the animals.
“Animals have sex; eroticism is exclusively human. It is sexuality transformed by human imagination.” – Octavio Paz
For a while, I have been searching for the most fitting totemic animal for the group of young men swelling the ranks of a movement, loosely referred to as Men Going their Own Way (MGTOW).
The MGTOW is a pseudonymous online community supported by websites and social media presences cautioning men against romantic relationships with women, especially marriage. The community is part of what is more broadly termed the Manosphere, a place, author Stephen Marche describes as one where mostly feral boys wander the digital ruins of exploded masculinity, craving the tiniest crumb of self-confidence and fellow-feeling.
How appropriate to have found MGTOW’s totemic animal in a Mexican swamp.
The Axolotl is a salamander exhibiting the phenomenon known as neoteny, or retention of juvenile features in the adult animal. Ordinarily, amphibians undergo metamorphosis from egg to larva, and finally to adult form. The Axolotl remains in its larval form throughout its life. It never grows up. It is the Peter Pan of amphibians.
I’m fascinated with Nahualli, which is Aztec for “shadow soul” or “animal double”.
If you had been born a Mexica during the time of the Aztec empire, a priest would have attended you on the fourth day of your life. The purpose was for the priest to see, bind, and announce your relationship with your animal double – your Nahualli. It was perhaps, the most important ritual in the life of a Mexica. Traditionally, the Nahualli taught the youth its secrets, skills, and abilities. The bravest and most skilled of the young warriors, for instance, were members of the elite Jaguar and Eagle groups. The Jaguar Knights were the Aztec version of the Japanese ninja – shadow warriors who used stealth and the cover of darkness to hunt and overcome their enemies, much like their namesake, the jaguar. The Eagle Knights operated in daylight hours, attacking with swiftness and sheer ferocity, swooping-in to overwhelm and overcome their enemies, as the eagle conquers its prey.
Let me first declare my biases. I have two daughters, and two sisters. As for the former, no young man will ever meet all my expectations. I recognize this as simply irrational and arrogant…a “father-thing”. For the latter, no man has ever met theirs, or even, I’d venture, their own. I’m talking here about the basics: respect, care, attention, commitment.
I am also ambivalent about traditional marriage, having failed on my first – and “last” try. Like the writer Jack London, I much prefer a “Mate-Woman” than a “Mother-Woman” by my side.
Finally, I resonate with, and share the core tenets of the MGTOW: Self-ownership, Sovereignty, and Self-Definition of what it is to be a man. But from reading many of the comments posted on the movement’s forum, it appears most are missing the point. MGTOW’s principles and ideals are now deafened by the angry burps of thousands of Axolotls.
I know relationships are messy, and fraught with risk. They often crack us open, exposing our vulnerabilities, and require that we constantly bring forth our better selves. And I get it. Sex is now cheap and plentiful, and yes, there is bias against men in family courts…extreme feminism is a major turnoff. Safer then to spend your free time in onanistic bouts between the latest installment of ‘Final Fantasy’ or ‘Tetris’. Or right-swiping Bethany’s photo, who is more than willing to hook-up with you at no cost, and no strings attached.
But here’s the rub. I believe there is a hidden cost, and it comes in the form of your diminished, or deformed nobility as a man (In the Aztec language, the Axolotl is connected to the God of Deformations).
Let me illustrate this cost by paraphrasing an allegory I once heard on a recorded lecture by the evolutionary cosmologist, Brian Swimme:
Imagine a wide, open prairie. A red-tailed hawk circles above, scanning the field in search for his next meal. Natural selection has developed incredible speed in the hawk, and its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. A truly magnificent, noble creature! He spots a mouse. Easy lunch, one would think. But the genius of natural selection has caused mice to be extremely agile and elusive. An exciting chase is set to begin.
Now, let’s say we control the levers of nature, and decide to perform our own natural selection experiment by slowing down the mouse a bit and changing its color from camouflage gray-brown, to neon yellow. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and keen eyesight will concurrently diminish. Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly overhead, but simply give chase to the mouse on solid ground.
What will happen if we continue this experiment for the “benefit” of the hawk; if we slow the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl?
At the end, the once-majestic hawk would probably lose its wings and feathers, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his gaping beak. Of course, the unintended consequences of our experiment, is that the hawk, in its enfeebled state, would itself become easy prey.
What’s the point, and what does it have to do with you, burping Axolotls?
You see, by effortlessly getting what he wants, the hawk enters a path of degradation, where all its beauty and nobility is rendered superfluous. The hawk’s truest desire is for the mouse to live. Deeply embedded in ‘Hawk’ is the desire for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse’.
Deeply embedded in ‘Woman’ is the desire for your nobility, expressed by your courtship, seductive cunning, romantic ingenuity, erotic imagination, and your gallantry. Whether you realize it or not, deeply embedded in You, is the desire for women’s elusiveness.
Axolotls might be cute, but Hawks are fierce and noble. Let that be your totemic animal instead, and go find yourself a Mate-Woman, just like Suleiman the Magnificent found in Roxelane, despite the many willing ‘Bethanys’ in his harem.
I try not to watch or read news. Haven’t for many years now. I don’t believe there is such a thing anymore, in the proper sense: a factual account of events. The chief currency with which our current media ecosystem traffics is simply outrage. So I decided that if I was to be outraged, or afraid, or indignant, I would do so on my own terms. I have yet to reconcile this voluntary blackout, with my belief that an uninformed or misinformed citizenry is a grave threat to democracy. But that is a topic for another time.
But it’s inescapable, right? The “news”. Always worming itself into our awareness. It finds us at the supermarket checkout counter, gas pump, through the unwanted headline flash on our cellphone.
“TERROR IN LAS VEGAS”
As I read the article, the first thing that came to my mind, was not gun control, or our dysfunctional mental health system (both surely in urgent need of reform) but this African proverb:
“If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat.”
…or mow down sixty people with a hail storm of bullets, or rape on college campuses, or be complicit in hazing deaths at frathouses.
I immediately intuited that Stephen Paddock, the Vegas mass shooter, grew up without the stable presence of a father, or positive male role models. And I was pretty sure that most of the other recent killings perpetrated by white males with no ideological motive, would fit this pattern. I was right.
Some have written about this, but stop short at laying the blame on the dissolution of the “traditional marriage bond”, and the concurrent rise of births to single mothers. Let’s do away with no-fault divorce, they clamor, and kids will have fathers again and guns will be silenced. But if young men are opting out of marriage in greater numbers than ever before, just imagine the future trendline if we make it harder and costlier for them to jump ship.
Which brings me to the Mosuo, an ancient tribal community of Tibetan Buddhists living in a lush valley at the far eastern foothills of the Himalayas. A matrilineal society without fathers, without marriage or divorce, and with no words for war, murder, or rape. I have not been able to confirm this, but I’d blindly bet that they have never experienced a mass shooting.
What’s relevant to me about the Mosuo and what happened in Vegas is not their relaxed sexual mores, but the fact that although Mosuo men have no paternal responsibilities, they have considerable responsibility as uncles to their sisters’ children. In fact, along with elderly maternalgreat-uncles, who are often the households’ second-in-charge, younger uncles are the pivotal male influence on children.
In traditional societies, initiating boys into full-fledged men through rites of passage is the purview of the men of the tribe – particularly the elders – and not just the father. I argue that fathers cannot be sole mentors to their sons because of their subjective, vested interests. Even if they could, we generally don’t listen to our parents. The best piece of advice I ever got from a man, was at age thirty, and came from my father. When I told him I was working sixteen-hour days building up my businesses, he warned:
“Unless your mind can purge itself of sixteen hours of material preoccupations (which probably even extend into your sleep) all your creative visions, or visionary creations will come to naught in the objective plane. Additionally, sooner or later, your mind will snap and you won’t be 30 going on 40, but 35 going straight into the abyss.”
He undershot his prediction by one year. I was 36 when I went straight into the abyss.
“Indigenous people know that when young men don’t transform into men, catastrophe results: outwardly against the Other, or inwardly, in depression, addiction or suicide. When a youth is denied initiation, his nobility dies.”
Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded towards one of three troughs:
For the well off: into competitive consumers.
For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
At the lower rung: the gangs.
None of which makes room for the wider community, Nature, the Feminine, or any other concerns of the ideal, mature masculine.
The dangerous vacuum created by these incomplete initiations, calls for the positive influence of other men: uncles, great-uncles, mentors, grandfathers, godfathers, neighbors, and friends, which can make all the difference in a young boy’s life.
If you are one of them, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active and influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.
Keep in mind what Frederick Douglass once wrote:
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
You might just prevent a tragedy like Vegas.
If, on the other hand, you are a young man entering adulthood, and feel lost or disoriented, seek guidance from the older men in your orbit whom you trust and respect, Or find a mentor – your personal Yoda, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf. Or drop me a line. Perhaps I can help.
In most lives, there is a path that runs parallel to the one on which we span the time between our entry and our exit from life’s stage.
We usually sense its presence late at night, when alone, and everyone else sleeps. Or returning from work, nerve-ends frayed, and vitality sapped. We often see it through the kitchen window as we stand at the sink, dealing with another pile of soiled dishes and glasses, and wonder:
“Is this it? What am I doing with my life? How much time do I have left?
There is a Russian word that best describes this sentiment:
Toska: At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, a yearning.
Such simmering unease usually signals a call from the path of true purpose, demanding to feel the decisive steps of our most authentic and creative selves.
Most ignore the call. The signals are often fuzzy, the path looks treacherous, steep, and shrouded in uncertainty. So we choose to remain in place, wrapped inside our familiar, predictable, and safe cocoons, and thus never become butterflies. We remain, like Rilke said, “inside the dishes and in the glasses“.
Over time, like a failed telemarketer working the night shift, the Universe gives up, and stops calling.
Not in my case.
I seem to have been assigned the most indefatigable, willful, and creatively-destructive operator on staff – the new hire, the one with the quirky accent, always fresh and stoked, working the longest hours, the most grueling shifts.
When he first dialed my number, I was eighteen, sitting next to my father inside the stately, oak-paneled opulence of the Edwardian Room at New York’s Plaza Hotel having eggs Benedict for breakfast, mesmerized by the glitter of diamonds and gold, kindled by the overhead chandeliers. Too young anyway to understand his language, and no wise mentor to turn to; no Yoda, Obi-Wan, Professor Dumbledore, or Mr. Miyagi to translate the – often – ambiguous message. Preening, cock-sure, and materialistic too, so I ignored his call.
For years he persisted, progressively growing more impatient, but I kept hanging up. At thirty I began to sense what he was selling, and wanted it.
He had watched me as a young boy, reading and writing stories atop an old avocado tree, feeling my delight as the hours passed unnoticed, and wanted to return to me the gift of wonder, curiosity, and imagination I then had.
He wanted me to return to the tree.
But my hands were busy building a business empire. No time for climbing trees, reading books, gawking at sunsets, whiling away astonished by beauty, or for writing stories.
Eventually he got pissed, and six years later, kicked my sandcastle really hard. Left the empire and my identity in ruins, the feisty bugger.
With four mouths to feed, I thought I had no choice but to forever remain a grub. But I always hoped for one last chance; that he’d call again.
The final call came when I was about to turn fifty-five.