The boy who never built a castle in the air will never build one on earth. – Thomas Wentworth Higginson
The Twitter vitriol poured on Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (29) and Greta Thunberg (16) reminded me of Wentworth’s quote.
Striking, yet unsurprising, is the lack of alternative solutions proposed by their older critics who I imagine sitting on bleachers – seething in the green muck of their envy and shrunken under the tepid sun of their cowardice – while these two young idealists dare to enter the arena with the audacity and courage to imagine a better, saner future.
The attacks echo the slurs against Rachel Carson after the publication of her 1962 seminal book ‘Silent Spring’ which conceivably pulled us back from the brink of environmental disaster:
A book reviewer for Time characterized Carson’s argument as “unfair, one-sided, and hysterically overemphatic.” He traced her “emotional outburst” to her “mystical attachment to the balance of nature.”
In other words, Carson was deemed by her critics to be irrational.
“Who’s to say that certain types of irrational thinking aren’t exactly what the world needs?” asked 12 year-old Adora Svitak in her 2010 Ted Talk.
“Maybe you’ve had grand plans before,” she said, “but stopped yourself, thinking, ‘that’s impossible,’ or ‘that costs too much,’ or ‘that won’t benefit me.’ Kids aren’t hampered as much when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. Kids can be full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, like my wish that no one went hungry, or that everything were free… kind of utopia. How many of you still dream like that and believe in the possibilities? In many ways, our audacity to imagine helps push the boundaries of possibility.”
In 1968, The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) asked Dr George Land and Beth Jarman to develop a highly specialized test to effectively measure the creative potential of NASA’s rocket scientists and engineers. The duo came up with an unorthodox test rooted in the process of divergent thinking: the ability to look at a particular problem and propose multiple solutions. The test worked so well at identifying the best candidates that Land and Jarman decided to administer it to 1600 five year-olds.
What they discovered was astonishing.
Out of the 1600 kids that took the test, 98% of them scored at genius level!
Excited by this incredible finding, the team decided to turn this test into a longitudinal study and tested the same group of children five years later. By then, in grade school, the children’s level had declined to just 30%.
By age 15, it had dropped all the way down to 12%.
Disturbed, but still intrigued by this fascinating study, Land and Jarman decided to conduct this same test on adults aged 25 and up (with an average age of 31). After numerous studies, what they found was that less than 2% of all adults scored at genius level!
Once bitten, twice shy.
As life batters us with the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,” we become less creative and more risk averse. As we age, we shift our mental calculations toward what we stand to lose, rather than what we stand to gain and our courage to dare is weakened by our fears — of loss, rejection, judgment, and criticism; fears which gradually wrap us in an armor of cynicism which we deceptively label practical or pragmatic.
Ironically, William James, founder of the philosophical school of pragmatism, had this to say:
Man’s chief difference from the brutes lies in the exuberant excess of his subjective propensities, — his pre-eminence over them is solely in the number and in the fantastic and unnecessary character of his wants, physical, moral, aesthetic, and intellectual. Had his whole life not been a quest for the superfluous, he would never have established himself as inexpugnably as he has done in the necessary. And from the consciousness of this he should draw the lesson that his wants are to be trusted; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of his life and will lead him to issues entirely beyond his present powers of reckoning. Prune down his extravagance, sober him, and you undo him.
If we had limited ourselves to what appeared possible, safe, and practical, we would have never become bipedal.
English journalist Caitlin Moran cautioned that “cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas.”
“The poorest way to face life is to face it with a sneer,” said U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt. “There are many men who feel a kind of twisted pride in cynicism; there are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder.”
It would be one thing if those without the courage to dare greatly were to remain shut in the dark and malodorous space of their dispirited lives. Quite another is pouring the acid of their fecklessness on the hide of those who do dare.
“Ah! I have known noble ones who lost their
Highest hope. And then they disparaged all
Then lived they shamelessly in
Temporary pleasures, and beyond the
Day had hardly an aim.
Then broke the wings of their spirit.
Once they thought of becoming heroes;
But sensualists are they now.
A trouble and a terror
Is the hero to them.” — Friedrich Nietzsche ‘Zarathustra’
At 57, I have harvested enough disappointments — in love and enterprise — to make even the fiercest gladiator never want to set foot again on the arena of life’s slaughterhouse. My hide is black-and-blue from the pummeling fury of fortune’s mercurial temper. Yet, I have not ceased to ask myself: “What if? or “If only…” I still yearn to quell the storm and ride the thunder… still believe in impossibilities. It’s the reason why I side with those like #AOC and Greta Thunberg and cheer their valiant efforts to challenge the status quo. They are no trouble and terror to me, but an inspiration, stirring the same hopefulness I felt when watching the young man block the advance of a column of tanks on China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
“The truly decrepit, living corpses,” said Henry Miller, “are those middle-aged men and women who are stuck in their comfortable grooves and imagine that the status quo will last forever, or else, are so frightened it won’t that they have retreated into their mental bomb shelter to wait it out.” You can avoid reality, writer Ayn Rand warned, but not the consequences of reality.
When we operate under fear, we use a smaller part of our divergent thinking and stifle our capacity to generate creative ideas by exploring many possible solutions. Convergent thinking, focused on coming up with the single, well-established answer to a problem, begins to come up with all sorts of reasons why it can’t be done.
Nothing will ever be attempted if all possible objections must first be overcome. — Samuel Johnson
The new generation is inviting us to dare to dream the impossible, to awaken the genius of our inner child, who, full of inspiring aspirations and hopeful thinking, is not hampered when it comes to thinking about reasons why not to do things. We should either accept their invitation or get out of their way.
Society is not a bond between the living, said philosopher Edmund Burke. It is a bond between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to come. As it stands right now, it appears that the generation currently in charge is assuming the stance of comedian Groucho Marx who once scoffed: “What should I care about future generations… what have they ever done for me?”
At the recent Austrian World Summit, Greta Thunberg ended her speech with this indictment: “For too long, the people in power have gotten away with basically doing nothing to stop climate and ecological breakdown. They have gotten away with stealing our future and selling it for profit. But we young people are waking up and promise we will not let you get away with it anymore.”
How will we respond?
Will we rise to the challenge or cower inside our mental bomb shelters to wait it out, hoping for a savior?
“Our world needs fierce men and women,” writer Sam Keen urged, “who must deal with the darkness at noon, the failure of our success, the impotence of our power, and the waste products of our creativity. It needs spiritual warriors who are alive with moral outrage and who enter the arena to wrestle with the mystery of evil. Fierce individuals who still have thunder and lightning in them; not dispassionate spectators or cynics.”
As for the world, the same applies to our lives.
I suspect many of you, despite age, circumstance, or accumulated disappointments, still wonder what your life would be like if you had the temerity to build castles in the air; to give voice and impetus to your “irrational” dreams, yet you deny them out of fear of judgment, discomfort, failure, or loss. In the end, however, should you cower, the day will come when you will have to face the most terrifying judge of all: yourself.
Hell is found, said writer Paulo Coelho, twenty seconds before you die as you look back and discover that you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.
Dare to be irrational! Shatter the status-quo of your existence! Think not of what you stand to lose but what you will gain by breaking free from your self-imposed prison… more time for joy, deeper and more meaningful relationships, ardent desire, wonder and delight.
If each new day — as our human life unfolds itself like the pages of an illuminated fairy book — is not a caravanserai of marvels, a ship of treasure, an island of enchantment, with its own sun and moon and high particular stars, what, in heaven’s name, is the value of being alive at all? Nature intended us to be exquisitely happy and when our happiness ebbs it is because some phobia or mania or inhibition in ourselves. — John Cowper Powys
Trust your wants. Prune not your extravagance. Become uninhibited, zany, expansive, voracious and wild. Seek through the fire of your enthusiasm and idealism to make your clay statue incandescent at last!
Having answered the call to adventure, I assure you that a day sailing wild and pathless seas is worth more than an eternity spent safe at harbor.
As you move into authenticity — your true story — you will unleash unsuspected powers which not only will blow on the embers of your dreary, sputtering life, but will incite you to respond to the calling of our time.
Let those tepid souls, who sit in the bleachers, rot in the dunghill of their timidity.
When our individual stories are rightly embedded within a vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.
I mean besides genealogy, ethnicity, culture, or nation. Farther back I mean…way back…all the way back to the beginning of space and time.
If we don’t know where we come from, warned author Terry Pratchett, then we don’t know where we are, and if we don’t know where we are, we don’t know where we’re going.
A quick glance at the current state of the world tells me we haven’t a clue.
The phrase ‘hark back’ was used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent. I like to imagine what the world would be like if our “once-upon-a-time” stories harkened back 13 Billion years to the moment of the Big Bang.
Might we recover our lost scent?
Would a visceral understanding that we’re all stardust feeding off starlight help us develop a universal sense of kinship with all forms of life?
Might knowing we only arrived on stage but a few seconds ago in cosmic time deflate our human hubris?
Would we properly humble and then be rapt by awe and wonder if we allowed the fact to sink-in that there are more stars than grains of sand on all the beaches on Earth?
Would our anxious, plundering rapacity cease if everyone knew that our planet is a living organism that creates and sustains life and that our species was doing just fine as nomadic hunter-gatherers for 99% of the time we’ve been on stage?
If we worked on harmonizing with the fundamental laws written 13 Billion years ago instead of trying to force the Universe to conform to our designs, might we not usher-in a golden age?
If we understood, for instance, that the heat and light of stars is only possible by the implacable resistance imposed on their desire for exuberant expression by the force of Gravity, would we continue cursing when encountering resistance to ours?
Death would not seem like an unfounded rumor if we knew it was woven in the cosmic fabric with the thread of entropy from day-one. No longer, then, would outrage or dismay be our default reactions to decay and disorder, but calm acceptance and mature resignation.
“All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even part of science testify to the unwearing effort of mankind desperately denying its contingency.” – John Gray
Our cherished preeminence would crumble with just a cursory understanding of the ‘Many-Worlds’ interpretation of quantum mechanics. ‘The Web of Life’ would finally acquire meaning when learning about the enchanting entanglement that occurs between subatomic particles separated by billions of light-years of space.
We’d surrender our insistence on immutability once we appreciate the fluid nature of the stellar story in which we find ourselves. You want nothing to change? Show me stasis in nature and you will have shown me a frozen or dead system. If you suffer from insomnia, try reading a novel where nothing changes.
Realizing how improbable our presence is on Earth; the many accidents and near-misses, the coincidences and lucky breaks that preceded our arrival, would we ever curse our fate or bemoan our existence? Would we dare utter the phrase ‘Sunday night blues’?
Allowing ourselves to be stunned by the fact that every star, snowflake, seashell, tree, flower…each and every one of us is one-of-a-kind; an inimitable entity in the unfolding story of the Universe, would we continue struggling to become someone else?
Knowing that the ethics of moderation, prudence, bravery, and reciprocal altruism are encoded in our behavior as in all animals, would we continue searching for moral guidance in dusty libraries, yoga retreats, therapy couches, pews, stone tablets, or up in the heavens?
We might develop a healthy skepticism of our vaunted rationality knowing that the frontal lobe of our brain is of recent occurrence in the evolution of our species and that we had no trouble feeding ourselves and navigating the world before then. This realization would encourage us to reconnect with our bodies, our senses and instincts, and repair the rift we’ve caused between ourselves and the natural world.
A little too abstract, a little too wise,
It is time to kiss the earth again,
It is time to let the leaves rain from the skies.
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 mayflies darkening the sky. – Robinson Jeffers
When our individual stories are rightly embedded within this vaster narrative and deep mystery, we might comprehend that our role and purpose is to ensure we don’t spoil it with our arrogance, rapacity, dogmas, and petty fears, aims, and lamentations.
Knowing that there is no one like us among 7.53 Billion humans should be enough to divert us from debilitating and fruitless emulation, rouse us from apathy and conformism, from spiritless cowardice and escapism, from selfishness and greed, and make us stake our unique claim and contribute to the magnificent symphony which began before space and before time.
“Every aspect of Nature reveals a deep mystery and touches our sense of wonder and awe. Those with the courage to explore the weave and structure of the Cosmos, even where it differs profoundly from their wishes and prejudices, will penetrate its deepest mysteries.” – Carl Sagan
As it is, we are but sorry violins discarded in the moldy attic of our past. With strings slack, broken tuning pegs and cracked bouts, we no longer resonate, vibrate, thrum, or harmonize, so can’t play our once rightful part within the concert hall of the Cosmos. When we insist, it is shamefully obvious we’ve forgotten the musical score, so we play off beat and out of tune. With humanistic conceit, we willfully ignore that should we vanish tomorrow, the concert hall would remain open and the show would go on.
It’s time to relearn the score.
Let’s retrace our steps along the path and recover our scent before it’s too late. The Universe will be glad to be rid of us if we don’t.
Many use busyness and distractions to escape their reality, to remove themselves from their suffering, and, simultaneously, from the suffering of the world. Thus unattended, the wounds never heal.
Probably not, uh?
Shocking, isn’t it? For all our time-saving devices, we just don’t have time.
The fact is, we do. It’s just crammed with new distractions created by the engine of commerce.
What’s ironic is that we work longer and longer hours to make more money to hand over to swindlers to come up with new distractions to stave our boredom. It is a mad chase for jolts of dopamine, and, like any addiction, the doses must be increasingly potent.
The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions. — Erica Jong
We would not be bored had we lived prior the Industrial Revolution. That’s because the word was only first used in 1853 by Charles Dickens, in ‘Bleak House,’ to describe “the chronic malady of modern life.”
The rapid expansion of factories spewing ‘time-saving’ contraptions inaugurated the concept of “leisure time” quickly crowded by new distractions — circuses, theatrical extravaganzas, tourism, Disneyland, Netflix, Facebook, Instagram…the Smartphones right next to you and me.
German philosopher Theodor Adorno called Walt Disney the most dangerous man in America. He wasn’t against leisure time; simply questioning what we choose to do with it. It’s not enough to be busy, said Henry David Thoreau, so are ants. The question is: what are we busy about?
Adorno realized that our longings are craftily repackaged by capitalist industry, so that we end up forgetting what we truly need and settle instead for desires manufactured by corporations with no interest in our wellbeing.
We must shift America from a ‘needs’ to a ‘desires-culture,’ said Paul Mazur, a leading Wall Street Banker during the Great Depression. “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.”
Though we think we live in a world of plenty, Adorno said, what we really require to thrive — tenderness, belonging, calm, insight, friendship, love — is in painfully short supply and utterly disconnected from the economy. Capitalism’s tools of mass manipulation exploit our genuine longings to sell us items which leave us poorer and psychologically depleted.
Pay close attention to most advertisements and you’ll discover the ruse.
Checking-out is no easy matter. The hook is deeply wedged in our brains. Rehab is the enemy of the great persuaders; our modern-day snake oil peddlers. They can’t afford us escaping the insane asylum and checking ourselves into a quiet space to restore our sanity; to alleviate our dis-ease. If we did, not only would we discover how enslaved we are but realize that the shackles were forged by our own hands.
A prison break is no easy matter; you must first know all about your prison. — Henry Miller
Bill Levitt, father of American suburbia, perversely said no man who owns his own home and lot can be a Communist, he has too much to do. Keep the herd busy, docile, and entertained to prevent it from discovering the fraud.
A man’s constant escapism into busyness is the greatest source of his unhappiness, suggested Danish philosopher Kierkegaard, a sentiment echoed by Blaise Pascal who said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to sit quietly in his room.
We no longer know what to do in quietude. We fidget, look around for our cell phone, check the clock, fidget and fret some more. Simple things no longer deliver enough dopamine to stimulate our nerve cells. If we take a walk out in nature, our overstimulated brains are no longer reactive to a placid landscape but require more intense colors, harsher sounds, perhaps a flame-throwing squirrel torching aspens to ash. Not nature-as-it-is, but nature as we see on screens. We wish to edit the natural world as we edit our photos to the point where we no longer distinguish reality from fantasy and fantasy ends up being more stimulating because it’s chock-full of dopamine.
You might be familiar with the famous experiment conducted in the 1950s by psychologists James Olds and Peter Milner in which they connected electrodes to the brains of rats enabling them to create sensations of excitement (dopamine) simply by pressing a pedal. This was a pleasure center, a reward circuit, the activation of which was much more powerful than any natural stimulus. A series of subsequent experiments revealed that rats preferred pleasure stimulation to food (even when they were hungry) and water (even when they were thirsty). Self-stimulating male rats would ignore a female in heat and would repeatedly scurry across shock-delivering floor grids to reach the lever. Female rats would abandon their nursing pups to continually press the lever. Some rats would do this as often as 2000 times per hour for 24 hours, to the exclusion of all other activities. They had to be unhooked from the apparatus to prevent death by self-starvation. Pressing that lever became their entire world.
Many use busyness and distractions to escape their reality, to remove themselves from their suffering, and, simultaneously, from the suffering of the world. Thus unattended, the wounds never heal.
Only that life is worth living which develops the strength and the integrity to withstand the unavoidable sufferings and misfortunes of existence without flying into an imaginary world. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Is reality all that bad, or have we been made to believe it is?
Confucius found it rather sour. He believed that the present was out of step with the past, and that the only way to achieve harmony was through strict adherence to ancient rituals and ceremonies.
Buddha found it bitter and preached the doctrine of detachment as the path to bliss.
Lao Tzu, author of the Tao Te Ching, rejected labels altogether. When abstract and arbitrary rules were imposed on existence, he said, struggle was inevitable. Only then did life seem “sour” or “bitter”.
Writer Henry Miller said the word reality should not have a sinister and fatalistic ring. The man who is truly awake and completely alive, he said, is a man for whom reality will always be close to ecstasy.
But ecstasy, at root, means “standing outside oneself” which would put us back in an imaginary world. Perhaps Miller was referring to a feeling ofjoyful excitement, rooted in the reality of our ordinary world.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell said he didn’t think humans were necessarily seeking a meaning for life as much as an experience of being alive, so that our experiences on the physical plane (the world as it is) resonate with our innermost being and reality making us actually feel the rapture of being alive.
Both Miller and Campbell are pointing at feelings of intense joy.
Campbell went a step further and added “innermost being,” meaning eudaimonia: the process of living in accord with our essence and realizing our unique potential. Work done in accord with our essence and in service to a higher purpose will never feel like work.
We all would love to describe our careers like filmmaker William Herzog:
“A holiday is a necessity for someone whose work is an unchanged daily routine, but for me, everything is constantly fresh and always new. I love what I do, and my life feels like one long vacation.”
The slogans of the travel industry — escape, unwind, recharge — have no effect on a man like Herzog.
“It is a melancholy commentary upon the nature of our modern industrial system,” wrote John Cowper Powys, “that in any consideration of happiness we are compelled to leave what is called ‘work’ entirely out of our thoughts. There are few occupations left worthy of the self-respect of the human race. Happiness, [for most], whether manual slaves or mental slaves of the monstrous profit system, must be something snatched at in contemptuous independence of what they call ‘our life’s work.’”
Perhaps, this is why so many eagerly swallow the quack medicine peddled by the great persuaders. To alleviate the tedium and lack of higher purpose of most jobs which burns them out without ever having been on fire. They chase ‘spirits’ in the guise of alcohol, drugs, extreme sports, pornography, consumerism, and non-stop distractions to assuage the pain and ennui of a spiritless life. Or because they feel unworthy, seek specious validation from a crowd of virtual judges through their social media posts.
Dopamine, instead of eudaimonia.
Until you make peace with who you are, you’ll never be content with what you have. — Doris Mortman
The difference between who you are and what you have was thoroughly explored by social psychologist Erich Fromm in his book ‘The Art of Being.’
“The full humanization of man,“ he said, “requires the breakthrough from the possession-centered to the activity-centered orientation; from selfishness and egotism, to solidarity and altruism.”
Fromm was not advocating asceticism. Orientation toward “being” is not identical with “not-having.” He was, I suppose, simply echoing what Gandhi said decades before: “You do not have to renounce any of your possessions; you have to renounce the possessor.”
Three years ago, I did precisely that. Actually, went a step further and renounced most of my possessions and checked myself into spiritual rehab agreeing fully with Krishnamurti who said it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.
The symptoms of withdrawal, I discovered, were more acutely felt by society than by me. Strange, how little man belongs to himself, said Henry Miller, how much he is yet the community’s property. If one follows one’s own conscience, everybody objects.
The objections are the terrified squeals of the infernal machine that insists that if the gears stop spinning, the world will come to an end. That’s the whole purpose behind its manufactured distractions — to keep us from thinking for ourselves and follow our own drumbeat. It can’t afford to give us a minute to sit in quietude lest we begin to pick the lock of the illusory doors of our prison.
(If you’re still with me and have not once checked your phone, social media, or email, it means I am succeeding in slowly lifting the veil to reveal the fraud perpetrated by the Great Wizards).
Walking away is not the point. A new world is not made by trying to forget the old, said Miller. A new world is made with a new spirit, with new values.
The first step I took was examine the script I had been playing. I then edited-out the parts which did not resonate with my innermost being which kept me from feeling the rapture of being alive. I gave myself permission to be myself, so to speak.
Next, I thought hard on what exactly filled me with delight. In this domain, children have it licked, because, as modern-day philosopher Alain the Botton said, they don’t know what they are supposed to like and they don’t understand money, so price is never a guide of value to them. They have to rely instead on their own delight in the intrinsic merits of the things they’re presented with. It is easy to comprehend why Jesus said that theirs was the Kingdom of Heaven — the Kingdom, mind you, of the here and now.
Having once possessed the wealth many covet, I realized simpler pleasures yielded greater delight. I also discovered that while the quick-pulse intensity of a passionate life sounds alluring, it is short-lived and produces the same burnout than the one I felt working 14-hour days.
So I scratched-off the words “happiness” and “passion” from my script and replaced them with euthymia and ataraxia, Greek words for serenity and to describe a state where we abstain from unnecessary desires and achieve an inner tranquility by being content with simple things. I traded dopamine for serotonin, if you will; a glass of bubbly champagne for a cup of warm milk.
I have not lost wealth but distractions. The body’s needs are few: it wants to be free from cold, to banish hunger and thirst with nourishment; if we long for anything more we are exerting ourselves to serve our vices, not our needs. — Seneca
Once done writing my own code of values, I worked on placing my life in an eudaimonic state; the state of living in accord with my essence to actualize my unique potential. I knew I could write well and felt called to use that talent for a greater purpose than entertainment. I did not want to escape high-up to a mountain and, there, cut-off from society, indulge in navel-gazing, endless self-improvement, or self-righteous pontifications of what it is to live the ‘good life’. I wanted to share the saga of my trials and tribulations to recover the ancient purpose of entertainment, which, in Greek tragicomedy, held the audience together in shared suffering, or joy, or both, leading to catharsis.
I then looked around the world to find a need that could use my talents; something which made me shudder and lit a fire in my belly. That’s when I began writing The Hero in You.
Here’s the thing, though…
I’m either speaking an unintelligible language, or the world doesn’t want to listen to those coming between the distracted and the distractions. The infernal machine appears hell-bent in ostracizing those who rock the boat and will ensure that those who rebel quickly find themselves unable to survive.
Most days, I feel like a baker who has unearthed an ancient recipe for wholesome, nutritious bread, only to find the marketplace crowded with people gorging on Wonder Bread and Twinkies laced with listicles promising instant wellbeing, power, esteem, love, wealth, and approbation. While ancient grains are harder to digest, I promise they are better for you.
Bake Twinkies! many urge, and people will flock to your bread stand.
I admit I’ve been tempted, just like Christ was in the desert; Buddha under the Bodhi Tree.
(If I still have your attention, it means the rebellion stands a chance!)
In every prototypical hero’s journey, this is the moment when the hero faces the greatest test.
To be nobody-but-yourself — in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else — means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight. — E.E. Cummings
Because I am writing a book for boys meant to guide them towards a life of authenticity and purpose, I have no choice but to press on, come what may. I’ll keep stealing a minute of everyone’s time to find our way out of the madhouse.
Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.
Sometimes I find myself wishing the world would just stop.
Wishing someone would make all stoplights turn red; throw a monkey-wrench into the gears of the madly-spinning carousel with its panting, sweat-lathered horses; someone to yell “Freeze!” inside the circus tent suspending twirling trapeze artists in mid-air, cut the steam off the calliope, lift the needle off the blaring phonograph, flip-off the world’s main breaker switch plunging humanity into quietude.
Just for a while.
Let the phone and email go unanswered, the post and tweet ignored, the news unchecked, stocks untraded, the appointment missed, the meeting skipped. Let the mailman take the day off.
Just long enough for us to come together and figure out what the hell we’re doing.
After all, we do it to our kids.
“Go to your room and think about what you’ve done and don’t come out until you’ve found your ways and manners!”
It’s shameful, yet delightfully ironic, that kids are the ones now sending ‘adults’ to the corner.
Kids like fifteen year-old Greta Thunberg from Sweden, Jamie Margolin (17), founder of Zero Hour, thirteen year-old activist Alexandria Villasenor, co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike, Emma Gonzalez (19) and David Hogg (19), founders of the anti-gun violence group March for our Lives, etc.
“What have you done?” “What are you doing?” seem the questions they are posing to the generation in charge.
Shut up! You’re too young to know any better. We must keep spinning the carousel. If it stops, we’ll be catapulted and smashed to bits!
Sssh the sea says
Sssh the small waves at the
Shore say sssh
Not so violent, not
So haughty, not
Sssh. — Rolf Jacobsen
Would we, tough? Would we really be smashed into bits once we’ve recovered from our addictions? The world wouldn’t stop spinning, would it? Just the grindstone grating us to anxious dust.
Three years ago, I stepped off the carousel and turned-in my badge certifying me as an inmate of the insane carnival and took a time out. I’m happy to report I have never been more whole.
I had felt trapped inside a bullet train racing at breakneck speed to a destination fuzzily defined by its conductors as “progress” while the friction of wheels against rails shot heated sparks scorching the landscape outside. I looked out the window and realized I was missing sunsets, cloudscapes, starlight, moonrises, dragonflies, the sea’s soundprint inside seashells…and my time was running out.
Inside the train I kept hearing outrage, gunshots, screams, groans of despair, and hollow laughter. I saw burnt out grownups in endless shifts shoveling coal into the train’s insatiable furnace and children with terror in their eyes.
When I asked the train conductors to explain what exactly they meant by “progress,” they scoffed.
“Why, a better life, of course. You fool!”
When pressed for clarity, they said things like “growth, immortality, abundance, eternal happiness, immutability, and absolute power and control.”
I knew I had to step out.
Long had I bought-in to these stories. Actually contributed to their dizzying incantations, convinced that if we stopped spinning the tales, the skein would unravel.
It took me a while to detox and become centered.
When you spin in place a hundred times and suddenly stop, unless you’re a whirling dervish, it takes a while to regain your footing. You’re off-balance and disoriented, mostly guilt-ridden for not contributing coal to the furnace.
Immortality, Immutability, Eternal Happiness, Absolute Power and Control…
Like a silkworm, I’ve been munching on the mulberry leaves of these insane notions trying to come up with better silk, such as “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,” or “an organism at war with itself is doomed,” or “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society,” or, “what shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?” Truths spoken by Gandhi, Carl Sagan, Krishnamurti, and Jesus — the bees of our world, in epic battle against the locusts.
I’m writing my way into their hive, offering my talents to stop the bullet train before it’s too late.
Perhaps it is…
I confess there are days when I lose heart. Days when I just want to throw up my hands in defeat, move to an island in the South Pacific, and there, lulled by the waves’ whispers, wait for Armageddon while enjoying what little remains of this once paradisiacal little blue planet while the locusts finish it off.
What stops me are the children.
I do not wish to come out empty handed from my time out and face their opprobrium.
“What have you done with the garden that was entrusted to you?” asked poet Antonio Machado.
I want to answer Machado with something other than dead flowers, withered petals, yellow leaves, despair, death, and devastation.
My time out has allowed me to discover it is not so much a matter of writing alternative stories but simply harmonizing with the magnificent score written in the cosmos at the moment of the Big Bang fifteen billion years ago. We’re just playing off beat and out of tune.
We demand immutability from a Universe in a state of constant fluidity and change.
We deride and reject balance and pursue growth for the sake of growth which is the ideology of the cancer cell.
We consume way beyond our needs to distract ourselves from facing the gaping holes in our hearts.
We rail against decay and death, forgetting the Universe’s Second Law of Thermodynamics necessary for new life to emerge.
We forget we all came from stardust; that we all share the same constituent parts and then dare see diversity as ‘the Other.’
Inside the bullet-train, in self-imposed exile from Earth, we consider her not as a living organism that sustains us, but as a giant glittering mall, inexhaustible supermarket, and massive dump-ground for our waste.
In such disharmony, many still wonder why they remain so afraid, depressed, distressed, burned-out, insecure, and soul-starved.
But they keep shoveling coal into the furnace; spinning the carousel while seeking endless distractions and swallowing magic pills to prevent them from looking inside and out the window and realize what they’ve done and keep doing. Meanwhile, children gaze with terror in their eyes sensing the solid wall awaiting the train in the not-too-distant future and they can’t get out.
For now, it seems the Locusts are winning, but
and you’ll hear the growing buzz of bees.
An era can be considered over when its basic illusions have been exhausted, said playwright Arthur Miller.
The Age of the Locusts is almost over. But they won’t give up without an epic fight.
This is not a cosmic battle of Good vs Evil. Simply a clash of bad imagination vs one that speaks the language of sustainability, balance, harmony, serenity, tolerance, awe, wonder, and delight.
It is the language of bees, and I have now joined their legion.
My book, The Hero in You, is the nectar I intend to pass on to younger ones for them to turn into wax and honey to gum up the wheels of the bullet train until it comes to rest giving the world an urgent time out.
The Universe doesn’t give second chances.
Follow the Bees and receive a free treasure trove of letters containing the insight of some of the world’s greatest writers and thinkers with my recipes for applying their wisdom to your own life.
Things are not working out. This shit’s too hard. I’m giving up. The odds are stacked against me. Life’s not fair…
Writing ‘The Hero in You’ is beginning to feel like a conversation with myself. I now understand what Ursula Le Gwinn meant when saying that storytelling is a tool for knowing who we are and what we want.
More than a conversation unspooling in story, it’s like an extended, revelatory life-coaching session; like having a one-on-one with Obi Wan Kenobi, the legendary Jedi Master in ‘Star Wars’ training young Luke Skywalker in the ways of the Force.
It doesn’t feel like a book for just boys anymore but one with the potential to transform the lives of men and women; young and old alike. It’s certainly changing the life of an aspiring writer fast approaching sixty.
Take adversity for example…that bitter lemon of life.
I began the book four months ago. With still no income in sight, a small pension claimed by old debts, and credit cards maxing-out, it felt like one more reckless decision. Irresponsible! Especially in light of the slew of rejections to my Memoir assailing my inbox like a storm of jagged hailstones. After two years with little to show, starting another project seemed as futile as plowing the sea.
“How about a ‘real’ job, Dad?” my daughters counseled.
I was smack inside the Inmost Cave; the edge between life and death found on every hero’s journey; the darkest hour where the hero must face his greatest fears. Think of Dorothy walking into Oz’ throne-room and facing the giant head of an angry old man surrounded by flames, smoke, and thunder; where the mighty Wizard says he’s prepared to grant Dorothy her wish but imposes seemingly impossible tests in hopes that she will desist.
I keep reminding myself I’ve been in worse financial situations before, and still here, now doing what I believe I was meant to all my life.
If this is not a real job, why does it feel so right?
J.K. Rowling was unemployed, divorced and raising a daughter on social security while writing the first Harry Potter novel. After Sidney Poitier’s first audition, the casting director instructed him to just stop wasting everyone’s time and “go be a dishwasher or something.” Poitier went on to win an Academy Award.
Sometimes in life, situations develop that only the half-crazy can get out of. — French philosopher La Rochefoucauld.
In a way, I am still inside the cave, quivering with my greatest fears: losing face with those I love — my two daughters and my partner — and the fear of a final deathblow to my lifelong dream of becoming an author stirring uncertainty of what I’d do if I fail. Add to the mix the fear of reaching the end of my life without meaningful impact…I do not want to be someone who ends up simply having visited the world.
Life’s bitter lemons…
More like first-world laments I’ve realized as I sift through hundreds of stories of real-life heroes for my book and finding astounding examples of ordinary people who turned much bitter ones into lemonade.
Some, literally, like Alexandra Scott who two days before her first birthday was diagnosed with cancer. When she was four, having just finished receiving experimental treatment at Connecticut’s Medical Center, she told her parents she wanted to set up a lemonade stand and give the money she raised to her doctors. That first stand raised $2,000.
In the next four years, inspiring hundreds of supporters who set up lemonade stands throughout the country, ‘Alex’ raised a total of $1 million for childhood cancer research. She died at the age of eight, yet her cause lives on through the Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation.
William was born in Malawi, Africa. He was the only boy among six girls in his family living in a mud and brick shack with no electricity. He was a simple farmer in a country of poor farmers.
When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, all Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate one meal per day. His father could not continue paying for his education so William dropped out of school.
“It was a future I could not accept,” William said.
Hungry all the time, with little education, poor English, and no computer or access to the internet, William spent months inside a rickety library pouring through outdated magazines and books learning all he could about physics and electricity. He dreamed of building a windmill to power a pump which would draw water from a well to irrigate their fields.
Armed with that knowledge, William scavenged through a nearby junkyard and finally convinced his father to surrender his only bicycle whose frame was needed to build the contraption. William eventually erected his windmill and saved the day.
Talk about bitter lemons turned into lifesaving lemonade!
What about Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a frail and poor farming boy in 14th Century Japan?
Hideyoshi was short (about five feet tall), weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was butt ugly and unathletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him an ape-like appearance resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.
This “monkey” squeezed all the daunting lemons of his physical ‘limitations’ and ‘disadvantaged’ beginnings into practical wisdom which ultimately put an end to Japan’s Age of the Warring States and made him supreme leader!
He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.
Alexandra Scott, William Kamkwamba, and Hideyoshi are among the real-life heroes featured in my book as examples to young boys who might feel overwhelmed by seemingly insurmountable odds to do something meaningful with their lives. I reassure them they do not need superpowers to break through the prison of their limitations. I then guide them — like Obi Wan — to tap the Life Forces they already possess to write their own hero story. It doesn’t have to be something extraordinary, I tell them…
“Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”
My extensive research has also led me to author Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, someone much closer to my — and every writer’s experience.
In his late thirties, armed police dragged Ngugi from his home and jailed him in Kenya’s Kamĩtĩ Maximum Security Prison for having written a play critical of the government. While in prison, he wrote ‘Devil on the Cross’on toilet paper.
“The paper we were given was not the soft kind we find on television,” he says. “It was a bit hard, a bit rough, so to speak, but very good writing material. It held the pen very well.”
A recipient of the Nonino International Prize for his work, Ngugi has also been nominated several times for the Nobel Prize in literature. As for that elusive prize, Ngugi says he is more interested in what he calls “the Nobel of the Heart.”
If Ngugi was capable of squeezing such nasty lemons onto toilet paper and inspire the world with his noble work, what’s my excuse?
In Spanish (my mother tongue) we have a word for such work:
‘Ofrenda’ is work offered in gratitude, love, and service to others; work dedicated to a noble cause. That’s how I consider my work on The Hero in You.
Rightly shamed by all these ordinary heroes, I am done with my first-world laments!
While still in the cave, like Dorothy, I will defy my fears and will not desist. I will see this to the end.
Failure is an option, fear is not. — James Cameron
When overwhelmed by the stacks of books and publications I must research, I attack them with a Warrior’s sword and a Lover’s heart. I remind myself that, while strapped for cash, I have found purposeful work; that sweet spot Aristotle said is found at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world. Further, I am loved and am loved in return by three extraordinary women. I possess the wealth of kings. I ask for no more.
Finally, I’m committed to help as many young boys enter the path of authentic, generative manhood and won’t let them down. I consider this cause to be of supreme importance to the world.
Will my book be a hit? Will it make me money? Will I be famous? Wrong questions.
If I can stop one Heart from breaking
I shall not live in vain
If I can ease one Life the Aching
Or cool one Pain
Or help one fainting Robin
Unto his Nest again
I shall not live in Vain. — Emily Dickinson
“No difficulty can discourage, no obstacle dismay, no trouble dishearten the man who has acquired the art of being alive,” wrote Ella Wheeler Wilcox. “Difficulties are but dares of fate, obstacles but hurdles to try his skill, troubles but bitter tonics to give him strength; and he rises higher and looms greater after each encounter with adversity.”
Sweet are the fruits of adversity. — William Shakespeare
From now on, I promise to spare you my first-world laments and let my book inspire you.
Whether you support its cause or don’t, I am rewarded by believing its footprint will guide you on your own hero’s journey.
Inspired already? Then be a hero. Champion the book! CLICK HERE.
The following is part of a series of pieces included in ‘The Hero in You’: my book for boys (8–12) meant to guide them toward authentic, generative manhood.
(…continued from previous chapter)
Jane Goodall did not let her lack of knowledge of chimpanzees stop her from going to Africa to follow her dream. Once there, she used her imagination to study their behavior in a new way.
She started by doing something no one had ever done before. Instead of identifying the chimps with numbers, she gave them names based on their appearance or personality. For example, Jane gave the name of ‘David Greybeard’ to the chimpanzee who first approached her because he had a grey chin. Other names included Gigi, Mr. McGregor, Flo, Frodo, Goliath, and Mike.
It is the story of Goliath and Mike which reminds me of my early days at school.
Chimpanzees live in groups of several adult males and females plus young of all ages. In every group there is always one adult male who is dominant. Scientists call him the ‘Alpha male’ — the biggest and strongest. You might call him a ‘tough guy’ or ‘Jock.’
When Jane studied the group, the alpha male was Goliath who intimidated all the other males with his size and strength, especially poor Mike, a much smaller chimpanzee, and one of the lowest ranking males. Mike would often sit all by himself (as I used to at my school’s playground) and get attacked by other males. He was usually the last one to get food and would only eat after all the other males had done so.
But then, something extraordinary happened.
One day, Mike walked over to Jane’s camp and took two large empty cans by their handles. Carrying those two cans, he walked over to the place he’d been before, close to the other chimps. He started rocking back and forth, at first only slightly, but then more and more vigorously. The other chimps noticed this and started to watch him carefully. Mike began to make hooting sounds, and, suddenly, charged towards the place where the other males were sitting, running fast and hitting the two cans in front of him. When he approached, the other males ran away from him.
Mike ran into the jungle and disappeared from sight, but in a few minutes, he came back, making a lot of noise and hitting the cans. Once again, he charged the other males and, once again, they ran away from him.
Then he made a big decision. Mike decided to confront Goliath who was sitting by himself. He ran towards him, hitting the cans and hooting so loud even Goliath got out of his way.
Male chimpanzees show their submission to their more powerful buddies by grunting and reaching out their hands. Mike’s magic trick with the cans convinced the others, except Goliath, of his superiority. At that moment, all the other male chimps came up to Mike, grunting and reaching out their hands, and then grooming him. Grooming involves removing dirt, sticks, leaves, dried skin, and bugs from the hair of another chimpanzee. The last male chimp to do so was David Greybeard, who, until then, was Goliath’s closest buddy. Only Goliath remained apart.
The match was now set for a final round: Mike vs. Goliath. Whoever won this epic showdown would become the alpha male. The final faceoff came one day after Goliath returned from patrol in the southern parts of the group’s territory.
When Goliath and Mike faced off, both tried to outdo each other with their displays. Mike kept the cans in motion by rolling them across the ground making lots of noise. Goliath used his strength, going after and beating up some of the younger chimps to show who was boss.
After Mike and Goliath were done with their wild shenanigans, they stopped, sat on the ground, and nervously eyed each other. Suddenly, Goliath walked slowly over to Mike and began to grunt and groom him. Mike enjoyed this for a while, then turned around and started grooming Goliath. Mike was now the undisputed alpha male of the group!
You should know that during the entire showdown, Mike and Goliath never touched or hit each other. Each tried to overcome the other just through intimidation, which basically means frightening someone until they surrender. A staring contest is a good example.
Mike overcame his limitations, not by going to the gym to get stronger, not by learning karate or kickboxing, but by using the strength he already had: the assertive powers of his brain and imagination.
I am not suggesting the next time you go to school, you carry two large empty cans and start hooting and hollering while banging and pushing the cans across the playground to get noticed. That’d be weird, and probably make you spend recess inside the Principal’s office. All I’m saying is that you need to discover your unique strengths and talents and use them to occupy your place in the world.
Mike could have done many other things: he could’ve tried to fight Goliath, but you and I know how that would’ve ended. Mike could’ve also tried to beat-up his buddies, but being the weakest in the group, that would’ve ended badly as well. Instead, Mike discovered something unique in himself and used it to his advantage.
And that, my dear boy, is the difference between being aggressive and being assertive; between being strong and being smart; between exercising your body or using your brain.
When you are assertive, like Mike, people will respect you. Maybe they’ll even remove dirt and bugs from your hair. When you are aggressive, like Goliath, people will fear you, but will not respect you. What would you rather be: respected or feared?
Assertiveness, or gentle fierceness, is speaking-up for what you need and want but always with respect…always in control of your emotions. We’ll talk more about this later.
In the meantime, let me tell you another “monkey story.”
This is from another one of my heroes. His name was Hideyoshi, and he was born in Japan in 1536 to a poor farming family. His story will teach you many priceless lessons, especially how to turn personal disadvantages into advantages…how to turn lemons into lemonade.
Hideyoshi was short, about five feet tall. He weighed 110 pounds, had stooped shoulders, was really ugly and wasn’t athletic. His oversize ears, oversize head, sunken eyes, tiny body, and red, wrinkled face gave him the appearance of an ape resulting in most everyone calling him “monkey” throughout his life.
He was the ‘Mike’ of the previous story.
Most people today would think there was no way someone like Hideyoshi could have succeeded in life.
They’d be wrong.
Hideyoshi grew up at a time when the only choices for a poor peasant to move ahead were to become a priest, or a warrior or samurai. It was the Age of the Warring States in Japan, a period of social upheaval and near-constant military conflict. It was a mess. If you live in the United States, imagine your state in constant war against your neighboring state. This period of unrest in Japan lasted more than a century.
The samurai were the warriors of premodern Japan. Samurai employed a range of weapons such as bows and arrows, spears and guns, but their main weapon and symbol was the sword. Samurai led their lives according to a set of rules, or ethic code, called bushido: the way of the warrior.
Hideyoshi was not only puny but clumsy at martial arts but he still dreamt of becoming a samurai. Eventually, he rose to the top, unified his country, and became its supreme ruler. He is perhaps history’s greatest underdog story.
How did he do it, and what can you learn from him?
(to be continued…)
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“A young animal kept too long in a cage will not be able to survive in the wild. When you open the door, it will be afraid to go out; if it does go out, it won’t know what to do because the world has become unfamiliar, an alien place.” – From On the Wildness of Children, by Carol Black
From sanitized playgrounds, to eerily quiet streets after school, to trigger warnings on college campuses designed to ‘protect’ our youth from words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense, we are raising a generation of children who won’t know what to do once released from their ‘safe’ cages into the real world.
No surprise 18-to 34 year olds are less likely to be living independently than they were in the depths of the Great Recession, or that many are choosing to isolate themselves in virtual worlds where they have greater control over outcomes.
“Child-rearing has gone from harm prevention to risk elimination,” says millennial author Malcolm Harris. “In the shadow of [the current] high-stakes rat-race, it’s no longer enough to graduate a kid from high school in one piece; if an American parent wants to give their child a chance at success, they can’t take any chances. In a reversal of the traditional ideas of childhood, it’s no longer a time to make mistakes; now it’s when bad choices have the biggest impact.”
The road to hell is paved with good intentions.
What many scared, but otherwise well-intentioned parents don’t realize is that the world today is changing at a dizzying speed which will require adaptability and survival skills only those exposed to danger and uncertainty can develop.
Disruptive technologies, the likes of Airbnb, Uber, cryptocurrencies, 3-D printers, etc., are upending traditional industries at a breakneck pace. Today’s knowledge will most probably be obsolete in a decade. Survival will not be of the fittest but the ‘unfittest’: those who do not fit in or fill traditional boxes. The prize will be to those who imagine and create new boxes.
Such creativity is only nurtured by experimentation…by courageous trial and error. What is to give light must endure burning, said concentration camp survivor Viktor Frankl.
Sheltered and coddled children grow up with little resilience, they give up before they try, are incapable of finding solutions to their own problems, and are not inventive or self-reliant.
Carol Black points out that an ‘uneducated’ person in the highlands of Papua New Guinea can recognize seventy species of birds by their songs. An ‘illiterate’ shaman in the Amazon can identify hundreds of medicinal plants. An Aboriginal person from Australia carries in his memory a map of the land, encoded in song, that extends for a thousand miles. But to know the world, you have to live in the world.
Most children today can’t find their way back home from school without a GPS. They are no longer allowed to live in the world; not the real one at least. No wonder they’re scared of it, or unstimulated by it when compared to the variety and intensity of the virtual worlds they now inhabit.
But the real world cannot be controlled by a joystick or mousepad – it is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ You can’t pause life like a video game and there are no do-overs.
A few, like Caroline (5) and Leia Carrico (8), are fortunate their parents understand the value of exposing them to managed risk and danger. Having received wilderness survival training, they recently survived forty-four hours on their own after getting lost in a heavily-forested area in Humboldt County, CA.
“A free child outdoors will learn the flat stones the crayfish hide under, the still shady pools where the big trout rest, the rocky slopes where the wild berries grow. They will learn the patterns in the waves, which tree branches will bear their weight, which twigs will catch fire, which plants have thorns.” – Carol Black
“In the real world, life is filled with risks—financial, physical, emotional, social—and reasonable risks are essential for children’s healthy development,” says Joe Frost, an influential playground safety consultant. At the core of our safety obsession, adds Tim Gill, author of No Fear, is the idea that children are too fragile or unintelligent to assess the risk of any given situation.
I give children more credit, and in my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I include this poem by the inimitable rascal and mystic Rumi:
Your old grandmother says,
“Maybe you shouldn’t go to school.
You look a little pale.”
Run when you hear that.A father’s stern slaps are better.
Your bodily soul wants comforting.
The severe father wants spiritual clarity.
He scolds, but eventuallyleads you into the open.
Pray for a tough instructor.
Encouraging and guiding them toward their own heroic journey, I present boys with the value of courage – halfway between timidity and recklessness. I tell them to take risks but with prudence, and to embrace discomfort to achieve mastery and to challenge their convictions.
I do not comfort but challenge them.
Parents who wish to continue sheltering their sons from the real world will do well to keep my ‘dangerous’ book away from them.
Read the companion piece ‘Awakening your Wild Man’: a message to Men, and for women who yearn for the return of the Fierce Gentleman (paywall).
Although everything we love, can, and likely will be taken from us, the radiant vestiges those loves leave in the soul are permanently ours, and the only permanence we’ll ever know. – Maria Popova
Maria’s words ring in my mind as I sit by my father’s bedside at the hospital after returning from California where I spent Christmas and New Year’s with my daughters. It was on the eve of the new year that I jotted down the first lessons from the stars.
Dad broke his neck before I left, and now lies helpless, fed through a tube, and breathing through an oozing hole in his trachea. Not the way he wanted his story to end; his life- force sputtering in a sterile room flooded with ghostly light, the stench of urine, and the bedeviling sound of monitors displaying the flattening line-graphs of his vitals.
I am glad the Universe foiled my early plan to move to Mexico, and, instead, cast me to his side where I have been for two years. Glad, because such twist of fate allowed me to know my father deeply and prompted me to capture a vivid snapshot of his unconventional life inside the amber of my Memoir.
In ancient Egypt, to be forgotten was one of the worst fates the soul of the deceased could suffer.
Like a town-crier, Dad has been predicting his death for longer than a decade. From the marks of agony and despair furrowing his countenance right now, I am certain there will be no escape this time.
A few years ago, in response to yet another email predicting his near demise and raging at the prospect, I told him to: “Rage, rage for sure, but not about your dying light. Rage against it not blazing as does a star during the final spasms of its annihilation, its self-devouring. Rouse that inner energy to exit the stage in one radiant burst…a luminous climax. Like a Supernova, there are surely some elements you can scatter as you implode.”
In Part One of this Series, I talk about the gifts bestowed by giant stars when they die in a Supernova explosion. The elements in your body, the billions of neurons in your brain firing your thoughts and imagination, all the life-beats of your heart – all the stuff which makes you, you – shaped by the atoms scattered during a giant star’s final act.
Your aims in life, the intensity of your desires, the might of your struggles, and the impact you have on those you encounter on your path will determine whether you blaze like a Supernova, shine like the Sun, or end up like a brown dwarf – halfway between a planet and a star – whose mass, or life-force, is insufficient to spark thermonuclear fusion.
“Death should not concern us,” said Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore. “Death is concerned only with our self and not with this world. The world never loses an atom; it is our self which suffers. Men wish for permanence and not perfection. They forget that the true meaning of living is outliving; it is ever growing out of itself.”
Play it safe, snug in your cocoon, and your life will follow the path of a brown dwarf. Dare to risk everything to fulfill your unique destiny and you’ll shine like a star, a giant one perhaps, even if you fail.
Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage. God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts, must become butterflies. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere that is filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks! – Nikos Kazantzakis
With a nauseating gurgle, a nurse draws brown gunk from my father’s trachea as I keep replaying his life which blazed like a candle lit at both ends until the age I am now, but with a dimmer spirit thereafter. What caused such diminishment, such ebbing of the flame? I wonder. Rather than defying the First Cause, it’s as if he had made a pact with it to stop overdrawing his bow for fear it would break. Perhaps the frenzy of his early years swirling in the chaos of manic-depression had exhausted him and made him seek solace, ensconced for three decades in the quietude surrounding his property tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, there to live the remainder of his life undisturbed, released from the messy and often distressing entanglements to which a human life is subject.
While I willingly accept the inevitable price paid with the currency of anxiety, stress, heartache, and ultimate loss for remaining entwined with the world and the people I love, I have no problem with anyone wanting to live a quiet, simple life. In fact, I am on this path myself, seeking that sweet spot between being in this world, but sufficiently removed from it to avoid being drowned by the currents of its meaningless agitation. In other words, in this world, but not of it.
Ancient Chinese culture revered the yinshi, the recluse, who chose to leave the world behind to live more simply. “The tradition,” says philosopher Alain de Botton, “began in the 4th century AD, when a high-ranking government official named Tao Yuanming surrendered his position at court and moved to the countryside to farm the land, make wine, and write.”
Yuanming explains why:
It was in my nature to love the hills and mountains. Mindlessly I was caught in the dust-filled trap. Waking up, thirty years had gone. The caged bird wants the old trees and air. Fish in their pool miss the ancient stream. I plough the earth at the edge of South Moor. Keeping life simple, return to my plot and garden… Too long a prisoner, captive in a cage, Now I can get back again to Nature.
Like a flying fish, Tao Yuanming leapt out of safe waters and entered a more ethereal atmosphere. Yet, despite living the life of a recluse, he left behind his poems, gifting us with a renewed sense of wonder and enchantment with the natural world.
Most of us will never be Superstars like Yuanming, or Christ or Buddha; giants whose bursts of creative and purifying light still shine on us today. But I see no reason why we can’t emulate our neighboring star, the Sun, choosing a smaller arena on which to pour the gifts of our unique talents; bending our bow to the breaking point for a cause in which we believe, and shedding joy, warmth, light and love to the living beings in our immediate orbit. It does not have to be something spectacular to be meaningful; a poem, a mended heart, or restored patch of Earth will do.
If I can stop one heart from breaking, I shall not live in vain; If I can ease one life the aching, Or cool one pain, Or help one fainting robin Unto his nest again, I shall not live in vain. – Emily Dickinson
As I see Dad’s haunted and fearful glance fixed on the white wall of his hospital room, Dickinson’s poem reminds me of the time I visited him in New England as he and his wife scouted the area for their permanent move. He had booked two rooms at a shabby roadside motel, and on one of those early, cold winter mornings, I heard a knock on my door. At its threshold, Dad balanced a pink cardboard box on one hand and held a steaming cup on the other. “I brought you donuts and coffee,” he said, as he walked in.
Years later, I came upon a poem by Robert Hayden whose last stanza echoes in my mind every time I recall the tender memory:
Sundays too my father got up early and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold, then with cracked hands that ached from labor in the weekday weather made banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking. When the rooms were warm, he’d call, and slowly I would rise and dress, fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him, who had driven out the cold and polished my good shoes as well. What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices?
To most, my father’s donut-and-coffee gesture might not sound extraordinary, but given his austere nature and meager displays of affection, the light and warmth he brought into my room that morning touched me to the core and still brings tears to my eyes when recalled. He became the Sun, and his offering will remain like those radiant vestiges Maria speaks about; permanently mine, never forgotten.
Equally touched were the lives of his grandchildren, leaving behind these indelible soulprints evoked by memory and rendered in their voices:
“You’re the only grandpa I ever had in my life but the only one I ever needed. You taught me how to fish and possess the coolest man cave I have ever come across.”
“Catching my first fish together which we later skinned and cooked, spending countless hours mesmerized by all the trinkets in your dungeon, the walks with you, whether on a late winter afternoon or summer day…such memories only ever remain so perfectly clear when they have meant something truly special to your life.”
“You fostered my intellectual curiosity and love of a good yarn. I can’t tell you where I’d be without these two qualities, but I know my life would be much smaller.”
“I like to think I get my sense of adventure from you.”
“I think back to the stories you told me about being in the army and how you used to eat light bulbs and put soap under your feet to make yourself pass out. To me, you are and always will be Indiana Jones, Dirty Harry, John Wayne, Han Solo, and every other action hero, adventurer, and explorer.”
“It is difficult to place into words the impact you have had on me. Through good and bad there has always been an adventure! Adventure of pretending to trek through the jungle or explore the deserts of New Mexico. For any kid, it would have been just another day, but it was you and your imagination that helped transport me to some of the most cherished memories I have.”
“You taught me to spot birds, about forests and streams, knives, and kindling fire with nothing but flint. Your stories made my imagination whirl, from carving ‘Pinocchio’ with broken glass shards, to catching monkeys with coconut shells down in Panama. In my boyish mind, you were the embodiment of a dream boyhood. Part pirate, part cowboy, part rock-star, part soldier, part grandfather. You were tough as nails, dressed the part, and encouraged an unquenchable curiosity (if not a bit of rebellion) which made my heart and imagination soar.”
Alex Haley was right in saying grandparents sprinkle stardust over the lives of little children.
I place a cold, wet cloth on Dad’s forehead, slide the thin covers of his hospital bed up to his shoulders, hold his hand, and watch him fall asleep.
Once his light is out, I will be next in line.
“Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death,” wrote philosopher Stephen Cave. “You can only know the moments in between; the moments that make up your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is, or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.”
We are on this Earth but briefly, I mumble, as I turn off the overhead light and walk out. There really is no time for anything but meaningful acts if we live with death as our eternal companion.
It struck me with the blunt force of a battering ram at the dawn of a new year.
I had spent the previous evening observing the stars and rose early, newly energized by the lessons I’d distilled from the universe.
After an agonizing month’s lull, I was ready to write again. But what? The first two volumes of my Memoir lay dead amid the stacks of unread or rejected manuscripts towering on the desks of over one hundred literary agents. Writing the third and fourth one seemed pointless, for now.
Yet dark, I tiptoed to the kitchen to brew coffee. Not a stir inside my daughter’s farmhouse nestled in California’s wine country. Even Hank and Norman, her two cats, and her dogs, Benji and Clover, lay asleep.
Can’t give up! I told myself. Not after all you’ve sacrificed. Remember the wisdom of the stars: The more urgent the call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Ram through it!
Back in November, I wrote a series of articles about my writing process. In the third installment, I said I used what I know, to write toward what I want to know, believing it shed light on all the darkness blighting our world.
But is it enough?
At critical moments in history, aren’t artists supposed to cease picking lint from their navels or entertaining crowds, and throw themselves into the world’s bloody arena, there to wage war with their pens and help remedy some of the things that make them shudder?
Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder. — Leon Kass
I sat at the kitchen table and opened my laptop.
When I’m stumped, I pore over my treasure trove of quotes and poems I’ve collected over a decade. Stuff which makes my soul stir…clarion calls to my inner-warrior.
As the sun crested over the hills, I stumbled upon this, written by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”
It struck me with shattering force.
For the past two years, temporarily encamped at my father’s house tucked in a Northeast swath of wilderness, I’ve been researching the issue of masculinity. I’ve traced some of the world’s most brutal atrocities back to men who suffered major trauma when young. I’ve raised my voice against mass shootings, calling attention to the fact that most have been perpetrated by young men who were also wounded as children. I’ve connected the scourge of climate change to men enthralled with the myth of progress and driven by the imperative to transcend nature.
These things make me shudder.
But is it enough? I repeated the question on that brightening New Year’s morning.
What if instead of casting my unconventional ideas out in cyberspace hoping to catch the attention of those adults with the power to effect change, I spoke directly to young boys? Boys who are growing up in a time when traditional roles for men are shrinking; with a purpose void, as said Warren Farrell and John Gray in ‘The Boy Crisis.’ Boys who instead of useful guidance, are presented with confusing, and often toxic images of masculinity and with false promises and false heroes.
The battle cry that awoke my inner-warrior was sounded by abolitionist Frederick Douglass who said it is easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. — African Proverb
Many villages are burning now.
I imagined myself an elder of a primal tribe tasked with initiating young boys into true, nurturing, and fruitful men. Pictured myself at a campfire huddled with a group of these future men — eyes hopeful, ears eager — listening attentively as I spoke.
“The world needs you,” I’d first tell them.
As the rising sun warmed the dew-clad vines and stirred Hank, Norman, Benji, and Clover awake, I began to write The Hero in You, thrilled with the idea that my message, directly addressed to our disoriented boys, might just be enough to prevent one mass shooting, one great calamity, or begin to heal our planet.
As a writer, I cannot think of a better use for my time and talent.
To my surprise, just two days after launching the book’s Facebook page, more than a hundred people rallied in support.
What they teach us about adversity and our destiny
“Your own life, timid and standing high and growing,
So that, sometimes blocked in, sometimes reaching out,
One moment your life is a stone in you, and the next, a star.”
Rainer Maria Rilke’s words resonated in my mind as I looked up at the night’s sky on New Year’s Eve. Standing on a small wooden deck at my daughter’s farmhouse set on a vineyard in Northern California, the relative absence of light pollution allowed a clear view to an arching parade of constellated stars against a backdrop of lightdust spangled on the black sky-vault with openhanded extravagance. A brisk wind soughed somber as it combed the charcoal outline of a barren apple orchard and moaned across the wires holding the scraggly branches of vines.
I felt blocked-in; had written little in the past month, and feared I had done something to upset Polyhymnia, the Muse of eloquence, to the point of never again being favored by her gift. My life felt like a stone in me, pressing down on my embryonic aspiration to become a writer with a massive weight of implacable resistance. I panicked, wondering what would become of me should I never recover the power of my creativity. I was about to turn 57, relatively penniless, and had just received the thirty-third rejection to my Memoir. Like the horn of a Ram, I was wound tight in a Gordian-knot of anxiety and flailed in the searing soup of my laments while the stars looked down on me with frosty indifference.
Fixing my gaze on the constellation of Orion, I spotted Betelgeuse, the supergiant star pinpointing one of the shoulders of this giant hunter. At six hundred times the Sun’s radius, Betelgeuse is one of the brightest stars in our galaxy. Trailing behind were the constellations of Canis Major and Canis Minor: Orion’s hunting dogs. The former contains Sirius, the largest and brightest star ever discovered, and a billion times bigger than our Sun. In our Milky Way galaxy alone, there are over two hundred billion stars; there are over one hundred billion galaxies in the observable universe. There are more stars than grains of sand on Earth.
Such sublime and staggering scale made my human tribulations seemed petty in cosmic terms. I had to laugh, feeling akin to Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa who once mocked his own trivial distress by recognizing he was shipwrecked beneath a stormless sky in a sea shallow enough to stand up in.
How true, I thought, what psychologist James Hillman said, that it is not our stories which affect us, as much as the way we choose to recount them. We often dull our lives, he said, by the way we conceive it. We should never accept that we are only the effect of the blows of hereditary and social forces. Otherwise we are reduced to only a result; our biography becomes that of a victim — the flip side of the hero.
Awe,humility, and perspective were the first lessons I learned on the eve of the new year.
It was good to know my affliction had less weight than a grain of sand, but not enough to dispel my anxiety and rouse me from my creative rut. I needed to read deeper into the night sky to wrest more practical wisdom from the stars.
From what my father had taught me about the cosmos when I was a young boy, I remembered that close to Orion’s sword is the famous Orion Nebula.
Stars begin their journey inside clouds of dust and gas called nebulas: a star nursery where millions of new stars are born. Turbulence deep within these clouds gives rise to knots with sufficient mass that the gas and dust begin to collapse under their own gravitational attraction. I equated turbulence with the excitement I felt writing my first stories when I was eight years old, and thought of the gravitational attraction as the allurement of love; Eros, or ardent desire, calling me onto the path of an artist.
As the stellar cloud collapses, the material at the center begins to heat up. Known as a protostar, it is this hot core that will one day become a star. If a protostar forms with insufficient mass, it will not burn hot enough for thermonuclear fusion to begin and will end its journey as a brown dwarf, halfway between a planet and a star. Was I destined, I wondered, for such an unimpressive fate?
Stars are fueled by the nuclear fusion of hydrogen which forms helium deep in their interiors. Every second, fusion at the core of a star generates the explosive force of a billion nuclear bombs. The reason it doesn’t blow apart is due to the dynamic standoff between Gravity, which wants to crush the star, and the energy of the fusion process that wants to blow the star apart. And that tension, that balancing act, creates a star, and keeps it creating heat and light.
What hydrogen is for stars, our deepest desires are the fuel only we can transform into light. If our desire is too weak, we will not burn hot enough, sharing the fate of a failed, brown dwarf star.
But having a desire (to be a writer, to heal the sick or the planet, to fight injustice or alleviate hunger, etc.) is not enough. The first dynamic of the Universe is resistance. The existence of stars arises out of the constraints placed upon the energy of its fusion process, i.e., its desire. If they could continue without meeting resistance (Gravity), no star would ever emerge. Mountains are formed by this same dynamic process. Fifty million years ago, the robust resistance of the Eurasian plate pushing against the colliding Indian subcontinent crowned the Earth with its highest tectonic achievement: Mt. Everest.
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies —
I recalled Emily Dickinson’s poem as I heard a flock of sheep bleating in the distance and the clang of tiny bells as they huddled closer together for warmth.
Two years ago, I thought I heard a call bell for me to rise; to move out of my humdrum existence and move towards a life of greater intensity. Fueled by my desire to give voice to my personal cosmology through writing, I shed my previous life and slid towards a new adventure like a snake sheds its scaly envelope to allow for further growth. Ever since, the resistance pushing against my desire has been formidable. I mentioned this to a stranger with whom I crossed paths on the first part of my journey on Mexico’s Pacific shore. He said the more urgent a call is to the soul, the greater the resistance. Said it with such calm conviction, that I named him my Mexican Yoda, after the legendary Jedi Master from the movie ‘Star Wars.’
Very often though, as my dear friend Mary Reynolds wrote in her extraordinary book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul,’ one may need a cataclysmic event to crack open, just as Bishop Pines require fire for their seeds to fly open, like tiny stars in the night.
Could it be, I wondered on that cold starry night, that I was at the threshold of something momentous, about to crack open and spill my unique gifts on the world?
Like snowflakes…like you and I, each star is a one of a kind. What a stirring, but daunting realization! To know that upon birth, a new possibility is born with us, a new desire, a seed of potential that is up to us, and only us, to make sprout. An opportunity that is ours to actualize or deny according to our resolve.
Someone once said that the two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why. The poet Annie Dillard offers one possible answer: “To give voice to your own astonishment,” she said. To astound, from Latin: “to thunder!”
At the stroke of midnight, nearby firework flashes and thunderous explosions heralding the birth of a new year reminded me of a Supernova: the single most violent event in the Universe.
I lifted my gaze back at Betelgeuse, the giant star many scientists predict will be our galaxy’s next Supernova and wondered what wisdom I could extract from its looming fate being broadcast by its light traveling at a hundred and eighty six miles per second.
Giant stars live fast, burn bright, and die hard. Once out of fuel, the epic battle is won by the crush of Gravity over their desire to keep expressing their radiant selves. But from their destruction come the seeds of life itself. We owe our existence to such a Supernova billions of years ago — our Cosmic Mother. Evolutionary cosmologist Brian Swimme named her “Tiamat” after the ancient Babylonian goddess of primordial creation and eulogized her in ‘The Universe Story’:
“Tiamat found herself pressed to the wall, exhausted by the effort, helpless to do anything more to balance the titanic powers. When her core had been transformed into iron, she sighed a last time as collapse became inevitable. In a cosmological twinkling, her gravitational potential energy was transformed into a searing explosion, a single flash of brilliance. When the brilliance was over, when Tiamat’s journey was finished, the deeper meaning of her existence was just beginning to show through. Out of the spectacular tensions in the stellar core, Tiamat had forged calcium, a new presence that would one day support both mastodons and hummingbirds. Tiamat had forged phosphorus which would one day enable the majestic intelligence of photosynthesis to appear. Tiamat had sculpted oxygen and Sulphur which would one day somersault with joy over the beauty of the earth. She vanished as a star in her grand finale of beauty, but the essence of her creativity went forth in wave after wave, tossed into the night sky with the most extravagant gesture of generosity.”
Without Supernovae, there would be no us. We are made of carbon, of oxygen; there is iron in our blood. All those elements were generated in the womb of a star. We are made of star stuff, said astronomer Carl Sagan, something Walt Whitman, the poet, already intuited a century before when proclaiming that “every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”
Every atom deep within the dormant soil of the dark fields extending in front of my gaze; those inside the apple trees, the grapevines, and the huddled sheep, as good belong to me. I had received a lesson of reception and kinship.
Perfect love, said ninth century Mohammedan mystic Sari-al-Sakadi, exists between two people only when each addresses the other with the words: “O myself!” On what grounds, then, dare I deny, discriminate, or diminish the life of a fellow human simply because his atoms choose to express themselves through a different color, language, or custom? In the presence of the ‘Other,’ the proper stance is celebration and curiosity, not disdain. I further realized that every violent act against Earth, or against any of its multifarious expressions, is a form of self-annihilation.
But those were not the only lessons I learned from a Supernova.
I sensed my desire to become a writer was not burning hot enough to prevent the implacable resistance from crushing it. I was allowing my fears — of rejection, poverty, ridicule, obscurity — to gain the upper hand, and, as Brian Swimme warned, someone who takes as a central life project the avoidance of suffering will lead an ephemeral life. Like our Sun, whose mass (desire) is not sufficient to become a Supernova, I risked exiting life’s stage with a whimper, not a bang.
“I would rather be ashes than dust! I would rather my spark burn out in a brilliant blaze than stifled by dry-rot. I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet. The function of man is to live, not to exist. I shall not waste my days trying to prolong them. I shall use my time.” — Jack London
Throughout history, our firmament has been illumed by human Supernovae like Jack London, Christ, Mohammed, Buddha, Socrates, Nietzsche, Lao Tzu, Shakespeare, Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr., or Rachel Carson who wrote her revolutionary book, ‘Silent Spring,’ while dying from cancer – giants whose bursts of creative light still shine upon us today. Like our Cosmic Mother, they scattered the essence of their genius in wave after wave with the most extravagant gesture of generosity. I saw no reason why I could not emulate them. Like Orion, I needed to pick up the sword again and charge ahead, warrior-like, toward my chosen destiny. I had to look at my fears straight in the eye so they would feel afraid and run away.
Each beam of starlight makes an epic journey travelling at six hundred million miles an hour. Most stars are so far away their light takes hundreds, thousands, even millions of years to reach us. Light from Betelgeuse has been travelling since Columbus discovered America. The light we see today from Eta Carinae left that star when our ancestors first farmed the land eight thousand years ago. That from our neighboring galaxy, Andromeda, began its journey at the time our ancestors had just begun making tools over two million years ago. For all we know, all those stars might have perished already.
This august scale of time and distance gave me comfort. The thoughts I consign to these pages might not touch anyone in the present, but one day, far in the distant future, might inspire someone, who, like me, will be contemplating the firmament.
As the New Year’s fireworks ended, I took one last look at the scattering of stars and remembered that the Universe will eventually run out of fuel and go dark. Sooner or later the stars will begin to blink out until the last star burns out. In the face of such bleakness, we are prone to nihilism or despair. What is the point of such exuberant creativity? one is inclined to ask.
“In music,” said philosopher Alan Watts, one doesn’t make the end of a composition, the point of the composition. If that were so, the best conductors would be those who played fastest [or] who only wrote finales.”
A piece of music doesn’t come to an end when its purpose is accomplished. It has no purpose, strictly speaking. It is the playful unfolding of meaning. — David Steindl-Rast
The same with dance, Watts adds. “The whole point of the dancing is the dance.”
“There is no goal,” wrote Nietzsche, “we are always already at it. The fulfilled moment does not lie in the future but is always there already. Life does not follow the principle of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement but revolves in a cycle of expiring and expanding. For this reason, life is always already at its goal.”
Our wish for security, immutability, eternity, or to arrive at ultimate meaning seemed to me at that moment but futile illusions. It is necessary to shake them off and yet remain passionately in love with life even after its great futility has been revealed. I learned that I am not here be consoled, but curious and enthralled by the unfolding story of the Universe, and to contribute my unique gifts to its dazzling, unfolding spectacle.
Coming back into the house, the only word I could think of to describe the goal of life was “Rapture,” and as I settled into bed on the first day of the new year, my life no longer felt like a stone in me, but like a star.
What about love? What do stars teach us about the affairs of the heart? Read Episode II
I write this on the Winter Solstice when the sun reaches its lowest point and darkness prevails over light.
For the past five years, on this day, I perform a simple ritual: I sit in quietude, light a candle, and read the words of Jesus.
Does that make me Christian or Catholic ? No more than reading Buddha’s teachings makes me a Buddhist. Does it matter?
It seems to me that walking away from a banquet because you do not like the way the table is set or disagree with the prescribed table manners makes you lose out on a wonderful meal; you throw out the baby with the bathwater and go hungry. That baby is Jesus’ message, now lost in the bustle of Black Fridays and Cyber Mondays on the one hand, and on the other, co-opted and distorted by religious dogma into petrified historicity, or rarefied into divine balderdash, making his words as insubstantial and malnourishing as communion wafers. Under these conditions, it is not surprising that his message goes mostly unheeded.
My ritual is my way of finding a space to my own at the table, in a quiet corner, away from both the commercial din and the sorcery. Once there, I eat with my hands, sink my teeth into Jesus’ flesh, and suck the marrow of his wisdom. I require no intermediaries to partake in the banquet; no miracles or High-Priest authority; no translation necessary. His words, like a loaf of bread, are simple, yet all-nourishing.
A ritual is the enactment of a myth: a symbolic image or narrative of the possibilities of human experience. By participating in the myth, I am put in accord with that wisdom.
The Winter Solstice marks the day when to sun ends its southernmost decline. Tomorrow, it will turn back north and begin its ascending cycle making light prevail over darkness once again. That is why, on December 25, ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti: The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun.
It never ceases to amaze me that, right around this time, the tiresome debate about the exact date of Jesus’ birth is renewed, further drowning his message under pointless calendrical calculations or by those who try to debunk the Nativity narrative by pointing at the presence of sheep at the manger claiming they would have been corralled and not left out on such a cold night in Bethlehem.
Again, does it matter?
By focusing on the factual, the symbolic meaning is lost and we deny ourselves its gifts.
I like to think of December 25 as the birth of what is possible in human experience; of the greater light we can kindle in ourselves to shine upon the world.
Among Jesus’ teachings, I am always drawn more strongly by this one:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is the good news! That the highest peaks of human transformation are within our reach, and not in some remote place at some distant point in the future.
When some Pharisees asked Jesus when God’s kingdom would come, he answered: “God’s kingdom isn’t something you can see. There is no use saying, ‘Look! Here it is.’ or ‘Look! There it is.’ God’s kingdom is here with you.”
In the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas be elaborates: “If those who lead you say: See, the kingdom is in heaven, then the birds of the heaven will go before you; if they say to you: It is in the sea, then the fish will go before you. But the kingdom is within you.”
It is the same notion contained in the Sanskrit phrase ‘Tat Tvam Asi’ occurring in the sacred Hindu Chandogya Upanishad (c. 600 BCE): ‘Thou Art That,’ meaning that the Self, in its original, pure, primordial state, is wholly or partially identifiable or identical with the Ultimate Reality that is the ground and origin of all phenomena. You’re it! basically. Or as Carl Sagan famously said: “We’re all stardust.”
The Hindu sage Ramana Maharshi once said that an ordinary Christian won’t be satisfied unless he is told that God is somewhere far off in the heavens, not to be reached by us unaided. If he is told the simple truth, that “the kingdom of heaven is within you,” he is not satisfied, and will read complex and far-fetched meanings into it. Only mature minds can grasp the simple truth in all its nakedness.
After Jesus delivers that simple truth, he offers the keys to this inner realm: “change and become like little children.”
Spanish poet Antonio Machado put it this way: All your words, Jesus, were one word: “Wakeup!”
I take it as an invitation to return to my primordial state; back to the way I was before the blank slate of my essence was carved with the “thou shall’s” and “thou shalt not’s” of the world; back to the time I could take a boy by the hand and not find it unseemly; when neither race nor station dictated who I would play with; when I was quick to anger but quicker to forgive; full of passion and compassion; when I could cry without shame or compunction; when my days were eternal because my gaze apprehended only the present; when everything appeared new and I lived in a constant state of awareness and delight; when I did not understand money so simple things gave me joy; when I was trustful, accepting, open, unselfconscious, and had not lost my capacity for wonder.
The world and distorted reality we’ve built around ourselves often impede our way back into that realm by cloaking it under what I imagine as the dark veil of an unchanging Winter’s Solstice – the darkness of our prejudices, intolerance, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, and vanities. The sun will never ascend if we do not clear its path from all that junk.
A sensitive and honest-minded man, said writer Fernando Pessoa, if he’s concerned about evil and injustice in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life.
That’s the reason I light a candle during my ritual: to illume my way back. And that is why, on December 25, I will celebrate Jesus’s birthday.
And you, wherever you are, I wish you a Merry Christmas, and invite you to sit at the table and feast.
In 1954, a foreign power gripped by paranoia dashed my country’s hope for democracy and forced me into exile.
Naturally, I have an ax to grind.
But rather than retribution, I seek understanding. How did it happen?
More to the point, how did the Red Scare paranoia of the 1950s infect so many Americans that it blinded them to the fact their government was trampling on their most cherished ideals, in their name, and far away from home?
The Red Scare narrative went more or less like this: an evil ideology, Communism, threatens the American way of life and must be stopped in its tracks.
On April 7, 1954, about to plunge the country into one of its deadliest wars (Vietnam), U.S. President Eisenhower referred to the prevailing Domino Theory: “You have a row of dominoes set up,” he said,“you knock over the first one, and what will happen to the last one is a certainty.” This would lead to disintegration in Southeast Asia, with the “loss of Indochina, Burma, Thailand; the Peninsula and Indonesia following.”
Vietnam eventually did fall to communism despite costing $950 billion (in today’s dollars) and the lives of sixty thousand U.S. soldiers and over a million Vietnamese, but the rest of the dominoes – except Laos and Cambodia – didn’t budge. Cambodia later became a constitutional monarchy, and today, Vietnam can hardly be called a communist nation in the proper sense.
The Bogeyman just wasn’t under the bed, just as it wasn’t in my country.
Despite declaring Communism to be contrary to human nature, President Juan Jose Arevalo, who ushered-in a democratic revolution in Guatemala, was repeatedly labeled a communist by the U.S. State Department and survived over thirty coup attempts before finishing his term. Today, proving Arevalo’s assertion, many of the world’s most inspiring rags-to-riches stories come from ‘communist’ China.
The most valuable thing about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen, a distinguished historian once said. But I forget…schools nowadays don’t teach much history.
I sense a new scare spreading across the U.S. today; no longer Red, but Brown.
As I write this, President Trump has deployed thousands of U.S. soldiers to the southern border to stop what he calls a “migrant invasion, funded by liberals,” which contains “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners… very tough fighters,” he adds extra drops of poison for good measure.
Responding to the call, the Texas Minutemen, a vigilante militia group, is sending armed men to the border.
Those that can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham added her dose of venom by suggesting that the migrant caravan may bring diseases. They are, Laura, and I’ll tell you which: a strong work ethic, solid family values, staunch religious faith, great food and music, and a sense of joy that transcends material well-being. You might want to rush to the border and get infected. While there, cross over to the town of Boquillas del Carmen and have some green chile enchiladas and a few tacos at Jose Falcon’s Restaurant. It might spice-up your life a bit.
Contrary to Trump’s misleading claims, should the ‘invaders’ make it pass the wall, they will also contribute more in tax revenues than they take in government benefits, they’ll offset the declining U.S. birth rate, and take-on jobs Americans won’t and work harder at them. During the twenty years I lived in San Rafael, California, where 30% of the residents are Hispanic, not once did I see a Hispanic panhandling.
Just so we’re clear where I stand: when I say “make it past the wall,” I mean legally.
This ‘Brown Scare’ did have its intended effect on the midterm election. Republicans expanded their majority in the Senate by keeping a tight grip throughout the rural South. Prior the vote, at a Trump campaign rally in North Carolina, a mesmerized, cheering, salivating, and flag-waving Ms. Philpott (white, middle-aged) said: “He wants to protect this country! He wants to keep it safe! Keep it free of invaders and the caravan and everything else that’s going on!”
I suspect that her “everything else that’s going on” is the fear the country has been or will soon be overtaken by_____________ (you may fill-in the blank with your chosen ‘Other,’ or ‘Not like us’). On today’s paranoid menu, the main course is colored brown, like Mole Sauce.
I have news for Ms. Philpott though: Too late, and, in any case, the United States has never been single-anything; neither race, language, or religion. The only thing single about it is a set of revolutionary ideas. That’s the reason Americans are patriots, not blood and soil nationalists. At least should be.
Like the Center for Disease Control warns the public about infectious diseases, and the Environmental Protection Agency on contaminants, my purpose here is to report on this outbreak of Brown Paranoia, its causes, and antidote.
Why are we so tribal?
In ScienceMagazine, Elizabeth Culotta writes that tribal prejudice stems from deep evolutionary roots, and a universal tendency to form coalitions and favor our own side. Like most, I am sure you think your family is the cat’s meow compared to all the rest and that you’d risk your life to defend it.
Even in arbitrarily-constructed groups with no shared history, psychologists find that people still think those in their ingroup are smarter, better, more moral, and more just than members of outgroups. Think of the times you’ve been partnered with someone when playing aboard game.
Outgroup bias is core to our species. It is part of a threat-detection system that allows us to rapidly determine friend from foe, says psychologist Steven Neuberg of ASU Tempe. The problem, he says, is that like smoke detectors, the system is designed to give many false alarms rather than miss a true threat.
In the Implicit Associations Test, for example, people are asked to rapidly categorize objects and faces; the pattern of mistakes and speed shows that people more quickly associate negative words such as “hatred” with outgroup faces than ingroup faces. In disturbing tests using a video game, people looking at a picture of a person carrying an ambiguous object are more likely to mistake a cell phone for a gun and shoot the carrier if he is an outgroup male. Remember George Zimmerman?
Neuberg studied what might turn this detection system up and down. “When you feel threatened,” he reports, “you react to danger more quickly and intensely; people startle more easily in the dark. That’s why prejudice rears its head in a dark alley rather than a well-lit field.”
“Keep your lights burning,” Jesus urged his followers, and, in the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, he added: “If one is whole, one will be filled with light, but if one is divided, one will be filled with darkness.”
The light to which he was referring, is the light of reason.
Trayvon Martin would be alive today had Zimmerman been using his brain.
The Psychology of Extreme Hate
Writing for Psychology Today, Allison Abrams corrects a common misconception. While all racists are prejudiced, Abrams explains, not all prejudices are racist. Prejudice is a human phenomenon involving cognitive structures we all learn early in life. Racism, on the other hand, is prejudice against a particular group of people based on perceived differences, sometimes taken to the extreme. Not all individuals who discriminate against others based on differences are motivated by hatred.
According to cognitive behavioral therapist Marion Rodriguez, hate can be rational, such as when we hate unjust acts. On the other hand, hate of certain ethnic groups, religions, races, or sexual orientations is based on irrational beliefs that lead to hatred of others as well as hate crimes.
Abrams goes on to list the factors behind extreme hate:
2.The need to belong.
4. Emotional incompetence.
“When one race of persons unconsciously feels fear in response to a different race group—fears that their own level of security, importance, or control is being threatened—they will develop defensive thoughts and behaviors,” says psychologist and political advisor Dr.Reneé Carr. (Hate crimes, for example, reached an all-time high in 2001 in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks). “They will create exaggerated and negative beliefs about the other race to justify their actions in [an] attempt to secure their own safety and survival.” (e.g. Fox host Laura Ingraham’s “diseases” claim).
The Need to Belong
Some members of extremist hate groups, explains Abrams, are motivated by the need for love and belonging—a basic survival need. For some, especially those who may have difficulty forming genuine interpersonal connections, identifying with extremists and hate groups is one way to do so.”
Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed “The Blond Beast” by the Nazis, and “Hangman Heydrich” by others, was the leading planner of Hitler’s Final Solution in which the Nazis attempted to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. As a boy, he was a target of schoolyard bullies, teased about his very high pitched voice and his devout Catholicism. He was beaten up by bigger boys and tormented with anti-Jewish slurs amid rumors of Jewish ancestry in his family. At home, Heydrich’s mother believed in the value of harsh discipline and frequent lashings. As a result, Heydrich was a withdrawn, sullen, and unhappy boy. At age 18, Heydrich became a cadet in the small, elite German Navy. Once again, he was teased. Heydrich was by then over six feet tall, a gangly, awkward young man who still had a high, almost falsetto voice. Naval cadets took delight in calling him “Billy Goat” because of his bleating laugh and taunted him with ‘Moses Handel’ because of the aforementioned rumored Jewish ancestry and his passion for classical music.
A bullied, beaten, withdrawn, sullen and unhappy boy was the chief architect of the Holocaust.
In ‘The Human Shadow at War,’ I profiled other atrocities committed by wounded, lonely children…all male, and though FBI hate crime records do not appear to report the offenders’ gender, I’ll bet the vast majority were committed by males.
We men are tribal by nature.
In 1954, social psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted one of the most famous experiments on social psychology. He convinced twenty-two sets of working class parents to let him take their twelve-year old boys off their hands for three weeks. For the first five days,each (11-boy) group thought it was alone. Even still, they set about marking territory and creating tribal identities. A leader emerged in each group by consensus. Norms, songs, rituals, and distinctive identities began to form. Once they became aware of the presence of another group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. Both sides created flags. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s bunks, called each other nasty names, and made weapons.
“The male mind appears to be innately tribal –that is – structured in advance of experience so that boys and men enjoy doing the sorts of things that lead to group cohesion and success in conflicts between groups, in contrast to two-person relationships for girls,” wrote Jonathan Hait in ‘The Righteous Mind.’
The FBI hate-crime statistics for 2016 do show that 60% of the victims were targeted because of the offenders’ bias against race/ethnicity/ancestry, 20% because of bias against religion, and 17% because of bias against sexual orientation.
“The most rapidly increasing type of crime is that perpetrated by degenerate sex offenders …. Should wild beasts break out of circus cages, a whole city would be mobilized instantly. But depraved human beings, more savage than beasts, are permitted to rove America almost at will.”
Those were the paranoid words of FBI Director J Edgar Hoover published in his 1947 article for The American Magazine titled ‘How Safe is your Daughter?’
During the 1950s, Hoover engaged in a maniacal persecution of homosexuals which was later labelled ‘The Lavender Scare.’ He was also widely suspected of being in a secret, same-sex relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson. Oops!
“The things people hate about others are the things that they fear within themselves,” says psychologist Dr. Dana Harron.“Projection is one of our natural defense mechanisms, and it allows us to avoid facing our perceived shortcomings by transferring—or projecting—them onto others.”
Omar Mateen (29) killed fifty people and wounded an equal number at a gay club in Orlando in 2016. He was said to have been frequently angered by the sight of two men kissing. Regulars of the‘Pulse’ reported having seen Omar at the nightclub where “he would go over to a corner and sit and drink by himself.” Mateen is also said to have used a gay dating app. Kevin West, a regular at Pulse, said Mateen messaged him on-and-off for a year before the shooting, using the gay chat and dating app Jack’d. Cord Cedeno also said he saw him on it. “He was open with his picture on the sites, he was easy to recognize,” said Cedeno, who said he was also contacted by Mateen at least a year before on a dating app.
Violence is what happens when we don’t know what to do with our suffering.
Hatred and violence can also occur when we feel we’ve lost something precious to us.
During the American Indian Wars, the American Army carried out a number of massacres and forced relocations of indigenous peoples (another ‘Red Paranoia’ if you will).
Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, wrote that by 1840 Indian hating had become a “metaphysic” that begins in abstraction and alienation and drapes itself in innocence. The myth of innocence is so attractive because it inverts guilt, says Barry Spector. The settlers became the virgins – captured, tormented, and raped by savages. Between 1682 and 1732 all but one of America’s best-selling books were captive tales.
“Puritans in pre-and post-revolutionary America loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Spector, “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”
Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.
No European who has tasted savage life, Benjamin Franklin once remarked, can afterwards bear to live in our societies.
Might the current ‘Brown Paranoia’ be nothing more than the frustration some white people feel for not knowing how to dance? For having lost touch with their wilder, zanier, and sensual selves?
Beat writer Jack Kerouac poetically captured this feeling:
“At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness,music, not enough night… I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned.”
The essence of the western male mind has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world, said author Barbara Ehrenreich.
Low Emotional Intelligence
Loma K. Flowers, M.D. of nonprofit EQDynamics, defines emotional competence as the integration of thinking, feelings, and good judgment before action. This is where the bigots and haters lose their footing (e.g. Zimmermann). It is easier to believe fallacies, she says, than to think and understand yourself. People often swallow racist rhetoric and unspoken assumptions without examining the issues. They may find comfort in a belief in innate superiority and entitlement and be too terrified or satisfied with the status quo to surrender it without a safe alternative. Thinking takes work, lining up facts with feelings, and sorting out how much of your anger is about being laid off from your job and how much of it is about others objecting to Confederate statues erected in the 1920s to symbolize white supremacy. Or how much of it is about the bullying you have endured in your life. The challenge is to link each part of every feeling to the right context. Whether these beliefs are generated internally from feelings of worthlessness and projected onto others and/or learned from teaching or modeling by members of their family and community, they are one of the most destructive manifestations of emotional incompetence (e.g. “Hangman Heydrich”).
Paranoia: American Style
I suppose if I became all-powerful and dominant, and considered myself exceptional, I too would start to feel a bit paranoid about being knocked off my perch, especially when someone starts catching up (e.g. China – the new and growing Yellow Scare).
The United States has a long history of paranoia.
In his exhaustive article for Vox, David Roberts provides a comprehensive list:
In 1692 Puritan settlers were so afraid of the influences of witchcraft upon their Christian society that 150 citizens from across the region were rounded up for suspicious behavior and put on trial for witchcraft in the infamous Salem Witch Trials.
During the mid-nineteenth century, immigration was booming in the United States. The majority of immigrants during this time were German, Irish, and practicing Catholics. Native-born Americans generally accepted the Germans since they brought with them sufficient capital and drive to become productive members of American society. But most Nativists resented the Irish and the Catholics. Irish were perceived as drunkards who often clogged up the slums of eastern cities, while Catholics were seen as a threat to the Protestant values and history of the United States.
In 1855 a Texas newspaper article reported: “It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.”
1919: The First Red Scare: Immediately after the First World War and the Russian Revolution, a ‘Red Scare’ swept across the United States. Americans had watched from afar as the Russian Empire succumbed to the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 and transformed itself in the socialist Soviet Union. Americans feared that a socialist and radical uprising in the United States was imminent and hysteria plagued the nation.
1924: The National Origins Act of 1924: As a result of the [First] Red Scare, the National Origins Act was ratified. According to the U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian, the purpose of the act was “to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity.” This drastically cut down on the number of immigrants who were allowed into the United States, especially those who originated in Russia and Eastern Europe. For the next several decades it would be very difficult for an individual to legally migrate to the United States, and America entered into a nearly twenty year long period of isolationism.
1950s: McCarthyism: After the Second World War and during the beginning of the Cold War, the second Red Scare occurred, known as McCarthyism. Senator Joe McCarthy initiated a witch-hunt of sorts to root out Communists and Socialists within the United States government. Even though McCarthy was eventually exposed as being a fraud, the fear he created once again played into America’s apprehension of socialism and communism that was at a height during this time. This second Red Scare was the one responsible for the end of a decade of democracy in my country and the begging of a 30-year civil war which cost the lives of over two-hundred thousand people.
Witches, Catholics, Communists, Socialists, Radicals, the Irish…
Now it’s the Brown People.
I suppose that if I defined my identity on the basis of race, language, religious belief, wealth, my profession, or economic or political ideology, I would also view those outside my “in-group” with suspicion (especially if I did not know how to dance). Were my Emotional IQ as low as Laura Ingraham’s or Donald Trump’s, I would also spit venom. Were I not aware of my shortcomings, or be afraid to confront them, I too would be projecting them onto outsiders. And though solitary by nature, I do recognize the need to belong, but believe it is best found in ideals, not ideologies or superficial and narrow identities.
Imagine the outcome if we replaced the label “White-Christian-Individualist” for “Human-Spiritual-Communitarian”?
In ‘Making America Whole Again,’ I proposed that the country’s identity be grounded solely on the ideals which gave it birth. I further said that groups who wish to remain cohesive require local glue: a set of norms, traditions, institutions, and ideals, sacralized, shared and defended against those who wish to break them apart. But there is a big difference between having a conviction and becoming a conviction. Becoming a conviction leads to cognitive rigidity, which, together with anxiety, predisposes individuals to paranoia.
My gut tells me that those making their way to the southern border are not part of a liberal, secret, international conspiracy to take over the country. Like you and I, they are just human beings who share the ideal of freedom and seek an opportunity to provide a safe and dignified existence for themselves and their families.
In what way are they different from those who arrived on American shores in the early 1600’s or the second wave during the first part of the 19th Century?
They speak Spanish and dance better, that’s all.
I suspect Trump would be leading the welcoming committee if the ‘Barbarians at the Gate’ were white, wealthy Germans or Norwegians.
If I were in his place, instead of terrifying the country with the Brown Mole Bogeyman, I’d be handing the newly-arrived with a copy of the U.S. Constitution and vouchers to learn the English language. I’d be doing my job and using the power of the pulpit to pressure Congress to draft a legal and sensible solution to deal with the issue once and for all. Finally, instead of cutting aid to the countries from which most migrants are coming from – Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras (The Northern Triangle) – I’d recognize my country’s complicity in the crisis and create a permanent task force focused on meeting the goals set forth in the Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle aimed at creating security, growth, and opportunity in those countries to ease the pressure and reduce the migrant flow into the U.S. It has been done before, after World War II, with the Marshall Plan which benefited both the U.S. and the economies of the nations devastated by the war. A rising tide, after all, lifts all boats.
But it will take time to lift these three countries, and the burden must be borne primarily by their political and business leaders, without which, no amount of U.S. assistance will suffice. They must also accept responsibility for the despair which drives their people to seek better opportunities. In the meantime, the migrants will keep coming, no matter how tall or long the wall. As they continue washing on your shores, I recommend you vaccinate yourself against distrust, hatred, and paranoia by following these steps:
The hell writer Paulo Coelho said is found twenty seconds before you die; when you look back and discover you did not dignify the miracle of existence with a life of purpose. Heaven, he added, is the realization that, while you erred, you gave it your all.
I had erred, yes, many times, and been wounded. But the wounds were sustained on a battlefield where I did not belong, wearing ill-fitting armor, and blazoning a coat of arms I had unwittingly assumed was mine. That’s why all my failures had a weird, unsatisfying aftertaste.
I had had enough. I was burned out without having been on fire. Did not want to voice the regrets common to those on their deathbed:
“I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
“I wish I would’ve left myself be happier.”
“I wish I would’ve had the courage to express my true self.”
“I wish I’d lived a life true to my dreams instead of what others expected of me.”
So I quit.
Not surprisingly, most of what I love about my life started then.
My decision was not entirely conscious. Had I given it much thought, I would have never done it. At my age, with little money, no safety net, and few possessions, it seemed reckless. But if I ever was to find my path, I had to set fire to my life and burn the bridges.
“Too late,” some said. “You’re too old.”
How illustrative, this attitude, of the woeful resignation men and women succumb to, wrote Henry Miller. What stays them, usually, is the fear of the sacrifices involved. Even to relinquish their chains seems like a sacrifice.
I was willing to pay the price for a taste of bliss…for a life more abundant. Did not want to be like those middle aged men John Steinbeck wrote about, who:
“…begin to pack their lives in cotton wool, smother their impulses, hood their passions, and gradually retire from their manhood into a kind of spiritual and physical semi-invalidism. I see so many men delay their exits with a sickly, slow reluctance to leave the stage. Its bad theater as well as bad living.”
When my time’s up, I thought, I want to leave the stage as Greek writer Kazantzakis says we should, “not like scourged, tearful slaves, but like kings who rise from the table with no further wants, after having eaten and drunk to the full.”
I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free! is the epitaph etched on his tomb.
In ‘Report to Greco,’ the account of his life, his art, and spiritual quest, Kazantzakis said that a man’s worth lies not in victory, but in the struggle for victory. His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.
The only thing I was certain of when jumping into the void was that I longed to be a writer. I had wanted it since I was eight-years old and felt I had a knack for it. I learned from philosopher William James that I should trust my wants; that even when their gratification seems farthest off, the uneasiness they occasion is still the best guide of my life and would lead me to issues entirely beyond my present powers of reckoning. He was right.
I also suspected the world would only get something of value from me at that crossing point Aristotle said is the place of our vocation – where our talents intersect with the needs of the world.
A few months into my new life, however, I was paralyzed, which gave way to fear, making me second-guess my decision. Something was holding me back.
On a long, solitary walk, I discovered what it was. I had walked away, yes, but was still shackled by my old chains: my old prejudices, misconceptions, illusions, self-delusions, fears, insecurities, vanities, and identity myths to which I unwittingly subscribed.
I had to smash them first. Not an easy thing because I ended up naked and vulnerable as when first born. Not easy, but the only way I found to bring about a rebirth, without which, as Goethe warned, I would remain nothing more than another troubled guest on earth.
I am not yet totally free, like Kazantzakis. I still fear and hope; still a grub, not yet butterfly. But I now blissfully twist and curl inside my true chrysalis and can feel the budding of wings.
The world is a better place to live in, wrote Walter Lippmann, because it contains human beings who will give up ease and security and stake their own lives in order to do what they themselves think worth doing. The things that are undertaken not for some definite, measurable result, but because someone, not counting the costs or calculating the consequences, is moved by curiosity, the love of excellence, a point of honor, the compulsion to invent or to make or to understand. They have in them the free and useless energy with which alone men surpass themselves. In such persons, mankind overcomes the inertia which would keep it earthbound forever in its habitual ways.
Lippman’s sentiment was echoed by a young writer, Colin Wilson, whose book, ‘The Outsider,’ was partly responsible for my ‘reckless’ decision. Man, he said, is potentially hero and genius; only inertia keeps him mediocre. The “self-surmounter” is never satisfied. He is cursed by a divine dissatisfaction choreographer Martha Graham described as “a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others.”
I am no longer marching towards Hell, and now, for the first time in my life, I feel on fire, doing exactly what I believe I was meant to do.
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 my eighty-seven year old father and his wife what they meant.
Aside from the predictable nostalgia for their carefree days of childhood, one answer topped the 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, 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, 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 lifespan (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
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 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 also decided that instead of simply watching the news, I would use my talents to try to change the news.
It’s inescapable, right? The news. Always worming itself into our awareness. It finds us at the supermarket checkout counter, gas pump, or through the unwanted headline flash on our cellphones, like this one:
“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 hailstorm 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 for absent fathers 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, 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. – Barry Spector
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.