Fire sparks our imaginations and brings us closer together.
Two weeks ago (now an annual tradition), our family descended on my father’s property in rural New England.
The year before, one of my nephews built a firepit on the lawn facing a grand view of the tall trees lining its edge and sloping down to the meadow and further below to the roaring river gorged with snowmelt and April storms.
The reunion was like a short lived but dazzling meteorite shower striking the property for a few days, leaving in its wake a small crater with half-burned Tiki-torches and cigar stubs, and globs of molten glass from the bottles we shattered against the firepit’s stone rim. Absolute cathartic madness!
A merry band of revelers, joined by love, lore, and myth, and aided by dangerous levels of alcohol, we let loose our wild spirits, giving uninhibited wind to our singing voices (in convincing Mariachi), howled to the moon, hurled burning torches at the star-studded sky, dug sharp canines into sizzling meat and freshly-caught trout, and pretty much made total fools of ourselves. It was a veritable reenactment of the Greek festival of Anthesteira, celebrated at the beginning of spring, honoring Dionysus, the God of Ecstasy.
But besides the mischief and fire, there were stories.
In our frenzied modern-day lives, enamored as we are with our technological prowess and gadgetry, we forget that for 99% of human history our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers. Sometime around 400,000 years ago, we learned to fully control fire which not only changed our diet – fueling rapid brain growth – but also sparked our imagination.
A study of evening campfire conversations by the !Kung people of Namibia and Botswana suggests that by extending the day, fire allowed people to unleash their imaginations.
Back in the 1970s, anthropologist Polly Wiessner took detailed notes on the !Kung day and nighttime conversations. She reported that whereas daytime talk was focused almost entirely on economic issues (money), land rights (real estate), and complaints about other people (gossip), 81% of the firelight conversation was devoted to telling stories.
Tales told by firelight puts listeners on the same emotional wavelength, Wiessner writes in her paper, eliciting understanding, trust, and sympathy.
On one of those nights by the flames, my brothers and I finally lifted the veil over the false legend by which our mother lived during her entire life. But rather than disappointment, my heart grew in understanding and sympathy for her tragic childhood.
The ancient Greeks understood the importance of telling stories which were recounted through their many comedic and tragic plays. Stories which dealt with the follies and dramas of human existence.
The word ‘Entertainment’, at root, means to ‘hold together.’ It is a ritual renewal of the community through shared suffering, or joy, or both, wrote author Barry Spector. Athenian audiences, he added, viewed the clash of unbearable human contradictions and conflict, held that tension, and laughed, or wept together.
Had I, for instance, read Sophocles’ play Philoctetes before temporarily moving to my ailing father’s house to help care for him, I would have been armed with greater empathy.
Had I been told or read Diodorus’ myth of Icarus as a young boy, I would have probably avoided plunging into the abyss at age 36 for having soared too close to the sun on waxed wings of hubris, envy, and greed.
And we could all learn to satisfy our soul’s longing with something more satisfying and durable than our relentless consumption by reading the story of Tantalus who the Greek Gods condemned to the Underworld where he must lie below a tree bearing delicious fruit. When he reaches up, the branches also rise, then fall back, almost within reach, ‘tantalizing’ him forever.
Fire also brings us closer together.
Past the mayhem and revelry, after the enchantment of fire, wine and music, the banter and stories, wisdom and folly, the tears and laughter, after all that much-needed zaniness died down and our family dispersed, the few days us savages shared left behind an indelible mark: a reminder of the invisible strands that bind us together and the comforting feeling that the strength of those bonds – irrespective of wealth, faith, or fame – are the only links which we can rely upon in times of need or solace.
So, go build yourself a firepit, gather firewood and your loved ones, turn off your cellphones, and share your stories.
Someone just called me bitter for writing about this country’s failings.
“Why don’t you just move back to your country?!” Has been another knee-in-the-groin. And my favorite: “Only the guy who isn’t rowing has time to rock the boat!”
It seems I’ve been rocking it too hard, making some passengers quite uncomfortable.
Truth does seem to hurt. But it chiefly ruffles the feathers of those standing on shaky ground and not firmly on convictions examined over-and-over again with honesty, humility, and the impassive light of intellectual courage. If you lived in a brick house you wouldn’t worry about the wolf huffing and puffing.
Certitudes are comforting, but one only learns and grows by doubting and questioning. Otherwise, as Alan Watts warned, you go from having a conviction to being a conviction.
There is nothing more difficult than to become critically aware of the presuppositions of one’s thought. – E.F. Schumacher
I’m not rowing because the boat smells of fish-rot, is full of holes and sinking, many are seasick with paranoia, anxiety, or depression, the rest are yelling at, or fighting one another with righteous anger, and no one seems able to tell me where we are going but insist we must get there with ever greater speed.
In any case, I’m a writer, not a galley slave.
And writers must go on though Rome burns, wrote Somerset Maugham. “Others may despise us because we do not lend a hand with a bucket of water; we cannot help it; we do not know how to handle a bucket. Besides, the conflagration charges our minds with phrases.”
I recently wrote some phrases on the Mueller-Russia-Trump mudsling hoping to steer the focus away from what is common practice among powerful nations (election meddling), to what I believe is more crucial: the failings of our antiquated and ultimately useless primary and secondary public education system, arguing that what was alarming was not that a foreign power tried to influence our electoral process with false propaganda but that many voters were so easily duped. I said it was urgent to develop critical thinking skills in America’s youth to protect the Republic from future attempts to usurp it, both from without and within.
My views had nothing to do with partisan politics and everything to do with the affairs of the polis or people.
One member of the polis responded that I was just part of:
“Uuuuhhh marxist morons preaching hate and fascism for the last few decades have resulted in armies of self absorbed little morons that tear up cities when they don’t get what the plantation wants. Thats you. Thats your education system dum dum. Good thing we have GEOTUS here to clean up THAT liberal cesspool as well. SJW = Ugly, weak, pathetic, dumbass, brainwashed burnouts.”
In case you didn’t know, GEOTUS stands for “God Emperor of the United States,” referring to this country’s current President.
SJW stands for “Social Justice Warrior” which I assume was meant as an insult. I’m still trying to decipher what he meant by “plantation.”
Pathetic little moron, indeed.
A few weeks before, spurred by the mass-shooting at Parkland, Florida, I took the time to understand what causes these young men to break and go on a killing spree, hoping to come up with common-sense solutions. I suggested that the problem was not necessarily guns or the failings of background checks but one of shattered illusions and despair.
Within a few hours, my post was flooded with charts and statistics contrasting mass killings in the U.S. with those in other countries, suggesting that on a per-capita basis things here weren’t really that bad. I guess they were telling me to cheer up.
Americans have mastered the art of living with the unacceptable. – Breyten Breytenbach
Writers, by nature, are dissatisfied. We focus on things-as-they-should-be, instead of things-as-they-are. We stretch our imaginations to conjure better worlds, greener, more sustainable worlds, harmonious and more just worlds. We are not comforted by the notion that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.
“Without the person of outspoken opinion, without the non-conformist, any society of whatever degree of perfection must fall into decay,” said Lithuanian-born American artist Ben Shahn. “Its habits (let us say its virtues) will inevitably become entrenched and tyrannical; its controls will become inaccessible to the ordinary citizen. Nonconformity is the basic precondition of art, as it is the precondition of good thinking, and therefore of growth and greatness in a people. The degree of nonconformity present – and tolerated – in a society must be looked upon as a symptom of its state of health.”
In other words, we need people to slap us on the face now and then to wake us up and keep us sane. Your mother for example. Or think Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Martin Luther King Jr., Clair Cameron Patterson, and Rachel Carson. Or that ugly, old philosopher who twenty-four hundred years ago was condemned to death for being a royal pain in the ass. The charges brought against this gadfly were impiety and corrupting the youth of his city when all he was trying to do was urge everyone to question their biases and presumptions.
“High on the list of presumptions that Socrates had aimed to unsettle was his fellow citizens’ certainty that their city-state brooked no comparison when it came to outstanding virtue,” wrote Rebecca Goldstein in ‘Making Athens Great Again.’ “To be an Athenian, ran a core credo of the polis, was to partake in its aura of moral superiority. Determined to interrogate what being exceptional means, Socrates dedicated his life to challenging a confidence that he felt had become overweening.”
But Athenians were in no mood to be told their shit also stank, so they killed him (actually, he poisoned himself).
Seventy years later, the Athenian Empire collapsed.
Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Book of Proverbs 16:18
American exceptionalism began its career, not as a boast, but as a question, said David Frum.
As a young boy my mother used to tell me I was a genius. Never once did I question why that was. I just basked in the Golden Child aura of my unearned, thus unwarranted preeminence.
When I turned thirty, my father tried to shake my haughty spirit with the best piece of advice I never listened to. He warned me that if I did not wake up, I’d be “going straight into the abyss” by age thirty-five.
He missed the mark by only twelve months.
Maybe that’s why I rock boats and can’t cheer up.
Two years before his death at age 85, Kurt Vonnegut wrote this in ‘A Man Without a Country’:
“The biggest truth to face now – what is probably making me unfunny now for the remainder of my life – is that I don’t think people give a damn whether the planet goes on or not. It seems to me as if everyone is living as member of Alcoholics Anonymous do, day by day. And a few more days will be enough. I know of very few people who are dreaming of a world for their grandchildren.”
Perhaps I am still young and naive enough to remain a little hopeful, and, increasingly, do feel uneasy about the muck and wreck we’re leaving behind to future generations.
I want my grandchildren to regard me with admiration, not contempt, which seems a pretty good reason to keep huffing and puffing.
PostScript: A few hours after I finished this post, news broke of yet another young man who killed ten of his classmates in Santa Fe, Texas.
I’m not bitter.
I’m sad and outraged. Outraged by our spineless political class, and disgusted with the NRA and those who demonized, terrorized, intimidated, and ultimately silenced the brave students who rocked the boat by speaking out after the massacre at Parkland.
That’s 200 people killed so far this year.
Harry and Meghan are getting married today so I’ll just bake myself some crumpets, brew some tea, and watch the royal event wearing a tiara on my head.
Having rushed, leaped, and tumbled down the peaks of my life’s spring and summer, my river – more serene now – flows across its valley towards its inexorable embrace with the ocean where I will lose my name.
My eyesight is failing, my eyebrows thinning, and I wear a permanent flesh skull-cap on my head. My toes turn black-and-blue in the cold, and my left fingers tingle at night. Occasionally, I am thrown off the bed by Charley Horses. My skin has the rugosity of the bark of an old tree or alligator, and the backs of my hands are splotched like a Jaguar’s pelt and wrinkled and rough as the inside of a Starbucks cup holder. If I had to date again, I’d need to first become an expert in Photoshop.
Aging is a privilege denied to many so I’m not complaining but attempting to discover what the point is.
I figure I have three options:
I could try, with the desperation of a drowning man, to cling to what little remains of my youth.
I could turn despondent, bitter, ornery, nostalgic, cynical, and niggardly.
I could learn how to be old.
When I was young I knew what I hoped to become; but I have become what I do not know how to be: old. – Phillip Wylie
Having totaled several cars, dabbled in drugs, lived in three countries, proposed to three women, married one, divorced, fulfilled my procreative imperative (two wonderful girls), helped raise them, and made and lost fortunes, is there a purpose to this final run?
Modern-day American culture doesn’t seem to think so. Youth-enthralled, centomaniac (obsessed with the new), and thanatophobic (afraid of death), it insulates itself by either confining the elderly in retirement homes, or by ignoring, shunting, or disdaining their doddering presence and advice.
Which, in my mind, is tantamount to either locking-up or burning all history books.
Faced with such rejection, many of our elders are increasingly turning to option 1.
The United States is the country with the highest number of cosmetic procedures, growing from around 1.6 million in 1997 to almost 13.7 million in 2016. Those aged 35 to 50 account for 39 percent of all procedures on which Americans spend more than 15 billion dollars every year.
It does not surprise me that the practice gained popularity in the 1970’s in the wake of the youth revolt of the previous decade. “Don’t trust anyone over 30” was one of the favorite slogans.
While granting that the senior leaders at the time were making a huge mess of things (Bay of Pigs, Vietnam War, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident), fast-forward thirty years and those once young, rebellious whippersnappers – by then at the helm and all over 30 – were leaving behind their own impressive wrecks: the Savings and Loans crisis (1986-1995), the ‘Black Monday’ stock market crash (1987), the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill (1989), the Dot-Com Bubble and Bust (2000), and a much warmer climate, to name just a few fuckups. Groovy dudes, thanks!
Although I engage in regular exercise (for strength, energy, clarity, and calm), I have chosen to opt out of effacing the proof of time’s passing on my body. The word ‘Character,’ I’ve learned, is derived from the Greek kharassein: to sharpen, cut, engrave. Character is the etching of life’s trials and tribulations into our faces, bodies, and souls. Think of it: if you needed serious advice, would you ask a wizened man, or one whose face was as smooth and unblemished as porcelain?
The way-station of old age, said the Persian poet Hafez, is one that must be passed cleanly. “Don’t let the urgencies of youth stain the whiteness of your hair,” he urged.
In traditional Japanese aesthetics, ‘Wabi-Sabi’ is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete.
‘Sabi’ is beauty or serenity that comes with age, when the life of the object and its impermanence are evidenced in its patina and wear, or in any visible repairs.
An old man who cannot bid farewell to life appears as feeble and sickly as a young man who is unable to embrace it. In many cases, it is a question of the selfsame childish greediness, the same fear, the same defiance and willfulness, in the one as in the other. – Carl Jung
What about Option 2?
Not really an option, but a direct result of our unwillingness to accept the conditions laid out at the moment of our birth. After all, aging and death are terminal illnesses that strike each one of us the moment we’re conceived.
I believe the reasons for the bitterness, cynicism, anger, and pessimism evinced by so many elders are twofold: they feel devalued by society, and they need the outside world to reflect what they believe is their decaying, dark reality. “In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king,” said Desiderius Erasmus.
“After having lavished its light upon the world, the sun withdraws its rays in order to illuminate itself. Instead of doing likewise, many old people prefer to be hypochondriacs, niggards, pedants, applauders of the past or else, eternal adolescents – all lamentable substitutes for the illumination of the Self, but inevitable consequences of the delusion that the second half of life must be governed by the principles of the Self.”
I don’t believe in aging. I believe in forever altering one’s aspect to the sun. Hence my optimism. And to alter now, cleanly and sanely, I want to shuffle off this loose living randomness: people; reviews; fame; all the glittering scales; and be withdrawn, and concentrated. – Virginia Woolf
Which brings me to the matter of purpose – Option 3: Learning to Age with Grace.
I am not talking here about dignity or refinement; I am using the term ‘grace’ as it refers to the bestowal of blessings.
I agree with Jung and philosopher Hermann von Keyserling who said:
“Past are the times in which the mere acquisition of material enriched me inwardly. At one time or another, everyone reaches a critical stage, at which he can go no further in the former (material) sense, and the question presents itself: whether he is to stagnate entirely or transfer his development into a new dimension. And since life, whenever it is not exhausted, is incapable of stagnation, the necessary change of dimension takes place automatically at a certain age. Every individual, as he becomes mature, strives after greater depth and involution.”
But I believe that to stop there, basking in the glow of our increased self-awareness and hoarding the treasures obtained in our quest for greater depth, not only fortifies the dividing wall between young and old, but denies future generations the accumulated wisdom that could avoid a future crisis. It deprives the world of blessings.
When the seed is ripe, its hold upon its surroundings is loosened, its pulp attains fragrance, sweetness and detachment, and is dedicated to all who need it. Birds peck at it and it is not hurt, the storm plucks and flings it to the dust and it is not destroyed. It proves its immortality by its renunciation. – Rabindranath Tagore.
A few years ago I wrote this to my daughters as they entered adulthood:
“I know the world for you right now seems chaotic, ruthless, unjust, and fraught with danger. Imagine you’re dropped into the depth of a jungle. What would you do? How would you feed yourself? How would you know which plants to eat and which to avoid? How would you protect yourself from the elements? Now imagine that the only thing you can take with you are either tools (knife, waterjug, flint) or a survival manual written by a hunter-gatherer who lived in that same jungle years ago. Which would you choose?”
Weeks later, driving one of them home from work (berating her for something she had done – or not done) I asked her why it was that kids refused to learn from the wisdom of their parents. If we had already traversed the jungle, been battered and wounded, fought and slain tigers, and crossed victorious over to the other side, why insist on going through the same suffering? Isn’t that the value of adaptation in the process of natural selection?
In her characteristic wisdom, she responded:
“Because they wouldn’t be nor feel like our own victories. We want to have our own scars suffered in honorable combat with our own tigers.”
I was stumped…
And then wrote her my response:
“There are wounds you do not want, trust me.
I am not proposing to be your North Star or compass, but simply your lighthouse, because:
An only life can take so long to climb clear of its wrong beginnings and may never. – Philip Larkin
My intention is to spare you from the deadliest tigers.
In primitive, oral cultures, the young find their orientation in their world through stories and songs. They learn about their origins, how the world was created, how the human emerged, and – to my point – how to survive.
In the mythology of Aboriginal Australia there is something called ‘Dreamtime’: the dawn when the totem Ancestors first emerged from their slumber and began to sing their way across the land in search for food, shelter, and companionship. These meandering trails, or ‘Dreaming Tracks,’ are auditory as well as visible and tactile phenomena. The Ancestors were singing the names of things and places into the land as they wandered through it. The song is thus a kind of auditory road map through the wilderness. To make its way through the land, an Aboriginal person has only to chant the local stanzas of the appropriate Dreaming.
In Aboriginal belief an unsung land is a dead land. If the songs are forgotten the land itself will die.
I propose that an unsung story awakens the Tiger.”
The slumber of the ancestors is the involution Keyserling wrote about; it is Jung’s withdrawal of the sun in order to illuminate itself, it is Woolf’s withdrawal and concentration.
But the purpose, to me, is not to remain in slumber, but to emerge and sing our map to the young helping them find their way through the land.
Given my track record, there is not much I can say about what the right thing to do is, but I certainly have enough scars and wounds to which I can point so they’ll know what not to do. These are the only blessings I can bestow.
My period of involution is near its end and I’ve begun to write down my ‘Dreaming Track’: the chronicle of my tribulations, my joys and sorrows, loves and disappointments, victories and defeats, and of my most exalted as well as most ignominious moments.
Writing a Memoir is not the only way. Although they don’t say it, young people (especially men) are longing to be initiated into adulthood by the elders of the tribe; they hunger for the ripened fruit of their wisdom. The bestowal of blessings can come from mentoring a young boy or girl at a school or community, reading to children in a public library, or being more present in the lives of nephews and grandchildren.
At best, we might prevent a looming calamity, or at least, have the satisfaction of saying “I told you so” as we watch them getting mauled by a tiger.
“Old age, calm, expanded,
broad with the haughty
breadth of the universe.
Old age flowing free with the
delicious near-by freedom of death.
I see in you the estuary that enlarges and spreads itself grandly
I’m in Spain dropping off my daughter at a Masters’ Program.
Before arriving, I wanted to learn about the country, especially, the moments in its history that shaped its national psyche or soul – those events people can’t stop talking about no matter how much time has passed. If a foreigner asked me what he should learn before visiting the U.S., I would point him toward the Civil and the Vietnam wars.
When I study history, I choose to focus not so much on the what-and-when but on the why-and-who. I prefer to focus on the protagonists, rather than on specific events.
One of the moments that shaped Spain’s psyche was its three-year civil war that ended in 1939. Its principal protagonist was General Francisco Franco.
I watched several documentaries, and in one reenactment, was struck by the tenor of the voice used by the actor playing the role of Franco. Girlish and high pitched, I found it incongruent with the man who was ultimately responsible for the death of 500,000 of his countrymen. I suspected that I was in the presence of a wounded child, so switched from the documentaries, to dig into Franco’s childhood.
How to Build a Monster
The day Franco was born, his violent and alcoholic father was in a whorehouse. Franco Senior picked on his son’s feeble figure and high-pitched voice, calling him names like “Paquita” (female/diminutive version of Francisco), and “Marica” (slang for homo). When drunk, his father would entertain himself by pinching his younger son’s penis and asking his older brother if he could see anything between his legs. His brother would top-off the humiliation by calling his brother dumb and “little match” because of his large head and sticklike body. Franco’s mother would rescue him, and he would rush behind her sucking his thumb. As a result, young Francisco idolized his mother, even going as far as asking her to marry him when his father left the family for another woman. While Franco served in the military he lost a testicle which may have been the beginning of his prolonged sexual shortcomings. When Pilar Eyre, author of a biography on Franco, interviewed his Doctor about the incident and possible repercussions, he said: “My experience in this field leads me to believe his sexual life was nonexistent. He wasn’t interested in sex, he silenced his desires with his hunger for power and was therefore able to remain celibate almost all his life. Ambition replaced orgasms in his particular case.”
Before leaving for Spain, I had written two articles on mass shootings in America, linking several of the tragic events to the absence or abuse of fathers, the troubled childhoods of its perpetrators, and the absence of positive male role models or mentors in their lives. After reading-up on Franco, I wanted to continue my exploration by learning about the young lives of other infamous figures in world history.
Adolf Hitler was 14 when his father died. He had a poor record at school and failed to secure the usual certificate. He then spent two idle years in Linz, where he indulged in grandiose dreams of becoming an artist while not taking any steps to earn a living. His mother was overindulgent to her willful son and even after her death, he continued to draw a small allowance with which he maintained himself for a time. His plan to become an art student was foiled when he failed twice to secure entry to the Academy of Fine Arts. He earned a precarious livelihood by painting postcards and advertisements, and drifting from one municipal boardinghouse to another. During this period, he led a lonely and isolated life. In these early years, Hitler showed traits that characterized his later life: inability to establish ordinary human relationships; intolerance and hatred both of the established bourgeois world and of non-German peoples, especially the Jews; a tendency to passionate, denunciatory outbursts; and a readiness to live in a world of fantasy to escape from his poverty and failure. In 1913, Hitler moved to Munich. Temporarily recalled to Austria to be examined for military service, he was rejected as unfit; too weak to bear arms. Hitler greeted the war with enthusiasm, as a great relief from the frustration and aimlessness of his civilian life. He found comradeship, discipline, and participation in conflict intensely satisfying, and was confirmed in his belief in authoritarianism, inequity, and the heroic virtues of war.
The Russian dictator Joseph Stalin was a frail child born into a dysfunctional family in a poor village in Georgia. Permanently scarred from a childhood bout with smallpox and having a mildly deformed arm, Stalin always felt unfairly treated by life, and thus developed a strong, romanticized desire for greatness and respect, combined with a shrewd streak of calculating cold-heartedness towards those who had maligned him. He always felt a sense of inferiority before educated intellectuals, and particularly distrusted them.
Italian strongman Benito Mussolini was born into a poor family and lived in two crowded rooms on the second floor of a small, decrepit palazzo. Because Mussolini’s father spent much of his time in taverns and most of his money on his mistress, the meals that his three children ate were often meagre. A restless child, Mussolini was disobedient, unruly, and aggressive. He was a bully at school and moody at home. Because the teachers at the village school could not control him, he was sent to board with the strict Salesian order at Faenza, where he proved himself more troublesome than ever, stabbing a fellow pupil with a penknife and attacking one of the Salesians who had attempted to beat him. At rallies—surrounded by supporters wearing black shirts—Mussolini caught the imagination of the crowds. His physique was impressive, and his style of oratory, staccato and repetitive, was superb. His mannerisms were theatrical, his opinions contradictory, his facts often wrong, and his attacks frequently malicious and misdirected.
These four characters – Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini – were directly and indirectly responsible for the death of close to 100 million people.
In a nutshell, war and suffering is the price humans pay for unresolved boyhood traumas.
Lessons of History
Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. – George Santayana
For me, there are two lessons to be learned – and never forgotten – in studying the lives of these villains: one political and one personal.
The political, is never to choose a leader without first learning about his/her past. In fact, I propose that along with medical checkups and tax returns, we should require every candidate for high office to undergo – and make public – a thorough psychoanalytic examination.
On the personal side, much is to be learned about working with our shadow.
“The Shadow” is a concept first coined by Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung that describes those aspects of the personality that we choose to reject and repress. Aggressive impulses, taboo mental images, shameful experiences, fears, irrational wishes, unacceptable sexual desires— things we all contain but do not admit to ourselves that we contain. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).
Once we repress, we project, seeing in others what we are unaware, or won’t admit, lies within us. Although our conscious mind is avoiding its own flaws, it still wants to deal with them on a deeper level, so we magnify those flaws in others.
HITLER: “If the Jews were alone in this world, they would stifle in filth and offal; they would try to get ahead of one another in hate-filled struggle and exterminate one another.” (Chapter XI of ‘Mein Kampf’)
ANDREW JACKSON, 7th President of the United States: “[Indians]…have neither the intelligence, the industry, the moral habits, nor the desire of improvement. Established in the midst of another and a superior race, and without appreciating the causes of their inferiority or seeking to control them, they must necessarily yield to the force of circumstances and ere long disappear.” (At fourteen, Jackson was a tall, skinny, freckle-faced youngster with red hair and steel-blue eyes. He drooled when he talked, especially when excited. Because of this failing he was the butt of many cruel jokes, against which he could retaliate only with his fists. At sixteen, Andrew inherited three to four hundred pounds sterling from his wealthy Irish grandfather. This sum he wasted on high living, gambling, and horses).
DONALD TRUMP: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems…They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.”
In his ‘Little Book on the Human Shadow,’ Robert Bly says that as children we are living globes of energy, but one day we notice that our parents, our teachers, and our culture, do not approve of certain parts of that energy, so we carry an invisible bag behind us where we put all that unwelcome stuff. We spend much of our life, Bly says, deciding what parts of ourselves to put into the bag, and the rest of our lives trying to get them out again. The bigger the bag, the less the energy. If we identify ourselves as uncreative, for example, it means we took our creativity and put it into the bag.
Eating our Shadow
How do we empty the bag and eat our shadow?
When I was in my early teens, my parents’ relationship had hit the skids, but no one dared talk about it. Among my siblings, I must have been the one who tiptoed to our parents’ bedroom door and pressed my ear against it to hear them moan to make sure everything was all right. When those reassuring noises went silent, one night, while we were watching an episode of Bonanza (a western) and eating dinner, I had the temerity to ask my father why he no longer made love to my mother.
His eyes narrowed and lit up with rage.
“What did you say?”
I remember wanting to shrink and disappear within the folds of the reclining chair on which I sat, or that little Joe Cartwright (my favorite character in the show) would get shot dead right then and fly off his horse. Anything to deflect my father’s burning stare. Without a word, he got up and walked out of the room. Unintentionally, I had lifted the veil covering the romantic sham of my parents’ relationship. I must’ve been scared from seeing my fantasy of a happy family dissolving. My question had been an honest one, one desperate for an answer, but I got none.
I placed that moment into my bag and can’t tell you what specific hurt I caused for putting it there, but I’m sure I did.
Several years ago, I decided to look into the bag of my unconscious and bring out its content. I did it slowly, having learned that eating one’s shadow in one bite causes mayhem.
Guided by a modern-day shaman, I relived the episode with my father. As the therapist guided me back and deep into that fateful moment, the scene morphed in stages. The first descent did not do much to change the stage, scripts, actors, or feelings; I was still a frightened child cowering under my father’s enraged glare. But by the second and third descent, I began to see him, not as an overpowering, forbidding presence, but as another child who had simply been caught telling a white lie. With my eyes closed, I saw him weeping, and heard him tell me about his own childhood wounds. Bound by a common heritage, we embraced and became friends. I took his hand and we walked away through an open field conspiring for a world without adults.
I then told my wounded child the words he wanted to hear that night: that while true that his parents did no longer love each other, he had nothing to do with it and nothing to be be afraid of since their love for him would forever remain intact.
The Wounded Child
In ‘The Dance of Wounded Souls,’ Robert Burney writes that the inner child we need to heal is actually our “inner children” who have been running our lives because we have been unconsciously reacting to life out of the emotional wounds and attitudes (the old tapes) of our childhoods. We can do that by working on developing a relationship with those wounded parts in us. So long as we are judging and shaming ourselves we are giving power to the disease. We are feeding the monster that is devouring us.
The first step is to open a dialog. The adult must become a kind of wizard or mentor to the wounded child. Its own Yoda.
“Our lives are determined less by our childhood than by the traumatic way we have learned to remember our childhoods.” – James Hillman, Archetypal Psychologist
Shadow work is the process of making the unconscious conscious, gaining awareness of our impulses and then choosing whether and how to act on them. We begin this process taking a step back from our normal patterns of behavior and observing what is happening within us.
The next step is to question, “What does this outburst of anger or sadness want from me?” When we observe ourselves reacting to psychological triggers, we must learn to pause and ask, “Why am I reacting this way?” This teaches us to backtrack through our emotions to our memories, which hold the origins of our emotional programming. As we work to understand and accept our shadows we can then seek to unlock the wisdom they contain. Fear becomes an opportunity for courage. Pain is a catalyst for strength and resilience. Aggression is transmuted into warrior-like passion. This wisdom informs our actions, our decisions, and our interactions with others. We understand how others feel and respond to them with compassion, knowing that they are being triggered themselves. (Source: ‘Carl Jung and the Shadow: The Ultimate Guide to the Human Dark Side’).
Ordinarily in Western culture we have only two ideas: either we express, or we repress. Either one expresses anger or one represses it. Zen practice points to a third possibility: in meditation one might allow the anger to come in, so that the whole body burns with anger. The anger is not repressed; your whole body is anger. When the meditation ends, one has the choice of expressing it or not, but expressing it might not involve the lashing scene in which you scream at someone and wear tracks on your mind; it does not contribute to the disintegration of your own psyche. (Robert Bly, Little Book on the Human Shadow).
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” – Gospel of Thomas.
As I’ve continued emptying the bag, not only have I found repressed emotions, but distinct personalities, much like the famous case of Sybil Dorsett.
Beating Sybil by two, I have thus far discovered and catalogued eighteen such fragmented soul parts, which, when repressed or denied, have made me say (or not) and do (or not) things I’ve regretted. I call them ‘My Bestiary’ and have given each a proper name. Next to their name, I have listed the negative expressions of their energy and identified compensating qualities that I work to strengthen to keep them from running amok.
This reintegration amounts to re-establishing a conscious relationship between these fragmented soul-parts, or splinter personalities. One can’t be rid of them and shouldn’t. Our wounds, after all, parent our destinies and keep us in the body, and in the world. This re-centering does not obliterate conflict or multiplicity of soul but allows for the coexistence of a more central and detached vantage point from where an untouchable core of the personality serenely views the conflict.
Properly channeled and synthesized, these unconscious psychic energies enrich our lives, make us recover our polytheistic souls, or wholeness, and resurrect the incandescence hiding inside our hurting, dull, and rigid clay statues.
Franco, Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini carried enormous, heavy bags behind them. Unemptied, 100 million people died as a result.
We’ve scratched the surface of the “drug problem” by injecting it with $1.5 Trillion since 1971, and it has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction.
We can confiscate the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but mass killings won’t stop because the despair felt by many young men will still be there.
We can Band-Aid the “immigration problem” by building a wall all the way to the Moon and across the entire southern border; it will be riddled like swiss cheese with underground tunnels in no time. Hunger is a powerful motivator. Think East Germany and the Berlin Wall.
We will not stop Russia or any other foreign power from attempting to influence our elections for their benefit, as they can’t, and haven’t been able to stop the U.S. from doing the same.
What we can, and must do, is arm our voters, especially those coming behind us, with a powerful antidote: critical thinking skills.
Here’s a sampling of social media messages posted during the last election by fake accounts with convincing names such as United Muslims of America, Black Matters, Woke Blacks, Heart of Texas, and Being Patriotic:
“… hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” (Clinton’s spelling by the way, is not a typo).
“American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims.”
Being Patriotic“America has always been hinged on hard-working people. If you remove jobs, you’ll remove our country from the world map.”
Heart of Texas: If Hillary becomes President of the US, the American army should be withdrawn from Hillary’s control according to the amendments of the Constitution.
Lastly, my favorite, from The Army of Jesus:
Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities. – Voltaire
With their spread amplified by paid advertisements, some 130 million Americans saw at least one of the posts disseminated by Russian actors according to Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch.
What most stuns me about these posts, is not their absurdity, but their lack of subtlety and sophistication. It’s as if those who wrote them believe the U.S. is mostly populated by village idiots.
In 1983, the Reagan-appointed National Commission on Excellence in Education wrote the following in their report: ‘A Nation at Risk’:
“The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”
Little has changed, and since 1983, two generations of young adults have already marched through the assembly lines of our public schools and into our voting booths.
What is the purpose of education anyway?
Is it to produce new cogs and wheels to replace those that wear out inside the machine of our industrialized, tech-driven economy?
Or, is it to foster creativity, love of learning, grit, citizenship, and an open mind?
Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin, believes the former, and tried to change the century-old mission of the University of Wisconsin system – known as the ‘Wisconsin Idea’ – by removing the words that commanded the university to “search for truth” and “improve the human condition,” replacing them with “meet the state’s workforce needs.”
Critical thinkers are amiable skeptics, wrote Heather Butler for Scientific American. They are flexible thinkers who require evidence to support their beliefs and recognize fallacious attempts to persuade them. Critical thinking means overcoming all sorts of cognitive biases. Roughly speaking, critical thinking helps you figure out whether you should believe some claim, and how strongly you should believe it.
In his paper ‘Teaching Critical Thinking, Lessons from Cognitive Science’, Tim van Gelder says “humans are not naturally critical thinkers. Indeed, like ballet, it is a highly contrived activity. Running is natural; nightclub dancing is natural enough; but ballet is something people can only do well with many years of painful, expensive, dedicated training. Evolution didn’t intend us to walk on the ends of our toes, and whatever Aristotle (‘Man is a rational animal’) might have said, we weren’t designed to be all that critical either. Evolution doesn’t waste effort making things better than they need to be, and Homo sapiens evolved to be just logical enough to survive while competitors such as Neanderthals and mastodons died out.”
But it can be taught, and even better, a growing body of research is proving that more so than intelligence, wise reasoning leads to greater wellness and longevity.
But our schools and universities don’t teach it, as they don’t much teach the Humanities anymore – the philosophies, literature, religion, art, music, history and language that help us understand ourselves and our world. These disciplines are rapidly being replaced by Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
But I forget: rationalism is the new bogeyman, and most of us recoil when having to read anything longer than one page.
My concern with this whole ‘Russia Collusion’ thing is not with the threat outside influences present to our representative democracy, but more importantly, with the threats from within. An unthinking society is easier prey to homespun propaganda that triggers aberrant human emotions like fear, vanity, greed, envy, tribalism, scapegoating, and thirst for vengeance (Aldous Huxley must be smiling smugly in his grave).
When it comes to education, I side with our federalist (or nationalist) forefathers: Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, believing that something as vital to democracy as the education of its citizens must not be left to the vagaries of competing ideologies.
Here’s part of Jay’s essay ‘Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence’ published in the Federalist Papers:
“Among the many objects to which a wise and free people find it necessary to direct their attention, that of providing for their safety seems to be the first. I mean only to consider it as it respects security for the preservation of peace and tranquility, as well as against dangers from foreign arms and influence, as from dangers of the like kindarising from domestic causes. Let us therefore proceed to examine whether the people are not right in their opinion that a cordial Union, under an efficient national government, affords them the best security that can be devised against hostilities.”
Sadly, my vote for a unified approach to education is half-hearted, realizing that long-gone are the days when John Jay could confidently assure that “once an efficient national government is established, the best men in the country will consent to serve.”
But still…how we educate future generations in the Union, has, in my opinion, a direct bearing on the country’s security and prosperity so must not be left in the hands of philistines like Scott Walker, or the Texas School Board, which, in 2010, adopted textbook standards emphasizing the Christian influences of the nation’s founding fathers and diluted the rationale for the separation of church and state.
Despotism can only exist in darkness, proclaimed James Madison, and I agree. Our schools should be producing light bulbs, not mindless cogs and wheels.
So, Mueller, while you keep flogging that horse, you might want to consider what Mark Twain once said:
In the first place, God made idiots. That was for practice. Then he made school boards.
“My life didn’t start dark and twisted. I started out as a happy and blissful child, living my life to the fullest in a world I thought was good and pure…Ever since I hit puberty, I’ve been forced to endure an existence of loneliness, rejection,and unfulfilled desires.”
Elliot Rodger (22) wrote this in his Manifesto before stabbing three men to death in his apartment. Afterwards, he drove to the sorority house in which my elder daughter lived and shot three female students, killing two. Next, he drove to a nearby deli and shot a male student to death, and then sped through Isla Vista, shooting pedestrians and striking others with his car. Rodger exchanged gunfire with police during the attack, receiving a gunshot to the hip. The rampage ended when his car crashed into a parked vehicle. Police found him dead in the car with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
“Violence is what happens when we don’t know what else to do with our suffering.” – Parker Palmer
What turned Elliot from a “happy, blissful boy”, into a rejected, angry young man, tormented by unfulfilled desires?
Who manufactured his desires and illusions?
On average, American children watch 20,000 commercials per year, 92% of teens are online daily, and eight out of ten men between 18 and 30 view pornography at least monthly.
This is the Magic Realm in which many young men now receive their initiation. It is their distorted window to the world.
As a young boy, Elliot was told by the Realm to be polite and kind; girls like that, they said. But Elliot would soon find out that: “In a decent world, that would be ideal. But the polite, kind gentleman doesn’t win in the real world. The girls don’t flock to the gentlemen. They flock to the alpha male. They flock to the boys who appear to have the most power and status. And it was a ruthless struggle to reach such a height. It was too much for me to handle. I was still a little boy with a fragile mind.”
The Realm creates the illusion that no matter your background you will be accepted. Again, Elliot’s illusions shattered: “I was a bit hesitant to invite anyone from Pinecrest to my mother’s house, because it was located in Canoga Park, a bad area, and most of the kids at Pinecrest were upper-middle class who would look down on me for living there. But I couldn’t back out of this once my mother invited Connor. He came over and all went well, we played a few video games for a couple of hours. But after that playdate, he would always rip on me for living in a “poor” house. He would also tell other kids at Pinecrest about it. This infuriated me to no end.”
The Realm tells us things will be just fine if you work hard, stay out of trouble, and play by the rules. My father did all those things, and now – at age 86, suffering from bladder cancer – he lies in bed wearing a ski-jacket and mittens because he cannot afford to run his furnace, having lost close to three-quarters of his life savings courtesy of the reckless greed and irresponsibility of those that contributed to the stock market crash of 2008.
In this Fairytale World, good always triumphs over evil, heroes never cheat, liars see their noses grow, princesses fall for street urchins, happiness comes in a bottle, you join the army and “become all you can be”, girls enjoy being denigrated and abused (porn), everyone around you seems to be having the time of their life and getting everything they desire (Social Media), and conspicuous consumption – and a funny cat video – earns you the admiration of thousands of fans …it really is a wonderful place.
So, what happens when the light of reality is turned on, when the magic fails and the pixie dust dims?
How do we make sense of a world where good doesn’t always triumph over evil?
Where cads become presidents and heroes cycle on steroids.
When we witness, not the growing noses, but the swelling bank accounts of those who lie, cheat, and deceive.
When princesses don’t normally fall for polite paupers like in Disney’s Aladdin.
When girlfriends refuse to perform like porn stars, or when the cheerleader of your dreams refuses to kiss you because you actually look like a frog so your only choice is to settle for Audrey, your portly classmate with the wide hips and sensible shoes.
When the challenges inherent in every relationship pop our pink bubble of “happily ever after”.
What if the glass slipper won’t fit, but shatters?
When we don’t meet our expectations of success, when that gap gets too wide, violence often becomes the only option – the expression of a fantasy of ultimate individualism and control. – Barry Spector, ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’
Disgruntled and Wronged
Puberty is a bitch.
It’s a fragile time.
A time when young men are struggling to arrive at a sense of self; to think about what is possible, instead of what is real.
Humanistic psychologist, Carl Rogers, said that we all own a real self and an ideal self. The real self of course is what we are intrinsically. The ideal self is the self that we think we want to be, that we strive to be, and that we feel we are expected to be.
The problem arises when our ideal selves are too far removed from what we really are. When the discrepancy is huge, the resulting incongruence can lead us to become disgruntled and discouraged because the real self never seems good enough and the ideal self seems impossible to attain.
The typical personality attribute in mass murderers is one of paranoid traits plus massive disgruntlement, concluded Dr. Michael Stone, a forensic psychiatrist in New York after completing a study of 228 mass killers.
Dr. J. Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist who consults on threat assessment for universities and corporations, said the most salient feature of mass killers was their belief that they had been wronged.
What wronged them?
The illusions propagated by the Magic Realm.
This feeling of being a failure implies that in the depth of our being we have accepted some objective, if not some worldly, standard of success. – Alain de Botton
Assuming unlimited opportunity makes us believe we can be anything we want to be. This is a characteristically American misinterpretation of the indigenous teaching that we are born to be one thing, and the task of soul-making is to discover it. (Spector)
15 Minutes of Fame
“Boys’ old sense of purpose—being a warrior, a leader, or a sole breadwinner—is fading. Many bright young men are experiencing a ‘purpose void,’ feeling alienated, withdrawn, and addicted to immediate gratification,” write Warren Farrell PhD, and John Gray PhD in ‘The Boy Crisis’.
Absent meaningful purpose, young men are desperate to find something larger than their small lives, and in the Magic Realm, one way to find it is by achieving instant gratification through notoriety.
“I’m going to be famous.” – Robert Hawkins (19), Omaha mass shooter.
“Just look at how many fans you can find for all different types of mass murderers.” – Adam Lanza (20), Sandy Hook.
“Seems the more people you kill, the more you are in the limelight.” – Christopher Harper-Mercer (26), Oregon mass shooter.
“Directors will be fighting for this story.” – Dylan Klebold (17), Columbine
50 people perished for their 15 Minutes of Fame.
Boys will be Boys
They are masculinized in the womb by a bath of testosterone, wrote Chip Brown in ‘How Rites of Passage Shape Masculinity’ for National Geographic.
As boys come of age, Brown says, they are in the midst of a momentous transition, morphing under a fresh influx of the powerful hormone into physically mature men: body hair, defined muscles, bigger shoulders, burgeoning sexuality, an appetite for risk, and potentially elevated levels of aggression. They are coming to grips with behavioral tendencies and patterns programmed by millions of years of evolution.
“Boys will play with dolls, but chances are the dolls will be getting into a fight.” – Joe Herbert, Professor of Neuroscience, University of Cambridge
To ignore or deny this in the name of a gender-neutral society is to neutralize the constructive – often lifesaving – force males can bring to the world.
Masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland shielding students from bullets as he pushed them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre in 2012, when three young men died protecting their girlfriends.” – Jason Farrell, author at The Federalist.
The World Doesn’t Count to Three
Is what my father used to tell us when we pleaded him to count to three before ripping off the Band-Aids covering our wounds.
Like other mammals, humans begin life in a maternal womb. This space, bathed in amniotic fluid and kept warm by the surrounding body of the mother, is the archetypal nurturing environment.
After birth, the household – the realm of the Mother – symbolizes the psychological environment needed during the first stage of a boy’s life. It is a protected space, an enclosure in which he can grow relatively undisturbed by toxic intrusions from the surrounding world until his body and mind are prepared to cope with the physical and social worlds into which he has been delivered.
While the mother occupies the symbolic center of the first stage of individuation or selfhood, the father assumes this position in the second stage. The father is needed by the growing ego to gain freedom from the nurturing containment offered by the mother and to instill the rigor of functioning and performance demanded for adaptation to the world.
“Fathers don’t mother,” Yale Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett wrote in Salon Magazine, and a growing body of research demonstrates how important fathers are in a child’s life.
Where the first stage of individuation is characterized by containment and nurturance (the Garden of Eden), the second stage is governed by the law of consequences for actions taken (the reality principle). A person who is living fully in this type of environment has entered the “father world”. This is not the world as ideal but the world as real. Not the Magic Realm, but the world we live in.
Seven of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history were committed by young males. Of the seven, only one was raised by his biological father throughout childhood.
Who fills the void?
The Magic Realm.
Male Initiation in Traditional Cultures
As bridging institutions, schools in the U.S. increasingly play the archetypal role of the paternal parent to a growing boy, whose job it is to help him leave the family container when the years appropriate for nurturing are over and adapt to the demands of adult life in the larger world.
But 80% of teachers are women according on the 2016 survey by the U.S. Department of Education.
Manhood, in other words, is something many American boys must now figure out for themselves.
If we don’t initiate the young, they will burn down the village to feel the heat. – African Proverb
Globally, traditional societies have observed rites of passage signifying the emergence of young men from childhood to adulthood – no concept of adolescence intervened between stages.
Absent meaningful and transformative initiation rituals, young men in America are basically herded into one of three fiefdoms of the Magic Realm:
For the well-off: into competitive consumers.
For those in the middle: the army or the Union.
At the lower rung: the gangs.
None of which makes room for the wider community, Nature, the Feminine, or any other concerns of the ideal, mature masculine.
Led by the elders of the clan, traditional initiation rites of passage seek to prepare young boys to become men in service to their community.
“Discovering your place in the greater web of things, you offer thanks for your gift and return to share it with your people. You take up your new place as an adult in your clan.” – Bill Moyers.
What Can We Do?
I support universal background checks despite Nikolas Cruz (the Parkland shooter), having passed his with flying colors. I support a ban on assault weapons and overhauling our mental health system, but do not believe these measures go far enough, just as the $1.5 trillion this country has spent on drug control since 1971 has done nothing to lower the rate of addiction. Because addiction is not a “drug problem”, but the habitual avoidance of reality. It is the manifestation of despair.
We can go as far as confiscating the 270 million guns owned by Americans, but we will not see an end to the slaughter. The despair will still be there. The Magic Realm’s empty promises will continue disappointing and angering young men like Elliot Rodger, who, I remind you, also used a knife and his car to maim and kill.
And, NO, Mr. President, we don’t need teachers carrying guns. I worked with teachers for ten years. They seem congenitally incapable of operating anything with moving parts: copiers, laminators, etc. They are educators, not vigilantes. We cannot teach them to shoot, as we can’t teach you to empathize.
A Call to the Elders of our Tribe
In Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus), good and evil do not correspond to what we typically think of as morally right or wrong but have an agricultural meaning and refer to fruit that is ripe (good) and unripe (evil).
America waits for its elders to ripen our young men by guiding them towards their own definitions of Self, worth, and individual and transpersonal purpose; remind them that it’s not their desires but their struggles that define them; to teach them to become the best original version of themselves, rather than an inferior copy of someone else; to shepherd them away from the Magic Realm and teach them to cope with the realities of loneliness, rejection, disappointment, and loss.
I say this half-heartedly. A quick inspection of the “men” leading our tribe will make anyone realize we’re in deep shit.
Schools need more male teachers;
More male mentors pairing-up with troubled teens;
Not a single student eating alone at recess;
Not more Tablets, but more recess and counselors;
Equal emphasis on social-emotional development as placed on academics, and
The goal of the jump is to land close enough to the ground that the diver’s shoulders touch the ground. Any miscalculation on the length of the vine means either serious injury or death. Land diving among the men of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Island, goes back nearly fifteen centuries. The purpose of the ritual is twofold: first, it’s performed as a sacrifice to their gods to ensure a bountiful yam crop, and second, it serves as a rite of passage to initiate the tribe’s boys into manhood.
Ok, maybe not that extreme, but American boys need ritualized outlets for the fresh influx of the powerful hormone: testosterone. Anything but lying on a couch in the Magic Realm, playing at gunning, stabbing, mauling, and dismembering on a video screen.
Pop-up Calls to Kindness
I recently purchased socks online.
Ever since, ads for socks keep popping-up on my screen.
If the Tech Overlords in the Magic Realm can figure out how to do this, why don’t we put their genius and wizardry to better use by having them flood the screens of cyberbullies with pop-up calls to kindness?
And while we are at it, let’s require kids who bully classmates on social media to perform 180 random acts of kindness – one for each day at school.
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” – Frederick Douglass
Until we have the boldness to tackle the deeper issues that our young men confront, the flags will continue flying at half-mast.
If you are one of our tribal elders, consider mentoring a teenage boy, or play a more active, influential role in the life of a nephew or grandchild.
If, on the other hand, you are a young man entering adulthood and feel lost or disoriented, seek guidance from the older men in your orbit whom you trust and respect, Or find a mentor – your personal Yoda, Obi Wan, Dumbledore, Gandalf. Or drop me a line. Perhaps I can help.
In “Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans”, Plutarch chronicles the battle of Triganocerta between the forces of the Roman Republic – led by Lucullus – and the army of the Kingdom of Armenia led by King Tigranes the Great.
As Lucullus’ forces advanced across the Tigris towards Armenia, Plutarch reported:
“The first messenger that gave notice of Lucullus’ coming, was so far from pleasing Tigranes, that he had his head cutoff for his pains, and no man dared to bring further information. Without any intelligence at all, Tigranes sat while war was already blazing around him, giving ear only to those who flattered him.”
In the ongoing mud-slinging contest around climate change, many heads are falling.
“Why can’t we talk about climate change?”
Mary Thompson’s question weighed on my mind as I crossed a crystal landscape painted by a heavy snowstorm the night before, then frosted by early morning icy gusts. Every bare branch in the forest was garlanded with sparkling ice, and the snow crunching under my boots glinted like sifted flour of a full moon.
Why can’t we?
Mary is not only a dear friend, but a wild, wise woman, a modern-day Shaman and renowned author of the essential book ‘Reclaiming the Wild Soul’. More than the jargon contained in all the reports from the International Council of Science, to me – through her vivid landscape poetics – Mary does more to mend the umbilical cord that once tethered us to the Earth, and to evoke a visceral shudder when witnessing the consequences of our species’ rapacity and indifference born from our estrangement from the Wild.
“Another couple passes me, thighs like pistons. They’ve already climbed and descended two other valleys and are freely sweating. “It’s too warm for this time of year,” the woman tells me. I agree, and then hear their story: they live in Santa Rosa and only just escaped last October’s devastating fires. Heat and drought are not words they welcome; they have already been scorched. I say, “I’m afraid this is the new normal, the climate is changing.” The man looks away from me, quickly changing the subject. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to hear what I am about to say…”
I’ll tell you why I think he much rather cut off your head, Mary, than hear what you have to say (My emphasis on his gender is pertinent to the first part of my answer).
The reasons, I believe, are threefold: A twisted story, our neurobiology, and our addictions.
A Twisted Story
Myths are the dreams of cultures. They are the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves – our cultural DNA.
Here’s a sampling of the Western World’s stories of the ‘Great Mother’:
In the Olympian creation myth, Uranus (Father Sky) came every night to mate with GAIA (Mother Earth), but he hated the children she bore him. Uranus imprisoned Gaia’s children deep within Earth, causing pain to Gaia. She shaped a great flint-bladed sickle and asked her sons to castrate Uranus. Cronus, the youngest and most ambitious of her sons, ambushed his father and castrated him, casting the severed testicles into the sea.
In Greek mythology, DEMETER is the goddess of the harvest and agriculture, who presided over the fertility of the earth. Demeter’s virgin Persephone was abducted to the underworld by Hades. Demeter searched for her ceaselessly, and, preoccupied with her loss and her grief, the seasons halted; living things ceased their growth, then began to die.
In the religion of ancient Babylon, TIAMAT is a primordial goddess of the sea. She is the symbol of the chaos of primordial creation. In fierce protection of her progeny, she rebelled against her husband. Her rebellion brought down the wrath of all the gods, and Marduk was chosen to defeat her in battle as she was perceived as the demon of chaos. This archetypal masculine hero rent her in two during the power struggle. He turned Tiamat’s severed body into earth and sky, took over rulership of earth, and recreated humanity ruled by an all-male divine council.
GAIA, DEMETER & TIAMAT are all archetypes of the Great Mother: elemental creator and destroyer – the Womb and Tomb of life. She is the vernal spring and the harvest, as well as the blasted landscape, ravaged by drought, fire, or flood. In myths she is often destroyed, as humanity fears her all-encompassing power, her desire to never relinquish her children and to keep them infantile forever. The ambivalent mother archetype is projected in infancy onto the actual mother, who is both loving and protective, and at the same time, all-powerful
My mother loved to bake. As a young boy, in Shop Class, I made her a wooden kitchen palette, painted it fire-engine red, and lovingly gave it to her on Mother’s Day. My brothers never forgave me. It became her chosen instrument of flagellation – always at the ready – landing on our tender hides with loud smacks until it finally cracked. No one messed with my mother.
Men fear the irrational, the capricious, the chaotic, and distrust intuition – all those mysterious forces that constellate their unconscious.
For psychologist Carl Jung, the transition from unconscious life to conscious life in the development of humanity and the individual is mirrored in the separation of the child from the mother: “The first creative act of liberation [of the unconscious] is matricide” (Jung, ‘Collected Works’ 1954c, p.96).
“Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28
In ‘Madness at the Gates of the City’, author Barry Spector says that our world has been conditioned by 5,000 years of andocracy: a social system ruled by men, in which the stories are primarily of male heroes who create the world by killing Mother-Serpents.
These old, twisted, or lopsided narratives, were given greater authority by the Scientific Revolution’s conception that matter (from the Latin mater: mother) is lifeless.
When men agreed that the world was dead, the world itself became ‘Other’ – Barry Spector
“Progress typically runs from simple, dark, slow, primitive, and natural, to complex, light, speed, rational, and enlightened; in other words, from feminine to masculine. Our notions of masculinity are tied up with the myth of progress and the imperative to transcend nature.” (Spector)
That’s the reason, Mary, we don’t want to hear what you have to say.
“You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.” – Jonathan Swift.
Counter-arguments produce anxiety, because we perceive them as attacks upon our blind faith in progress. If one grows from wet/dark/feminine to dry/light/masculine, appeals to sustainability become entwined with threats to masculinity. (Spector)
If you would have asked the man, instead, about our species’ current-day plans for terraforming Mars and establishing the first human colony in outer space, he would have been all ears, cheerfully riveted.
Having befouled our Mother’s kitchen, left the stove burners on for days, and shattered her crockery, we wish to flee from our recklessness and her growing wrath. The scale of our destructiveness is so grand, we feel there is nothing we can do, so we pine for another chance, somewhere out there.
“History is replete with examples of social organizations, whether a business or a nation, that failed to perceive the realities of a changing environment and didn’t adapt in time to prevent calamity. Hubris and a self-reinforced dynamic of mass delusion characterize the waning phases of these once powerful groups. In hindsight we ask, “What were they thinking?” (Bradford, Jason. ‘The Neurobiology of Mass Delusion’).
Think back to the Great Smog of London of 1952, the Deep-Water Horizon Oil Spill, and The Bhopal Disaster. Now think ahead to June 4, 2018: Day Zero for Cape Town, South Africa – the day when fresh water taps are expected to run dry.
What are we thinking? Or better said: How are we thinking?
Visual signals get processed in more than one brain region, and the signal first arrives at the primitive hindbrain where it can respond before we are conscious of the threat. Playing runner up is the neocortex, our lumbering master of rational thought. Emotions motivate and guide us.
When we succeed or fail at a task, or are praised or scorned for a particular behavior, emotional reactions are our rewards (feels good) or punishments (feels bad) and become the guideposts for our future thoughts and actions. They become our “mental models,” setting what is important in life and largely defining who we think we are. When mental models are tied to rewards, we fear and rebel against their disruption. Because it receives and processes sensory input faster, our emotional mind can censor from conscious awareness information that may interfere with the task required to make the goal. (Bradford)
You, Mary, are disrupting and threatening our cherished, “feel-good” notion of progress.
It also appears that humans are inveterate optimists. We like to see our glasses half full, our clouds silver-lined.
Using and MRI scanner, Tali Sharot, associate professor of cognitive neuroscience in the department of Experimental Psychology at University College London, and neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps, recorded brain activity in volunteers as they imagined specific events that might occur to them in the future. Some of the events they asked them to imagine were desirable (a great date or winning a large sum of money), and some were undesirable (losing a wallet, ending a romantic relationship). The volunteers reported that their images of sought-after events were richer and more vivid than those of unwanted events.
A growing body of scientific evidence points to the conclusion that optimism may be hardwired by evolution into the human brain. We hugely underestimate our chances of getting divorced, losing our job or being diagnosed with cancer. We expect our children to be extraordinarily gifted; envision ourselves achieving more than our peers; and overestimate our likely life span (sometimes by 20 years or more).
To make progress, we need to be able to imagine alternative realities — better ones — and we need to believe that we can achieve them. Such faith helps motivate us to pursue our goals. To think positively about our prospects, we must first be able to imagine ourselves in the future. Optimism starts with what may be the most extraordinary of human talents: mental time travel. But, while mental time travel has clear survival advantages, conscious foresight came to humans at an enormous price — the understanding that somewhere in the future, death awaits. (Sharot)
Ajit Varki, a biologist at UC San Diego, argues that the awareness of mortality on its own would have led evolution to a dead end. The despair would have interfered with our daily function, bringing the activities needed for survival to a stop. The only way conscious mental time travel could have arisen over the course of evolution is if it emerged together with irrational optimism.
You are raining on our parade, Mary, so off with your head!
“The whole American economy would collapse if we all recovered from our addictions.” – Erica Jong
And addiction, is the habitual avoidance of reality.
From where I now sit, at sunset, cross-legged on a hardened snow berm by the river’s bend, the reality of global warming seems dubious. It is 30 degrees out here. Ice falls are stuck fast to the rock wall, and ice floes rigidly to each other blocking the river’s flow at various points. Much like our opinions, to which we desperately cling, impeding rational, civil discourse.
“We must shift America from a needs- to a desires-culture. People must be trained to desire, to want new things, even before the old have been entirely consumed. […] Man’s desires must overshadow his needs.” – Paul Mazur, leading Wall Street Banker. 1929
To consider the alternative reality, according to the prevailing – “full steam ahead” – narrative of those championing the status quo, would mean that we would have to give up our desires, comforts and conveniences, to scale back our consumption; to radically change our way of life. And we don’t want to do that, Mary, and that’s why we won’t talk about climate change.
We much rather be flattered and comforted, like King Tigranes the Great.