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.
“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.