December Songs

"As the days dwindle down to a precious few..."

Author: Brian Vandenberg (page 1 of 3)

Freud was Right!

Sigmund Freud

Freud was Wrong!

No, Freud was not right! Many basic tenets of Freud’s theory have been completely disproved. To name several: Psychosexual stages. The Oedipal complex. Belief that repressed memories from the first year of life can be unearthed. Sexual fantasy about intercourse with a parent is responsible for hysteria.  Even more damning, his methods and procedures cannot be called scientific, his evidence lacks scientific credibility, and what is offered as evidence was sometimes fudged, if not outright fabricated. Not surprisingly, Freud is absented from contemporary psychological pedagogy, theory and research. Claiming, “Freud is right!” is akin to shouting, “Long live the king!”; historical curiosities, both.

Key features of Freud’s theory, in addition to being wrong, are repugnant to modern sensibilities. Misogynist perspectives are integral to the theory and to the man. To name but a few of the more egregious: Penis envy. The moral inferiority of woman. Only psychosexually mature women can achieve vaginal orgasm, while orgasm by clitoral stimulation is evidence of stunted development. “Women oppose change, receive passively, and add nothing of their own.1

Cash Value

And yet…and yet…Freud’s influence is pervasive, profound and enduring. This may appear misguided and misinformed given the systematic disproval and pervasive disregard of his work. But his influence is deep, personal and subterranean—dare I say unconscious— insinuating itself into our daily thoughts, beliefs, decisions and conduct.

William James coined the term Cash Value to describe criteria to assess the merit and truth of an assertion or belief. Cash value is used metaphorically, meaning “does the assertion have practical utility; does it have real-world consequences or is it merely empty words?”2. Freud’s work is freighted with immense metaphorical— and literal— cash value.

Edward Bernays was the nephew of Freud. His mother was Freud’s sister and his father was Freud’s wife’s brother. Born in 1891, and brought to the United States with his family in the first year of his life, Bernays injected his uncle’s insights into the very marrow and bloodstream of American culture, altering its pulse and functioning—along with the rest of the world. He did so using the unique means and methods of American culture to achieve its most valued end: Cash. Life magazine named Bernays one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century.

The Darkness that Sells

Dark forces surge through us, compelling us to think, act and scheme to satisfy our primal impulses, all outside the bright lights of consciousness. Reason is a weak voice, easily overwhelmed by our desires, or employed, along with various other means, as a defense to protect us from awareness of the real, base motives that drive our thoughts and actions. This is Freud’s foundational vision of the human psyche. It is unflattering, if not repugnant, and not widely embraced. But it is a vision with inestimable cash value; one exploited by Bernays.

Edward Bernays made his fortune, fame and lasting influence by convincing people to buy things they don’t need, selling harmful products parading as health and beauty, rousing individuals to eagerly embrace slogans, and compelling them to surrender their individuality to the passions of the herd. He is considered to be the progenitor of public relations and is called “The Father of Spin”. He published a seminal book, Propaganda, that became Joseph Goebbels’ guidebook for his many Nazi propaganda campaigns, including developing the Fuhrer cult and orchestrating the genocide against the Jews.

Nazi Anti-Semitic Propaganda Poster: “He is Responsible for the War”
US Holocaust Memorial and Museum

Bernays became a highly sought, and extravagantly paid consultant to a number of leading businesses. His many successes include helping the American Tobacco Company to sell cigarettes to women, advertising them as glamorous “torches of freedom”; and aiding the United Fruit Company to sell bananas, and after the newly elected president of Guatemala threatened the business interests of United Fruit, Bernays persuaded the CIA and the US government—through rumors, innuendos, and manipulation of the press about a growing Communist menace—to overthrow the his government.

After World War II, Bernays rebranded ‘propaganda’, calling it ‘public relations’, giving it a more favorable spin. However labeled, his intent remained the same:

The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of…It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.

Bernays; Propaganda

We are more firmly in the grip of the subversive forces of marketing, ‘public relations’ and propaganda than ever. Social media, and the entire electronic universe within which we are submerged, that invades the inner most regions of our mind, are shrewdly engineered using Freud/Bernays-inspired principles to compel our attention, impel us to embrace unexamined and unwarranted conclusions, and propel us to act passionately in ways that exploit our unconscious desires—and, also, meet the explicit aims of the social engineers.3

This is a worldwide phenomenon. We are a mob. Or mobs. Twittering, tweeting, Facebooking, “liking”, chattering, texting, Instagraming, Photo-shopping, rumoring, instigating, provoking, inciting, lying, messaging, massaging, insisting, imploring; “truths” swirling in clouds blanketing the globe, marketed, managed and mined for profit—political, economic or otherwise.

The Darkness that Lurks

We, at least many of us in the US and the West, have lived in relative peace and prosperity for the last 75 years. This, a long quiescence, after nearly a half century of paroxysms of savagery, slaughter, mayhem and madness that consumed nearly the entire human race. A period that has been tamed and denuded of its horror; disconnected from us, neatly archived as World War I, WWII and the Great Depression. But archiving does not eliminate, or even diminish, the impulses that lurk in the human heart that gave rise to this bloody history. The political, economic and international structures that helped establish and maintain this quiescence, as well as the beliefs, routines and practices that buttressed public life and private affairs, are being torn down; tossed overboard. They may presage a growing whirlwind and coming storm of civilizations and their discontents.4

Freud was right…beware.

Hatred

See how efficient it is,
how it keeps itself in shape–
our century’s hatred.
How easily it vaults the tallest obstacles.

It is not like other feelings.
At both once older and younger.
It gives birth itself to the reasons that give it life.
When it sleeps, it’s never eternal rest.
And sleeplessness won’t sap its strength; it feeds it.

One religion or another—
whatever gets it ready, in position.
One fatherland or another—
whatever helps it get a running start.
Just also works well at the onset
until hate gets its own momentum going.
Hatred. Hatred.
Its face twisted in a grimace
of erotic ecstasy.

Oh these other feelings, listless weaklings.
Since when does brotherhood draw crowds?
When has compassion ever finished first?
Does doubt ever really rouse the rabble?
Only hatred has just what it takes.

Gifted, diligent, hard working.
Need we mention all the songs it has composed?
All the pages it has added to our history books?
All the human carpets it has spread
over countless city squares and football fields?

Let’s face it:
it knows how to make beauty.
The splendid fire-glow in midnight skies.
Magnificent bursting bombs in rosy dawns.
You cannot deny the inspiring pathos of ruins
and a certain bawdy humor to be found
in the sturdy column jutting from their midst.
Hatred is a master of contrast—between explosions and dead
quiet,
red blood and white snow.
Above all, it never tires
its leitmotif—the impeccable executioner
towering over its soiled victim.

It’s always ready for new challenges.
If it has to wait awhile, it will.
They say it is blind. Blind?
It has a sniper’s keen sight
and gazes unflinchingly at the future
as only it can.

Wislawa Szymborska5

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What is Sacred?

Sacre-Coeur

What is sacred? Some would point to the Bible, the Koran, the Torah, the Sutra, the Vedas. Some would say the sacred resides in their churches, their temples, their synagogues, their mosques. Some would say it is located in Mecca, in Bethlehem, in Jerusalem, in the Ganges, in Lumbini, in stupas, in the moon, in the sun. Clearly, what is sacred is based on the particular religion and its attendant teachings, practices, values, beliefs and history.

Temple Pagoda

Sacred and Mundane

Religion is the assumed frame for addressing the question, as scared is associated with the holy, which, in turn, is defined and understood within a religious context. The term ‘sacred’ is derived from Latin, meaning ‘to set apart’; a partitioning of the sacred from the mundane. The set-apart of sacred from mundane in most religions involves the separation of “this world” from a transcendental, supernatural world. The transcendental world is before and beyond this world and the source and origin of the sacred.

This partitioning is established and maintained by cultural-religious practices, worship services, dress, ceremonies, rites, and rituals that serve to mark the boundaries of the sacred from the habits and customs of everyday life. They also offer a well-worn avenue, complete with signposts, guides, and guardrails, for entry into experiencing the scared.

Sacerdote Diacono

These states, sacred and mundane, embody two different modes of being: One of awe, reverence, fear, and humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of god (or gods). The other, in contrast, of concerns and experiences of the quotidian and the commonplace. One extraordinary, the other ordinary. One transformative, the other commonplace.

This World Sacred

The set-apart, however, need not require a supernatural presence or origin. The sheer overwhelming presence of the world, the miracle that there is something rather than nothing, that it exists, that we exist, evokes the experience of the sacred. There is another world and it is in this world”.1 The sacred does not shine through this world from a source outside it—it is the world, itself, shinning.

This experience of the sacred shares much with the religious experience: It is not logical, not rational, not cognitive, but a state of being; of awe, reverence, fear, humility; of being in the presence of the unfathomable mystery and ineffable powers of the cosmos. The set-apart for this world sacred, however, is not found through established religious rites, rituals and practices.

The experience of the mundane is the product of being socialized into a ready-made world of routines and habits, familiar meanings and cultural rituals, that render the world obvious, given and straightforward.  And it must be so, if we are to keep from being overwhelmed by the angst and terror of finding ourselves in a world that is beyond understanding; that beneath our feet, firmly planted in the habits and rituals of daily life, lies the yawning void.  Experience of this world sacred, for those well secured to the “straightforward” world, requires breaking open the commonplace to glimpse the miraculous of this world that is papered over by the mundane.2

Experiencing This World

Whereas religion provides culturally established rituals and ready-made avenues for experiencing the sacred, no such sanctioned signposts or well-worn paths exist for experiencing this world sacred. The experience of this world sacred can come unbidden; surprising, shocking, disorienting, alarming, delighting, frightening us.

The encrustment of the mundane can also be punctured through science, which delivers head-spinning discoveries and mind-busting conclusions; our wildest dreams could not conger anything as bizarre, and contra the mundane, as quantum mechanics, black holes, or an infinite, expanding cosmos.3 Science teaches: The world is not only stranger that we imagine, it is stranger that we can imagine.4

Art, music, dance, poetry, theatre all, too, can shock us out of our mundane stupor. Seeing rather than looking; listening rather than hearing. A soup can, a splash of red, a face, a bird’s trill—anything, really—can be transformed to an experience of the sacred with the proper openness and reverence.5

Also, meditation— practicing to be present, alive to the experience of this moment without preconceptions—is another way to be present to the mystery, alert to the epiphany of the ordinary, alive to the holy and the numinous that is the world.

Some may object to this use of words “sacred”, “holy” and “numinous”, either because they fail to incorporate religious metaphysical referents, or because they reverberate with such connotations. But the power of these words does justice to the power of the experiences. No single religion owns these experiences. Indeed, their presence across religions underscores that they are fundamental human experiences resulting from our plight of finding ourselves alive within the Mystery of an unfathomable cosmos. And the challenge, for those of us for whom the sacred is This World, is to stand in the face of the Mystery, without explanation; astonished.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box Morality

Mahatma Gandhi

Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Florence Nightingale, these are giants of moral virtue, courage and commitment. They devoted their lives, sacrificed their lives, for the cause of justice and the greater good. When we think of living an exemplar moral life, it is these lives that we look to because of their engagement of big issues that affect big changes in a multitude of lives. They overshadow our small, insignificant lives, lived in the alleyways of common life.

An equally long shadow is cast from the methods typically used to understand the nature and development of morality. The study of moral development has, for decades, used moral dilemmas to determine one’s moral stage of development. For example, the question is posed, “If you were poor and your parent had a life-threatening illness that required a drug that you could not afford, would it be acceptable to steal it?” Analysis of the reasoning involved in the answer is used to determine individuals’ “moral stage”. Philosophical inquiries into the basis and origins of morality and ethics typically pose similar moral dilemmas to expose underlying moral reasoning and values. These approaches assume that morality is exposed in events of great significance, and that reason and logic are the gateways to identifying and codify the rules of ethics.

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box

I call the beliefs that morality is manifest only in the lives of great personages or in life-altering situations “Big Box” morality. It is presumed that from the flat, quotidian landscape of life, morality arises and is made manifest in singular lives and in life-defining moments. It is here where moral character is revealed. And this presumption is misguided. These singular lives and defining events, while important, are merely more pronounced features of the rich, dense moral landscape that comprise all our lives. Morality and ethics are not Big Box items. Nor are they derived from reason or deducible from logic. They are conditions of being, like breathing, where our every action is inescapably a moral one. We are, fundamentally, constitutionally, inescapably, moral.1 Not “Big Box”, but mom and pop morality.

mom & pop

I place my mother with Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Florence Nightingale in my moral pantheon of individuals I admire.  My mother, of course, is not Big Box. She, instead, underscores the absolutely essential contributions of the unheralded moms and pops. The moms and pops are all of us, not just parents, not just adults. Our lives are embedded within the moral matrix of family, friends, and communities, great and small, whose accumulated commitments form us, nurture us, bind us at the nuclear level. Moms and pops are the hands that reach from the past into the present, that constitute, stabilize, and guide us through life, and reach, though us, into the future. This occurs, not at moments of acute crisis, but at the at the everyday, ground floor of human action, care, giving and exchange.

Our daily life is a moral one, and it is only the moral currency we have earned in our life’s journey that matters:

Humans are caught — in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too — in a net of good and evil. I think this is the only story we have and that it occurs on all levels of feeling and intelligence. Virtue and vice were warp and woof of our first consciousness, and they will be the fabric of our last. … A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard clean questions: was it good or was it evil? Have I done well — or ill?. 2

Tribute and Remembrance

Mom

I offer this tribute to my mother and, by association, to all the moms and pops, whether parents, adults, or children, who form the collective web of moral regard that binds us together.

When my mother died we found this Bible verse, Psalm 86:11, on prominent display on her desk:

Teach me your way O Lord, that I may walk in your truth; give me an undivided heart to revere your name.

Teach me, my Lord, to be sweet and gentle in all the events of life—in disappointments, in the thoughtlessness of others, in the insincerity of those I trusted.

Let me put myself aside, to think of the happiness of others, to hide my little pains and heartaches, so that I may be the only one to suffer from them.

Teach me to profit by the suffering that comes across my path. Let me so see it that it may mellow me, not harden, not embitter me.

That it may make me patient, not irritable, that it may make me broad in my forgiveness, not narrow, haughty and overbearing.

May no one be less good from having come within my influence.

No one less pure, less true, less kind, less noble for having been a fellow-traveler in our journey toward eternal life.

Teach me O Lord, your way.

This is how she lived her life.

She died 5 years ago, on Good Friday, April 19, 2014.

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Field Notes: Mets

Mets is the moniker, the nickname, for the Metropolitans; a 4-letter word, a curse for the baseball team sharing the same city as the Yankees. The Mets are the yang to the Yankees yin. The Yankees are baseball royalty, aristocracy, old money. The Mets are baseball peasantry, commoners, Bernie-Madoff-bankrupt nouveau riche.1

Clowns and Costumes

Mr. Mets
New York Post

The Yankees eschew clown-mascots. The Mets’ mascot is Mr. Mets, addressed as Mr., presumably, because it dignifies the mascot; a mascot most famous for giving the finger to his fans. With a smile, of course. He was not fired for this, of course. It is noteworthy that his actions were provoked by merciless taunting from…Met fans,2 who insulted Mr. Mets’ mother (the Mascot’s mother!! And the actor in the mascot suit took personal offense?!). The press noted that Mr. Mets was not, technically, giving the middle finger, as he only has 4 fingers.

Banker Pinstripes

The Yankees wear banker pinstripes. No garish colors, or any color, here. No gaudy script across the chest to announce who they are. Just the simple Yankee logo, known worldwide; no further identification necessary. The Mets are bedecked with the colors, blue and orange, of the two teams, the Dodgers and Giants, that fled New York for greener fields of green, and whose departure left festering scabs of disappointment, loss and despair on their New York fans. The Mets keep fresh the scabs of disappointment, loss and despair in the colors that garb them, their play on the field, and the ineptitude of their boardroom. The Yankees are admired. Fans aspire to be Yankees. No such distance separates fans and team for the Mets. The Mets are us—failure, foibles, follies and all. Fans love the Mets.

Colors of Despair

Morality and Baseball

I love baseball, and love it for many, many reasons. One is because it is a morality play, where good and evil engage in mortal combat. There is a clear winner, a clear loser, and the outcome uncluttered by ambiguity. However, what makes baseball (and other sports) maddening, and despairing, is that good does not always triumph. No guarantees of victory by the righteous are issued in the sphere of baseball; it is not a Panglossian “Best of All Possible Worlds”. Indeed not, as the unrivaled success of that most evil of empires, the Yankees, attests.

Yankees’ out of Uniform

Anthropological Fieldwork

Since I have retired, I have undertaken an odyssey to visit all the baseball parks. My compulsion is not simply to see the parks, but to embark on anthropological journeys into exotic subcultures, each with their own unique architecture, food, attire, rituals, rites, heroes, history, emblems, songs and settings. And fans.

The Mets fans are fierce and tribal. Foreigners, especially National League East coasters from the competing divisional tribes, are greeted as invaders, and met with intimidation, jeering, taunting, vociferous challenges to their parental origins and legitimacy, and symbolic—and not so symbolic— threats. Warriors, asserting territorial sovereignty and protecting the sacred turf of home.

I visited the Mets stadium in the midst of a pennant race, at a game pitting the first place Washington Nationals against the beloved second place Mets. At stake was first place, and it was August, when standings and games get serious. I traveled to the stadium on the 7 train, crowed with boisterous, noisy Mets fans dressed in team shirts, hats, and the jerseys of beloved heroes. One of the most popular heroes is a current player, Noah Syndergaard, who dressed himself up as Thor, cape and all, and tweeted a picture of himself doing power swats.

Noah Syndergaard aka Thor
@noahsyndergaard

When I exited the 7 train, I walked a gauntlet of alcohol addled young men, shouting, dancing, posturing, posing, joking, and laughing; greeting the arriving throng with beer-can salutes and profanity laced exhortations. It was immediately clear: “You are not in Kansas anymore, Dorothy”! Or St. Louis.

The highlight (or lowlight) of my visit occurred before the game even began. A physically disabled boy was given the honor of throwing out the ceremonial “first pitch”. He was positioned about 30 feet from home with the Mets catcher poised behind the plate to receive his toss. The child gave a mighty effort and the ball bounced several times before reaching the catcher. Immediately, instinctually, reflexively, in herd-unison, the stadium erupted in a loud chorus… of boos!

I was dumbfounded and paralyzed between laughing hysterically at the absolute absurdity of what had just happened, and horror at what had just happened. As an experienced field researcher, I can offer this advice to any intrepid traveler who may plan to risk a visit to this most volatile tribe: Don’t wear pinstripes. Never volunteer to throw out the first pitch.

Baseball, Oh Beloved Baseball…

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Origins of Ethics

Morality Unspoken

The words were never spoken in my house. Never once uttered. Indeed, they were assiduously avoided, as if saying them would change everything, call into question the very meaning of the words. But never, for a day, for a moment, did I ever feel unloved. They were of a different generation, my parents, a generation less psychological, one less in need of constant reassurance, one both more and less direct. I never longed for them to say it, never felt deprived, never in doubt, for even in their displeasure, censure, and anger, I knew.

There is, of course, merit in saying the words, “I love you”. Few other words have such a life-altering impact as these. But the sinews of love, the binding strength of love, is in deeds, not words. This is why, before and beyond anything we utter, our deeds go forth in the world, and why I know that I, myself, am able to love—because my parent’s deeds live on in me.

My parents love for me, and my sister and brother, did not spring from their religious beliefs, was not contingent on church affiliation, not derived from “Thou Shalt Not” imperatives. They could have left their church (they did), changed religions, or become non-believers and their nurturance, protection and care for their children would have remain unaltered. Their commitment to our welfare was deeper than religion, more primal than creed.

Ethical Indebtedness

We do not choose our children. They are born to us, miraculously, and we are entrusted with their care. Our face-to-face encounters with our children are asymmetrical; our children are completely vulnerable to our response, completely dependent on our care. They expose us to the mystery of life, and their helplessness alerts us to the ever presence of harm, injury, death. Their life depends on our simple, daily acts of feeding, giving and care. We love our children, not for what they can do, or what they provide, but because of who they are, their irreducible uniqueness; specific beings who are bound to us, who have a moral claim on our being.

This moral claim entails love. If our “care” for children is merely functional, simply dispensing nutrients, offering basic shelter, and providing the bare essentials necessary for survival—“care” without love—our offspring wither and die.1 Every culture, in every historical epoch, shares these human truths. Our love for our children, and the attendant acts of care, are hardwired.  And this must be so, if our species is to survive.

The ethical circle of regard encompasses more than our children. We are a social species and our individual and collective survival depends on our communal acts of care, cooperation and sharing. This, too, is hardwired, from the specific brain neurons dedicated to human facial recognition, to neonates’ innate ability to imitate others, to toddlers’ preverbal appreciation of fairness in exchanges, to young children’s spontaneous acts of compassion toward someone in distress.

Ethics does not appear only when creeds are uttered. Morality is not confined to those who profess certain beliefs. We are beholden to others, dependent on one another throughout our lives. We are, fundamentally, ethical beings. Our daily, in-this-moment journey is a moral one, and every action a decision about how to comport ourselves in the face of ethical demands engendered by being with others.

Ethics and Cruelty

Picasso’s Guernica
Museum Reina Sofia
Madrid, Spain

Human history, however, or even a cursory glance at the morning headlines, reveals a frightening range of human cruelty, casting a shadow over assertions about the fundamental ethical nature of human life. Our primordial ethical indebtedness does not prevent murder, rape, abuse or the many other forms of malevolence or, for that matter, the petty acts of greed, dishonesty, and selfishness that pollute our daily life. Overwhelming evidence indicates that more than ethical kindness beats in the human heart. But human cruelty does not obviate the centrality of ethics in human life. Rather, our ethical relatedness exposes human cruelty, allows us to grasp it as such.

Ethical Humanism

Ethical Society St. Louis

I am a member of the Ethical Society of St. Louis, which is a humanist, non-theist religious community. We are often queried by our more traditional religious friends of how we can be moral without a creed; how we can be ethical without a belief in a higher power. These questions are posed to us by those from a variety of different religious traditions, beliefs and practices. Our answer: The multiplicity, diversity, and sometimes contradictory ethics of the many religions spring from a common human ground of ethical regard. Or, more simply: “Deed Before Creed.”2 3

Bombers & Butterflies

Tucson Postcard

Air and Space Flight

We visited the Pima Air and Space museum during our stay in Tucson and I expected to be mildly interested. Instead, I was deeply touched—surprisingly so. As a kid I was consumed with books about WW II pilots and air combat, and when I saw the B-17 Flying Fortress, B-24 Liberator, B 29 Superfortress and the P-51 fighter, I choked up. The bombers were so brutal and so beautiful, and what was especially gut-grabbing was the ball-turret under the fuselage of the B-24. Strapped into a space with NO wiggle room, a casket waiting to happen, barely visible amidst the tubes, gears and gadgets, the gunner was literally a breathing extension of the weaponry.

The bombers were industrial—not one concession to comfort or human concerns—WAR was the architecture writ large in every detail. On the B-17 and B-24, neither was pressurized and they frequently flew at altitudes of 20,000 feet or higher. They had doors that opened for gunners with machine guns so the crew endured sub-zero temps at high altitudes for hours.

There was a special hanger for the B-17 and the day we were there a vet who flew 28 missions in 1943 was there to talk about his experiences. 95 years old and he looked and talked like someone in their 70’s. He had interesting stories, but even more noteworthy was we were in the presence of someone giving voice to frightful happenings so long ago; the last echo of a past age.

The B-29 Superfortress, which is what dropped the A bomb, was the largest and most impressive of these planes.  It turns out, they were very dangerous—for the air crew, because the engines had a propensity to catch fire, and accounted for more losses that enemy fire. The problem was known from day one, yet they continued to make 4,000 of them. Why? The calculus of war— its strategic importance (long range, high altitude, pressurized, heavy payload bomber) outweighed the known casualties that would result from the design. We protected civilians of opulent prosperity have been spared these types of grim calculations…as those who have been in combat know only too well.

Flight in Air and Space

The previous day we visited the Tucson Botanical Garden, a gem of artistically arranged plants from several desert regions (with local bird accompaniments). What proved to be the surprise of our visit was the butterfly house. To prevent any errant escapees, a guard was stationed at the double-doored entrance to escort visitors in, and a guard manned the exit of the small enclosure, scanning those leaving for any hitchhikers, before allowing them to depart through double-doors.  Entering—what a sight! Amidst blooming orchids, tropical plants, in jungle-like humidity, were hundreds of winged, near weightless apparitions, filling the air. The fluttering yellows, reds, whites, browns, blacks and iridescent blues evoked an ephemeral, dream-scape. We stayed here for a long time, holding our breath, as the butterflies flitted about in their erratic flight—prompting me to ask; what kind of body-music animates these whimsical paths? Certainly not the one-two, one-two, that organizes our movement.

(An attempted hitchhiker)

Flight

Flight of the butterfly, flight of the B’s. Both lifted by the same currents— one, a bejeweled, vulnerable expression of life; the other, a steeled fist, tasked with ending it.

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

Randall Jarrell

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

(See Jessica Plattner’s stunning paintings of themes related to “Bombers & Butterflies”: http://www.jessicaplattnerart.com/home.html)

Dictionary of Silence

Silence of The Oxford English Dictionary:   
“The complete absence of sound”. 

This definition is a succinct statement of the physical characteristics of silence. It exists as an absence, a negation, a nullity. This definition, however, is impoverished by the exclusion of the psychological aspects of silence. Unlike physical silence, psychological silence is not an absence—it is a presence filled with meaning. Many, many meanings; sometimes elusive, sometimes contradictory, but always of significance. I offer this very abridged Dictionary of Silence to augment Oxford.

Silence of Language:

Silence is a precondition for language. It presupposes a silent regard between speakers. When we come into the presence of another, before we speak, we share a common ground of understanding that makes speech possible. We need not share the same language—a mutual understanding that we are in the presence of another, a shared co-presence, an intersubjectivity, is implicit in our face-to-face encounter. We are meaningfully attuned to others from birth, as our biology instinctively orients us to the face and eyes of others. Nonverbal gestures—eye gaze1, facial expressions, bodily postures and movements—all are of the fabric of intersubjective regard from the first moments of life. We do not need the physical presence of another to be within the meaningful ground of silence; our very being confers meaning to silence.

Silence of Music:

Music, like language, presupposes silence. It is a form of language whose expressive power “takes over at the point at which words become powerless2. It may seem that music is composed from the notes, from the sounds, but this is only half-accurate. Music teachers talk of those who have a musical sensibility and those who don’t. Beginners, and those who don’t, can play all the notes, and perhaps do so in perfectly correct time, but they do not “make music”. To do this, one also needs to play the silences; the pauses, hesitations, legatos that express the meaning of the relations between the notes. Music is not in the notes, but in the silence between them”3. The ultimate expression of the central role of silence in music is John Cage’s ‘composition’, 4’ 33’, consisting of 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence. The “music” is whatever sounds that occur during this silence. He purposely draws attention to the fact that sound arises from the ground of silence, and that all sound-silence in our lives can be experienced as music. Once we decontextualize sound-silence from our usual interpretative frames, experience it as “music”,  we become aware of the sheer miracle of sound—any sound—that startles us, alerts us, awakens us to the thrill of being alive. It is not unlike the visual artist Andy Warhol whose soup cans urge us to “see”.4

Silence of the Elephant (in the room):

This is the unspoken presence of an unavoidable issue that is avoided; left to the realm of silence because, if given voice, it would lead to unpredictable and, perhaps, irreversible, damaging consequences. This is a silence of fear and anxiety.

Silence of Complicity:

Elie Wiesel offers this exhortation against silence: “We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

And here is Pope Francis’ response to the question that he was aware of and sheltered priests who had sexual abused children: “The truth is humble; the truth is silent.”

Silence of Guilt:

When accused, silence is a powerful, ambiguous and, possibly, damning statement. Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who wrote extensively about the power and meaning of silence, had this response to the accusation that he was a supporter of the Nazi’s during WWII (he was a card-carrying member of the Nazi party until almost the end of the war):   Silence.

Silence and Truth:

Silence can also offer up truth. Newton, perhaps the greatest scientific mind, who possessed unimaginable creative power to penetrate Nature’s secrets, has this to say: “Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation”.

Silence of Books:

They sit on the shelf, mute. The soul of the author, who may be long dead, pressed into its pages, waiting to be released in the life of another who, silently, will enter its corridors of meaning. A book is a miraculous leap of the spirit across space and time, in a collusion of silence.

Silence of Libraries:

A double silence permeates libraries. Rows and rows, floors and floors of books, poised at attention. The air vibrates with the silent murmur of centuries of voices, compressed between covers, beaconing passers-by to leap across space and time into another reality. Libraries are also a place specifically set aside for books, and one of the very few public spaces that enforce a code of silence. Libraries honor and pay homage to reading and contemplation. This is a sacred silence, the silence of a temple to the life of the spirit.5

Silence of Truthful Madness:

Helen Keller was both blind and deaf, and offers this insight about the relative loss from each: “Blindness cuts us off from things, but deafness cuts us off from people.”

Deafness creates a wall of silence, blocking all communicative contact through that most potent, biologically conferred means of exchange; speech. The lack of hearing, however, does not exclude from the circle of human relatedness. The fundamental ground of intersubjective regard conferred by our human biology, noted above in the Silence of Language, is shared by those who cannot hear, and makes possible the various forms of nonverbal communication used by the deaf community.  Nevertheless, isolation and an underlying sense of “other”, of being outside the normative circle of the “hearing world”, accompanies deafness and can result in profound and disturbing detachment. Goya, one of the greatest of Western painters, became deaf in his later years. Over the course of his lifetime his paintings moved from deeply insightful psychological portraits of royalty; to deeply unsettling depictions of war; to, finally, deeply disturbing images of universal human madness.6 I cannot help but think that this last stage was forged within the detachment of silence that gave rise to his penetrating and unsettling visions of the human condition. I have tried to capture what this experience must have been like for him by watching television with the sound off; trying to view the actions of the players, naively, without the automatic interpretive frame we typically use to understand social activity. This, I think, has helped me to crudely conjure up his experience; the human scene as a “clown pantomime of absurdity”.

Silence of Love:

This silence assuages our isolation and loneliness in an indifferent world. Knowing that someone we love is in the world, with us, even if they are not visibly present, imbues our experiences with their loving scent. I sit in my house, alone, writing, but I know that I am not bereft, for while Sharon is absent, the silence of the house sings her presence. Her presence in the world warms the silence of her absence.

Silence of Grief:

This silence is a scream, a lament, a cry of emptiness. It is the absence of a presence that will never return. When someone we love dies, even if expected, the absolute finality of the loss and their irreversible disappearance is a silence that chills. This silence in a house of grief unmoors us.

Silence of the Grave:

This silence passes beyond the silence of the living—to nonexistence; to Oxford’s definition of Silence.

Silence of Being:

There are many, many more silences, all with their special meaning: The silence of 3 AM darkness, the world all to myself; the silence of a winter’s night snowfall, covering everything in brightness; the silence of the desert that assumes an almost physical presence. I am sure you can think of others.  We cannot escape its ubiquitous presence but it is oft overlooked, ignored, avoided; hidden by the noise that surrounds us, the noise we make, the noise we seek. We chase away silence with loud distractions, incessant chatter and self-reassuring boomings aimed at keeping us from fully experiencing the deep silence that enfolds us, pervades us, resides at the heart of our being. Silence is a route to the sacred in many religious practices, for it is in silence that we shed the nervous, busy-bustlings of the world.  It forms the ground of our life-giving bonds with others. It also constitutes the most severe form of punishment—solitary confinement. The emptiness, the solitude, the isolation of silence intimates death, and can provoke responses untethered from the mundane concerns of everyday life. Silence offers a glimpse of our existential predicament, inspiring transcendence, underscoring our relatedness, and evoking angst, despair and madness. Oxford’s Silence brackets our life, and between these brackets we inhabit the Dictionary of Silence.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy New Year!

“Opening Words” for Ethical Society Platform
 December 31, 20171

Today is New Year’s Eve. Many will be going to parties where there will be much merriment, singing, countdowns, kissing (and more). Restraints are lifted; noisemakers, hats, costumes, games and drinking to excess mark this joyous occasion. It is an affirmation of life, but just below the frantic fun lies the thorn of mortality:

We have made it through another year”!!

Will we make it through the next”??

New Year’s Eve parties are part of a larger calendar of life. New Year’s is a national holiday that formally marks a change in time; banks, schools, government and businesses are closed, our calendar scrolls to the next year, marked by a new number, as we are synchronized to a communal rhythm regulating our individual lives. New Year’s marks an end, and a beginning, in the seasonal round of time. A time of pause to consider the passage of time, reflect on our lives and our place in the larger cosmic arc.

New Years is the oldest of human holidays, dating back to Egypt and Babylon, and the most universally celebrated world-wide. It is a celebration often associated with celestial events: winter solstice, moon and sun cycles, seasonal changes. Cosmological myths and stories of our human origins and fate are entwined with this celestial ordering of our lives. Our contemporary celebration of January 1st is a legacy of the Roman calendar and cosmology; January named after Janus, a two-faced god, simultaneously looking backward and forward in time. While New Year’s has recently become secularized, it has long associations with both pagan and Christian celebrations.

It is most appropriate, then, that today Dr. Claude Bernard will discuss the scientific understanding of the cosmos and its role in our human origins. This is our Ethical Society origin “story”, and is why we have a prominent display of evolution in our gathering space downstairs. I use the word “story” metaphorically, as this story is derived from fact not fantasy.

I know many find this “story” unappealing cold, rational, and without appreciation of the transcendental mystery that pervades our lives. And this is mostly an accurate assessment of the scientific method. It is purposely impersonal, which is required to arrive at facts that are universal and not dependent on the perspective of any one observer. Understanding must be derived from a reasoned integration of the facts that anchor explanation in the material world. The understanding that results from this method, however, while not transcendental, is certainly not lacking in wonderment.

Our presence here today is bestowed by miraculous conception. We are stardust, composed of elements forged in cataclysmic cosmic conflagrations of unimaginable scope and power, hurling seeds of new forms, new worlds, into the void, across vast distances of space and time. The earth and all life found here, past and present, are the progeny of these seeds. And the dust that is us, configured into breathing, beating life for a cosmic eye-blink, derives its origins from the happenstance of millions of years of cumulative couplings, reaching back to the first wriggling’s of life on this planetary outpost.2

Almost as miraculous, we speak here today of these origins. Dust giving voice to its own beginnings; the cosmos, through our most frail, ephemeral being, bearing witness to itself. The facts, methods and rational inquiry of science yields an origin “story”, rooted in the material world, more astonishing than any conjured through transcendental metaphysics. In Goethe’s words:

“The highest religious act is the shudder of awe before the visible universe”.

May you experience a shudder of awe at the wonderment of our cosmic origins.

Happy New Year!

December 7…

December 7, 2014
A Day that Will Live…

She, downstairs, unable to sleep.  I, upstairs, awake, with an injured knee. We meet, with surprise, on the stairway, stumbling in our own world’s worry. A 3 AM reunion of the elderly. We feel the end in our bodies, in our bones, as we embrace, grateful that we are here, now, together in the darkness.

winter night
moonlight
shadows

 

December 7, 1941
…In Infamy

The searing memories of  December 7, 1941 fade into the black-and-white of history, as most of those who lived it are gone from us. But the aftershocks still pulse. My father was drafted into the army after December 7, 1941, and my mother moved to Washington DC to work in the war effort, where she met my father.  Seventy-three years later, Sharon and I, serendipitous progeny of that fateful day, embrace in the darkness…

precious life
heft measured
in grief

 

 

Songs of the Seasons

November’s Song1

The leaves changing to deep, intense colors—blood red, sunshine yellow, electric orange—express the passion of life’s last exclamation before surrendering. Life’s goodbye. I feel an empathy, a communion, an organic connection to trees. As I watch my hair grow white (sadly, no reds, yellows, oranges; I go out with a whimper, not a bang…), feel my limbs creak and groan under the strain of the north wind, as I observe the obvious decay of my memory and vitality, I draw comfort from my friends the trees.

One of the most poignant and evocative moments of the fall, a moment that stops me, breath abated, is the gentle flutter and fall of a single, solitary leaf. Followed by the seemingly capricious and hypnotic flutter of another. And another. Tens of thousands of leaves on a tree, each scribing their unique trajectory to the earth.

December’s Song

The transition to December’s song are trees, denuded, but surrounded by a blanket of fallen leaves. It lasts only for a day or two, before the color is drained by decay, the leaves swept away by the wind into piles of soon-to-be compost. The last, faint kiss.

 

Winter trees, shed of their life, reveal the bare, skeletal expression of a lifetime of storms, struggles, and strivings captured in the frozen movements and entanglements of the bare limbs and branches.2

Winter trees speak truth. Everywhere I turn, they stand, reminding me of my fate; a fate that looms. But the trees also reassure that I am not alone. My fate is shared with all life, however humble and brief, that has burst from our fertile earth. My good fortune is to have been given awareness of my life, of my seasons, and to bear witness to the experience of the seasons that all life, in their unique form, experience. I go down in a crowd. Can I, through the pain and suffering that usually accompanies the end of life, draw some measure of solace knowing that I join a wide, well-trod path? That pain and suffering are the grease to ease the passage into the night? That the adventure of life exacts its measure of payment? Can I…?

In Blackwater Woods
Mary Oliver

 

Look, the trees
are turning
their own bodies
into pillars

of light,
are giving off the rich
fragrance of cinnamon
and fulfillment,

the long tapers
of cattails
are bursting and floating away over
the blue shoulders

of the ponds,
and every pond,
no matter what its
name is, is

nameless now.
Every year
everything
I have ever learned

in my lifetime
leads back to this: the fires
and the black river of loss
whose other side

is salvation,
whose meaning
none of us will ever know.
To live in this world

you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it

against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let go,
to let go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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