December Songs

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

In Memory of My Mother

My cosmic good fortune was to be born into this world, loved, cared for, and given life-wisdom by my mother; an angelic spirit in human form. She died 10 years ago today, April 19, 2014. This post is a memorial to her life and to her presence that lives on in me and the many others whose lives she graced with her loving touch. This is the eulogy I gave at her memorial:

My mother was a “Jolly Swinger”. I bet you didn’t know that. In the 60’s, she, along with a small group of other housewives seeking afternoon pleasures, formed a group. The “Jolly Swingers” was what they called themselves—- it was the name of their bowling team. I’m not quite sure if she was naïve to all the associations with the name, or if it was a sly wink. Either could be true. She never said. And I couldn’t tell.

My mother possessed a deceiving innocence. She was small in stature, had snow-white hair with curls surrounding her head that, in the proper light, shone like a halo. Her voice had a lilting inflection of song, and her mouth, in resting state (which was rare) had a slight crease of a smile from years of laughter. She was gregarious, enjoyed the company of others, and left a trail of love and affection in her wake. Her spirit was uncontaminated by many of the usual human failings: She was without guile and ego; she harbored no malice and was incapable of intrigue. 

Most would not know, and few would suspect, that she had seen much hardship in her life. She was born and raised in Appalachia. Her father died in 1933, at the height of the Great Depression, when she was 12, leaving her to be raised by her mother who had an 8th grade education and no means of support. She and her mother moved often; from Kentucky to West Virginia, then to Florida and on to Washington DC, where she met my father during the war. After the war, she moved to upstate New York to join my father’s family. Later in life she moved back to Florida, then to North Carolina, and moved 2 more times after she was here in this state.

She learned much from her moves, including sensitivity to those who do not fit in, those on the fringe, and resilience to cope with life’s vicissitudes with openness and acceptance. Joys and heartrending sorrows followed her. She was tough, very tough in ways that were largely invisible. In the face of much hardship, when she could have easily succumbed to despair, she instead chose hope; instead of bitterness, she chose forgiveness; instead of rancor, she chose love. What steeled her, anchored her, saved her, was her unwavering faith. She rarely talked of her faith—hers was the quiet variety that was articulated in her comportment, actions and deeds.

When my wife, Sharon, joined our family she would compliment my mother on things she admired: “What a beautiful lamp”, said Sharon.  “Oh, do you want it?”, replied my mother. Sharon stopped making such remarks as it became clear that my mother was prepared to give away her entire household, if asked. Things, possessions, held little sway for her—–people and their welfare were her currency.

Kindness was not an intentional act for my mother; it was who she was. Her days were punctuated with acts of kindness, large and small, and I give you several examples.  One of the residents at Jordan Oaks (which was the independent living facility where she resided for some time), was also named Pauline; she was Jewish and, for many reasons, felt like an outsider there. She played cards with my mother and confided in her. When Pauline was diagnosed with cancer, my mother gave her one of your church’s prayer shawls to take with her to chemotherapy. Pauline wept on receiving it. She did take it with her for her chemotherapy and after, when the treatment failed, was comforted with it as her death approached. Then there was the middle aged Black man who shared rehab for knee replacement surgery with my mother, who, after 4 or 5 sessions, began referring to her as “mom”. And the Hispanic cleaning staff at Jordan Oaks, who called her “pollito”, an affectionate diminutive in Spanish that sounds like “Polly” and means “little chicken”. She was not influenced by a person’s station or status in life; the outsiders, the marginalized, the disenfranchised these, especially, drew her attention and affection.

Here is what she taught me about humility: When she left Jordan Oaks, she received notes of gratitude from the cleaning staff, and from others, letters of appreciation for her wisdom and kindness. When I asked her about it, she was truly perplexed: “I don’t understand, I was just being me”, she said, and changed the subject. This was not a coy avoidance. Her humility did not involve restraint in publicly acknowledging attributes she secretly took pride in. Rather, what she did was so integral to who she was that it was invisible to her. She simply didn’t understand what the fuss was about.

She was kind, generous, and humble, but also was an astute judge of others. She had a keen and unerring eye for falsity, pomposity and cant, but kept her opinions private—unless she was violated. She may have appeared a naïve, easy mark to some, but she was not afraid, when pushed, to offer pointed, confronting observations that could freeze someone in mid-air. Coming from her, such remarks were especially powerful, for they were both so very rare and, when given, so very incisive.

This oft hidden aspect of her was tellingly revealed in a court case where she was the central witness. When she was in her early 80’s she was in a car accident and the driver of the other car sued my mother for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages. The case dragged on for over 6 years before it came to trial. My mother was 88 at the time. The strategy of the opposing attorney was clear: To demonstrate that my mother was a confused, disoriented and uncertain old woman who should not have been driving and was obviously at fault.  When the questioning began, the attorney was quite confident and full of herself. My mother turned out to be a cool, savvy and unflappable witness—she calmly conceded nothing. As the interrogation progressed the attorney became more confused, disorganized and uncertain— it became obvious that the attorney was simply harassing this sweet, innocent elderly lady. The jury met for less than a half-hour and dismissed the case.

The last days of her life held true to her entire life, and I offer this final example that occurred moments after her last breath: My mother spent the last 2 weeks of her life at the Carolina House, a remarkable assisted living facility in Cary. These last days were marked by a precipitous decline in her functioning; helplessness, pain, confusion, weakness, and discomfort prompted fervent prayers by her that God take her from this world. My sister, Linda, her husband, Paul, and I were with her when she died. Two aids walked in seconds after, saw us, understood what had just happened; they began to cry, and hugged us. They talked of her gentle, endearing spirit and how they loved Miss Polly. She had been there only 2 weeks, in the most demeaning and debilitating of physical conditions, yet she had touched these 2 African American aids who had long tenures the Carolina House and had seen much dying— bringing them to tears and hugs at her passing.

She died the day before Easter.

There is, of course, always the danger of overstating or exaggerating in a eulogy, especially if the eulogy is for your mother. But I am confident that those here who knew my mother will know that the problem, in her case, is quite the opposite. Her example has taught me that words are mere shadows when trying to capture the fullness of such a life, lived.

And I am grateful beyond words to have had my life given and formed by this angelic spirit. There are deep responsibilities that accompany being the recipient of her grace. And I know that I fall woefully short. But I also know that she forgives me, as she always has. My hope is that whatever good flows from my life serves as a proper tribute to the debt I owe her.  

Amen.

Old Age—The Numbers Don’t Add Up

Mathematics of Aging

In my younger years, I loved mathematics. Problems have solutions! Complex problems require more complex mathematics, but the result is the same: clarity. Rational, organized, systematic thought yields answers. What a narcotic! The world, with effort, can be ordered and understood. I spent many years being pulled deeper into the mathematical rabbit hole in a quest for clarity in this disordered world.

As I aged, however, I learned that the clarity brought by mathematics only applies to a very narrow set of problems. Indeed, many of the problems in this disordered world not only resist rational, organized, systematic thought they ofttimes are exacerbated by it.

Or so I thought. I never could have imagined that I would revisit my early mathematical knowledge (most of which I had forgotten) to make sense of my journey through old age. Every day I find myself making calculations, observing patterns, reacting to situations that draw on my prior mathematical training. I have discovered that unlike standard mathematics, in “geriatric numerology” the numbers don’t add up. Standard mathematical definitions take on new meanings in the mathematics of old age. I offer this “dictionary of redefinitions” as a guide for navigating this new math.

Statistical Concepts

Mean (Standard Math): The mathematical average of a given set of numbers.
Mean (Geriatric Numerology): How often I am able to coherently express what I mean.

Median (SM): The mid-value in a given set of numbers (i.e., 50% are higher and 50% are lower).
Median (GN): What I try not to drive on.

Mode (SM): The most frequent number occurring in a given set of numbers.
Mode (GN): The settings for my hearing aids.

Probability Distribution (SM): The likelihood of an event occurring across a range of possible outcomes.
Probability Distribution (GN): The likelihood that I will find my lost phone across a range of possible places in my house.

Symmetrical Distribution (SM): A regular, bell-shaped curve. A normal distribution.
Symmetrical Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees clockwise, the shape of my belly. A normal distribution among people of a certain age.

Positively Skewed Distribution (SM): A bulge in a distribution curve positioned to the left of center. Not normally distributed.
Positively Skewed Distribution (GN): When rotated 90 degrees counter-clockwise, the shape my backside. A common distribution among people of a certain age. But not a positive distribution.

Random Number Generator (SM): A device that generates a sequence of numbers with no predictable pattern.
Random Number Generator (GN): My brain that generates a sequence of thoughts with no predictable pattern.

Risk Assessment (SM): Calculation of the relative potential for harm and damage from a course of action.
Risk Assessment (GN): Risks accompany me when I take my regular walks in our quiet, little trafficked neighborhood: Should I walk in the street, which is smooth but where I might be hit by a car—a low probability event that would likely incur substantial harm? OR walk on the sidewalk, with its uneven surface and higher likelihood of tripping and falling, but a lower probability of very serious harm? Factors that enter into the calculation: Day or night? Rush hour? Gated street? Weather? Very complicated.

Number Theory

Prime Number (SM): A number that can only be divided by 1 and itself without a remainder.
Prime Number (GN): The number of prime things I can do in a day. The number is 1. There are many “prime things”, including MD appointments, dentist visits, physical therapy, chiropractor visits, medical tests, pharmacy visits, medical insurance disputes, dental insurance disputes, Medicare disputes, orthotic fittings, reading glasses adjustments, reading glasses replacements, CPAP equipment repair and replacements, hearing aid adjustments, legal advice for wills and medical directives, advance funeral arrangements, etc., etc.

Real Numbers (SM): All the numbers on the number line, including rational and irrational numbers.
Real Number (GN): My age.

Irrational Number (SM): A number that cannot be expressed as a ratio of integers.
Irrational Number (GN): The age I would like to be.

Imaginary Number (SM): A number without a definite numeral value. An unreal number (i.e., √-2).
Imaginary Number (GN): The age I think I am. An unreal number (i.e., “I still feel like I am 35.”).

Negative Number (SM): A number whose value is less than zero.
Negative Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, am I’m really this old?!”

Positive Number (SM): A number whose value is greater than zero.
Positive Number (GN): My age. “Holy shit, I’m this old and still alive!!!”

Arithmetic

Addition (SM): The process of summation of two or more numbers.
Addition (GN): The process of accumulating medical conditions, diagnoses, aches, pains, medications, age spots, wrinkles, weight, bunions. Also, increase in humor, patience, gratitude, generosity, perspective.  

Subtraction (SM): The taking away the amount of one or more numbers from another.
Subtraction (GN): The taking away of my brain cells, hair, sensory acuity, muscle mass, dexterity, strength, energy, teeth, friends, family, loved ones. Also, less ego injuries, impatience, self-importance, pop culture awareness, emotional drama, fashion sense, fashion concern.

Multiplication (SM): A mathematical operation indicating how many times a number is added to itself.
Multiplication (GN): A process no longer likely to happen to me—thankfully!

The Number Zero

Zero (SM): It is nothing that creates everything. It is neither a positive nor negative number but defines the boundary between them. It is not a rational, irrational or imaginary number. It adds nothing, subtracts nothing, leaves nothing when multiplied, and destroys everything when divided by. It is a place holder: 10, 100, 1000, etc., but it holds nothing.

The concept of zero made the modern number system possible. It was developed in India and corresponds to Hindu and Buddhist understanding of “being empty.” Being is a “presence” and empty is a condition of being. Nothing is something; a pregnant void that gives rise to everything.

Zero (GN): I emerge from nothing with nothing. Except with my life, my being. And at the end of my life, I return to nothing with nothing. Zero. I am of nothing, return to nothing, and this gives rise to everything.1

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Wild Scribblings

impassioned I awake
wildly scribbling
yesterday into tomorrow

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winged phantom
underwater
turtle

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male hubris
love’s
deaf-mute

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your absence
a presence
love’s wound

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sleepwalking
daily parade of worries
clock ticks

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its too damned hot
sweetheart warbles
in the kitchen1

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daylight numbs
nightfall quickens
heartbeat

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quietly sitting
alone
the world spins

The Last Great Adventure

I awake, my body is sore. Moving, the joints are stiff, the back rebels, activity requires some effort. This is happening much more regularly, is becoming routine. So, too, the general tiredness, and the fire, the energy that naturally propels me up-and-out is flagging. My eyes, despite cataract surgery, are starting to cloud, my ears need aids, my sleep requires mask and hose, my surgically repaired and reconstructed knees announce themselves when I walk.

I have been most fortunate. I am in my mid 70’s, still mobile and cognitively alert (albeit diminished). Modern medicine has left some scars, but for my age—lucky me! My physical diminishment and aches, minor though they be, are mine, experienced viscerally, personally, intimately. They inhabit me, claim me—are me! And I feel the Shadow closing in.

But they are more than that. They are my unique experience of “the dying of the light”; something experienced by all living beings, in their many forms, in their varied and unique ways. I am but one infinitesimal manifestation of life on this remarkable planet. My individual experience of youthful surge, followed by dissipation, then expiration offers me a peek through my narrow portal into the experience of the Surge, Dissipation, Expiration of all living things. Oh my! What a singular opportunity given to me in the wild randomness of my birth!1 I travel in a crowd with fellow beings, blinking into life for our brief, dynamic moment then, blink—out!

My dear friend, Bill, a pilot in the Korean war and an Air Force flight instructor, talked about death as “the last great adventure.”2 He wanted to be a witness, to be attuned to this last adventure. As life ebbed from him, so quietly in the dark night, he gave a faint sign that he was there, witnessing. Aware, he flew into the darkness.

Can I, as I dissipate toward expiration, lift my eyes from my compelling personal drama to the horizon of astonishment at being in this crowd? Can I be a witness to my expiration that shares common ground with Life? Can I be witness to this last, sacred moment?

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You Believe That?! Are You Crazy?!

Do you believe that:

1. A current race of evil, dominant people is the product of genetic experiments performed over 6,000 years ago. A spaceship, directed by a superhuman entity, has been hovering over the United States for several decades and contains bombs that will someday be dropped and kill all of these immoral people.

                                      Or,

2. If you live by rules set down by a being from outer space and, if you are male, after death you will one day dwell on your own planet where you will be able to have sex with various spirit wives. You will then become the father of many spirit children that will someday be born on earth or another planet.

                                      Or,

3. You have been defiled at birth, your thoughts and behaviors are being monitored and judged by a supernatural being who demands obedience to his commands, and you will be condemned to an eternity of unspeakable suffering should you fail to comply. If obedient, you can participate in a ceremony of eating the flesh of a deceased holy man, which allows you to gain a spiritual union and receive grace from this supernatural being.   

Do you think people who passionately hold these beliefs are crazy? This is a question Shawn O’Connor and I sought to answer (he was the lead investigator on this study).1 The answer may surprise.

The Sky and Cannibalism

But first some background. 

The sky, the cosmos, forms our primal experience of life; gives us life, sustains us, haunts us, overwhelms us. The blinding, life-giving sun that lights our days, the enigmatic illuminations appearing in the night sky, the storms that thunder and rain down upon us, the seasons that give life and take it away, have been sources of wonder, awe, fear, and trepidation for as long as humans have walked this planet. Heavenly powers hold dominion over earthly matters, and we are obviously denizens of something much greater than ourselves. Uncountable numbers of religions, spiritual practices, and sacred beliefs have arisen to fathom our place in the cosmos. The first two beliefs above are attempts to do so.

Although popular opinion holds that cannibalism is rare, it is quite pervasive and dates back into the depths of human prehistory. Many motives lead to cannibalism, starvation being a one. But there are others, including ritualistic cannibalism that is part of religious rites and sacred practices. It is often believed that by ingesting the body of the dead, the powers and wisdom of the deceased are conferred to the individual. The third belief above resides in this family of convictions.

What is Crazy?

The three beliefs and practices sure seem crazy. But what do we mean by crazy? Crazy is not an official diagnosis in the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of mental disorders. The above beliefs, however, could be labeled delusions, which the DSM defines as “fixed beliefs that are not amenable to change in light of conflicting evidence. . . Delusions are deemed bizarre if they are clearly implausible and not understandable to same-culture peers and do not derive from ordinary life experiences.” 

Religious beliefs inhabit an indeterminate region in the DSM formulation: “Some religious and supernatural beliefs (e.g., evil eye, causing illness through curses, influence of spirits) may be viewed as bizarre and possibly delusional in some cultural contexts but be generally accepted in others. However, elevated religiosity can be a feature of many presentations of psychosis.”

Several issues to note. Delusions are not considered delusions if understandable to same-culture peers. So, what might seem very bizarre and delusional may simply be the result of ignorance about cultural beliefs that are not held by same-culture peers. Are we more likely to assess pathology when we are ignorant of the religion? And what are we to make of “elevated religiosity?” When does fervent religious belief become psychotic?

The three beliefs highlighted above are integral to 3 major religions practiced in the United States: Nation of Islam, Mormonism, and Catholicism. The beliefs are stated without including identifying information that would reveal that they are part of an established religion. Shawn and I wanted to know if simply adding identifying information (i.e., for the third belief, that the individual is Catholic who believed in transubstantiation) without changing the core beliefs would alter the assessment of psychopathology by trained mental health workers. 

When the religious beliefs were not identified, the Mormon and Catholic based beliefs were rated significantly more pathological than when they were identified. Nation of Islam was rated highly pathological in both identified and not identified conditions.2 Quite bizarre and unsettling beliefs are thus transformed from delusions to acceptable convictions simply because they are revealed to be part of religious traditions that we, as same-culture peers, understand.

Who Is Crazy?

How, then, are we to consider religious beliefs held by unfamiliar cultures we do not understand? Consider the following, which are currently being practiced somewhere in the world:3

  • Your baby is born under abhorrent planetary influences and fated to kill their spouse when they marry. To divest themselves of this curse, they are married to an animal, usually a dog or a goat, or even a tree. 
  • To celebrate the destruction of a demon army by the son of god, you must fast for 48 days, followed by piercing your body with lances and hooks, which are then used to pull heavy objects that are attached to the hooks. 
  • All conventional categories and opposites are illusionary manifestations an underlying unity. Violating social taboos is an spiritual act of asserting this unity. This includes retrieving floating bodies found in a holy river and eating them. 
  • To thank the gods for being blessed with a baby, when your baby is 3 months old, you immerse them in boiling water. 
  • If you are male, your penis is surgically mutilated to cement your contract with god.
  • You toss your baby from a 50-foot tower into a sheet to make them stronger and healthier.
  • To cure your child of a disability, on a day of a solar eclipse you bury them in sand up to their necks for up to 6 hours.
  • You anoint your baby with holy water. Failure to do so might result in the baby being consigned to eternal suffering.
  • To celebrate your faith and devotion to a god who walked through red-hot coals unscathed, you do the same, following a holy man who begins the fire walking procession with pot on his head filled with holy water. 
  • Spiritual advancement is achieved by fasting on a sacred day. The following day you paint and decorate cows and bulls, garland yourself, lie on the ground, and let the animals trample you. This ensures that your desires will be fulfilled and brings prosperity to your community. 

This is only a minuscule sample of all the beliefs and rituals that have been practiced throughout human existence. Each tribe thinks theirs are reasonable. Simply sharing common meanings, beliefs, and practices with others makes us sane; rescues us from going crazy. We seek footholds on the ineffable, desperately clutching our own ceremonies of certainty to assuage our existential angst and panic. This is our human plight.

You believe that? I do, which you might think is crazy.

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Cosmic Order, Earthly Mayhem

Does the cosmos have an inherent moral order? Are humans part of a natural law that governs everything from stars to plants to people? The answer given throughout much of Western history dating back to the Greeks is “yes.” This “yes” has provided the bedrock for guiding human moral life across centuries and, to this day, reaches into every corner of our lives from politics, religion, and jurisprudence, to marriage, family, sexual relations, and personal identity.

Two sources of moral authority typically have been identified: natural laws and positive laws. Natural laws are inherent in the natural order of the cosmos and, thus, also integral to human nature. Natural laws cannot be refuted, are not subject to legislative amendment, and carry intrinsic moral obligations for humans to “do right.” The Golden Rule is an example of a natural law. This contrasts with positive laws, which societies enact to maintain civil order. These laws are legislated or decreed, applicable locally, and make no inherent moral claim on individuals. Traffic laws are examples of positive laws.

The outlines of these distinctions between natural and positive laws have remained relatively constant throughout history. What has changed, and changed dramatically, is what is considered a natural law. This is pivotal. If there is little agreement on what they are, then the belief in a moral North Star to guide human affairs is upended. A brief review of the history of natural laws illuminates the wild fluctuations in this moral compass. And these wild fluctuations have mortal consequences: When groups disagree about natural laws, the Golden Rule is often the first casualty.

Greco-Roman Natural Order

Natural law begins with Greek and Stoic philosophers who held a pantheistic view of the cosmos, which they believed is animated by a primal Fire, a life-force organized by a universal rational order, Logos. This animating Fire-Logos is not a supernatural being, but an immanent force that pervades all things. Nature is God. All humans share this Fire or spark of life, possess an equal right to life, and are endowed with reason. The Logos that orders the cosmos is integral to human nature, and through learned or right reasoning, humans can grasp the natural laws that are the basis for our innate intuition of right and wrong.

Natural law was assumed to govern human life as well as the cosmos. What was considered natural in human affairs was closely tied to the presumed order of the existing culture. Hierarchy was the natural order in Ancient Greek and Roman cultures: Men were considered more capable of reasoning than women; barbarians (i.e., men), those who did not speak the language or possess citizenship, were inferior but could acquire the status of citizenship and be capable of right reasoning; and slaves were beneath all. Sexual relations was based on class and power. Sexual relations between men and other men and boys was condoned, as was promiscuous sex by men with their mistresses, slaves, and prostitutes, as long as the “natural” power relationships were preserved. The strictures on women were tied to their positions defined by their place within the patriarchal power structure. While all humans possess an equal right to life, the natural relations among humans were hierarchical.

Christian Moral Compass

As the West became Christianized, natural law became understood within a Christian theological framework. Aquinas has had the greatest influence on Christian theology, as his work in the 13th century is the foundation of contemporary Catholic theological doctrine that has profoundly shaped formulations of natural law for many centuries. Aquinas incorporated Greek assumptions into Christianity, arguing that the cosmos is ordered by a God-conferred rationality.1 Humans, innately endowed by God with the capacity for reason, can uncover the natural laws governing the cosmos, which also apply to human life and society. Reason, however, can sometimes be clouded in understanding the natural law. The Bible, which is the source of Divine Law, offers the path to clarity where reason falters.

Aquinas’ natural law was understood within his cultural context. Patriarchy is the natural order, decreed in Biblical text and practiced at every level of both the Church and secular culture. Sex is for procreation, so “unnatural”, sinful acts include masturbation, contraception, homosexuality, and “not observing the right manner of copulation.”2 Beliefs also are subjected to the sting of natural law, as harsh punishments are meted out to heretics.

Social hierarchy was the natural order; husbands rule over wives, fathers over children, master over slave: “For good order would have been wanting in the human family if some were not governed by others wiser than themselves.”3 Aquinas distinguishes two forms of slavery: economic and servile. Economic slavery, whereby the master economically benefits from the slave, was deemed unnatural and a sin. In contrast, servile, whereby slaves are governed for their own benefit, was considered part of the natural order.

These two views of slavery are present in our own history; abolitionists roiled against the sin of slavery, while slave owners claimed their slaves to be better off under their subjugation. This justification, disturbingly, is still used. Florida teaching standards, defended by Governor DeSantis, states ” slaves developed skills which, in some instances, could be applied for their personal benefit.”

Aquinas’ Greek-influenced theology had far-reaching consequences. The Church-sanctioned belief that the cosmos is rationally ordered gave impetus to use reason to divine God’s natural laws. Science was born in the bosom of Aquinas’ natural laws. Almost all early scientists in the 16th and 17th century were deeply religious, seeking to fathom God’s rational order through investigations of the physical world.4

Opposition to Aquinas was swift, vociferous, and long-lasting. Outraged clerics argued that the Bible, the word of God, is the first, last, and only foundation of natural law. Reason has no place in discerning God’s cosmic order. Indeed, it is a dangerous threat to Christian belief. These warnings proved prophetic, as the natural laws of science became decoupled from religion and did, indeed, undermine the authority of Biblical text. Natural laws became Laws of Nature.5

Triumph of Death —Jan Brueghel the Elder

“Reason is the Devil’s whore.” This is Martin Luther’s response to Aquinas-inspired Church doctrines on natural laws. The Reformation was about many things, but at the center were disagreements about Biblical text and Church practices. Tens of millions died in centuries of warfare over Biblical disputes (i.e., transubstantiation—“Does the sacramental bread and wine actually transform into the body and blood of Christ, or is it a symbolic transformation?”). Murderous pogroms against heretics, massacres of those who held differing interpretations of Biblical texts, blood saturated grounds where entire populations were exterminated—all this and much more blunts the argument that the Bible is the basis for natural law. Whose Bible? What laws? The Golden Rule—for who? It also reveals that more than reason and the Golden Rule lurk in the dark recesses of Human Nature.

Unalienable Rights

The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution carry this history into our present lives. The Founders, close readers of Greek and Stoic philosophy, declared that all men are created equal. The life-Fire of equality proclaimed by the Greco-Romans is echoed in this assertion. The Constitution does not mention God. The Declaration of Independence cites “Nature’s God”, “Creator”, and “Divine Provence.” Nature’s God? Yes. Biblical God? No. Not explicitly.

Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Madison, and Monroe were deists, and having witnessed the calamitous effects of religious wars among Christian sects, wanted to ensure that their new, revolutionary nation avoided these savage, internecine religious conflicts. Hence, the first Constitutional amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees freedom of religion. James Madison, the principal author of the Constitution, understood that government sanction of a religion is a threat to religion when he stated: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”6 Rights—life, liberty, pursuit of happiness, religious freedom, free speech, and the others contained in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—are asserted to be unalienable, self-evident, natural laws.

Patriarchy, slavery, and the relegation of indigenous peoples to savages is also embedded in these documents, either explicitly or implied.7 But so is ambiguity. The framers of the Constitution included slave owners and abolitionists, and the compromises between them are lodged in the Constitution. Indeed, the arguments for and against slavery that precipitated the Civil War drew from both Biblical text and the Constitution. Each side fashioned arguments from these documents to claim that their moral principles were supported by natural law. “Liberty and Slavery—opposite as heaven and hell—are both in the Constitution”, remarked Frederick Douglass.8

The enduring struggle at the heart of our democracy is how should the Constitution be understood? What interpretation captures the “real” meaning? Slavery exposed the profound consequences of differing interpretations. Disputes about the proper way to plumb the meaning of the Constitution have moved away from trying to divine the natural law embodied in the document, to textualism (i.e., “What does the text mean?”), originalism (i.e., “What was the intent of those who drafted it?”), and pragmatism (i.e., “What is the optimal balance of political and economic outcomes?”) among others.

Until recently. Some current Supreme Court members have intimated that natural law, specifically natural law as understood within a Biblical context, should guide Constitutional interpretation. Abortion. Contraception. “Unnatural acts.” LGBTQ rights. Gay marriage. Racial justice. These issues have moved into the cross-hairs of judicial Christianized natural law.9

Cosmic Perspective of Cosmic Moral Order

The efforts for over two millennium to anchor jurisprudence in natural law is animated by our desperate need for certainty, to be assured that there are moral guideposts to help us as we grope our way in the darkness. The disputes over whether someone has the “natural right” to enslave another highlights just how windblown these guideposts are. We are but evanescent creatures, scurrying about on a cosmic dust mote amidst a vast, unfathomable universe, chanting local certainties arising from febrile visions, which we use to persecute each other. Cosmic moral order, indeed. . .

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We are All Drag Queens

I look at pictures of me as a baby; as a 7 year old; my high school photo; at my wedding; at my high school 30th reunion. Now, at 75, I look in the mirror and ask, “Who are those people?” How can they be me? They are alien beings and there is no reason to suppose that they can all be “me”. This is the fascination of looking at old pictures of ourselves—“really, that was me?!”

The only thread that gives continuity and unity to these images is my memory; oft times not even my memory of myself but of what I have been told: “That’s you,” said my mother of the photo of the toddling, smiling cherub. Memory is the thread that that stitches these images into a coherent, stable unity; into “me”. The memory-stitching that confers stability and coherence to long past images does the same for my experience of what happened to me 5 minutes ago. This is how we creatures of time acquire a sense of permanence, a sense of self.1

The enduring entity I experience as my self is conferred by the gossamer thread of memory. And what a tentative thread it is. Our memory is continually being reconstructed, subjected to alteration without our knowing it, influenced by changing circumstances, moods, personal experiences, and reflections of others. One of the disconcerting experiences of aging is witnessing the loosening of our filaments of memory. As memory erodes, so do “I”. The spectra of dementia that looms over the aged sparks dread that we will lose ourselves; that the delicate stitching of memory will unravel. Dementia exposes as it destroys. What is exposed is our moment-to-moment awareness. What is shattered is the illusion of a permanent self that allows us to adaptively manage in the world; a phantom that keeps us sane.

Identity is a deeply felt feature of our selves. Our race. Gender. Sexual orientation. Ethnicity. Cultural heritage. Language. Occupation. Etc. These so primally experienced aspects of ourselves are not indelibly inscribed in us. They are, rather, attire of the self. We are born into a cultural matrix of ready-made identities that signify meaningful distinctions between people. Each culture possesses its own identity “wardrobes”. Race, for example. Being Black in contemporary America does not have the same meaning as in precolonial equatorial Africa, where it may not have had any meaning at all. Another example: Homosexuality is a term of Anglo-European origin coined in 19th century. It is a term that confers an identity to a person based on same-sex behaviors. By contrast, in Greece and Rome, same sex behaviors between men was common and approved.2 What mattered was not the act, but who was the initiator of the act; accepted when upper class men were the initiators, vilified when the reverse. Status, not the specific sex act, signified cultural identity. Identity anchors us, defines us, viscerally binds us to a stable set of culturally established meanings. They are part of the fabric we stitch together to clothe our phantom selves. 

Garment Matters

Why the outrage against men who dress as women, or women who dress like bikers? Why can the mere clothes we wear and our body adornments provoke harassment, government legislation, even murder?! Because garments and adornments carry potent cultural meanings. How we fashion ourselves can vary greatly: Executive or tradesperson, business man or woman, trucker, biker, military officer, “person of the cloth,” police officer, sports team supporter, cool dude, ersatz cowboy, etc., etc., etc. Clothes communicate. We never simply “get dressed.” We choose to display cultural meanings that are encoded in the clothes we wear, how we wear them, and the way we craft our body. We may not even be aware of the codes we signal, think they are natural, or that we simply wear comfortable clothes. What makes us comfortable varies from person to person, and comfort can include the color of the clothes, the style, the cut, the nature of the fit, etc. All these are selected from the rack of  garments made available in the culture.

We wear some clothes out of obligation; attending funerals, our places of work and worship, graduations. Many of these we happily shed when we can. Other garments are more closely tied to our identity, freighted with meanings that resonate with our sense of self. Gender is one such identity that is encoded in our garments that cannot be so easily shed, even if we want to. Before a baby is out of the womb, a pivotal choice is “pink or blue?” What clothes and adornments? How should I announce my baby to the world? Even if we want to assert gender neutrality by avoiding the conventional markers of gender, this is, itself, a choice defined within the ubiquitous dimension of gender. Gender is a presumed natural, God-given feature of our selves; it identifies us, defines us.  

Cross dressing violates the natural order, undermines the pillars of identity that buttress our sense of self. We can do this by merely wearing pink instead the expected blue! Oh, by what a meagre thread does our identity hang! Violence is an effort to enforce the natural order, to forcefully obliterate the realization that simply donning the “wrong” outfits we can overturn our tidy universe. Everything we wear, however, is but a disguise that tricks us into believing in the fixity of the phantom self. Whatever our attire, we are all drag queens.

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Hypnosis, Placebo, TikTok Tics: “Its All in Your Mind!”

Hypnosis

Consider hypnosis. We engage in a relatively brief exchange with a stranger who possesses some measure of authority. As a result, we become capable of feats that are usually considered impossible: parts of our body are “anesthetized,” and surgery can be performed without pain; untreatable warts and congenital skin disorders disappear; wounds heal faster; surgical blood loss is greatly reduced. We undergo auditory, visual, and proprioceptive disorientation, experience visions that are perceived as real and lose our sense of volition. Suggestions can be made under hypnosis that we subsequently enact, post-hypnosis, but attribute the impetus for the actions to ourselves, with no memory of it having been suggested.

Almost everything we hold sacred and inviolate about ourselves is upended in hypnosis. The sinews that hold us together are all severed: our sense of continuity in time (i.e., memory), our grounding in the material world (i.e., perception), our compelling sense of personal agency (i.e., volition), and the boundaries of our physical capacities (i.e., pain tolerance, wound healing, curing skin disorders). What is the cause? An interpersonal exchange. That’s it. The lack of a physical cause that can be objectively measured is why hypnosis has been rejected by the biomedical profession for 250 years—hypnosis is not considered a “real” phenomenon. Rather, it is all shamming, trickery, hocus-pocus, all in your mind, etc. Name calling for 250 years that avoids the fundamental challenge posed by hypnosis to our basic understanding of ourselves: our assumptions about the relationships among body, psyche, I, we, mind, and “reality”.1

Hypnosis and Placebo

The hocus-pocus, all-in-your-mind conclusion about hypnosis was, ironically, given support in 1784 by the first scientific placebo-control study. Mesmer (from whose name the word mesmerize is derived) asserted that he could channel an invisible physical fluid, which he called animal magnetism, to cure multiple ailments, produce remarkable effects on mind and body, and anesthetize patients to perform surgery. Mesmer posed a grave challenge to the medical profession and to the social order in France, so the King of France commissioned a group of eminent scientists, led by Benjamin Franklin, to discredit Mesmer.

The Commission examined the claims of Mesmer using two groups: an experimental group that received Mesmeric treatment, and a second that received, unknowingly, a sham treatment. The sham treatment proved to be as effective as the Mesmeric. The Commission concluded that animal magnetism is not real; that the effects resulted from imagination and imitation and, therefore, should be dismissed. Mesmer was discredited, left Paris in disgrace, and the Royal Society of Medicine issued a decree obligating all physicians to sign an official statement rejecting the practice of animal magnetism. Failure to do so would result in dismissal from the ranks of physicians. 

Note that the effects of the Mesmeric treatment were not disputed. Only the presumed cause. This did not stop practitioners, often outside the medical community, and people suffering from various ailments from using Mesmeric procedures. Animal magnetism later came to be called hypnosis, which continues to experience a similar fate—rejected or viewed with deep suspicion because of a lack of objective physical cause and, perhaps, a professional threat for offering cures that lie outside the biomedical corridors of power and financial remuneration.

It is revealing that this methodology, first used in 1784 to discredit hypnosis, was not used to test the efficacy of standard medical practices, including purgatives, evacuants, humectants, vesicatories, and spoliative bleedings. This would be a pattern for the next century and a half: Blind and double-blind placebo control experiments, as they were later to be called, were only used to investigate threats to traditional medical practices.

Placebo

Randomized Clinical Trials (RCT), which include placebo control groups, only began to be systematically used in medical research in the 1950’s and is now the standard experimental methodology for demonstrating that a physical treatment has an effect that is not the result of placebo. Although this is a step forward, the conclusion that a placebo effect is a measure of failure of a physical effect, not a documentation of the remarkable power of a placebo, continues this long history whereby objective, physically caused effects are real, while psychosocial causes are just “in-your-mind.” Let’s flip that script and briefly review several recent findings about the placebo as documentation its startling effects.

Placebo pills afford the same measure of pain relief as 75% of pain medications submitted for FDA approval that must undergo clinical trials. Most of these do provide measurable pain relief, but not significantly more than a placebo, so they are not approved. But the pain relief is real, for both the placebo and chemically active medications. Furthermore, the rate of FDA rejection of pain medications undergoing clinical trials has recently risen to over 90%—but only in the US, not in Europe. Why? Cultural differences of some kind are likely at play.2

The way a treatment is administered also makes a difference. Trust, honesty, kindness, and the appearance of competence increase the effects of a placebo. Bedside manners matter. Indeed, what gives a sugar pill, or any faux treatment, its power is the sociocultural context in which it is enacted. The rituals and contexts associated with treating illnesses—the scripted  drama of healing—can prompt the body to respond in a healing manner, and the scripts vary from culture to culture.

Placebo treatments can be effective even if the patient is informed that it is a placebo. The color of the pill also matters—blue, not red pills are more effective for pain relief. Placebo pills clearly labeled and (cleverly) marketed are for sale online. You can purchase 45 “Pure, Honest, Placebo Pills ” with “inert ingredients” “trusted by consumers, clinicians, researchers since 2014” for $25 (4.2 stars on Amazon). The scripted drama of healing at work.

Only recently have there been efforts to identify neurobiological mechanisms that might account for the power of the placebo. The quest is motivated by trying to prove that the placebo effect is, in fact, “real”; that there is a objective biological basis, and therefore it is a legitimate object for scientific scrutiny. This reasoning is baffling. First, the effects ARE REAL! The lack of objective physical cause does not render the obvious and profound effects of placebo “not real.” Second, the fact that the remarkable effects of placebo are evoked by social interactions exposes our faulty assumptions about what constitutes “real.” Third, of course there are biological factors of some kind that make this possible.

Our experience, including social exchange, does not float, untethered, from our biology. However, whatever the biological factors are, and research has recently begun to address this question, they enable the psychosocial influence. They do not cause it to occur. The cause resides in the interaction of biology with psychological expectancies, situational influences, cultural rituals, personal relationships, and prior conditioning that come into play in a sociocultural context of healing.3

Not Panaceas

Placebo and hypnosis are not panaceas. Hypnosis can alter our perceptions and subjective experiences, have an impact on some bodily functions, and remediate the effects of chemotherapy. Placebos can treat the nausea and pain associated with cancer treatment, heart disease, and ameliorate subjective experiences associated with illnesses. But hypnosis and placebos cannot cure cancer, Parkinson disease, and most other serious illnesses and diseases. These limitations, however, do not diminish what they can do, or the challenge they poses to our conventional understanding of ourselves.

Other “Family Members”

Hypnosis and placebo are the two most prominent members of a family of anomalies that defy traditional medical explanation. Others include: TikTok tics, a world-wide outbreak of tics induced by a TikTok posting that went “viral” (this is an appropriate name for it, as there are many instances of social contagions of a similar nature spreading like a viral contagion)4; conversion disorders, where individuals experience paralysis, blindness, deafness, and seizures but have no neurobiological impairments; and Dissociative Identity Disorder, often referred to as multiple personalities, where completely different personas inhabit the same individual, each without awareness of the others.

It’s All in Your Mind

Hypnosis, placebo, TikTok tics, and their “family members” startle and disturb because they undermine our conventional understanding about the relationships among body, psyche, I, we, culture, mind, and “real.” The assumption that girds this understanding is that there is a disjuncture between the body, which is a physical, biological entity, and therefore “real”, and psyche, social exchange, culture, and mind, which are viewed as incorporeal phantoms, and therefore not “real.” An accompanying assumption is that the body can influence these incorporeal phantoms, but they, however, can have no effect on the body.5

Are these anomalies simply curiosities that will eventually be explained with more research? I think not. Their peculiarity arises from the conceptual straitjacket we use to try to capture them. An alternative explanation can be summed up in a word—any word. A word, spoken (or written) is a nonsense sound (or marking) given signification by a communal, cultural agreement that confers its meaning.6 We are born into a cultural web of meanings, and propelled by our biological heritage to acquire words—any and all words, in any and all languages!!–from the earliest, first years of life. Words stretch from the biological to the interpersonal to the cultural, all seamlessly united in the act of communication.7 These “incorporeal phantoms” can evoke strong bodily reactions, from erotic to heart stopping, from gut retching to uncontrolled weeping.

Hypnosis, placebo, and TikTok tics are merely noteworthy examples of the primal power of human communication in its many forms. Mind is the looping networks of meanings that encompasses body, psyche, I and we.8 It is all in your mind! And it is, indeed, real!9

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In Memory of My Father

Dad on Our Wedding Eve

My father died 20 years ago today: February 23, 2003. This post is a memorial to his life and a remembrance of his presence, which lives on in me. Here my eulogy that I gave at his funeral service:

“As I prepared this, I asked myself what my father would want me to say. He was not one for posturing, sermonizing and certainly not for long-winded eulogies. Indeed, I kept hearing him say: “Keep it short and cut the bull.” And so I shall.

He did not have an easy life. The oldest of 5 children, he came of age in the Great Depression in a family that had to scuffle and scratch to keep food on the table. Beginning at the age of 8, he spent summers on a relative’s farm, plowing fields behind a horse. He chose to go to Edison Tech, rather than the local high school, so he could learn a trade that was more reliable than masonry, which was the work of his family. He had to bike some distance to school through neighborhoods where he was harassed and chased. Characteristically, his response was to go to the gym, lift weights, become stronger so he would not be intimidated or bullied.

This spirit did not desert him. In the last days of his life, when Parkinson’s had rendered his limbs useless, a particularly insensitive nurse tried to give him his medication by forcing pills into his mouth. His response was to spit them back in her face. Indeed, I think he invented the phrase, “In your face.”

This spirit was coupled with a sense of duty and commitment to his family. Not only was he working on a farm, in difficult labor, in his earliest years, but he also rummaged through the dumps for metal, coal, and rags to support his family—and as the eldest, he assumed a role of responsibility for his family’s welfare that was disproportionate to his young age. He was drafted just prior to World War II, and throughout his tour of duty, while serving his country, he sent home most of his paycheck to help support his family.

After the war he had his own family to support and did so by working 3 shifts: 2 weeks days; 2 weeks nights; and sometimes the graveyard shift. This for 33 years. He was a fitful sleeper and this punishing schedule made rest even more difficult and infrequent. I know, I remember him forgoing buying a much needed shirt so that I could have a bike. He was quiet and of few words, but expressed his love, his care, and his commitment through everyday acts of labor and sacrifice. He worked to support us, but not avoid us. He was there for us. There was not a day in my life that I did not feel loved.

On His “Farm”

This is who he was. Tough, fiercely independent, not expecting life to be anything but a struggle, who, with tenacity and perseverance, sacrificed for his family’s well-being; first for his sisters and brother, later for his own family. Indeed, one of the most important days of the year was not his birthday, for which he cared little, but for the fall day each year when all his family—immediate and extended—came down to his “farm” in the Southern Tier of New York to celebrate being together. These were among the happiest moments of his life.

His most important gifts to us were those values, mostly unstated, expressed in how he lived his life. He strived to give us more opportunities than he had; to give us a secure and loving childhood. This he did. He had high expectations for us, not in terms of accomplishments, but who we should be as people; that whatever we did we should do it with the highest standards of excellence, pursued with honesty and integrity; to live in a way that we could be proud of—that he could be proud of.

His life taught us that the world owes us nothing, that we must make the best of the opportunities that we create for ourselves and, more importantly, to have enough strength to learn from failure, to have the fortitude to not surrender ourselves for success, and to possess the resiliency to face life’s difficulties. He instilled a healthy mistrust of vested authority, skepticism of conventional wisdom, and the courage of conviction even, and especially, when these convictions are unpopular.

What is important today is not the particulars of his death, but that his death help us remember his life. In honoring his life, let us remind ourselves of the precious gift that is our life. Out, out, brief candle. Our end awaits us sooner than we imagine.

For my father, I am grateful for who he was, for what he bequeathed us, and say, one last time,

Thank you.

I love you.

Goodbye”.

A Strange Loop

Captive and Captor

We are all hostages. We are restrained, imprisoned, bound, under surveillance, and subject to the will and whim of our captor; judged, criticized, rewarded, praised, tempted, punished, cajoled, encouraged, assured, castigated, condemned. Our captor’s voice is our own inner voice, sometimes a cacophonous chorus of discordant voices, that arise, unbidden, from the depths of our being. We are hostage to ourselves.

The one constant companion in our life’s journey is ourselves. This is the most powerful, intimate, passionate, and important relationship that accompanies us till our last breath. We cannot escape it, except temporally though sleep, drugs, passionate endeavors, or other mind-bending practices.

We each have our own unique set of reoccurring themes and rhythms in this chorus of voices derived from temperament, early life experiences, cultural and historical contexts, intimate relationships, that which is shouted and whispered to us at various points throughout our lives by various notable personages, traumas and travails, and who knows what else. Our lives are shaped by this chorus. While we are captors, we are also are aware that we are hostages. Hostage and captor—we are both, and our awareness of this also makes us hostage negotiator. We are a strange loop; not a single I, not a unitary self, but a hierarchical looping of self-referring dynamic I’s—a tangle of voices, voices about voices. . . about voices.1 Here is an example of the complexity of this relationship: “I” write about “my” experience of noting common themes that arise from the darkness of “my” being that imprison “me” and “I” find this quite amusing, baffling, and remarkable. Just who am “I”? And who is asking?? What a confusing “I” are we!2

Psychotherapy Loops

Psychotherapy, in its various forms, offers navigational guides for understanding ourselves and gaining some leverage to change strands of our strange loop. Psychotherapy provides a framework that names and maps the working of our inner self, paying particular attention to the voices of the “captor” who has imprisoned “us” and offering strategies to the “negotiator”.3

So, for example, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) tells us that the “captor” voices carry irrational and self-destructive statements that must be identified, challenged, and replaced with more rational, adaptive ones (by the “negotiator”). Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) instructs that these voices are simply a stream of ideas that have power only if we (the “captive”) attend to and act on them; instead, we should simply accept, note, and let them pass without being “hooked” by them. Psychoanalysis identifies these voices as the eruption of id impulses that must be rooted out, their symbolic meaning divined and transmuted to adaptive responses by our ego. Other therapies follow a similar pattern using different models—identifying features of the captor (e.g. irrational statements; idea stream; id impulses), and offering strategies for the negotiator to free the captive. Each model configures a unique “reality” of our interiority, which can be confusing, especially as arguments abound among proponents of the models, thus revealing the provisional nature of our understanding of ourselves.

This strange loop exemplifies the modern idea of the self; a self-contained interiority where all the voices are within us. The forces in the external world are subject to their own laws and principles and do not intrude or influence the inner sanctity of the self. We perceive the external world from the portals of the citadel of our solitary self. This idea of a self is of recent origins, historically, arising hand-in-glove with the rise of modern secular culture in the West.4 It is a manifestation of a culture whose governing principals, political structures, economic policies, communal practices, and basis for truth presume independent individuals, each possessing inalienable rights, making rational decisions based on self-interest, and guided by the methods, reasoning, and findings of science.

Inspirited Cosmos

Most cultures and religions throughout most of human history, in contrast, have presumed we dwell in a world infused with magical and supernatural powers, populated by hosts of strange, dangerous, threatening, helpful, and inexplicable spirits. In this inspirited world, no clear boundaries divide our phenomenological experience and these forces let loose upon the earth. Thoughts can be experienced as the voice of gods, goblins, ghouls, genies, demons, angels, saints, sirens, fairies, ancestors, ghosts, witches, wizards, or spirits. Furthermore, omens, amulets, holy water, and sacred relics radiate influence that, unbeknownst to us, can overtake us, seize our wishes and will, compel us to act.

The shear range and number of presumed voices and supernatural powers that have been believed by various religions and cultures is staggering. Are we experiencing the voice of God? Satan? Ghosts? Ancestors? Hallucinations? Naming and understanding our experience encompasses an entire cosmology, a communal history of sanctioned practices and foundational beliefs about ourselves and our place in the world.5

Each of us is inseparably bound to our communal “we.” It is through “we” that we tether our body and being to a larger system of meanings, and also how, individually, we unite to form a community that embodies its meanings.6 “I” and “we” form two sides of the same coin. This is also so for the citadel of the modern self, which is constituted from modern secular culture. This looping influence between “I” and “we” is another strand in the strange loop that is us.7

These looping paradoxes are the curse and the gift of a self-reflective species that dwells within a symbolically created universe that has great power and scope of apprehension, but also engenders paradox, contradiction, confusion, and disagreement. It is thus that we bewildered primates gain some measure of order and stability.8

Adrift

Much is at stake for the individual and for the community in how our phenomenological experience is understood. Experiences that defy communal beliefs, violate taboos, or threaten the social order can have dire consequences. While each communal cosmology may offer a reassuring sense of order and stability, the aggregate and bizarre differences among them, sometimes resulting in armed conflict and mass deaths(!), highlights our profound lack of understanding of ourselves and the provisional nature of our endeavors to do so.

The mortal importance we give them is, perhaps, precisely because alternatives are possible. We are adrift in a sea of uncertainty—we are a strange loop in a strange and uncanny cosmos.

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