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

Author: Brian Vandenberg (Page 3 of 4)

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


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
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.










Eyes. Eyes! We cannot endure to gaze into another’s eyes for more than a brief moment. Eyes are the electric shock of the presence of another that is unnerving, frightening. This presence comes with excitement, danger and allure, for it is in the eyes that we most directly experience the thrill of the mortal, beating thump of life. And not just with each other, but with other species.

The first time I saw an owl, I stopped—riveted in a sacred moment. Two yellow eyes peering at me from a bare tree limb at about my height; this was not an “owl” but another living being with whom I had entered into an intimate co-presence. We were joined at the eyes. The owl’s eyes aided this union, for it mimics, and suggests, the human face, where both eyes are in the front of the face and fully visible. The form of the owl, and those piercing yellow eyes, however, also signals “difference”.  This difference allows for easier dismissal; that it is ‘not like me’, an ‘owl’— but it also can be the call to leap over forms, to join another sentient being in a shared moment; a moment that thrills and disquiets.

Fortunately, my owl eye-encounter was benign, but the deep, central nervous system shock I experienced alerts to the species-leaping power of eyes. Had the owl been a grizzly bear, such direct eye contact could have been taken as a challenge and resulted in the end of my central nervous system functioning. Or if a mountain lion, maintaining eye contact could help ensure my survival. Surprising responses, and consequences, arise. I hunted when I was young, and the last time was when I shot a rabbit. Looking down at it, we made eye contact. How could I do this to this creature, now helplessly staring at me as it breathed its last, looking up at its killer? Those eyes are still with me today.


 Human eyes are more than an organ for sight—they are integral to social communication and exchange. The social-communicative function of eyes is biologically hardwired. Human eyes, unlike other animals, including primates, have irises visibly framed in the sclera, the “eye-whites”. This allows for social signaling. From birth, directed eye gaze communicates. It is a nonverbal pointer, located at the middle of the face—the center of gravity of another’s regard—graphic and unmissable. Want something? Engage another’s eyes, then look left (or right) to direct them to attend to the object or place of interest. Unsure if they followed the directive? Look back, check their eyes to see if they have followed and what their eyes signal about their reception to the overture. Do their eyes track to the location that was indicated? Are they looking to it and back to see if that is where attention was intended to be directed? Confused or interested? Stare. Angry or dismayed? Look away. The world presses too close; too much stimulation? Close your eyes. The spotlight allure of eyes is conferred at birth. Human infants are biologically attuned to seek and regard the eyes of another, which enables locating, engaging and exchanging with others—all essential for survival.

The role of eyes in social engagement does not wain with age. Rather, it becomes part of the fabric of communication that broadens to include language. Language comes to dominate discourse, but the power of eyes, while less obvious, still holds sway. No wonder that the early iconic representations of the power of hypnosis depict an irresistible magnetic force emanating from the hypnotist’s eyes. This is more than mere hokum. While there is no magnetism, there is social influence, an intersubjective force akin to magnetism in the social-psychological field of action. Eyes are a portal for this action-at-a-distance force, and eye gaze is a common technique for harnessing this force to induce a hypnotic trance.

Eye gaze is a highly regulated activity that we must manage in the course of social discourse. The etiquette of eye gaze is a tightly scripted cultural dance that signals much. Ignore, disrespect, render invisible—with no eye contact. Acknowledge, reciprocate, exchange—with modulated eye gaze. Entice, alert, seduce—with lingering contact. Unnerve, scare, challenge—with unblinking gaze. Our eye-dance is largely habitual and automatic, allowing us to comfortably travel within established cultural pathways of exchange. This type of ‘looking’ helps us routinize our encounters with others, to control, dim and objectify them, rendering the experience ‘mundane’ and, thus, facilitating the ordinary exchanges required in the commerce of everyday life. Prolonged eye gaze breaks these rules, tossing us into untamed territory lurking just beneath the surface of habit and routine. Here, we experience an unregulated encounter with another, staring back, who is alive to our presence. The other person is no longer objectified. Fright, panic, intimacy, compassion—are some of the reactions this can provoke. Prolonged stare is not necessary to enter this state; we can do so by being mindful of the moment during our routine engagements, inhabiting the present,  being present with another in this altered state.



Looking at the non-animate world is similarly habit-encrusted. The first time I remember the scales falling from my eyes was when I was working as a construction worker, laying reinforcing rods for a concrete floor to be poured on the seventh story of a new building. Uncoiling my body to take a break from the ache of back-bending labor, from this perch high above everything, I saw a sign for the Shell gas station across the street. Except this time it was not a Shell sign I saw. What I saw was a large, bright, eye-popping yellow image on a pole thrust into the sky. It had been stripped of its cultural meaning, laid bare as a shocking object qua object. I could now ‘see’ Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans as he intended—a compelling, garishly decorated, bizarre object.

‘Looking’ versus ‘seeing’. We ‘look’ most of the time. This is necessary for quick, adaptive, appraisal of the environment. It provides comfort, stability, assurance. It promotes easy exchange and confident action.  ‘Seeing’ disrupts, overturns, startles. ‘Seeing’ is not merely a shift in cognitive focus, not a change in perspectives—it is change in the state of being, from mundane habit to the bright lights of this moment; an epiphany. The ordinary becomes supercharged, becomes extraordinary.  Shell signs, soup cans, owls, babies, and wherever else  we direct our ‘seeing’ are de-familiarized. The assumed meanings that anchor us, provide us with a sense of rock-solid security are undermined, and we find ourselves cast into a world without footholds, without a compass. The intense, roiling emotions that possess us when ‘seeing’—thrill, excitement, consternation, distress, allure, fright—alert to the groundlessness beneath our feet. We are vulnerable. Impermanence prevails, intimating our mortality. And we are alive to the vision of Ahab, in Moby Dick: “All visible objects, man, are but paste board masks”.  As we journey through our days, the challenge of ‘seeing’ confronts us: How shall we sail these seas? Ishmael’s answer: “As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote.  l love to sail forbidden seas and land on barbarous coasts1.

Time Travel

Time Machine

The dream of time machines, in their many forms, have usually aimed to take us back or forward in time—to slide along the trajectory of human existence, either to visit a long past event or leap to the future. We want to spy how it was, or how it will be, for us and our fellows. Our most urgent concerns are, naturally, with ourselves and this desire animates our quest to unbind the fetters of time. In this quest, we move along a “horizontal” temporal axis, maintaining our experience within a constant human “temporal envelop”.

Our “temporal envelop” is dictated by our biology; life span, adaptive functioning and evolutionary niche. Our beating heart, breathing lungs, marching steps, habitual movements, and suite of neural and perceptual-motor reflexes are metronomes that establish our time signature.

What would await us if we traveled along the vertical axis? If we to spin the dial to the shortest intervals possible, then to the longest?

Shorter Intervals

Consider if we were to nudge the time dial to a slightly quicker ‘time zone’ within a different biological metronome: hummingbirds.  The life span of hummingbirds  is a short 3-5 years, but much intense life is packed into this brief time. The heart of hummingbirds’ pulse at 1000 beats per minute, wings snap at 50 beats per second, lungs breathing 250 times a minute, flying up-down-backward-forward-hovering all in an eye blink, yet migrating for 1000 mile journeys and, at night, entering a hibernating torpor.1   The contrapuntal rhythms of hummingbird heart, wings and voice, the staccato, stabbing movements of flight and fight, and the allegro molto pace and multimeasure rests makes for incomprehensibly complex jazz riffs.


Things get weirder still if we were to spin the dial toward the smallest time intervals. Events in this briefest of temporal neighborhoods occur in the domain of subatomic particles that inhabit near infinitesimal space and throb to very different beats than living organisms. The swarm of subatomic particles, governed by quantum mechanics, has been called a ‘particle zoo’  and the shortest enduring fundamental particle is the Z boson, which exists for a duration of about 10-25 seconds.2 A cloud chamber is one of the first methods used to capture the presence of subatomic particles, which leave vapor trails that allow for observing their fleetingly brief interactions 3.

Perhaps the most bizarre members of this ‘zoo’ are virtual particles, whose liminal existence is both substantive and unmeasurable. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle sets a time-energy/mass limit, or barrier, beyond which we cannot detect the particles themselves. But we know they exist by their effects on particles that endure on the detectable side of the barrier. The Uncertainty Principle, then, both establishes the lower limit of measurable time and also reveals that time, in the quantum zone, is tethered to mass/energy.

Longer Intervals

On the other hand, what if we nudge the time dial to a slightly longer interval, one attuned to a very different biological metronome: trees? Trees, whose upturned arms passionately reach toward the sky and whose roots tenaciously grasp the earth. Who have memory, send alarms to friends, offer aid to neighbors in crisis, nurse the young, nourish the aged and fallen, tell time, create and capture water, create and enrich their home/soil, wave welcome to birds, plants and critters of all kinds—all this we overlook, if not disbelieve, because our temporal beat allows us to see only a snapshot of the life and time of these living, breathing creatures 4.

The Big Bang occurred about 13.7 billion years or 1017 seconds ago,5which marks the age of the universe and the longest time interval on our time dial. When we spin the dial toward this limit we lose our moorings. Time, itself, is revealed to be not a simple slide along a single dimension but a thread in a space-time fabric.  Incomprehensibly large cosmic distances are measured in light years; the time it would take for light to travel from one point to another. So, the starlight we see convey the happenings that occurred long ago. This measurement of space via time hints at a more fundamental entanglement of the two. Time’s messages travel at a finite speed; the speed of light. Cosmic simultaneity does not exist—it is not the same time everywhere. This realization leads to a host of head-spinning conclusions: The basic coordinates for mapping events must be space-time coordinates. Clocks tic at different speeds and lengths and distances shrink or expand—depending on the frame of reference. And, the space-time fabric itself is curved, twisted and, in some places, torn, where time-events fall into bottomless black holes. The contours of this fabric are determined by the mass of the matter in its vicinity; more mass, more distortions, and holes where stars have collapsed. Much of what seems bedrock-stable in our narrow time zone is an anomaly from a cosmic time perspective; Alice-in-Wonderland is the cosmic norm.

Time began with the Big Bang. Was there a ‘before’?  The ‘before’ might well have been nothing, the void.  However, the void— space with no energy, charge or matter— is not empty. It is pregnant with possibility; a churning, bubbling, boiling stew of virtual particles that flicker in-and-out of existence, ever so briefly. It is surmised that the Big Bang was a cataclysmic leap from possibility-to-actuality in this frothing quantum foam.  Furthermore, our universe, and its Big Bang, may, perhaps, be a small region of a larger cosmos that has existed prior to this event. Our universe may be but a local time zone amidst an infinite space-time landscape.

Quick Decaying Particles

A being who exists near the largest cosmic space-time interval may likely have a similar perspective toward us as we have toward  subatomic particles— our little, obscure, ephemeral neighborhood of space-time would be its particle zoo. Consciousness, which influences the actions of these tiny, scurrying, quick decaying particles—us— would be a kind of virtual particle in this physics, and our architecture, art, texts, broadcasts and space probes would be our vapor trails. The vertical traverse of time rockets us through  dizzying loops, wrinkles, twists, spins, tumbles and holes. It does not offer visions of our human past or future. Rather, spinning this dial rips us from our comfortable temporal-spatial moorings, offering a wild ride through time itself and a kaleidoscopic glimpse of our place within the roiling cosmic order.



Soul to Self 2: Cosmic Facts & Personal Authority

Galileo. Descartes. These names almost everybody knows. Galileo for his trial by the Church; Descartes for his famous dictum: “I think therefore I am”. While the contours of their contributions are widely known, what is little appreciated is the revolution they helped initiate in the way we experience ourselves; the supplanting of soul with self.

Cosmos Disenchanted

Our inner life is not independent from how we position ourselves in the cosmos. When our cosmology dramatically changes, so too does our experience of ourselves.The two are tethered. Galileo, peering through his telescope, brought a new vision of the planets, moon and sun that also transformed our vision of ourselves within this new cosmic order.

The trial of Galileo, one of the most celebrated cases in Western history, marks a pivot-point when scientific fact eclipsed religious dogma, a material world supplants an inspirited cosmos, and reasoning about the path of an earthly self begins to overshadow concern about the fate a transcendental soul. The trial turned on the nature of the cosmos.  Church dogma posited that God, in His omniscience, created a perfect cosmos. This cosmos must be unchanging, for change implies either corruption or an improvement, both of which would slander God’s infallibility. Humans, who are made in the image of God, must reside at the center, and heavenly bodies, while possessing unique personal characteristics discernible from their behavior and appearance, also must exhibit perfection in movement (circular), shape (unblemished sphere) and number (seven).

Galileo not only challenged Church dogma about geocentric cosmology but, telescope in hand, discovered craters on the moon, spots on the sun, and multiple moons orbiting Jupiter.  The cosmos became unhinged from theology; pockmarked and blemished, suffering from inexplicable numerical irregularity, and no longer anthropocentric.  While this planetary dispute is widely known and easily grasped, the reworking of our psyche, presaged by this trial, is more difficult to discern.  The reply of an opponent to Galileo instructs:

There are seven windows given to animals in the domicile of the head, through which the air is admitted to the tabernacle of the body…two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth.  So in the heavens, as in a macrocosmus, there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury undecided and indifferent.  From this and many other similarities in nature, such as the seven metals, etc., we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven.  Moreover, these satellites of Jupiter are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can exercise no influence on the earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist…Now, if we increase the number of the planets, this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.1

This response, like the trial of the Autun rats2, appears befuddling, if not ridiculous to us. But closer scrutiny exposes the anatomy of medieval thought and belief.  First, the reasoning is deductive.  Truth, and the conclusions, are presumed, given by scripture and dogma, and evidence reveals itself to support the obvious, God-given reality:  “The number of planets is necessarily seven.”  Second, the argument proceeds by analogy, so that a pattern in one domain, the microcosm of the body, is repeated in another, the macrocosm of the stars.  Thus, a dense web of signs weave “the heavens and earth and all that dwells within” into a grand, harmonious design attesting to God’s perfection. Third, only evidence that supports this grand, sacred design is recognized; all else is useless. This rebuttal makes sense only if these assumptions about the world are shared.

Galileo’s methods, evidence, reasoning and conclusions, so obvious to us denizens of the modern scientific-technological world, were as alien to his critics as their rebuttals are to us. Galileo not only challenged planetary explanations, he undercut what constitutes a fact, how facts are legitimized, what beliefs are fundamental, indeed the entire assumptive background that organizes how we position ourselves in the cosmos. He smashed our cherished interior gyroscope, cut loose the universe to float free of our certainties, and enshrined critical doubt, empirical observation and analytic reasoning as the pathway to truth. Perhaps worst of all, he situates us in a morally indifferent universe. This is a fate worse than Hell; a limbo without the vitalizing drama of salvation, without the thrill of being at the vortex of cosmic creation, and without the confident certainty that affords righteous action. It is a profoundly groundless moment, historically, evidenced by the plaintive, desperate lament that “this whole and beautiful system falls to the ground.” And, indeed, it did.  And this collapse introduced new ways of thinking that we applied to ourselves.


I Think!!….??

Rene Descartes, a young contemporary of Galileo, carried the implications of the new science into the realm of the psyche.  His famous dictum, “I think therefore I am”, ushers in modern philosophy.  What makes this modern?  He was born over four centuries ago and died over a century before the American Revolution; hardly “modern” to our digital-age selves. Galileo challenged planetary facts and scholastic reasoning, and Descartes posited a modern philosophy— one steeped in the new science that applied analytic reasoning to immediate experience to achieve certainty; certainty unfettered by the corrupting influence of theology.

Each word in Descartes famous line is freighted with revolutionary significance:

I think…”:  The locus of authority is not priests, not biblical text, not Church dogma, not external authority to which “I” takes commands.  Rather, it is I, the self-reflective, subjective, independent self that provides the ground for truth-making.

“I think…”:  The source of truth is my cogitations; the experience and activity of my inner, subjective self.

“I think therefore…”:  Reason is what provides the link between the experience of the ‘I’ and the conclusions about truth.  This is unlike prior reasoning, which sought harmony with the sacred logos of the cosmos.  This reasoning is, instead, procedural, analytic and detached.

I think therefore I am.” The most basic given, that I am, that I exist, has become problematic and in need of proof.  Proofs of God’s existence are supplanted by proofs of our own, and the center of gravity shifts from soul to self.  No more profound statement of a new, existential groundlessness could be made than this befuddling, self-contradictory equation, where “I am” is both the ultimate source of truth and also most in doubt.

Descartes’ solitary, subjective “I” is the inward consequence of the new Galilean-influenced science of the external world.  The only vestige of the lost spirit-world is our own internal mental experience, whose origins in a materially caused world are now the ultimate mystery. This is the mind-body problem that begins modern philosophy. This quandary breeds another equally troubling befuddlement: How we can know anything with certainty? Through reason? Experience? Feelings? The isolated, subjective “I” peers onto an alien landscape and asks: “What is the relation between my rich inner experience and the indifferent material world where I find myself?  How can I, from the shadows of my private experience, know truth, when meaning is not given, when logos is not divinely imposed?” Descartes answers: “I can have no knowledge of what is outside me except by means of the ideas I have within me”.3  I, we, our inner selves bring forth knowledge, truth, meaning.  The power formally held by God as bringer of truth befalls to us.  We bear this weight, not by God’s power and grace, but through our own bolstering of ourselves.4

Descartes did not single-handedly initiate a revolution of the self.  The 17th century witnessed a raft of developments that highlighted the “I,” the self.  The etymology of the word, self, predates the 10th century and its origins recede into the mists of the past.  Its use as a prefix, however, appears in the middle of the 16th century.  “The number of self compounds was greatly augmented toward the middle of the 17th century, when many new words appeared in theological and philosophical writing…a large proportion became established and have a continuous history down to the present time”.5  These words include self-contradiction, self-elation, self-inspection, self-neglect, self-perception, self-vindication, self-prizing, self-consuming, self-punishing, self-blinded, self-corrupted, self-invented, self-improvable, self-affected, self-endeared, self-cruelty, self-holiness, self-strength, self-worthiness and self-admiration.  Descartes was the most noteworthy and influential voice among many who came to view the self as an object of scrutiny, praise, blame and concern.

Our experience of ourselves has undergone startling and profound transformations. Augustine’s injunction, “Try to build yourself up, and you build ruin”6 is inverted; self-esteem, self-reliance and self-confidence are now essential to the new, modern, “self-made man” (and woman). Terror about the everlasting fate of our soul is eclipsed by existential dread about our uncertain place in the cosmos. The authority of church sanctioned leaders, who minister to the soul, is superseded by accredited scientists of the self, who instruct on the management of the psyche. These changes, of course, took centuries. Galileo and Descartes, ushering in modern science and philosophy, provided germinating seeds that helped midwife the modern self.



Breaking News

Headlines Shout:

Ice Pick Killer Executed! Dow Jones Up 53 Points! Cardinals Beat Cubs, 6-3! Congress Passes Tax Cut! Prostitute Sues President for Defamation! Apple Announces New iPhone! Beyoncé and JAY-Z Expecting Twins! Self-Driving Cars are Here! Burger King Gives Free Cheeseburgers to Terminally Ill Dog! Price of Beef Up! Amazon Announces Drone Delivery Soon! Prince Harry Marries! ‘Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom’—Box Office Smash! City Helps Boy Get Permit for His Hot Dog Stand! Fire Destroys Warehouse! Genealogy DNA Bank Nabs Killer! Facebook Announces New Privacy Policy! Scientists: Limits of Human Lifespan Not Yet Reached! President Calls Former Reality Show Participant a Dog!1


While just off camera:

This year is one if the hottest years on record in the hottest decade on record.  30% of coral reefs, home to 25% of ocean life and the densest area of biodiversity on the planet, have died in the last 30 years, and 90% will be gone in 50 years. Wildfires have grown exponentially in magnitude and frequency in the past 30 years. Monster storms and extreme weather events are now commonplace. Over 18 million acres of forest are lost every year; an area about the size of South Carolina. Ice at the poles is melting much faster than previously thought— the Arctic Ocean will be ice free in about 20 years, and in Antarctica, a huge ice shelf, the size of a Delaware and 700 feet thick, has calved into the sea. Oceans will rise 2-5 feet in next 50 years flooding many major coastal cities, from New York and Miami to Shanghai and Hong Kong, from Osaka and Alexandria to Rio de Janeiro and The Hague. A number of island nations will be underwater. The oceans’ temperature, oxygen depletion and acidification are increasing exponentially, destroying ocean ecosystems, changing weather patterns,  increasing sea levels and contributing to human famine. Intense drought has increased world-wide, denuding forests, destroying agriculture, and initiating mass human migration. Underground aquifers, which took thousands of years to create and that supply 35% of world’s population with water, are being drained. Glacier National Park is a misnomer, and the great glaciers of the high Asia mountains, the water source for millions of people, will diminish by over 50% in the next century. We are in the midst of earth’s 6th extinction crisis, called the Anthropocene period, named for the single species responsible for this mass destruction of life: us.2



delusional arsonist
big brained



Soul to Self: Trial of Rats


A Historical Divide

We live on the other side of a historic divide.  This divide is most obvious when we, of the privileged industrialized world, consider the physical, material conditions of our lives: indoor plumbing, central heating and cooling, refrigeration, cars-trains-airplanes, medical wonders, foods from faraway places at our fingertips.  The list is endless and startling when viewed from the conditions that have marked human life for most of our history.  These changes, so visible and profound, are tangible and easily apprehended.  No one needs convincing that we live on the other side of a great material divide.  But these changes are tethered to other, less visible, cultural, societal and social changes: in the forms of government; the organizing laws that provide structure to human exchange; the growth and modes of ordering of urban life; education, literacy and schooling; business, markets and economics.  These changes pervade every corner of human action and exchange.

Another, even less visible, but no less profound transformation is how we inhabit ourselves.  The most concrete expression of this change is the emergence and influence of the discipline of psychology; discipline here meaning scientific discipline.  It is a watershed moment when the analytical, skeptical, empirical gaze of science is turned from the material world of galaxies and stars to the subjective experience of our own psyche.  This turn was long in coming and not easily achieved, requiring that we wrench ourselves free from the moorings that provided stability for many centuries.  Thus, the inwardness of the soul, embedded and buttressed by a world whose social, public, and institutional axes were theologically organized, is supplanted by the self, which emerges within  secular, material, scientific coordinates. 1

The failure to grasp the historical basis of the modern self can result in the assumption that the basic features of the self are independent, timeless and “placeless” components of a universal human psyche.  But time and place, history and context, matter.  Indeed, they are formative.  This history, then, is not simply useful as background information, but is evidence that how we organize and experience our inner world is intimately connected to how our sociocultural lives are organized; that the context-free psyche often presumed by psychological science is, itself, context dependent.

I will offer several posts that explore  this transformation of inwardness from soul and self. This  does not imply that the historical movement occurred through the simple substitution of self for soul, nor does it presume a dichotomous conflict between religion and science.  Human history does not yield to such simplicities.  Nor does it presuppose that many today do not deeply, devotionally give ultimate significance to the soul.  Indeed, many do.  But they do so in a world inverted: heresy is not a heinous crime punishable by public, state sanctioned torture and execution.  Rather, the soul is nurtured in the privacy and shadows of one’s personal life.  These posts exploring the journey from soul to self, then, are meant to illuminate the dramatically altered state of our consciousness.

We can never, fully, bring to life the ruins and runes left to us by the past.  The past is always read through the lens of the present, and this is especially difficult when the focus is the experience of our inner life.  Our contemporary psychological self is so naively a part of ourselves, so given and transparent, that it is difficult to conceive otherwise.  The past is a foreign country.  Overcoming the barriers and biases to gain entry is not easy, or completely possible. The trial of rats, however, offers a unique vantage point for appreciating the seamless union of  the soul, the society, and the cosmos in the time before the onset of the age of the self.

    Trial of Rats




The year is 1522, in Autun, France.  Survival is precarious, crops and weather are unpredictable, and pestilence and starvation a pressing reality.  Amidst this uncertainty, the town is visited by a plaque of rats.  The threat to the community is so severe that the municipal authorities seek to prosecute the rats, issuing a summons that the rats appear in court.  They do not.  The rats are represented by official legal counsel, who argues that most of the defendants live in the countryside and, thus, likely unaware of the summons.  The court, in response, issues a second summons which is read aloud in the churches in the surrounding countryside.  Again, the rats fail to appear.  Their attorney contends that the public reading also alerted their mortal enemy, the cats, making the journey to court too dangerous.  And so it went…for eight years.  Eventually, the rats were convicted, condemned, and excommunicated.2

This trial, and the many others like it, may appear confusing, shocking, even humorous to us moderns, but it obviously was a serious undertaking.  The full weight and formal rituals of communal justice was brought to bear on a vital issue threatening their community.  We cannot patronize our forbearers by simply dismissing this trial as a product of simplemindedness.  They were not idiots.  This example jars our sensibilities and thereby beckons us, offering a portal into the foreign country of the past.  Two words help us gain a foothold in this alien terrain:

  1. Enchanted. The medieval world has been described by many as enchanted; a world infused with magical and supernatural powers.  The root of the word is “to chant,” or sing, and harkens to the capacity for music and song to enthrall, to captivate our spirit, to charm, spellbind and bewitch.
  2. Inspirited. The world is alive, possessing, at its core, animating spirits that give movement, meaning, purpose and character not just to humans, animals and plants, but to all things in the cosmos.  Indeed, one of the principle aims of alchemy, the material “science” of this era, was to extract from matter the anima mundi; the primal spirit or soul of the cosmos.

This enchanted, inspirited cosmos, pervaded by magic and supernatural powers and populated with hosts of strange, dangerous, threatening, helpful and inexplicable spirits, is a deeply unsettling place.  One the one hand, it shares basic properties of intentionality, purpose, will, and desire that we are familiar with in ourselves.  On the other hand, it is a dangerous, capricious, unfathomably powerful, personally directed, oppressively present reality that can crush us at any moment.  The sense of vulnerability is further heightened by abject poverty, the constant threat of starvation, illness, injury, disease and death, and the tipping point for survival rests on the caprice of weather, plague, fertility, and livestock.  Constant vigilance is thus required.  And vigilance there was:  Magic rituals were necessary before planting, plowing and harvesting; houses required the foundation to be consecrated by clergy and protected by magical charms; weather rituals helped ensure crop production; animals and livestock were subjected to blessings and curses; fertility rites and practices were required to ensure healthy offspring. Communal celebratory rituals, feasts, and pageants were held during the cycle of the seasons to ensure healthy crops and good harvests; childbirth, marriage and death each had their ceremonies to consecrate and protect against malevolent forces that threaten mental and spiritual well-being.

No important aspect of life was without its magical means of influence and control.

In this inspirited world, nothing happens randomly or fortuitously—everything has a reason.  Those reasons can,  potentially, be divined, and the future and our fate can, possibly, be influenced.3  The causal nexus of this cosmos is most certainly not an impersonal, blind and indifferent, billiard-ball material causality.  Rather, the world innately possesses meaning; all things, all thoughts, all actions are entangled in a web of meaningful influence.  The cosmos offers up portents, omens, and signs whose meanings hold great significance for our personal and collective fate.  This inspirited world, in turn, participates and responds to enchantments, to incantations, rituals and rites.  Consider the power of words: A specific utterance by the right person in power at the right place and time can send an army on the march, to great destructive consequence.  The entire cosmos is so ordered.

Individuals do not seek meaning in an indifferent universe; meaning is, rather, imposed. Personal thoughts and private experiences are coupled with the happenings in the greater world.  Omens, amulets, holy water, sacred relics—the entire inspirited world radiates influence, and unbeknownst to us, can overtake us, seize our wishes and will.  The boundary between ourselves and the cosmos is porous.  Possession by alien spirits is a legitimate fear and we must take caution, heed what we say, do, and think, lest we become prey to the intrusive influence of unseen, yet overwhelming powerful forces.  We are never alone, even in our thoughts, in this spirit-pervaded, enchanted world.

This cosmos is also fundamentally moral.  Satanic forces of destruction are aligned against God’s benevolence and the focal point of this titanic struggle is the eternal fate of our soul.  Demonic allure, temptation, and assault threaten at every turn.  The single biggest mistake, which will damn us to everlasting Hell, is to presume that, in the face of such powerful, supernatural malevolence, we can make our own way in the world, can rely on our own will and wile, be self-reliant.  Augustine, who shaped medieval Christian theology and practice, offers this advice: “Try to build yourself up, and you build ruin”. 4  Only God’s grace can save us, and the hard route to that grace must pass through humility, surrender, and acknowledgement of our unworthiness.

While our soul’s fate is profoundly personal, our plight is not solitary.  The Church stands between us and God, sanctified to draw down heavenly powers, channeled through ritual, incantation and relics, to combat the forces of darkness and evil; to provide opportunities for grace and forgiveness; and to offer sacraments for personal salvation.  The Church is the hub of spiritual power that extends to all official, organizing structures of society, from legal courts to royal crown, and together they stand as a bulwark against the flood-tide of evil that threatens not only individuals, but the entire community.

The maladies of human life were understood as a complex relation between body and spirit.  “Routine” illnesses were often treated as an affliction of the body, caused by an imbalance of humours; an ill wind bringing dirt and disease, the foul airs of urban life; or an unfortunate conjunction of moon and stars.  Treatments were usually provided by local healers who offered folk remedies of potions, ointments, and elixirs with an admixture of rituals, incantations, and appeals to supernatural powers.  Failure of treatment, or strange and disturbing symptoms, suggested affliction of the spirit requiring treatment in kind: prayers, confession, penitence, petition of saints, and also, simple resignation to one’s fate, as illness is God’s punishment for one’s sins.  More diabolical illness, including madness, required more extreme measures, such as exorcism, and plagues and pestilence were viewed as afflictions visited on the entire community requiring Church sanctioned, communal responses.5

Let us now return to the trial of the Autun rats.  The community was confronted with an infestation that threatened their crops, their health, their survival.  Evil forces were clearly at work—for what other explanation could there be?  One need look no further than the Bible, the word of God, to see examples of demonic spirits inhabiting snakes, pigs and other animals, not to mention people.  This affliction of rats was, obviously, evil let loose against the community, requiring a communal response of the highest order.  The decree of the court, which was closely aligned and working in concert with the Church, was a sanctified writ that spoke most directly to any spirits who might hear it and especially those to whom it was directed.  Failure to respond is not evidence that it is fundamentally impossible for the spirit-possessed rats to comprehend, but is a failure to either not to have heard it, or a willful refusal to comply.  Following official court protocol is necessary, for only then can the official powers of the court be legitimately enacted.  And the most damning injunction that can be invoked is spiritual; condemnation and excommunication.

The trial of animals is an understandable response to a haunted world of spirits and demons, where our earthly existence is tenuous and our eternal fate is precarious, huddled as we are with other lost souls who are tossed in a violent struggle of cosmic scope and supernatural power.  Demons that stalk our inner life and plague the outer world are adjudicated and combatted through the divinely sanctioned power of the Church-government.The trial is a feeble effort to exert a measure of control in an inexplicable and overwhelming cosmos.





Genealogy has been a mystery to me. Why do so many obsess over their genealogical tree, trying to get the most complete and extensive record going as far back as possible? To claim being a 4th cousin to a distant relative who sailed on the Mayflower? To be dubbed a “Daughter of the Revolution’? A relative sent me a compendium of my ancestors, pages long, of the names of strangers in a geometric regress into the long ago past. It was as impersonal as the list in a telephone book. I am reminded of the boxes of old photos my parents kept of their relatives who were never spoken of, of whom I have no inkling. After my parents’ death, I did feel a pang of regret when disposing the photos, as if I was consigning them to oblivion, but had no desire to keep them. My genealogy consists of a generation or two, ending where the reach of memory fails.

Our Collective  Fate

Or so I once thought. An awakening occurred when I realized that many have the same view of history as I of genealogy. After being forcibly subjected to an avalanche of names, dates, battles and long-ago events, and required to memorize them, many ask: “Why should I care? How are these relevant to my daily life, my interests, cares, loves and labors?” History is but another genealogy, writ large, of a culture or a collective entity several orders removed from life’s immediate, pressing concerns.

My previous posts, Cockfosters and EMPIRE and Home in the Strange, offer a partial reply to the dismissal of history as a pile of facts that have little consequence for our immediate concerns. The past has a living presence in London and Amsterdam. But we need not travel to far lands or look to a city’s architecture. We live in and through history in everything we do, say and think. Take, for example, this very moment when I am composing this blog. I do so using paper and pen at my desk. Paper. What a remarkable invention—fashioning tree pulp into fine sheets that preserve the present for the future. Originating in China about 2 millenniums ago, paper slowly made its way along the silk road, not arriving in Europe for over 1000 years. The more immediate history of this piece of paper includes a scar in the earth where trees were efficiently hacked down, and the subsequent processing, packaging, marketing, and sales. All of these, of course, with their own long historical tail. And this is only one item in of many involved in this simple act: Writing. Writing instruments. Desk. Lighting. Chair. I lift my eyes to the window in my second story air conditioned study. My entire surroundings, everything that I see, touch and use have their own deep history, which is braided into the composite present that I inhabit, reflexively, without awareness.

The genealogy of my ancestors is a faint trace of the braided lives, loves and fates that have sired me; the miracle of “Why Me?!” . And the canals of a historically distant Home in the Strange are scribed into my character. Ancestral and historical genealogies are not background to our lives, they are constitutive. We are embodied genealogy. How ignorant, then, for me to unmindfully shout: Me! Now! Here!

History, collective or personal, engenders a reverence, indebtedness and union with those who have proceeded us. We die alone. The full weight of the singularity of our existence is experienced in the hammer-blow of our death. Genealogies help assuage our existential isolation, assuring us that we are part of a larger community, composed of the past and the yet-to-come— that our lives matter beyond the tight circumference of our time and place.


 ghost-haunted body
I open my mouth
my father speaks1


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