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

Category: Psycho-Excursions (Page 2 of 2)

Freud was Right!

Sigmund Freud

Freud was Wrong!

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

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

Cash Value

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

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

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

The Darkness that Sells

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bernays; Propaganda

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

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

The Darkness that Lurks

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

Freud was right…beware.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wislawa Szymborska5



Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box Morality

Mahatma Gandhi

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

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

Mom and Pop Morality

Big Box

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

mom & pop

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

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

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

Tribute and Remembrance


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teach me O Lord, your way.

This is how she lived her life.

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




Field Notes: Mets

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

Clowns and Costumes

Mr. Mets
New York Post

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

Banker Pinstripes

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

Colors of Despair

Morality and Baseball

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

Yankees’ out of Uniform

Anthropological Fieldwork

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

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

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

Noah Syndergaard aka Thor

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

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

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

Baseball, Oh Beloved Baseball…




Origins of Ethics

Morality Unspoken

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

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

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

Ethical Indebtedness

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

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

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

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

Ethics and Cruelty

Picasso’s Guernica
Museum Reina Sofia
Madrid, Spain

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

Ethical Humanism

Ethical Society St. Louis

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

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 powerless”2. 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”[note]Debussy[/note]. 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”.3

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.4

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.5 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.








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.

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.

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.

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