Wednesday, February 21, 2018

jagged individualism

scarcity defines the
              parameters of vision
in the outback town separated
                   by the continental divide
        from their nearest 
urban magnet
          winds blow dust and tumbleweed
up and down the alleys
               between the buildings and the
traffic lights
            a mythic pastoral pastiche
overlays the scene from afar
          on brochures of Yampa River
flowing through canyons
       while within the tensions and
conflicts reach back into the 
                legends of outlaws
catholics despise the fundies
           who return the contempt
on steroids
        brown and black faces edge
sidewalks hallways...
        K- Mart aisles and the waiting
room of indigent clinic
               gays dare not come out
of their closet
               wives are trophies for
ego display
         similar to the trophy heads
on the walls of their dens
         “suped-up” half-tons
shoulder rifles on racks
      in rear cab windows
and boast nra decals on their
coffee shops buzz with
          ridicule of those
tree-huggers in cities, the
     "girlie Rav-4's" and the
"gay" liberals in the capital….
          walking town streets
is risking random shots
      fired at a sparrow innocently
chirping on a clothesline
        an ex-marine to impress his
twelve-year-old daughter
         with his machismo
as she pleads with him
not to shoot...
         with 87% of this county
voting for trump
can the country survive
         him and his 
bigoted testosterone

Friday, February 16, 2018

Words: the gas in our shock-absorber, the water in our railway engines

There is a descending process, from elevated and proud, and, yes, a little haughty, to minimal and radioactive in the vernacular of public discourse. Nuance, once considered subtle, sophisticated, temperate, moderate and even poised, (like a ballerina in a pas de deux) is now considered outmoded, old-fashioned, ponderous, slow and heavy. Time (the prevailing scarcity), and instant contact, mostly in “tweets” (or more often blurps!) continue to take a large toll on our vaunted human extended concentration “span”. Words are replaced by initials; emotions by emoticons; sentences by single words or phrases; paragraphs by a single word.

And the range of words shrinks with every utterance. We are imposing a degree of acceptance on what used to be known as “the taciturn” on everyone. Verbosity, not that popular ever, has become a verbal crime. (Of course, the sale of books continues, thankfully, with literary prizes abounding; so some are obviously spending time looking at the written word, pausing to savour its subtlety and its provocations and implications.) And yet, is this another of the generational gaps, with those beyond the half-century mark pulling away from their much younger children and grandchildren?
Self-disclosure, that sine qua non of all healthy, evolving, maturing and engaging relationships, cannot but suffer from the metaphoric telegrams that pass for ‘connection’. And self-disclosure itself has never been an easy “climb” given that most prefer to present a “face”  they (we) think and believe will make (us) them more acceptable to the other. Males, especially, and many women also, are disclosure-averse, especially when it comes to their private emotions and thoughts. Possibly, there is an element of perceived inadequacy when one is asked, “How are you feeling?” that “oprahfied” question that falls like a magnetized sword dividing a room-full into one corner filled with men, another filled with women. In the male corner, the magnet has driven them away, while in the female corner, that same magnet has drawn them “in”.  John Powell, the Jesuit writer/thinker/soul-searcher, wrote a little book, (referred to several times in this space) entitled, “Why I do not tell you who I am!”….the essence of which is that who I am is all I have, and yo might reject me. So there is a long history of resistance to self-disclosure.

Frequent ‘contact’, as well all know, is no guarantee of ‘getting to know’ another person. People enter the same office space every day for decades, without “knowing” the person at the next desk. Tasks, especially those to which we have been assigned, consume most of our time, energy, concentration and emotional expressions. Of course, the “MO” of the boss is an inevitable subject of emotional response, regardless of whether it is negative or positive, and each of those extremes are moderated by a culture that permits or forbids honesty about such matters.

The schedules and activities of family members, too, will often consume most of the verbal exchanges among family members, without fully disclosing feelings and thoughts that might find objection or criticism or conflict if released. In the current social climate, we hear of the proverbial refusal even to respond to a parent’s texts by most adolescents. Choosing whom to pay attention to, if and when to respond to someone seeking response, and making such decisions at a pre-pubescent age is a radical revolution. Is this the first pre-teen generation who has faced those choices every minute, hour and day? (Tech interruptions, spaces without network connections, naturally complicate the situation, while providing alibis for those seeking reclusivity.)
The sparse and frugal sprinkling of words in our communication necessarily also raises the level of their radioactivity, prompting more extreme responses and reactions. And this is especially dangerous in the public hermeneutics of public officials’ utterances. Every word, formerly couched in a larger, more clarifying context, is now left bare and flying like a missile through the universe, not only leave their originator more exposed to misinterpretation, but also offering to the editorialists and the talking heads, a miasma of possible, and often quite extreme, readings of the meaning, intent, implications and dangers of each word. And those editorialists, and talking heads themselves, are also expected to muse publicly to an audience so divided in their political ideologies, that audiences themselves have become armed camps, with words as their weapons. And mostly those words are ‘fired’ out of context, without the supplementing of nuance, explication, intent, clarification and modest containment.
Paradoxically, the reduction of the number and the colour (literary devices, tonalities, vocabulary range, creative sentence structures) being used in public discourse, is another and significant (if unacknowledged) scarcities to which we are willingly, if unconsciously, subjecting our public debate, decisions and the range of options. And this scarcity, by compensation, elevates the emotive power of each word. So, those intuitively and creatively “using” these dynamics have more political “power” in the moment, than was previously accessed and deployed by public figures.

Critical thought has always depended on a foundational base of a substantial and broad vocabulary and the risk-taking impetus to stretch its use to provide the needed context for its delivery. Stripping our vocabulary of much of its nuanced, contextual sensibilities leaves it and all of us without much of the needed “gas” in our shock absorbers…so to speak. There has been a kind of pacing and reflective quality to much public discourse, even if it often seemed couched in gobbledegook.

Nuance does not necessarily mean legalese, obfuscation, or bafflegab. In fact, it can and often does mean greater clarity, and a rather kind spirit of the “speaker/writer” that respects the listener/reader and offers from a place of generous sharing. Of course, writers like Hemingway push back, merging a terse and pungent prose from his journalistic experience into his novels and short stories, injected with serious human drama. Poetry, too, exhibits an economy of language, that normally hits the reader/listener in the “gut” or the “heart” with its impact.

However, detailed and interesting and engaging prose need not be reserved for policy papers, doctoral theses, or legal arguments. And the history of fervent political and intellectual movements is linked inextricably to a long list of pamphleteers, essayists, and even comics. Today, magazines like The Atlantic, and The New Yorker offer some of the best writing available, along with the occasional news column from people like David Brooks, Nicholas Christof, Maureen Dowd, and in Canada, Roy MacGregor when one can find his work.

Leaving the public with headlines and tweets, while that may satisfy the “public appetite” and thereby offer its own kind of justification to those making the business decisions, robs the body politic of some of the most nourishing and potentially significant details. And their significance can not be restricted only to the immediate impact of the story, but extends to the reader/listener in generating a longer look at the story. Each story, as we all know, is never fully or adequately contained in its headline….and this is especially true if and when the headline writer misses the point of the story.

Another aspect of this pronounced reductionism in language (and thought) is that too often the political story is encapsulated in the “personality” of the main actor/speaker. And we also know that personalizing the story is another way of dismissing it from our critical observation, once again eliminating or at least reducing the number of opportunities to evaluate the proposed idea, theory, or policy option. Personalizing incidents or mini-dramas in the workplace is an important sign of the level of adult maturity among the workers. And openness to some of the conflicting pressures, on the part of factory or office or hospitality workers can to a long way to both their enhanced understanding of the enterprise and also to an enhanced and enlightened relationship between supervisory staff and supervisees.

Headlines shouting at least other, no matter the venue, are simply additional examples of what Margaret Atwood once dubbed the dialogue between the separatists and the federalists in Quebec, a “dialogue of the deaf.” Between those headlines on every subject, there are a plethora of nuanced details with which all sides can concur. And, those minimal agreements can be, and must become, the building bricks to construct walls of concensus….no matter the primary purpose of the venture. When those details are omitted, or glazed over, or ignored, the full import of any position or story is lost. And when the full ‘story’ is lost, all participants are deprived of needed resources on which to make those critical judgements about culpability, about guilt, about shared responsibility and about potential future steps.

“Due process” is not only a legal term necessary in a society to permit the “accused” his/her day in court, to defend, to explain and to perhaps even justify his behaviour, given the full disclosure of the context. Due process depends upon full disclosure, and the willingness of all parties to permit such disclosure….and that includes people in positions of responsibility making such opportunities accessible to anyone who has erred in their mind.

This instant accusation, trial and judgement that is being exercised every minute and every hour of the day, based on the words of only one side of the story, is not a perversion of justice; it is a outright denial of justice, for all. And the potential of embedding this kind of kangaroo court into the public arena, as a matter of normal censure, renders all of us endangered. Critical judgements to have any value at all, have to come out of detailed analyses of all available information, whether the issue is one of business, politics, morality and ethics or simply human relationships. Dismissal of details as boring, irrelevant, unimportant or more dangerously, damaging to the ‘story’ only demeans both the story and the story teller, not to mention the actors in the story.

Words do, in fact, matter a great deal. And un-uttered words also matter….this ‘railway’ (society, culture, body politic) needs both the coal, or the diesel, and the water necessary to cool the engine, as well as the rails and the wheels for it to function. Burning fuel, without the accompanying needed water to provide the cooling off, will shortly result in an engine burn-out.

Having been left on the side of the road at midnight, after such a burn-out, I would not recommend that kind of outcome for a modern, developed and mature culture.
There are imminent signs that burn-out is a real possibility, and words, learning them, using them, listening to them and experimenting with them could slow the danger, if not reduce its impact. 

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A troubled and dangerous young man in a troubled and dangerous nation

Another of the eighteen school shootings this year in Parkland Florida yesterday bloodied the bodies of students, the halls of a mega-high school, and dealt another blow to the kind of hope and promise the United States has trumpeted for centuries. And while all the rhetoric coming from public officials decries all violence, and acknowledges that the weapon of choice for mass murderers is the AR-15, a semi-automatic killing machine, and a vast majority of American voters favour gun control and want these slaughters of the innocents to cease, there seems to be no general recognition and acknowledgement of the depth of violence that has embedded itself, like black India ink into a national blotter, into the very fabric of the United States culture.

It is not only that such massacres do not happen in other countries to this degree; nor that terrorists are not planning and strategizing this minute to wreak havoc wherever and whenever they can in cities around the world, including American cities; nor that street killings in American cities, like Chicago and until recently Baltimore, are not an epidemic.

It is the obvious fact that human lives including those of factory and restaurant and hotel and hospital and school workers are “at the bottom of the food chain” in the political hierarchy….

·        while the political power brokers “sleep” with the drug companies in what in Canada we call a “family compact” (another word for oligarchy), and
·        the tax plan tilts the ordinary American playing field so far in favour of the rich, and brokenness and hopelessness lurk like stray cats in the alleys of most cities at night, looking for the next “pain-killer” drug, (most of them researched and marketed by “white collar” scientists and their huckster marketers,
·        and street gangs traffic in illicit deals to feed their own insatiable addiction
·        and the health care and social safety nets are wantonly shredded in an act of collective prejudice
·        and the arms industry is injected with billions of dollars of steroids
·        and  the public schools are handed over to the private sector benefactors of those same political vultures
·        and millions of undocumented immigrants are pushed to the brink of sanity with threats of deportation
·        and millions more in primarily black voting districts are gerrymandered out of the franchise
·        and the video game industry pumps out highly sophisticated and seductive images of violence to poison young minds and line their own pockets, stretching freedom of speech to the breaking point
·        and consequences have replaced intent in the public opinion courtrooms, as instant gratification reaches far beyond anything previously conceived
·        and formerly sober and mature and moderate voices have gone mute in the face of the onslaught on the constitution and the proud traditions and heritage of the former “beacon on a hill” to the world’s hopeless
·        and the mental health system (literally a mere skeleton of anything worth the name) demonstrates the collective denial that such a need even exists in “our” country
·        and jails and police are assigned the custody and “treatment” of disturbed individuals  who are then used as poster-children for the massacres, by those seeking a gun-toting society as their “security” against such madness
·       and today hands are wringing, voices are pleading and bereaved parents, teachers, administrators and fellow students are weeping for their lost friends and relatives….
And yet, in the face of this brutal and seeming growing avalanche of killings, there is no hope for new attitudes and new perspectives and new summoning of the political will to make the changes to attitudes, and to language and to world views and to even a semblance of modesty, moderation, tolerance and even submission to the deep and undeniable truth that America is in the act of a rolling and collective national suicide. Just as the signs of trouble were evident for years in the life of the accused in the Parkland Florida massacre, (as they were in most of the previous mass murders), and were either ignored or dismissed out of hand, (without a competent and professional national treatment agenda), so too the signs of deep and intractable “trouble” are evident everywhere in the nation for anyone willing to look and admit and then take responsible action.

In the therapy business, we would call this “parallel process” and there is little hope that the nation will begin to see itself as epitomized by such “troubled souls” whose interventions were needed long ago. Remember Pogo’s “We have met the enemy and it is us”  insight.

Look in the mirror, America!

Take stock of how your current president seduced enough of your voters and how your future, while threatened by outside actors like Russia, is in your own hands, as the future of this accused was long ago taken from his hands….until yesterday when he “took it back”!

Look at the mess that profit, money, status, power, stardom and unleashed and unfettered “freedom” has wrought; sit quietly in a dark room in reflection not only on how this national chaos began and continues, but also on what each of you can “DO” to begin to take responsibility for the wanton destruction of human lives, not only yesterday but everyday right under your eyes. It does not take a rocket scientist to connect the dots. They are written on tombstones, in headlines, in obituaries, and in presidential signatures on executive orders.

The world is watching the latest episode of what can be legitimately diagnosed as an act of national Thanatos….the urge and impetus for death…..

And you cannot say there were no signs!

You may be able to convict this accused, and even sentence him to the death penalty….who will intervene and begin the long process of coping with the  long-standing nation’s “troubles” that are just as lethal and out of control as this man’s….and there is also a clear causal link to his act and the nation’s failure to act.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Coma of Denial

I look onto the Ontario ocean where
                               a rising cloud of
icy mist plumes upward
              in a scene bordered by
hoar-frosted oaks, maples and willows...
only the bubbles keep the ice from
                     blocking the ancient
ferry's path
the natural fog morphs
     into a planetary cloud of sinister
                   infectious microbes
of cynicism, nihilism and despair
                across urban landscapes
there are no research grants to investigate
                 its poison
there are no deep thinkers probing its
there are no corporations admitting its
while a storm of protest erupts like a
            volcanic cell
whenever a political or moral cross-check
     as another victim falls
                          into the boards
the bio-viruses send microbiologists
                scurrying for new serums 
the planet protectors are in headline battle with
             the pipeline proponents
the secret-carry demagogues push for
       the right of everyone to be
locked and loaded for
in the topsy-turvey and venomous illogic
                     that only a "good-guy-with-a-gun"
can ward against a 
the message gurus twist their words
      their ethic and truth
to comply with their clients’ most base
                 and narcissistic demands
the opioid producers mislead
 about the
      side-effects of their radioactive
                                   profit motive
and crying from the car radio
          in a desperate posthumous
scream from beyond, Gord Downie pleads,
"Love not money is how we got good"….

sitting at the corner of Ontario
      and The Tragically Hip Way
I ask, "Is the prevailing fog anesthetizing
into a coma of denial?"

Friday, February 2, 2018

Reflecting on turbulence within and without

Umbrella parents….infantilizing churches and religion… hierarchical corporate structures… “governance” boards… “star” culture…LGBT v
“straight….Fascists/Alt-Right v. Alt-left…have’s v. have not’s…women v. men…
Not only is it a binary, bi-polar world, and an over-protective culture…it is also a culture at war with itself.

We acknowledge there is and always has been, and likely will be for as far as the “eye” can see, a structural tension between order and chaos. Stereotypically, and historically, traditionalists prefer, seek, stand for and uphold “order” while rebels, iconoclasts, radicals, ‘shit disturbers’ anarchists and the dispossessed cluster around the chaos, given the inconsolable nature of many of their situations.

And when the “definitions” and the “identities” of each side are clearly identifiable, recognizable and agreed to by most people, the tensions have a way of playing “off” against each other, in a somewhat clear and somewhat predictable and therefore tolerable manner. And this socio-political-cultural tension also works in a less threatening way if and when there are no global and potentially lethal threats.
Like the movies of half a century ago, and the popular music of that time, the pace of the drama is more easily and more profoundly digested, contemplated, reflected upon and even modestly understood if it comes at us in a velocity that we feel capable of absorbing, letting in without being overwhelmed.

Whether or not there is a biological ‘optimum’ for humans to process change, our individual and shared receptivity, openness and comfort with transitions, while varying with each individual and each demographic, and possibly even each culture, is one of the ‘metrics’ that underlies our shared perception of how “stable” and “secure” we feel at any given moment….and then in a longer and longer period of time.

Also playing into the “equation of equanimity” are the models from history, literature, movies, music, art and philosophy that have made their way into our consciousness. Adding to the “receptor” acuity within each of us are the personal experiences that have shaped how we see/feel/intuit/envision  and even “dream” the world to be. Linked together, the extrinsic “models” and the intrinsic experiences comprise a dynamic framework we might loosely term our “world view”.

Of course, there are merely abstract concepts, until they are called into “play” and consciously or unconsciously they demonstrate their unique power and influence. We have to be on guard for the sudden eruption of the residue of those experiences we found too painful to address at the time of their occurrence, and ‘buried’ in our own sack of unresolved memories/traumas/shocks/losses/profound hurts. And as they jump back into the light of our current day, they will likely also trigger a ‘hot button’ in another person who happens to be very close. At that moment, it is highly unlikely that either party will comprehend “what just happened”. Both will be shocked, and often offended buy the inappropriateness of whatever blurted out, and by the unexpected timing of the ‘sting’.

As a culture deeply steeped in denial of failure, of betrayal, of emotional loss including death or serious illness, the culture itself has a multitude of “sacks” in its collective memory (Shadow) just lying dormant until the least appropriate and the least expected moment when it suddenly awakens, and shoots out the arrows of its long-forgotten truth.

Just as domestic conflict most often erupts if and when something trivial finally irks one into a volcanic eruption, so too can and does a similar pattern dot the timelines of national, ethnic, religious, and even geographic entities. It is perhaps like the ‘star’ aligning in a formation that sees no option but conflict, rationalized on whatever basis seems to fit the world view of the protagonists and the antagonists. And although there are historic patterns, archetypes, and stereotypes for study by those seeking or even finally engaged in a significant conflict, it is most lightly that there will be a unique display of bravado, essentially the summation of a vortex of forces that may escape fully identification.

In Israel, people do not stand in line until those in front select their fruits and vegetables at the market: they push and shove each other aside, trained in the attitude and play book of a country under siege, not knowing precisely when or where the next rocket or bomb will drop. It is this kind of urgency that tends to focus the mind, the heart and the body and spirit to be uber-conscious of one’s safety and security every moment of every day.

And that kind of combative approach to life in North America is taking hold. It is found in our political rhetoric, our succumbing to the “character assassination” by verbal abuse, both frontally and in secret, and as Professor Pederson (U. of Toronto) suggests when speaking about the #MeToo and #Time’sUp crowds, we have become focused exclusively on “consequences and not intent”.

In The United States a misogynist, racist, homophobic and white supremacist president continues his abuse, while, in Great Britain, a member of the House of Lords for five years, who has been habitually late for his seating assignments in the Upper Chamber, yesterday resigned in “shame” because he did not live up to the higher standards Lords need to uphold. Not only does the trump model of ethical and moral depravity not square with Senator Al Franken’s dismissal for much less offensive bejhaviour, but the “Lord’s” overkill (as CBC’s The National put it) does not square with a culture in which proportion has been so mercurial as to have lost its grip on the culture.
A personal anecdote might illustrate:

For decades, I have listened to harsh and not so harsh criticism of my person and my professional performance, without so much as a grain of the leaven of “ah shucks” joking. The dissing for which men are supposedly infamous has passed me by, especially after my best friend pulled an unfortunate “joke” on this too innocent twelve-year-old. He thought it would be fun to “show” me how to hold a 12-guage shotgun, shoot it and absorb the recoil. So, without a hint of irony, or comedy, he ‘taught’ me to hold the gun at least ten inches from my right shoulder, before pulling the trigger. You guessed what came next! The recoil pummelled this overweight body back about ten feet, where I landed on my backside, to the uproarious laughter of my “friend”. Perhaps it should have had a different impact, but if that was fun, what would top it, at least in a friend’s mind?

Not having what could be considered “safe spaces” in which to joke, to “diss” and to engage with other men, except in a literal,  specific, empirical and rational manner, I essentially became a northern “Sheldon” from The Big Bang, without either the scientific intellect or wizardry, bumbling my way through a world in which unkindness, judgement and mostly disapproval prevailed. Trying desperately to “prove” myself, with extra-ordinary energy, exhausting over-commitments, and a obsessive-compulsive pursuit of applause, I literally and metaphorically sacrificed relationships simply because I had the deeply embedded “imprint” on my psyche that relationships could and would only ‘hurt’ more than they would reciprocate.

‘At war’ with myself, unconsciously, I kept slogging through such silly criticisms as “you are kind to a fault” or “you are too intense” or “your expectations are too high” or epithets like “anti-Christ,” or “alien” (especially in the U.S.) linking them in a montage that started with early chants from my mother directed at both my sister and me, “you are no good”. And walled off, then, I naturally presumed and assumed that there were no options between acceptance and rejection, “knowing” fully that the latter was more likely than the former.

Such pretense, such myopia and such self-alienation! And there is no one responsible for this isolation except myself.

Occasionally, some other ‘desperate’ person would latch onto me like a life-raft, in order to prevent his or her drowning. Naturally, there were more females than males in this group. And, after finding their own voice and legs, they would be gone, in a pattern that repeated like a worn-out slogan or billboard in my mind. Occasionally, too, there were actual compliments for some piece of work that seemed very ordinary to me, while the utterances were also deemed “superficial” and “polite” and “insincere” when they might have been authentic. Deaf to the authenticity of ‘the other’ I pushed myself just like those people in the Jerusalem markets, always in a flurry of hurriedness and fear, only the rockets I was anticipating were “psychic” and “verbal” and judgemental and persistent and repeating and relentless and never changing.
So while attempting to find and express a “voice” and advocacy for peace, I was running away from the war that seemed inescapable within.

And then recently, after an especially enjoyable dinner party with friends, I was asked, (jokingly I later learned,) “Did Michelle kick you under table?” The reference was to my volubility, energy and being “revved” over dinner. And then, after emotionally turtling, critically examining my “bad behaviour” and painfully recoiling at the embarrassment, I was told, “Your response to my silly question was absurd! Did you not ever have any safe spaces in your life?”

And the answer was/is “No!”

So, my perception of things going awry is probably inexorably acute, and painstakingly detailed and could even be hyperbolic. The accession of the current U.S. president, in spite of his history, his attitude, his behaviour and his world view is particularly horrendous and frightening, simply because no one has any idea the lengths to which he will/can go to satisfy his personal desperate need for affirmation/applause/loyalty/fealty/slavery.

Social criticism, political criticism, linked to a rather fervent passion for change, for thinking outside the box, for leaving a mark of contribution on whatever “clay” I am privileged to walk has been a profound commitment for decades. And yet, this “super ego” parade of self-righteous correctives, targeting the “outside”  world has simultaneously served to mask the blindness to and inner vulnerability, a capacity to see things in a somewhat distorted perspective.

And maybe that is the light shining through the many ‘cracks’ that have appeared in the institutional ship of state: that finally, all of us will come to the place where, not equanimity but perhaps honesty with each other, including inside our institutions will rise above the public “mask” we have been wearing in our personal lives and have insisted on being an integral component of public discourse.

There will always be roiling sea of tumultuous winds and waves, even intense storms in the political theatre, just as there are different tensions within; yet,  we might at some future time be able and willing to set aside the magnetic distraction of hubris, and the lies that hubris/inferiority/neurosis all need in order to survive. If then we could begin to accept and to acknowledge our own, and our institutions’ blindnesses, cover-up’s, dissemblings and manipulations of the bare-bone facts, the kind of storms/conflicts  in which we could be engaged would focus, not only our personal narcissism, but on the predominance of our shared risk/threats and the need for a collective ingenuity in both content and in method to face those storms.

Consequences, demanded as a form of instant gratification for legitimate injustices, without a process for a critical examination of the ‘intent’ of those alleged perpetrators, not only in our personal struggles but also in our geopolitical tensions, will never move us to ‘higher’ ground. The concept that our inner turmoils and out public turbulences illustrate and prove a “parallel process” cannot be lost on those we put in positions of power and responsibility.

And when those two rivers of consciousness and unconsciousness can finally be embraced as mirrors and lamps of each other, then, perhaps, our obsession with the extrinsic will be more in balance with the intrinsic energies of our lives.

Kierkegaarde once reminded us that life is not a problem to be solved, but rather an experience to be lived….It is the degree to which we open to the full, comprehensive, and life-giving energies of the tensions of those experiences without denial, without blindness and without fear of vulnerability that is our challenge.

The rampant fears that jump out in every ‘water-cooler’ conversation about the  world’s nuclear clock’s having moved two more minutes to midnight, might just be a mirror our own anxieties within our own lives, seeking both our embrace and our gentle attention. Novelists, poets and political pundits are really telling us the same stories, from different perspectives. And the arts, in spite of the derision they suffer at the hands of policy-makers, still offer and invitation into our private secrets and blindness. Should we pause long enough to embrace their truth, we could be gifted with insights long overdue, in both our private lives and our public institutions.

We will not and ought not to expect the surgical removal of anxiety and tension; it is the gift of their hidden truths that awaits our discovery. 

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Tentatively walking into the "beach" of the turbulence between men and women

When Earle Birney told an audience of grade twelve students in an auditorium in northern Ontario back in the 1970’s, when commenting on the dangers of pollution, “We’re going to drown in our own shit!” (although the mic died on the last word) he was making a literal statement, in his prophetic voice.

Not only has that specific risk not abated, but now we risk drowning in the “effluent” of our own culture war. The notion, previously considered nearly sacrosanct, that one’s innocence must prevail until his guilt is proven and he is given some ambiguous and dying concept known as “due process” is in grave danger.

Having been raised in a home that was fraught with physical, emotional and psychic violence perpetrated by my mother, I know something of “not having due process”…and also something of the wrath of the female psyche. The fact that she hated her father, and by extension her spouse was not then, is not now and will not be in the future any responsibility of either my sister or me. Nevertheless, her venomous behaviour, today considered extreme abuse, was kept hidden from the public in a small town where most people knew more than a little about everybody.

Accusations, based primarily on what can now be seen as her own psychosis, her self-loathing, projected onto both her father and her spouse and then onto her children, were both viscious and unappealable. Of course, other family members were familiar with the abuse, but were afraid of the repercussions from the perpetrator if they should dare to report her ‘to the authorities.’

So, we buried our anger, our resentment, our fears and our revenge motive in silence, and in over-achieving in the misguided belief that somehow we could satisfy her illicit expectations, imposed as they were, both viscerally and indirectly. We simply never knew what would ‘set her off’ again so lived with the prospect everyday that she would “explode”.

Statistically, our family was hardly alone, in that physical punishment was employed and tolerated, accepted and considered somewhat normal in our generation, especially as compared with today.

This story, however, pales in comparison with the decades of physical, emotional and sexual abuse perpetrated by males on females over centuries of silence. Male dominance, linked inextricably with female recessiveness, has plagued human culture from the beginning. Dominant influences on this pattern, including male and female archetypes, comes from the early Christian church, from the military, from the Roman Senate and the Greek public square, spreading like ink from  a spilled bottle into the blotter of succeeding cultures, including writing, historical, philosophical and literary, as well as all other forms of artistic expression. A few women even took male names, as pseudonyms, to mask and achieve their access to publishers and readers. Not a few women even went so far as to wear restrictive garments, and to perform both domestic tasks and sexual favours for their partners, with barely a whisper of complaint, and certainly without “going public”. There were, for centuries, no technologies that facilitated public flow of information, except by word of mouth. And public morality centred around such large chunks of unacceptable behaviour like treason. Wife-swapping and family loyalty was, for a long time, “resolved” by individuals taking action on their own behalf and much blood was spilled and many lives were lost. Male dominance, including the shame of the cuckold husband, was permitted, even expected, without retribution from the state. Traditions developed such as courtly love,* one of many dances/cultural norms that grew up around the always potent, unpredictable and untameable relationship between men and women. For many male nobility, including kings, princes, potentates and even modern presidents, “affairs” outside of and contiguous with a public marriage were considered normal, and multiple forms of intrigue were designed and deployed to “protect” the secret. For many women, power and the symbols of power, have been, and continue to be, magnets attracting them, especially away from what they considered weak, spineless, inept or simply embarrassing male partners.

Poetry, concertos, plays, operas and art works have all been created as expressions of love, requited or not, by men whose sensibility and creativity exceeded the social norms and boundaries of respectability, and public morality. And the female “objects” of these works basked in the light of their own magnetism for the artists, writers and composers.

Of course, no specific social system or religious dogma, even the monastic orders of chastity, ever fully succeeded in preventing or eliminating behaviour that centred on human biology and sexuality. The church tried vainly and valiantly to bring this raging impulse under ‘control’ by forbidding sexual relations outside of marriage. Not amenable to either legal or religious dogma and enforcement, humans continued to behave “irresponsibly” and most of the irresponsibility was laid at the feet of men, who throughout history have exhibited an aggression and a sense of identity that included one or more female “trophies” that has usually not served anyone very well, especially the perpetrators. Of course, the inverse is also true for many women, whose pursuits were deemed more sophisticated, subtle and less openly aggressive, especially when compared with the male dominant physicality. Men “rape” women; women “seduce” men. And the difference is not incidental; it is monumental. The former is a crime; the latter is a much less dangerous and therefore tolerable(?) 'norm'. Men, almost all men it would seem, are vulnerable to the active, vigorous, sensual and persistent pursuit by a woman whether the situation “fits” with social norms or not, while women, on the other hand, are much more disciplined and restrained in their emotional vulnerability to the advances of most men. Today’s vernacular speaks often about the nuclear option, in political terms. And throughout history, the ‘nuclear option’ operating both under and frontally on the radar screen of history has been, is, and will continue to be the tensions, frustrations, anxieties, disputes, conflicts, and life and death struggles over relationships between men and women. And this pulsating energy gives “life” to many individuals, while also serving as a temptation nearly drowning for others.
Learning about “love” is one of, if not the most troublesome learning curves humans try to master. And, beginning in the family of origin, models of each gender tend to be simplified into stereotypes at first, and then, over time, and various experiences, morph into the complexities that require intense scrutiny, discipline and commitment by both partners.

Women have learned some basic, perhaps debatable, yet nevertheless indisputable expectations of men: they want only one thing; they are easily offended, proud, even hubristic, and ambitious and highly inarticulate, even clumsy and awkward about their emotions. And within the parameters of such a paint-by-number drawing of their prospective male partners, (they also wanted to procreate) women learned how to please, appease, and how to give “him” space, and how to find support and comfort from other women. Men, at the same time, were busy hunting and gathering food, building their little (or not so) empires as testament to their ambition, and their potential for being responsible. Above all else, women sought responsible men with whom to have their children, given the enhanced prospect of a stable, secure and profitable family life with at least the bare necessities.

Neither gender was either willing or able to become fully familiar with the deep and profound complexities of the other, except through the lens of a few basic line drawings that omitted more than they revealed. Ignorance, bitterness, silence, and a kind of dialogue of the deaf (in the sense that two very different emotional, spiritual and even intellectual agendas, as well as characters) talked almost past each other, if they bothered to listen to each other.  Mostly, what conversation was held, and considered to be effective was about the duties, chores, bills, and basic needs of the children. As a common focus, children offered a ‘third party’ on whom to focus, since, from different point of view, each parent has a different perspective of the child’s needs and their own facility in trying to meet those needs. And, sadly and too often, an open or masked competition erupted between the parents for the child’s attention and affection. Children too, quickly learned to “play one parent against the other” as they easily and deeply absorbed each parent’s likes, dislikes, biases and blind-spots, and hot buttons.

Helping to determine a parent’s need for attention/affection from the child is the degree to which the respective parent feels OK, worthy, self-content, “comfortable in his/her own skin” as the vernacular has it. And that variable is also dependent on the level of love and support the parent received from his/her parents in the previous generation. Similarly, the concept of “man” and “woman” are derived in part, and first, from the picture of the parent of each gender. Parents who were absent at school, at war, at some vocation, are naturally unavailable to their children, and the missing gap is one lives for generations.  “Umbrella” parents also encumber their children with over-protection, and a level of personal insecurity that  was barely even known only one generation back from today. Most of these encounters between parent and child, however, are not documented, discussed or perhaps even noticed for their long-term implications.

And it is the continuum of dominant/recessive that continues to play out in various scenes, cumulating in a gestalt of how each child “sees” members of their own gender and that of the opposite gender. A gentle, compassionate father, for example, engenders both support and trust in the child, whereas as domineering, cold and punitive mother engenders fear, distrust and a sense of worthlessness in the child. Of course, that is only one of many models of parenting, Yet, if it is the initial model, it has a lasting impression that takes decades to overcome. Similarly, a dominant, abusive father, leaves a lasting wound on both sons and daughters, and an over-compensating mother, in that situation, merely exacerbate the problem. These early experiences tatoo their vibrations into the psyche of the children and many of the future entanglements can and are often sourced back to the family or origin.

Of course, these extreme models need more time, patience and professional counsel to overcome. Nevertheless, gender definitions, roles, expectations and their implications play themselves out in personal experiences, many of them fraught with pain, more distrust, revenge and self-sabotage, on the part of both men and women.

Models such as “the rescuer” (whether male or female) will tend to take on a person of the opposite gender, especially if they appear very needy, as a worthy and all-consuming project, to transform into a self-respecting person with dignity. (Henry Higgins model extended to the psyche, far beyond the vocabulary and the status and the wardrobe!) Another model, the self-righteous warrior, seeks revenge on unsuspecting targets for wrongs they, or their close friends, have endured. Such revenge, while perhaps unconscious to the perpetrator, is hardly ever recognized as a motive in public and legal discussion of cases of gender warfare.

Several decades ago, women began to speak out loud to address their conviction that not only are they not a subservient gender, but that they are actually, and ought to have been for centuries, equal to, if not in some ways superior to their male counterparts. While the ‘movement’ scratched the surface of the injustices being imposed on western women, they did not make a significant impact on their goal of achieving full equality with men. And the movement generated, at first a bemused smirk among too men many, and then some deep anger that their world was being shattered, with good reason.

For their part, men, generally did not take the opportunity to evolve into a consciousness that welcomed their own anima (the feminine part of the unconscious) as had women embraced their animus (the male part of their unconscious). In fact, it has been articulated argued that many of the open conflicts between men and women are really battles of the unconscious Shadow, including the anima/animus. From the public perspective, it seems that women have embraced their animus through successfully entering and executing senior positions in mega-corporations, governments and ecclesial institutions, without fully abandoning their feminine side. However, men are still, for the most part, walking blind or perhaps more dangerously, defiantly, rejecting all attempts by many different voices to invite them to embrace their anima.

Holding on to their victim/bully archetype, however, only perpetuates a cultural phenomenon that has long since passed into antiquity, whether men are willing to acknowledge its demise or not. And when the male victim/bully rears its ugly head (it is the only head it knows or has) and seeks and reeks havoc against a female, as a mis-directed target of his anger, (or vice-versa, when a female’s victim/bully seek vengeance against a male) the results are ugly, tragic and irreconcilable in many cases.

The political/social/cultural/historic moment in which we live is fraught with the multiple tensions including:

·        around fear of survival of the planet,
·        fear of loss of human rights (women’s rights ARE human rights),
·        tectonic shifts in economic stability and security,
·        instant global crowd sourcing, and
·         a vacuum of trust in all public institutions and that includes an impatience with those institutions that were once trusted to deliver the needed remedies for correction and amelioration of social injustices
·        Political/social/cultural ‘movements’ such as “Occupy”, #MeToo, #TimesUp, and certainly in Canada, a mountain of public shame over the  hundreds of missing and murdered aboriginal women waiting for justice
·        Political leaders whose dedication to objective and verifiable facts and truth is virtually non-existent
·        And impatience that “justice” can or will come from those institutions traditionally responsible for its delivery

Nevertheless, many of the now barnacled stereotypes of masculinity and femininity, while openly competing with evolving models of both genders, continue to rear their ugly heads only now with a vehemence, a vengeance and an impatience that borders on frightening. The contempt for men, that I grew up with as an adolescent, is now raging across North America, unleashed as a force rivaling the tsunami power of mother nature, for which adequate preparations have not been made.

There are no break walls, no levees, no courts and no norms on which to base any attempt to redress the wrongs against women that have been a silent “cancer” in denial for centuries. There are no ‘schools’ (in the formal sense of that word) in which to enroll successive generations of men, to school them in the discipline of respectful relationships with women. There are no churches prepared to undertake spiritual direction programs to reconcile the explosive and dangerous nuclear ‘spills’ that stomp across the front pages of our dailies each day. The courts, themselves, are facing a growing number of charges of sexual misconduct, assault, and rape, in numbers and complexities for which they are ill-equipped. The screams of injustice, legitimate and overdue, are generating waves of public media, including the cover of Time, with photos of the women complainants and the over-arching title, The Avengers.

Previously prominent men are being emasculated, just as the women seeking justice and revenge believe they were defamed in secret for too long. There is no doubt that women have “found their collective voice”….and yet the voice of the male cohort of this moment in history is struggling with how to affect the changes needed both to the relationship culture and even to what we previously considered the “hard wiring” of both genders.

Men’s voices, for the most part, will continue to be singular, and without a cohesive, collective “movement” like that of  #MeToo and #TimesUp. Men are much less willing or able to enter into circles of support, and much of the evidence of male-initiated sexual abuse pouring across our screens is indefensible anyway. The time and the patience required to investigate and to detail the charges, including the costs to the public purse, are neither available nor able to be mounted in time to address the legal principle of habeus corpus. Guilt is already imposed by the news media, and the employers of those men whose reputations lie in ruins, in the ash heap of twenty-first century cultural history. Their woman accusers already have been imbued with the kind of impunity expressed by Andrea Horvath, Leader of the NDP in Ontario who uttered these words this week, in reply to the phrase “Ontario Justice System:” “two words, Gian Gomeshi” …because in her view the legal system has failed the women of this province.

The “facts” that the justice system that heard the Gomeshi case found a verdict with which Ms Horvath disagrees is not justification for slandering the legal system. There were witnesses and there was evidence and a judge listening carefully to both in that case. And when our political leaders, in this case one aspiring to become the premier of the province whose legal system is the equal to, if not the better of, most, publicly defame what protections are still extant, for both men and women, we are already sliding down a very slippery slope into a kind of chaos that could provide little or no “justice” in the “restorative” sense of that word, for anyone under a cloud of suspicion.

Earle Birney likely did not envision a drowning in our own shit, of this kind or proportions in North America, back in the mid-70’s. And yet, without both men and women coming to a forest of tables together, airing the legitimate grievances of women, and designing an individual and a societal redress of those grievances (reparations are hardly a legitimate response) and seeking to grow a culture in which both men and women mutually agree to address grievances, (in a manner modelled by the Good Men Project) we are in for a very long, very cold and very embittered winter of our shared discontent.

*A highly conventionalized medieval tradition of love between a knight and a married noblewoman, first developed by the troubadours of southern France and extensively employed in European literature of the time. The love of the knight for his lady was regarded as an ennobling passion and the relationship was typically unconsummated (From Oxford Dictionaries)