Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Reflections on Balbriggin beach

Sitting on a bench on the shore of the Irish Sea this afternoon at Balbriggin IE, with gulls circling, flocking to ancient black rocks, and parents of both genders pushing strollers with infants tented in plastic, the scant breeze turning barely perceptible waves onto the shore, before high tide, my wife and I were literally and metaphorically completely detached from news of Cambridge Analytica, professor Kogan, and the trump campaign.

We knew nothing of the ‘hunt’ for Zuckerberg, the millions of dollars invested in Cambridge Analytica by Mercer, nor the fact that his daughter was/is? a board member of the firm, nor that both U.S. and U.K. governments were on a steroid-induced troll for whatever breaches of law, ethics, and business ethics were embedded in the election of trump.

And we really could not have cared less about all that!

We were/are ensconced in a visit into places like the Long Room, filled with 200,000 volumes of historic texts, the busts of dozens of world thinkers, writers, scientists and scholars. Having just crossed the Ha’Penny Bridge yesterday, where, as on  the bridge over the Seine, romantic couples had placed padlocks, emblematic of their relationship securely onto the bridge’s frame, we strolled Temple Bar, detoured into McDonalds for a brief reprieve from the seering cold wind and happily joined hundreds from all over the world to line up for an opportunity to view the Book of Kells, at Trinity College Dublin.

Some of our ancestors had emigrated to North America from the Emerald Isle, and we came to absorb the land, water, air and culture on which they were reared. And some of what we have discovered is worth noting: waterless urinals, (saving 100,000 litres of water annually), sun-fuelled compactors of refuse on the university campus, hotel room lighting that is turned on only after the hotel “key-card) has been inserted into a controlling slot. When the guests remove the card, and leave for the day, no electricity is used in the room. Similarly, corridors adjacent to the “lift” (elevator) doors remain unlit, unless and until a person steps off the elevator, triggering their illumination.

Electric trains link all major cities, including Dublin to Belfast, the home of “the troubles” and both ad signage and hotel-hosted religious conferences continue to evangelize for Christ, without raising a whiff of either public engagement or disdain. As one local put it on the beach where he was raking geometric images, as part of a self-designed psycho-therapy regime, the division between Catholics and Protestants simply does not matter to anyone. He was schooled by Franciscans, while as a father, he worked to establish a non-sectarian school attended by his sons, and students of all faiths, and no faith, in the suburb of Dublin. The mere recollection of the visit of Rev. Iain Paisley to this small town, ‘where he was not warmly welcomed’ kindled a deep connection and silent applause in this rebel who, at sixteen, departed a parish in Canada, after a Paisley clone announced that “Roman Catholics were going to Hell” in a public sermon, on behalf of a bogus religion and ideology that was/is an agency consummated in some kind of icy hell, and delivered as a means of disruption around the world.

The announcement (advert) on the television by some pharmacist of the growing incidence of bowel illnesses in the last decade (he was selling an agent to counter the discomfort) acknowledges what the geometric beach designer and millions of others around the world already know, that current conditions in most, if not all workplaces, have left conscientious professionals suffering deeply under the strain of abuse by clients, pressures to comply with new regulations and expectations from employers, and threats to personal security, privacy and personal contentment and psychological peace that found some of on that beach far away from it all.

And this dis-ease that has forced panic attacks on the ‘beach-designer’ and placed millions in jeopardy of similar psychic pressures, often repressed and unacknowledged, results from many variant stimuli. However, the culmination of these militant political, cultural and fiscal “viruses” (including Cambridge Analytica, trump, bannon, mercer and the millions of corporate feudal lords at the top of millions of employers) demands a push-back from ordinary people, those clinging to their jobs, or digging for their opportunities to work, or scurrying away as refugees from poverty, war, disease and hunger….all of us crying, like the unfed Polar Bear which screams, “We will no longer merely gather up the crumbs that you plutocrats let fall from your tables, your cash registers and your investment portfolios!”

It is no longer adequate to debate the ravages of corporate greed, as an ideology of abuse. We must move beyond the abstract! Our bodies, our minds, our hearts and our spirits are withering on the slender and unwatered, un-attended vines of what once passed as beneficence on the part of major employers, once concerned about their workers, the lives of their families, and the thrill that comes from demonstrable support and nurture of those families.

It was a brief moment of heart-warming (if ever-so-minimal) beneficence that emerged in an early afternoon replay of Undercover Boss, on Channel 4 in Dublin, earlier today, in which the CEO of True-Value Hardware Corporation, a former undercover agent for the FBI, met and had secret conversations with workers in one of the company’s franchise stores in Massachusetts. And then, after removing his “cover,” he had frank, supportive and mentor conversations, supplemented by the commitment of real cash for support for loan pay-offs, educational trusts, “familymoon” for one married worker who had not had the opportunity to have a real honeymoon. But the real difference in these conversations was that he was asking for and committing to a mentorship relationship in which he proposed speaking once a month every month for a year, to guide the recipient of the company’s support and trust, and to incarnate the belief that these people were worthy of such personal/corporate encouragement.

As reality television, the piece has some entertainment value. However, as a cultural tip of the arrow of healthy recognition of the value of those in the trenches, all of the trenches, and not merely tokenism for television ratings, this CEO could well enable others to find the courage to step into the growing void of hopelessness, and despair and lost lives that populate the fast food outlets, the hardware warehouses, the insurances brokerages where phoney claims by amoral fraudsters not only push up all premiums, but trash those who have to work in an environment that escapes even the bare minimum of conscience and ethical considerations.

We are at risk of drowning in a tidal wave of narcissism, demonstrated by the trumps, the bannons, the mercers and the zuckerbergs (rumors of his potential run at the White House in 2020 cannot be overlooked or denied). And the decent, atheist geometric beach designer’s images, like the implicit and intrinsic value of each of us in this world dominated by the moral insouciants, will be washed away by the next high tide.

And its arrival is merely hours away, in geologic time!   

Monday, March 12, 2018

Let's rethink crime and punishment in North America...

There is a glaring gap between the justice and rehabilitation processes in North America and those operating in Europe. This space has previously explored the humane treatment of prisoners in Norway. Just this week, CBS’S 60 Minutes shone a light on the German prison system, dedicated as it is to restoring the individual to the community, while considering the “punishment” to be the incarceration without needing additional abuse.

Conditions inside a prisoner’s room, including a private bath, his own decorations, are dramatically different from those in prisons on this side of the Atlantic. There seems to be a kind of social vengeance inflicted on prisoners in North America, probably more severe in the U.S. than in Canada, but nevertheless, a harshness, coldness and insensitivity that borders on abuse.

Some statistics might demonstrate a significant difference in incidents of crime in Great Britain as compared with the United States (from Nation Master website*):
Ranked 44th.
Ranked 10th. 138 times more than UK
78,753 prisoners
Ranked 15th.
2.02 million prisoners
Ranked 1st. 26 times more than UK
6.52 million
Ranked 2nd.
11.88 million
Ranked 1st. 82% more than UK

Comparing Germany crime rates to those of the United States:
Ranked 43th.
Ranked 7th. 6 times more than Germany

Ranked 29th.
Ranked 9th. 19 times more than Germany

Ranked 79th.
Ranked 43th. 5 times more than Germany

Ranked 5th.
Ranked 1st. 11 times more than Germany

Ranked 24th.
Ranked 9th. 3
times more than Germany
*These figures are based on 2014 data.

While a detailed an academic analysis of this data is not our purpose here, nevertheless, the nation with the highest prison population (among the three countries listed (Germany, UK, US) also has the highest crime rates. And although Canada’s incarceration rates do not match those of the U.S. nevertheless, the incarceration methods fall far short of those in Germany, and in Norway.

What are the foundational differences between the cultures in North America and those in Europe that mediate very different prison systems? In fact, U.S. prison officials have begun to visit Germany for one, in order to learn how their culture and nation treat prisoners, with a view to “modernizing” and “moderating” the extremes in prisoner treatment, and prison guard attitudes and approaches. Reports of excessive use of solitary confinement in Canada, over the last few months, have exposed a degree of abuse that has prompted public investigations and calls for much less use of “solitary”. And solitary is just one aspect of the deprivations, above imprisonment, that North American prisoners endure. Cells are bare, stripped of normal human amenities, decorations, including personal cell keys, a significant trust and privacy feature in the German prison documented on 60 Minutes.

There are clearly different attitudes, histories, philosophies and psychologies being applied to the German prison system, one from which both Canada and the United States could learn much, in order to reduce costs of confinement, and generate both lower crime rates and lower recidivism rates. And yet, there seems be little more than a silent whisper from isolated voices crying in the political wilderness where public attitudes are either dissociated from or unconscious of the current conditions in North American prisons.

Judgementalism, in extremis, describes public attitudes to unacceptable, unlawful and criminal acts in North America. For example, word of “mouth” evidence, on social media, not under oath, nor under critical cross examination, and certainly not before either a trained jurist or a jury of one’s peers, have become accepted as normal in the public reputational assassination of many, especially men, who have crossed the lines of propriety and personal security and safety of many women. And while the subjects of these accusations are not in prison, the gender conflict exemplifies a deeper theme running through the cultural granite of our times.

Only if and when we collectively, socially, culturally, and politically come to embrace the notion that for the most part, the people who commit crimes have already had a gut-full of all of the abuses that can be perpetrated on humans will we begin to appreciate then full reality of their lives, including their misdeeds. And only then will we be able to shed the blinders to our own “colonizing” of these men and women as another of the many abuse of power that are embedded in our “developed” and “enlightened” culture. (Leave aside the sociopaths, the psychopaths, and the sex offenders, for whom neither the roots of their condition, nor the approaches to deal with them have been clearly discovered.)

There are, at its roots, too fundamental motives driving our approach to crime: first, we seek “justice” for the victims, and that norm implicitly means prison, hard labour, stern and hard-assed discipline while incarcerated and few if any meaningful steps to restore the individuals to return to their homes, and begin to function within the society. And second, we do strongly seek to “remove” the problem from view, as an example of deterrence for others. And while there is a long history of stern punishments, there is little evidence that either the punishment or the deterrence generate the desired impacts and results we seek. Capital punishment, for example, has long been proven to have a negligible impact as deterrence, and yet 38 U.S. states have re-instated in over the last two decades. Thankfully, Canada has not restored it, and there appear no signs to move in that direction.

In Germany, for example, prison guards are given two years of training in approaches to dampen down the tension, the unrest, the irritability and the dangers within the institutions. It is very quiet inside the prison depicted on the 60 Minutes documentary. Leisure activities, for men, including crocheting, knitting, volleyball and reasonable healthy activities that men who have erred and hurt others seem to appreciate, not to mention the trust the program begins to build inside their psyches.

Incidentally, in both Germany and in Norway, recidivism rates are much lower than they are in North America….surprise! Hardly, when the root causes of crime are much better understood, appreciated and a vindictive motive does not have the kind of cultural acceptance and application there that it seems to have in North America.
There is also an implicit arrogance, superiority and blind insensitivity in a culture that considers those who commit crimes less than social “dung” and worthy of the kind of treatment that even animals do not deserve. And that arrogance has its roots in a religious self-righteousness for which the Christian church has had a considerable impact on generating.

Original Sin, that cornerstone of religious belief, that separates and alienates all human beings from their highest and best angels and motives and behaviours, starts with a notion of a God that could only be a model of vindictiveness, vengeance, contempt and punishment. Such a God is not worthy of the name. And those who sought to inscribe the original narrative as a guiding archetypal beacon for the rest of human civilization, while honourable in their intent, were blinded by their limited perspective. And the implications of Original Sin continue as a tidal wave centuries later.

Starting from the position that we are all wretched sinners, evil, and seriously bereft of redeeming qualities, without the intervention of God (in whatever form and purpose we conceive that entity to intervene in human life), only underscores a position not merely of vulnerability, but of self-debasement, self-loathing and basically a rejection and alienation from all things good represented by our better angels. Comparison, especially with a deity, can generate only hair shirts, starvation diets, mendicant discipline and all measures of attempting to redeem ourselves from our core evil.
And redemption, as an act of human will (often obsession) can and take many forms. Also redemption can lead to a sense of hopelessness and insouciance that “I am no good and never will be any good” so what the hell, I might as well act out my identity.

It is identity, after all, that tends to have the impact of either releasing our talents and gifts or, too often, of repressing our persons into some constricted version, under the pretense of false humility. And if we were to conceive of the expression of our talents as our insurance policy assuring us of a place in heaven, we are, as usual, bartering with a deity, on our own terms. This identity “thing” so elevated in our political discourse, has become a defining and archetypal concept of contemporary culture.
Identity, as men or women, as indigenous or non, as black, white or brown, as rich or poor, as educated or not, as Christian or Jewish or Muslim or atheist, agnostic, as gay or straight, as immigrant/refugee or native….these are all merely descriptors that have taken on an iron-fisted chain on the ankles of our relationships. While there is relevance and significance to their import, they can be and often are used as “bullets” against us. Similarly, our misdeeds, especially those that cost us our freedom, ours jobs, our relationships, and even our lives, do not define us. We are, in a word, not reducible to a moniker, or a headline, a single encounter, whether that encounter elicits praise or contempt. Nevertheless, once tabbed with an incident that is out of line, (always another’s line) we must carry that reputation like the albatross around our necks, from society’s perspective. A similar dynamic imbues families with permanent clouds that are encased in whispers like “we don’t  talk about uncle Jack, the drunk”). Our penchant and even preference for “trashing” the other, given the least provocation, is humanity’s blind-spot to our own implications in the drama and the identity we are trashing.

Who of us is free of the same kind of “blemish” for which we have cast the other adrift? Who of us can say with honesty that we feel better for having, frankly slandered another for doing or saying something we find unacceptable and then blithely gone on our way and done something similar or even more contemptible? It does not take quantum physics to deduce that each of the incidents in our lives are connected to every person and every moment in our lifetime, and in the lifetimes of our ancestors.

 And those connections, through honest reflection, sharing and evaluation matter. They cannot be relegated to another time and space, in which we have no hand. So immediate provocations, like drinking too much before committing an unlawful act, do not explain the incident, neither as justification nor as ‘motive’. Even the culture we all participate in cultivating, like a shared garden, plays a significant part in the attitudes that generate our actions and our beliefs. Responsibility for that “garden” however, is generally denied even by the people and the  systems we have designed to “protect” us from tragic events. Replete with flaws, each of us need a more circumspect view of our own “perfection”…and our pursuit of an unattainable perfection in our culture. We are not a “Lexus” culture in the sense that perfection is our ultimate goal. And our obsession with perfection, rather than freeing us, really constricts us from thinking and acting outside the box, experimentally, taking risks, and discovering that our self-and-family-imposed limits do not define us.

Individuals, with all of our complexities in our DNA, our histories, our families of origin, communities and countries of origin and our ethnicities are becoming caricatures of human beings, in the manner in which we are being perceived,  programmed, manipulated and deceived by diverse and self-serving powers in politics, religion, corporations, educational institutions and even in our small work units. And we are especially encased in a vault of social and political correctness for which we are clearly unwilling to take personal responsibility. And that “correctness” is made more accessible and definable the more “labelling” (as if we each have a “brand”) we apply to others. The corporate modus operandi is so prevalent, and so pervasive and so easily adopted and accepted and then elevated as the “norm” that individuality has been replaced by the attitudes, beliefs, behaviours and judgements that are amenable and accepted by our workplace masters. And such parameters designed and applied in the programmable service of profit and reputation of the “brand” for which we work that what we think and how we act become enmeshed with “what would “daddy” think”…..just another application of the Freudian “super-ego” projected onto an outside source.

Whether that “daddy” (or mother, or priest, or teacher, or principal, or boss or police office, or the law itself) approves and endorses our identity, naturally, is a process through which all young people go. And, insofar as childhood and adolescence goes, there is an appropriate application of an external “locus of control”….that is how we learn.

However, relaxing the “external” and moving toward an “internal” locus of control, is a necessary and evolutionary process for which our culture seems deaf and dumb to engage in, and to foster. Power, and the agents who hold it and represent its application, is a very seductive “drug” that grips many, whether they wear law-enforcement uniforms or not. In fact, only slightly less magnetic than money, power can be considered a strong motive for both legitimate actions of humans but also illegitimate, illegal, immoral and criminal actions. And those who feel, believe or have been convinced that they have no power, (or less than they think they deserve) are the very ones who move to “take power back”….as if they were entitled to that power in the first place.

Perhaps if we could/would begin from a different question about any person who is acting out, disobeying, committing acts of destruction, theft, physical/emotional/psychic abuse….we might get some insight into the “history” of the biography that is at play. Rather than beginning with the predictable and condemnatory question, “What is wrong with him?” we could ask ourselves, and then as a society, “What happened to him previously?”

The old adage, “God don’t make no junk” would support such a significant change in our personal, private and public/social/political attitudes! Rather than looking for the “sin” in the act, we might begin by looking for the pain in the individual in question, in custody, in our legal/criminal/social and cultural view finder. Broken relationships, in our early lives, too often lead to brokenness as the only expected and predicted outcomes in later years. Short-sighted critical parenting, as compared with a vision of compassionate support and remediation and rehabilitation, based less on the crime/criminal and more on the whole person, both in our definition of the crimes and in our pursuit of “justice” is already finding resonance among small segments of North American culture.

This space calls on all decision-makers in all organizations, including prisons, courts, legislatures, and organizations that ‘support’ those in trouble with the law, especially the John Howard Society and the Elizabeth Fry Society, school administrators, medical schools, social work schools and especially religious leaders to examine critically their individual and collective approaches to “wrong-doing” of all kinds and varieties. Such a critical examination would focus not only on the public fiscal costs of our current and historic approaches to the people who are found to be doing “wrong” but also on the human costs to those very lives.

There is a new development finding air-time and space in the United States entitled “treating Childhood Trauma” that begins with what is termed an ACE test: “Adverse Childhood Experiences”.

The test asks ten questions primarily focusing on the kind of family the child was raised in. “Were you physically abused?” “Were you neglected?” “Did someone go to prison?” As reported by CBS’s 60 Minutes last night, the Centre for Disease Control, a high score on the ACE test makes one five time as likely to be depressed and can cut life expectancy by as much as twenty years. Dr. Bruce Perry, a psychiatrist with a doctorate in neuroscience, declares on the program: If you have developmental trauma, the truth is you’re going to be at risk for almost any kind of physical health, mental health, social health problem that you can think of…That very same sensitivity that makes you able to learn language just like that as a little infant makes you highly vulnerable to chaos, threat, inconsistency unpredictability and violence. And so children are much more sensitive to developmental trauma than adults.

The program has been adopted through substantive training of staff in an orphanage in Milwaukee WI, and spread to the police department in that city.

Would that all professionals in the law enforcement, social work, education, medical and spiritual fraternities would/could be receptive to such an approach!

And would that potential significant shift become normalized and available to the millions of needy children around the world. North America would be a wonderful place to start.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Journal notes on human development....

There is something lurking in the “DNA” of human beings that not only defies analysis, but also escapes all attempts to wrestle it into atrophy, or even death.

The “it” could be a defect in our capacity to accept ourselves for what we really are. “It” could be a seed of insecurity that has been ‘planted’ in the gestation of every new fetus. “It” could be a ‘crack’ in the Grecian urn that is the archetype of the perfect child, so nearly imperceptible to the parents, that it renders them blind to its very existence. “It” could be a legacy of human history of conflict, violence, betrayal, oppression and the abuse of power that needs to avenge all of the injustices that fill the stacks of all the stacks of libraries, and now digital storage cells. “It” could be that “spec” in my own eye to which I am blind, while the plank in another’s eye draws me into its size and virility.

Some might consider this ‘it’ a monumental defect of human engineering, one to which millions of gallons of ink and even more gallons of blood have been spilled in vain attempts to eradicate ‘it’ from history. We have labelled it Satan, the devil, evil, insecurity, weakness, paranoia, hubris, inequality, superiority, racism, bigotry, deceit, dissembling, self-sabotage, and even the stuff of much of what we call drama, theatre, art, music and science.

Whether we adopt as our primary definition of our species, like Rousseau, that humans are innately ‘good’ and that we learn about evil as we grow and develop, or we take as given the story of Eden, and the Fall, in which humans were depicted as disobeying God, and eating of the fruit of a ‘forbidden tree’, or we reject all philosophic premises, and hold to the randomness of our birth and lives as being the product of our experiences as if we were blank pages on which experience wrote their determinative words, painted their images and sounded their melodies…we are both blotters imprinted with genetic codes, and ‘lights’ seeking places to shine in what we consider the darkness we perceive around us.

For within the ‘it’ is a capacity to inflict harm and the capacity to heal and to love, to nurture and to support….and, although the choices we face about which part of the ‘it’ muscle to exercise are, in the abstract, quite simple and binary, the moments of our making those choices are anything but simple and uncomplicated. Perhaps, if we had been more focused on those circumstances, and less on the impacts of the decisions, (more informed by the causes and less by the consequences) we might have been more engaged individually and collectively, on ameliorating and reducing the harmful choices and thereby the tragic consequences.

When we are distraught, for whatever reason, or over-powered, or under-valued, or pressured by our own high standards or the expectations of others, we are much more likely to make choices that inflict harm both on ourselves and on others. How we perceive each moment, as to whether it is life-giving or life-depriving, generative or destructive, as well as our capacity for agency in that moment, we accumulate a repertoire of memories in which we found a respected venue for our muscle and our person. We live as if we are metaphorically listening to music written in a major or a minor key; or as if we are walking through an art gallery whose images are composed of the pastoral or the dark, the uplifting or the insulting to our human spirit; or as if we are in a classroom in which the instructor can and does pay attention to our person, our individuality, or pays attention to the equations, the theorems, the literary devices, or the dates and terms of the treaties.

Of course, each of us experiences a range of all the above experiences; yet the accumulated ‘data’ and its impact on our psyches varies with its concentration and with our inherent capacity to ‘read’ and to interpret and to unpack the meanings of those experiences. Life “literacy,” like verbal, or visual or digital, or consumer, or emotional literacy involves the capacity to put each moment into a context of both similar and different experiences and then to reflect and evaluate on the meaning of that moment. Was it one worth remembering? Was it one so painful that we pack it away for the sake of waking up the next morning? Was it so exciting and riveting as to shed light on what we might consider our future life path? Was it so complex and intriguing and disturbing that we feel overwhelmed, and seek another to process it with us? Was it one that reminds us of a situation from a movie, a novel, a story told to us by a friend, and thereby sheds light on another’s experience in close proximity?
These questions seem, at first, primarily directed to our intellectual, cognitive capacity to compare. However, in each reflection, we are also engaged emotionally, whether that is a conscious awareness or a more hidden and imperceptible experience. At the same time, in our reflections, we are ‘making meaning’ of both the experience and of who we are, including our roles, purpose and wishes to repeat or to avoid similar experiences.

Each moment, then, is freighted with potential meaning, in our own lives, and potentially in the lives of those we encounter. And the meaning is not restricted to a single frame in a motion picture that is being captured in our mind, memory and in our imagination. After several metaphoric snap shots, patterns begin to develop, combining together to ‘wash’ our metaphoric film with predominant colours, lens types (soft, sharp, narrow, wide-angle, close-up, medium and long-range) in both experiences and in preferences.

To say that we are shaped by each experience is a truism, without invoking much direct or indirect criticism. And then, to say also that through our processing of our experiences, we tend to project different experiences onto the world that crosses our path. So, for example, we experience some physical illness or pain, especially if that pain is severe, debilitating and traumatic. In those cases, we might be hospitalized, or confined to our home for an extended period. We engage in activities, sometimes competitions that bring about successes and/or failures both of which imprint their mark on our ‘film’ adding to the collection/montage/collage that is the developing story of our life.

And, of course, these micro-experiences continue through developmental ‘stages’ beginning as a toddler, a pre-schooler, and then the various stages of formal education. And there are lenses that characterize each stage, discovered by our associations with our peers. And our “depth” perceptions deepen with age, and with the variety and the variable impacts of each experience.

Accompanying our “perceptions” of our “lives” come varying levels of language to code, describe and embed in memory our various moments. Reading, too, adds another layer of a different kind of vicarious experience, as do films, television dramas, travel, and exposure to some of the interests and hobbies of those in our circle.
All of these observations may seem trite and patently obvious, not needing to be recorded in prose; and yet, one of the questions that emerge from this exercise is, “How conscious are we of the potential impact of each moment?” And, “Is our concentration keeping pace with our frenetic pace of experience, or are we more likely just trying to catch our breath, and projecting our thoughts, perceptions and wishes into the future, thereby diminishing the potential impact of this moment.

Distraction, not being fully present in each moment, has become so prevalent that we have come to expect, almost unconsciously, that people will barely hear whatever we say, brushing most of it off, as just palaver, (blah, blah, blah) that rolls off our tongues first, and then through the auditory canal of our listener and out into space. Ironically, a corollary to this “deaf ear” is the impact that we experience when our listener is fully engaged, asks questions and demonstrates both interest and energy in whatever it is that we are expressing. We are then somewhat surprised, if not actually overwhelmed by the “intensity” of the other person.

After two-plus decades in front of classes of elementary and secondary students  where paying attention is the first rule of survival, it is difficult, if not impossible to shed the pattern of paying attention. And that failure to shed has brought about its own series of dramatic scenes.

Paying attention, listening to the tonal nuances, “listening” to the eye movements, “listening” to the body’s swaying, “listening” to the vocabulary, the sentence structure, the nature of the comparisons, the sinew of the questions posed, the depth of the challenge if there is one….these may be highly demanded, even required traits in a senior English classroom. Linked to their penetrating scrutiny is also an somewhat exuberant, supportive and enthusiastic response, perhaps an additional question, or an observation even of wonder and awe at both the content and the source, frequently a surprise. However, after a quarter-century of spending one’s days in such an environment, (where kids were unlikely to drift off!), it has proven to be more than a little off-putting to carry on in a similar manner among adults.

So “too intense” and “over-powering” and “too confrontative” and “immature”…..these are some of the more gentle rebuttals, along with, “You simply do not know how to ‘do small talk’!” To which the honest answer is, “I simply chose not to engage in small talk!” Adults, as we all know, but some of us refuse to join the club, operate on a different cadence, a different wavelength, a different set of impulses. Adult impulses are much more indifferent, detached, disinterested and distant. And there are very good reasons for such impulses. This kind of energy…. discloses too much; risks too much; engages too intimately; pushes the other away too often; and lowers the other’s perception of one’s intellect and one’s maturity, both valued traits in the adult world.

Another more hurtful interpretation of enthusiasm comes from a look on too many faces that shouts an idea that can be summed as: “this guy tilts at too many windmills” almost like a Don Quixote. There is a derisive quality to both the look and its implications…almost parental, certainly judgemental, and clearly not willing or eager to engage.

·        And the dispiriting encounter has occurred when professional colleagues charged: “You are too close to the students!”

·        and when an anal chaplain of postulants for orders (in the church) barked, “Get out and get into therapy!”

·        And when a fragile, frozen and terrified bishop screamed, “That is too dangerous!” when he heard me gently suggest it was time for men to learn about their emotions

·        And when an interviewer of candidates for ministry, after reading my biography, twitched, “After reading this, I am intimidated!”

Imagine the anxiety that seems to have emerged from a variety of experiences, inspite or, or perhaps because of my own naivety, miscalculation of the tenor and tone of the moment, the mood of the other, the tolerance of the other for a response that was merely intended to generate some thought, some reflection and above all, some engagement.

People talk about ‘finding their voice’ and of “being really heard for who I am”. These phrases are not incidental, accidental or insignificant. They are a cry for full recognition and acknowledgement of our person, our identity and our ‘connectedness’ to another. And when another ‘shuts out’ a person, because they find that person “too much” there is a kind of momentary and whispering last breath, of that moment. It is as if the moment has shrivelled, like a leaf wrinkling in the first frost of October. The tree did not die; the leaf merely moved into a different state, and whoever was observing that leaf, simply turns away, likely with a quiet sigh of resignation, wondering what happened to the leaf, not likely wondering whether or if the observer himself played any part in the curling tissue.

Aloneness, after a long series of similar frostiness, becomes not so much a state of self-pity, but rather a state of conscious choice. Flowing water, rapids, bird songs, dog smiles and leg-nuzzlings, Grieg’s Concerto in A minor, a snowy owl perched atop a fence post, a cardinal nestled among the cedar hedge, two swans leisurely drifting along in a quiet bay or on that part of the river that accommodates their stateliness and their elegance…..these are some of the many experiences that have come to supplement those missing from too many human encounters. Only after more than seven decades, I finally grasp Keat’s line, “if a chickadee is plucking gravel on the window sill, I am plucking gravel with the chickadee”…or words to that effect.
Slow learner, fast ager….the haunting echo of my deceased father’s wit, uttered after his own seventy-sixth, “Too soon old, too late schmart!”

We really are a part of all that we have met, including the most virulent and venomous of self-haters, the most frightened of religious bigots, the most supportive and tolerant mentors, and the best and worst formal instructors…in the academic lecture hall and in the coffee shops and in the arenas and in the theatres.

Each conversation provokes more questions, different reflections, new insights and moods that shift and shimmer like sunrise on a spring lake in autumn. Never the same blend of colours, and never static, we are like those glimmers of shot-silk playing melodies around the swans.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Reflections on the church's contempt of human emotion

Why is the Christian church so contemptuous of human emotions?

Is it because human emotions are not circumscribed by morality, by ecclesial regulation, by age or gender, or by any measure of control known tour species?

Like sexuality, another of the church’s taboo’s, emotions simply will not submit to extrinsic or intrinsic regulation…

If their horror at human emotions is not generated by the nature of emotions, being like the weather and climate, outside the parameters of human conscription, then is their anxiety based on something else: perhaps the frivolity (so called) of emotions, as not only unpredictable but also unworthy of the kind of veracity that warrants serious consideration?

Or is there another possible response to the question: that only poets, artists, composers and ‘free spirits’ (possibly including children) are permitted to experience and to express their emotions, and clergy, and by extension parishioners (adults), are expected to meet a higher standard of human behaviour and expression?

Is there some biblical injunction forbidding emotions? Or is it merely the heretical thinkers, writers and dissidents and defectors from the ecclesial discipline who have first found their emotional lives stunted, if not atrophied while attempting to serve within the church, and then, having rebelled and emigrated from under the spell of the religious life, have written and taught about the importance of human emotions?

Or, from another lens, is it that human emotions are historically and traditionally considered to be associated with the “feminine” while the church is dripping from saturation in a hard-nosed masculinity to which even the Messiah would have found impossible to submit. In that light, have the church ‘fathers’ so both imprisoned and emasculated their own faith (by emotional castration, in the long tradition of the surrender of male sexuality as a surrender to the reign of God) into a mere “grease spot” on the pilgrimage of human existence, as if it is analogous to the road-kill of some animal struck and killed by a passing night vehicle?

And this contempt of and disdain for human emotions, now known to be a measure of health, upon release, rather than repressed, restrained, constrained and constricted, as an act of ‘holiness’ and submission to the will of God, has so deformed the psyches and the spirits and even the bodies and the life-expectancies of thousands, if not millions. The repression of human emotions (as required and expected by the church) has also provided an illegitimate rationale for blocking the full development of human relations. Watching the Netflix series entitled, The Crown, prompts many of these questions, given the then growing gulf between the new Queen Elizabeth II and her “Duke” of Edinbrough husband, Phillip, over his distaste for the trappings of the monarchy, depicted as foil to her cool restraint.

As Head of the Church of England, one has to ponder whether the emotional “sin” predates the church, or emerges from the cultural traditions of Great Britain? So much of church “practice” is directly dependent upon, and/or descendant from the secular culture that one has difficulty separating their respective sources, whether from a theological or a sociological minefield of library stacks and political agendas.

And yet, perhaps all of these speculations are mere sophomoric, if the church has persistently linked human emotions and human sexuality, thereby attempting to justify an iron-fisted moral, ethical and religious chain fence around the whole “experience”. If such an approach was ever warranted, under only the most specious of Augustinian mea culpa’s, there is no longer a thread of theological justification for the “sinful” classification of both sexuality including sexual expression (between consenting adults) and emotional expression (barring harm to any person).

And the blind and perverse separation of sex/emotion from one’s spiritual life cannot be justified given the relevant insights of psychology, psychiatry, social gregariousness and social support systems. Human existence, by definition, includes, and perhaps is even dependent upon, a healthy and deep awareness of the subtle nuances of one’s emotional barometer. (Men, of course, are eons behind women in their (our) recognition and acceptance of the importance of our emotions and yet, there is no time like the present to open that door to the adventure of emotional intelligence, and spiritual growth, that can and will emerge from such a door opening.)

The human barbarian, long feared by the young and the weak among the human species, has not disappeared from our midst. And the repression of legitimate emotions, removing the verbal, the poetic the artistic and the literary expression while reverting to a physical display of raw emotions places far to much reliance and importance on the physical, that sphere in which males consider themselves dominant.
Not to dismiss the physical, as men are much more willing (un-self-conscious) to talk about themselves while they repair a carborator or a leaky faucet, but to begin to walk in at the beach of sharing feelings with trusted family members can and will only be a new ray of light in what before were dark corners.

It is not only gays who are coming out of their closet; it is also time for men, generally and specifically, to emerge from their self-imposed, church-sanctioned, corporate-demanded, and politically safe emotional “cave”….haltingly, nervously, gingerly and gently (both on their own expectations of themselves and on their expectations of others’ reactions).

This business of one’s spiritual life cannot be barbed-wire-fenced in and sanitized by keeping out those legitimate (and safe) expressions of both sexuality and emotion as alienated from the life of the human spirit and church “authorities” are doing themselves, their church and their own spiritual growth and development by refusing to include their emotional live as an integral component of spirituality.

Banned books, when the church was deeply committed to protecting the purity and the innocence of their parishoners, only magnetized those same people into avid readership of those very “naughty” books. Alcohol prohibition resulted only in a proliferation of stills, secreted away from the authorities, and a spike in both sales and the concomitant drunkenness. Repressing human emotions leads only to their untimely, unpredicted and often violent release, given the pressure that has built up in the repressed person. Human health, too, is enhanced by the honest, authentic and respectful expression of emotional responses to circumstances that jump out of the seas of daily interaction.

Complicity in repressing what is innately human, aggressive agency for policing what, if released, needs little if any policing, teaching that supports the “authority” of the church over those believers it is/has/and will continue to infantilize in areas of both emotions and sexuality….these make the church responsible, in part and in no small part, for the brokenness in millions of lives, millions of relationships and millions of emergency and long-term health complications.

Underlying all of these speculative questions is the anthropological fossil, still extant in some quarters, that emotions released indicate a kind of emotional imbalance, perhaps even a form of insanity, easily and historically linked to, if not equated with, mental illness, demons, and thereby evil. And whether this theme continues in any of the sanctuaries, monasteries, or church councils, only those in attendance can attest.

Nevertheless, the pace of adjustment to new consciousness, intellectual and scientific evidence and contemporary culture remains glacial (before global warming and climate change!). So too does the process of rendering all things “traditional” old and “permanent” as holy and sacred, just as another illusion originally designed and adopted, one has to guess, to initiate, sustain and preserve the power and authority of the church over its adherents. As even seminary students have observed, “revelation” of the deity is not a one-time occurrence, and continues even into the present and the future. And such a truth can be a monumental threat to the “stability” and the authority of the church.

None of this complicity of course carries any specific sentence, judgement or closure with which the church will comply. It is in the church’s own interest to take off its self-imposed blinders that have prevented its inclusion of serious matters of human existence from expression.

The greater sin, ironically, has been, and continues to be, that of the church authorities whose reduction of the range of the deity’s tolerance is so constricted as to mock the deity. And for their hubris/fear, there really is no explanation or justification.