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.

Weapons: the pseudo-strength of the weak

Grieving, bereaved and distraught young people, crying, “The NRA is killing me! The NRA is killing you!” into microphones of national news agencies sound a long-overdue alarm!

The United States is a killing field, and if I were a parent of a child in a U.S. school, I would be lying on the pavement outside the White House with them.

The mountain of money, a virtual monster in American politics, poured by the NRA into the campaigns of duped and spineless political actors is not only a source of national shame and shamelessness; it is also a clear sign of the power of perverted wealth, the wealth of lobbies including the pharmaceutical, insurance, weapons manufacturing and more recently the security apparatus, that is strangling a once-powerful and respected global leader.

President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex, as he prepared to leave the White House. A celebrated military leader, he knew all too well of the depth and the entanglements of the military in the political and cultural processes and roots of the nation. Counter to his critical and profound warning, however, the basic “business-model” of the megacorporation as the primary engine driving the economy, fueled by the for-profit/for-freedom/for self-gratification/for-dominance/for top-gun motivation, has overtaken all reasonable and proportional iterations of its predecessors.

“World” champions, (in football, in baseball, in basketball….and definitely in military hard power) the United States has fed its children a diet of hubris, superiority, and cut-throat competition that, ironically and tragically, is undergirded by deep, profound and relentless fear, anxiety, insecurity and neurosis. Parents vy, on behalf of their children, for the ‘best schools,’ the best corporate executive suites, the best legal firms, the most affluent Wall Street firms, the most preferred church establishments and cathedrals. And while a vision of pursuing the “best” has some specific advantages, in its absolute form, in the real world it also carries significant burdens….especially for those whose circumstances and whose support systems categorically exclude and alienate them from the what the culture deems the ‘best’ of everything. In excess, pursuing the “best” under pressure of its negative alternative, gives vent to frustration, racism, and the worst tumors of exclusivity and rejection.

“Suck it up” and “pull yourself up by the boot-straps”…and “you have to get back up after falling down”….these are the locker-room lectures of highly competitive athletic coaches, sales directors, field lieutenants, and war-room strategists. Churchill is written indelibly into the history books for his bull-dog determination, stubbornness and oppressive hubris. World War will tend to focus the body and the mind and bring such qualities of character into the breach. Painting human existence as another “world war” demanding a parallel set of strategies and tactics, including the mind-set of the military victory as the only acceptable outcome, however, has serious social, intellectual, cultural and spiritual consequences and implications.

The contemporary phrase “crisis management” is useful, if there is a crisis, and if the options forward include multiple complex and collaborative approaches. However, since there is an inherent drama imbued into each crisis, leaders have an over-developed proclivity to revert to the crisis management manual, partly out of fear and anxiety that they will “fail” in the eyes of their “masters” and partly out of a strong preference to see themselves as heroic….and to have others see them in a similar light. The actual situation they have too often prematurely deigned as a crisis may be much more modest, and warranting much more complex and nuanced interventions.

Too often, however, when a crisis surfaces, the preferred options tend to be extreme, in response to a perceived emergency. Triage nurses and doctors, in the emergency ward, are both trained and experienced in discerning the signs of varying degrees of emergency, and the deployment of finite resources, in part, as well as their innate good judgement combine to disperse their staff and facilities in the optimum “design”. Not all doctors and nurses on duty can be assigned to a high-profile case, leaving other patients in the lurch. Fortunately, doctors and nurses do not bring an ideological agenda to their triage duties. Such a compounding and counter-intuitive perspective serves neither the patient nor the medical staff. Saving lives is the declared objective and goal of the exercise.

In the public arena, where the skill/art/agenda/modus operandi/traditions of the political theatre are unleashed, however, such discipline and such restraint and such clarity of purpose and such focus, unless and until war has formally been declared, is absent. The public is more and more treated to a pseudo-drama of egos on steroids, statements calculated to sustain the support of funding sources, of ardent supporters and ultimately the return of the actor to the job, following the next election. The public good, clearly, has been relegated to a vestige of its rightful significance, under the weight of personal aggrandizement, and under the pressure of the interest groups and super-pacs writing those campaign cheques.

So Wednesday’s theatre of “listening” in the East Room of the White House complete with live national television coverage, bereaved parents of children killed at both Sandy Hook and Parkland, students of Parkland, and various other voices, selected likely to balance the agenda of the anti-gun lobby, was followed by an out-of-touch president tweeting advocacy for gun-toting teachers, signifying both his deaf ear and his intransigent and immoveable dependence on the NRA.

Yesterday, the NRA’s Wayne Lapiere was loudly denouncing all those opposed to the free sale of assault weapons, and those supportive of background checks, and those wanting to restrict guns from individuals suffering mental illness as “European Socialists” determined to remove the Second Amendment and the hallowed right to bear arms. Together, the president’s tweets and the NRA’s slanderous characterization of reasonable people of all ages who want to limit the spread of deadly weapons from innocent lives offer not only no hope to the grieving, but also the promise of more slaughter of innocent children, teachers and school staff.

One could even hear the outlandish observation that the media “loves” another shooting because their ratings go through the roof. Even my own cynicism about the affliction of the media to its own ratings will not permit such hyperbole: the media would be quite satisfied if there were never another mass shooting in American schools.

This debate, long in the tooth of age, and short on signs that the nation is a mature and trustworthy place to raise children, is unlikely to bring about significant change to satisfy the legitimate cries of those young people, trumping as the establishment always does, the public interest and popular opinion (some 75% of Americans support stronger background checks and banning assault weapons).

Media blips, threatening rhetoric from the NRA, and cries from grieving parents and children aside, The United States is in the midst of a crisis of its own making, one that is far larger and more comprehensive that whether gun sales can or will be curtailed. The country, in a word, is in the throes of a melt-down that includes, but is certainly not restricted to, the erosion of public trust in public institutions, the subversion of most of the traditional sustaining traditions and protocols, the    debasement of public office by a generation of political leaders, topped by the president, who are not deserving of their offices, whether they are “worthy” in a formal sense or not.

Public outcries facing politicians so deeply embedded, enmeshed and indebted with/to the NRA will merely create another mini-episode in an otherwise inconsequential manipulation of the same public, by those same politicians, and yet, the successive repetitions of manipulations, far from inconsequential, erode the very fabric of trust on which the healthy functioning of a democracy depends.

The sheer gall and insouciance of the political class, as fully sentient and conscious participants in these charades demonstrates a level of narcissistic self-sabotage that can and will only leave the country’s institutional infrastructure fractured, eroded and depleted perhaps beyond repair.

So it is not only more lives of innocent children and their teachers (none of whom wish to carry weapons as a part of their professional obligations) are at risk; the nation is actively contributing to its own embarrassment.

Effectively the NRA has become the most powerful political party, without having to take  the necessary steps to make such a posture legitimate. And offering both political and financial support for the pursuit of violence by the right and the left, without having to own the political ideology of either side, the NRA escapes the kind of political scrutiny it warrants.

How long will it take for someone/some organization to publicly denounce the NRA as a “terrorist” organization, funded by various private funding sources, continuing to pour venomous and illegitimate arguments in favour of making the nation a virtual armed camp, under the guise of “protection”? Moderation, reasonable approaches, long-term vision and insights, all of them in the public interest are falling by the wayside in the U.S., as measures that qualify as “extreme” find more and more public support and resonance.

Much as the microbes are outstripping the vaccines concocted to prevent their lethality, so too are the social demons outstripping the political class’s capacity and willingness to counter their impact just as the cyber-threats are outstripping any counter-measures to protect the public interest…both the official interest of the state and the private interests of the citizens. Twenty-first century realities on many levels require, even demand, twenty-first century commitments, most clearly missing from the political landscape in the U.S. especially and to a lesser extent in Canada and other developed countries.

And the “reality-show” modalities are absolutely inadequate, if not counter-intuitive to the public needs. Incipient show-biz wannabe “stars” can and will only fall far short of meeting a minimal bar for public safety, security and health. (Example: stripping the Center for Disease Control of the necessary research money to combat global pandemics, as trump has done, while arming the Pentagon with super-charged nuclear weapons, as trump has also done, is definitely not in the public interest; in fact it contravenes all reasonable and mature measures of that public interest.)

Arming teachers (under secret carry rules) is also definitely not in the public interest; it too contravenes that public interest. Incentivizing those teachers with additional pay, that could otherwise fund classroom supplies and the hiring of additional teachers to alleviate over-crowded classrooms in public schools, also contravenes the public interest. Shifting responsibility for public education to for-profit charter schools also threatens the public education system, in a thinly veiled war on unions and labour.
If Americans consider their situation unstable, as they do, it’s because their situation is unstable, and growing more unstable every moment of every day.

And, the rest of the world is clearly not immune to the many toxic viruses that are being incubated in the “great” United States….nor do we have the vaccines to ward them off.

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 tries 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.