Monday, June 22, 2020

#98 Men, agents of and pathway to cultural metanoia ("yielding" without breaking)

The strongest reason for giving woman all  the opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body, for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition, from all the crippling influence of fear—is the solitude and personal responsibility for her own individual life. (Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Resignation Speech as president of the National Woman Suffrage Association, 1892 from

Elucidating this speech, Vivian Gornick writes in the June edition of The Atlantic wrties:

Reading Stanton’s speech, one senses that perhaps the aloneness is innate. However close people are to one another—family friends, lovers—there is a level of confession to which none descends; it is the level at which the fear of humiliation is paramount. To the greatest degree our solitude is self-created, locked as we are form birth into a psychology of shame. (Vivian Gornick, The Fellowship of Suffering, The Atlantic, June 2020, p. 20)

Gornick’s piece details the experience of women whose lives were isolated, and even desperate, who nevertheless, engaged fully, energetically and gratefully in activities born of trauma, in a cause, as a way to “grow a self strong enough to do battle with life’s irreducible starkness.” (Gornick, ibid.)

The human dilemma, locked in a psychology of shame, and needing each day and moment both to acknowledge we are in that place, and to summon whatever acts, thoughts, beliefs, or even impromptu dreams and visions, to prompt rising from our beds, from our shame, from our isolation, and from our descent, rising ascending, once more into a potentially new bloom of our bent and broken self.

Sad to say, however trite and true it may be, men and women confront our respective fears/shame/isolation/alienation differently. Men, generally (without falling into a trap of the stereotype) hide our fear/shame/aloneness as we busy ourselves in frenetic activity that we hope/pray/believe?/anticipate might serve as that needed cover for our nakedness. Given that such an approach is a pattern we can see from a very early age of the men around us, including those granted community respect, doctors, lawyers, clergy, teachers, and judges, as well as sports and entertainment/politics figures, it is not surprising that young men might adopt the pattern, in however a unique manner they can. Those men born in the middle and latter half of the twentieth century, to which cohort this scribe belongs, are painted as competitive, ambitious, driven, focused and to some degree highly successful, by their peers. Scholarships, awards, trophies, records, medals, promotions, and the pathways to their achievement consumed a large portion of our time and energy.

Of course, we also knew that we had to learn and apply lessons of debating, investigating, engaging in organizations that educated us, employed us, offered teams on which to compete, athletic and professional; nevertheless, the pursuit of whatever ‘ring’ it was that caught our fantasy, (excluding our choice of a partner). However, it was our personal biography that we knew we were writing in some distant beach sand of time, only to have it washed away with the ebb and flow of the tides. Family photos, certificates, the occasional news story, the occasional golf/curling/hunting and the gold watch celebrating a career in some organization, followed by a pension that might be adequate…these were just some of the benchmarks that first loomed, and then were checked, and then finally remembered wistfully as we view the lives of our fathers, grandfathers and eventually our own.

Occasional periods of turbulence, such as a death/suicide, a divorce, a down-sizing/firing/redundancy, perhaps an illness, were part of the misty, yet infrequently spoken, snap shot of how live would be, is, and finally was. How we talk to ourselves about our darkness, however, remained in the closet of our psyche. Even the ravages of war, if we had enlisted, remained largely, if not totally, vaulted from public utterance, including our own potential, if undiagnosed PTSD. Perhaps without reading or acknowledging Margaret Laurence’s insight in The Stone Angel, when Laurence has Hagar utter these words, “Pride was my wilderness, and the demon the lead me there was fear” we behaved in ways that encased our fear and shame in a vest pocket of our heart. We released only the occasional burst of anger, or excess alcohol consumption, or some frenzied piece of work (tearing an engine apart, building a garage, painting a house, clearing a forest for a cottage) in a vain-glorious attempt to maintain the “face” of propriety, strength, stability and dependability, under the psychic rubric of “responsibility.”

History books, too, mostly written by men who were giving recognition to those acts that succeeded in adding another feather to someone’s (male) hat, remained replete of trauma of a personal nature. The fact that the pandemic of 1981 did not receive its first open reporting (including both fiction and non-fiction) until 1931 attests to the premise I am attempting to articulate.

On the other hand, as far back as 1892, Elizabeth Cade Stanton…was demonstrating a depth of courage, and ‘confessing’ that remains unfamiliar, if not totally foreign to most men in 1892, and sadly, continues to be today for too many men. Her resignation speech applies today to every single person, especially to black brown and all minorities who deserve the “opportunities for higher education, for the full development of her faculties, her forces of mind and body, for giving her the most enlarged freedom of thought and action; a complete emancipation from all forms of bondage, of custom, dependence, superstition, from all the crippling influence of fear—is the solitude and personal responsibility for her own individual life.” (copied from the Stanton speech above)

And it is not incidental to note that it is, has been and unfortunately will likely continue to be men, some black but mostly white, who will continue to block, impede, thwart and resist the legitimate authentic well-spring of energy, courage, creativity that Stanton brought to the suffragette movement that is needed today.

The church, too, holds considerable responsibility for the resistance edifice that has encumbered the legitimate parades, speeches, and even violence that has accompanied protests against slavery, against restricting the vote, redistricting and gerrymandering (continuing unabated today, as reported and documented by Stacey Abrams and others) and at the head of that institution(s) have been and continue to be mostly white men. It could almost be deemed, in a reductionistic yet perhaps warranted, assessment that the church considers “status quo” including all of the many glaring inequalities and discriminations has an aura of the sacred as compared with the legitimate “progress” that is continually being demanded by victims of the oppression, including wrongful conviction and imprisonment, including physical and emotional abuse, including a deeply buried unconscious bias. It is this unconscious bias that merits consideration as “systemic bias” and yet those words, especially “systemic” tend to shroud the concept with a veil of the clinical.

Systemic bias, after all, is an attitude within human beings, a perception and a set of behaviours and even a mind-set that holds (apparently almost religiously) to a superiority of race, a superiority of culture, a superiority of education, intellect, integrity and respectability that, when looked at closely, only attests to a fear and a shame of not knowing if and how life could be lived under different premises. Systemic bias, therefore, cannot and must not be “treated” or “diagnosed” or analyzed, or even discussed as if it were a physical or a mental illness, although its dimensions reach even further into our cultural DNA than a single case of any of those conditions as outlined in the DSM-5

One of the significant frictions that emerge when a social/cultural/political movement is considered from a single intellectual or academic discipline’s perspective. And the legal system, too, is not ready to deal adequately with the current compounding movement, one of a virus, the other of a cultural cancer. We have to walk beside, deeply listen to, and then attend to a protracted period of prayerful reflection on the words of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as part of our individual and our collective commitment to participate in this, “our” moment in history.

One of the guiding precepts of this space is that women will ultimately have to take their men, by both the metaphoric and the literal “hand” and walk us into the wilderness of our own fears, our own shame, our own fear, in the words of the Jesuit John Powell, “I do not tell you who I am because you might reject me and that is all I have!”

It is the masculine perspective of “all I have” (characterized clearly as “not enough”), a human trait that indigenous Canadian writers are exploring through the fiction and non-fiction they are ‘penning to inspire their young people, many of whom struggle to the point of suicide, to know that they are loved, valued, respected and worthy and that they can do whatever it is they choose with their lives.

However, for individual humans to consider themselves “not enough” is a starting point which, apparently ironically, does not always lead to what some consider the needed extra effort or the identification as something or someone “special” in order to acquire self-justification. Paradox, irony and the unexpected, along with change are integral components of both human and wild nature, not to imply that wild and human are disparate or exclusive. Superhuman effort, including superhuman armaments, armies, kingdoms, corporations, dominions, empires, dynasties and governments (painted with the same brushes that define extra-ordinary) seem to have been the most desirable and sought-after human goals, given the records of history written primarily by men. Necessarily, anecdotes of surprising individual demonstrations of compassion, empathy and even secret and potentially illegal hiding of innocents from their rampaging oppressors or exterminators, have been embedded into those triumphal stories, rendering them both credible and  accessible. After all, ordinary humans do not easily or readily identify with the exploits of an Alexander, or a Napoleon, or a Czar, or a King or Queen.

Just as the world faces a Chinese dragon breathing what feels like fire into the public debates facing the worlds nations, (pandemics, nuclear weapons, cybercrime, global warming and climate change, and intellectual property and its theft, not to mention currency manipulation, and governance secrecy and withholding), it seems it might be an appropriate moment to draw the curtain back from a period of Chinese history recorded by Karen Armstrong in her latest work, The Lost Art of Scripture (Knopf, New York, Toronto, 2019)

The eighth century BCE had seen an environmental crisis. The Zhou (dynasty) had made great progress in clearing the land for cultivation, but intense deforestation had destroyed the natural habitat of many species, centuries of profligate hunting had decimated the wildlife of the region; and there was less land for the breeding of sheep and cattle. Slaughtering hundreds of animals for the sacrificial banquets was not longer acceptable, since the shock of this new scarcity had made the Chinese wary of such ostentation. The ritualists now st54ictly controlled the number of sacrificial victims and limited hunting to a carefully defined season….To the modern sensibility, these rituals seem arbitrary, pointless and even absurd. But the environmental crisis had led the Chinese to recognize the folly of exploiting the natural world, and  they felt compelled to repair the damage. Moderation and control became the order of the day…

And also:….

It was probably the ritualists…who added the “Canons of Yao and Sun” to Documents (written instruments to be inculcated into the new discipline of moderation). These two kings, founders of the Xia dynasty, were said to have ruled the Great Plain int eh twenty-third century BCE and, unlike the other Chinese heroes of the ancient past,. They fought no battles and killed no monsters, but had reigned by their ‘virtue’ or ‘charisma’ alone. The Canons opened with a description of Yao:

 He was reverent, intelligent, accomplished, sincere and mild. He was sincerely respectful and capable of modesty. His light covered the four extremities of the empire and extended to heaven above and the earth below….

Instead of creating a self-interested and exploitative government, Yao had established the Great Peace (Dai Ping)….The gestures of the li (rules of appropriate behaviour) were designed to develop an attitude of yielding (rang). Instead of competing aggressively for status and flaunting their achievements, the prince’s counsellors were expected to defer to one another….Underlying the family rituals was perhaps the psychological truth that if people are treated with absolute respect they acquire a sense of their intrinsic value. (borrowed from McGilchrist Iain, The Master and His Emissary, The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western Mind, New Haven CT. 2009) (Armstrong, op. cit. pp.87-88-89-90)

How often have we heard the Santayana adage? “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it. Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat their mistakes. (Wikiquote)

Given the chasm of both time and culture between both the twenty-third and the seventh centuries BCE, and the additional chasm from then until the twenty-first century AD, we cannot be surprised that the brief gleam of hope and light that shone in both BCE periods in China would have long receded into the fog of time, war, multiple dynasties and regimes. In the west too, militarism, domination and empire-building and decay have dominated our shared history. While inordinately “hard” (to use John F. Kennedy’s word about the space flight), the cultural shift from power and domination to yielding, and to moderation is once again worthy of the attention and commitment of the men who consider themselves leaders in the developed world, as well as in the developing world.

Never lost, and not to be ignored are the best examples of how the ‘better angels’ of a people facing severe scarcity, loss, and threat, have and can again reclaim the courage, to confess our own shared fear, shame and the concomitant commitment to amend our ways, even if some of that leadership comes from what many today consider the west’s worse enemy, China! (Would that also be the world’s worst fear?)

We all have an army of shoulders to walk on in this adventure!

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