Pawel’s Way

Three days into the visit, I begin to have a feel for the blend of personalities in the group. Members of a Polish farmers’ organization, they have come to visit Denmark. The program calls for a mix of sightseeing at the obvious sites in and around Copenhagen – Strøget, the main shopping street reserved for pedestrians, the National Museum, Tivoli Gardens, and the like. Along with visits to working farms in the vicinity, there’s a tour of Elsinore castle just up the road as one of the highlights. As much a vacation getaway as an educational opportunity for people seldom permitted to travel out from behind the Iron Curtain, the tour presents some special challenges for us on the staff at Krogerup Højskole. Hosting Polish guests for a week is a novelty. On our end, we organized the list of local activities for what, on the Polish end, is officially framed as an educational undertaking. But the plentiful supplies of duty-free vodka and straight grain alcohol unpacked and brought out the first night make plain our visitors’ intent to party hard between the scheduled outings. We know as well as they do that among them are minders from the secret police, traveling incognito to keep an eye on them. That fact appears not to slow them down any.

Having sampled Polish hospitality during a study visit with a group from Krogerup six months before, seeing our guests shift into party mode once the day’s official activities were over did not surprise me much. I welcomed the offer of a job for the summer, when Krogerup set aside its own educational programming and rented itself out as a comfortable and convenient location for meetings, retreats, conferences and tour groups, like this one from Poland. For this, my job was to facilitate communications between the guests and our own staff, many of whom did not speak English as well as I spoke Danish. I accompanied our guests on their sightseeing tours and farm visits. So there I was, an American undergraduate student wrapping up a year abroad study program in Denmark, serving as a tour guide and interpreter in a country and city I barely knew myself.

From the time they arrive, I am in face to face contact with all sixty-some participants in the tour group. Few of them speak English at all. Mostly, I rely on Magda, their English-speaking interpreter. Magda studies English at the university in Warsaw. Through necessity, she and I bond quickly when we have to interpret between Polish and Danish farmers via English about details of agricultural operations neither of us truly understand. Together we delight in exchanging questions and answers mystifying to us and seeing the faces on both ends of the conversation brighten, signaling the messages got through. When it becomes party-time, Magda goes off duty and my communications with group members depends on snippets of the English, German and French I have to offer, underpinned by a lot of body language, facial expressions and gestures, and lubricated by substantial amounts of alcohol. At twenty-one, I know just enough about myself and alcohol to know that when I could feel the buzz, I need to stop. Cross that point, and all bets are off. No knowing then where things might go, what trouble I might get into and how I’d handle it. Given that I had a job to do and a fair sense of my own limitations, I do my best to keep a clear head.

By the third night, I’ve seen almost all the members of the group in action. Pawel got my attention early on. Outgoing and engaging around me, Pawel seems more curious and more determined to get the full educational benefit the tour programs had to offer. He appears to be an independent spirit, with no obvious bonds to others in the group. He holds back when the partying gets underway. As the evening progresses, I start fearing I am getting flat out drunk. I decide to extract myself and go to bed. When I get up to move in that direction, Pawel comes over to me. He wants to talk to me privately. That idea poses some challenges. I speak Danish well, German reasonably well, and French in a pinch. Pawel speaks Polish, Russian, and bits and pieces of German, French and English. His determination, though, ensures I get his message, so I walk out of the hall with him.

Faced with his insistence, I suggest we walk down to the harbor, about twenty minutes away. With my mental faculties already impaired, I don’t have it in me to refuse his request, but a twenty minute walk might at least help me clear my head. Still, whatever he thinks so important that we need to talk about it right now arouses my curiosity. Denmark lies far enough north that nights in August never get completely dark. But at the late hour Pawel and I make our way down to the harbor, the roads we walk are barely visible except when cars drive by. Halfway there, we reach the streetlights marking the road down to the harbor from the Strandvej that runs up the coast from Copenhagen to Elsinore. It takes Pawel a while to get around to the business at hand. I learn that he lives in a small town in southern Poland, not far from Krakow. Not a farmer himself, he works as a bureaucrat for the Ministry of Agriculture. I guess he is in his late thirties. He has a wife and two children. He doesn’t like the Russians having the last say in whatever goes down. As he fills me in on the details of his life, both of us working hard to cross the language barriers, I keep wondering what great urgency made him want to get me off alone so late in the evening.

When we reach the small fishing harbor, I share a bit of local lore that always moves me when I go down there. During the Second World War, when Denmark was under German occupation, the Danish Resistance organized the transfer of Danish Jews to Sweden, rescuing large numbers of them from a deportation order issued by the Nazi authorities. The harbor at Humlebæk served as one of the points of departure. Local fishermen provided the transport. Pawel seems impressed. Finally, though, he turns to his own business with me. He wants to stay in Denmark. He does not intend to return to Poland when the tour wraps up in another three days. He wants me to help him.

This news sobers me up in a flash. “For this game, I’m in over my head,” goes through my mind. I’m a twenty-one year old American student, with less than a year’s learning about the language and the country under my belt. What do I know about arranging defections? I barely understood what his story was, his reasons for asking, and I have no clue regarding Danish legalities about allowing a visitor from behind the Iron Curtain to remain in the country as a refugee after coming in on a tourist visa. Besides, he seems like a responsible guy. I wonder what his plans are for his family back in Poland, if he succeeds in pulling this off. I ask him, and he tells me he intends to get them out too. Getting himself admitted will be the first step.

The one useful piece of information I have to offer concerns an organization in Copenhagen that I know about: Dansk Flygtlingshjælp – Danish Refugee Assistance. I agree to look up the phone number and the location of their offices when we get back. So after midnight, using the key to the school office I had been issued, I go in, find the number and address in the phone book, write them down on a piece of paper, and hand it to Pawel. I tell him how to get to the local train station, where trains to Copenhagen pass through at least hourly, depending on time of day. “Good luck, I guess. I truly hope you know what you are doing,” I think to myself.

In the morning, I let the headmaster and other leading staff members know what has gone down. Understandably, they are not amused. They want to keep a good working relationship with the Polish farmers’ organization. Facilitating a defection would not bode well for the future of the partnership. For the next three days, Pawel’s activities command our attention. Sure enough, one afternoon he disappears, then returns again in time for dinner. Otherwise, he continues to take part in programmed activities. But he seems to separate himself even more from the rest of the group than he had before his late night conversation with me. We have our suspicions about who the undercover minders might be, but we see no signs that they are onto him.  On the last day, I get Pawel alone and ask him if he’s been to Copenhagen to visit the refugee assistance organization. He says he has, but won’t go into details. I pass the information along to my supervisors.

The next morning, our visitors board their buses for the ride down to Ystad at the southern tip of Sweden. From there, they will catch the ferry to Świnoujście, the home harbor back in Poland. To my surprise, Pawel gets on the bus. I wonder if he’s had second thoughts. My supervisors wonder too, looking at me curiously as if I might know something I hadn’t told them. According to plan, we join them on the buses for the trip down to Ystad, where we will say our last farewells. Pawel sits by himself in the back, while I sit up front behind the driver.

The trip takes two hours. They pass uneventfully. Before noon, we pull into the ferry terminal under an overcast sky. The schedule calls for the ferry to depart at one, so there is time to kill. While we mill around on the platform where trains arrive and depart, we have time to say our goodbyes face to face and take a few snapshots. Pawel keeps his distance, off by himself. Suddenly, shortly before it’s time to board the buses that will go onto the ferry docked in the harbor slip, Pawel comes up to me to shake my hand. In an instant, Jacek pops out of the crowd. Early on, I’d wondered about Jacek. He seemed a little too ready to connect, without any particular topics to talk about. He had made it onto my list of prospective undercover minders, though I could not have given concrete reasons why. He snaps some pictures of the two of us together, with a strange grin on his face, and then backs away.  Immediately, I figure the deal is done. If I ever have in mind to return to Poland on my own, it’s a safe bet there will be a file with my name on it in the headquarters of the secret police with a notation: “Watch out for this one.”

It’s time to board the ferry.  I stand with the headmaster and the other staff who have made to trip down. Along with the rest of his group, Pawel boards the last bus in the line. We look at each other, surprised and wondering. The bus pulls up onto the ramp. As it hits the ferry’s deck, the rear hatch pops open and Pawel leaps out. He hightails it down the platform and disappears into the station without a glance in our direction, while we watch, speechless and shaken. Back at Krogerup, Pawel’s escapade becomes a prime topic of conversation. We can’t imagine what comes next. How would he make it from Ystad to Copenhagen? What would he do when he got there? Western currencies are hard to come by in the east. How will he pay for things? Three weeks later, one of the kitchen staff goes into Copenhagen to run some errands. She returns with news. Walking down Strøget, she saw Pawel striding along, like a man on a mission. We have no answers to our questions. But no matter, Pawel is on his way.

What He Remembers

We knew we had a choice. After all, we were students at Krogerup Højskole. Known among Danish folk high schools for its open-minded interest in public affairs, students and faculty came from across the political spectrum. At Krogerup, we practiced letting our different positions coexist and interact, without disguising them.

Folk high schools sprang up in the middle of the nineteenth century, when Denmark became a constitutional monarchy and feudal serfs suddenly became entitled to vote. Created to prepare the newly endowed citizens to take part in civic life, most schools put down their roots in the countryside where those serfs for generations had worked the land, away from the larger towns. Krogerup was a latecomer on the scene. Founded in 1946, in the aftermath of the Second World War, it sits in Humlebæk just up the coast from Copenhagen, where the nation’s main business is done. Set up with the mission to promote democratic values lost in the turmoil of the preceding years, Krogerup has as its motto: “The Word is Free.” Its unusual nonpartisan political edginess made others in the traditionally-minded folk high school movement in fact nervous. More of a student radical than a hippy, I felt at home there, unlike at any other school or college I’d so far attended.

So, with a deeply rooted commitment to tolerance underlying the collective values we shared, before departing for Poland we knew we were free to skip this one place once we got there. We were heading for Krakow, one of Poland’s grand medieval cities, which by some miracle had survived the waves of warring armies that for centuries had crisscrossed the country. The planned itinerary would take us to see the showcase factory town Nova Huta, the pleasant resort Zakopane high in the Tatra Mountains, the Wieliczka Salt Mine with its underground cathedral carved out of salt, among other historic and scenic sites in the surrounding countryside. But, for those who were willing, the tour would also take us to Auschwitz, the place where the Nazi death machine with heart-rending efficiency achieved its greatest results, inscribing it into the darkest annals of human history. The faculty members organizing the trip made it plain that saying, “No thanks, I’ll take a pass on that,” would not be questioned or challenged. The screening of “Shoah” in advance provided fair warning, if we somehow had made it to adulthood in 1972 without knowing what the name Germans gave to the small country town Poles call Oswiecim referred to, a place where incomparable human evil had been perpetrated within the memory of many people still alive.

Sooner than most peers, I tuned in young to the atrocities Nazi Germany had committed against Europe’s Jews. As an eleven-year old, I followed the trial and execution of Adolf Eichmann in Israel. I’d seen the photographs – the gas chambers, the crematoria, the heaps of corpses and skeletal survivors, the platforms at Birkenau where the freight trains offloaded their doomed cargo. I’d seen the rows of countless pictures, ordinary headshots like you’d find on any photo ID or passport, of the countless victims. I knew about the electrified fences. I knew about the gateway with the obscene declaration “Arbeit Macht Frei” – “Labor Liberates.” With a twenty-one year-old’s innate bravado underpinning my reflections, I imagined I could handle it.

The same boundless curiosity that still impels me to learn whatever I can about all sorts of abstruse topics drove me, partly. Partly, deep caring and compassion drove me. I wanted to bear witness and pay my respects. Deeper down, my own suffering from bullying not many years before had left me with feelings of solidarity with all who suffer. That suffering left me with an emotional coat of armor it would take decades to shed. Now, though, it helped foster the belief I could handle this. So, I did not duck away or say, “No thank you, not for me.” When the bus pulled up by the hotel just off the main square in Krakow, I climbed aboard, along with most of the rest of our company of curious souls, come down to Poland on a study trip.

An hour’s ride out into the surrounding countryside, we pull into Oswiecim and continue out to the site where the deeds were done. The tour begins. We pass through the fencing and see the infamous gate. We go around on foot, visit the gas chambers and crematoria. I add to my store of knowledge. I had not known the site was originally a Polish army garrison. The museum displays fill up building after building from the old barracks. I had not known the Nazis had perfected the technology for mass extermination on truckloads of Soviet prisoners of war. Here, on the other side of the Iron Curtain, the guides underscore this point for their visitors from the West.

We meander down through endless hallways, see the cells used for solitary confinement too small to move around in. My curiosity and my armor hold up, seeing the expected horrors, like the lampshades made from human skin and soap made from human fat. We keep going, learning more details to fill out our understanding of what went down and how it was done. Quietly, I salute myself for my steady and receptive endurance, surprised actually to see myself holding up so well.

Cross another courtyard, see the wall where uncooperative prisoners were lined up and shot. Check. Got it. And then yet another building, still bravely numb. Into another hallway. There it is, a display case the size of a room, chock full of children’s shoes. That is all. Children’s shoes. Enough to fill a room. That is all. Head bows. Lungs lock up. Tear ducts clamp shut. Enough, no more, please no more. I have to go. Now. Please, no more. I can’t. I’m done. I’m done, already, I’m done. Please. Now.

Decades down the road, ask him what he remembers. He remembers a room full of children’s shoes.

CREDO

  • All is One: matter, mind, spirit, energy are all manifestations of One.
  • All is Always dynamic, fluid, eventual, happening.
  • All is happening, yet there is no goal, end, or final purpose.
  • No-One is “in charge.”
  • This is not the end of the line. What is known is not all that is knowable. What is knowable is not All.
  • Language and other symbolic systems are powerful tools, the best we have, yet will never be entirely adequate to comprehend All. What remains unimaged, ungrasped, unstated, unrepresented is also, always.
  • All forms of knowing are revealing. None are sufficient or complete.
  • Mystical and paranormal experiences offer insights inaccessible to science, rationalism, logic, metaphysics and other forms of formal knowledge. The converse also applies.
  • We participate in One Mind, every one of us.
  • We participate in One Body, every one of us.
  • What appears to be Me is in fact many – many energy bubbles, atoms, molecules, cells, organs, organisms, bubbles of consciousness.

 

A Declaration of Interdependence for Our Times

Months ago, I put up my last post, on the topic What are we for? In the interim, there have been ample new opportunities to find yet more things to be against. Attacks on access to healthcare. Arrests and deportations of immigrants. Military engagements abroad of questionable value and wisdom. Dramatic reversals of the country’s longstanding commitment to provide for a cleaner and healthier environment. Serious suspicions that the electoral process itself was materially influenced by foreign agents working in concert with people closely connected to Mr. Trump. In an epoch when the shallowness of the consensus around common values has become evident and when there is no longer broadly shared understanding about what may be taken as true, it is no surprise that currents of fear, outrage and despair are running strong. The good news is that  many citizens have discovered that a viable and healthy democracy depends on active participation. While the Administration and Congress undertake and contemplate actions which will result in profound and unjustifiable suffering for millions of human beings at home and abroad, hundreds of thousands of people are actively communicating their unwillingness to go along through demonstrations, meetings with elected officials and organizing resistance activities.

At this stage, one might say the body politic has contracted an infectious disease. While the agents of the infection are running rampant, judgment and decision-making are compromised by a fever, and the long-term well being of the body is at risk, the immune system is responding as it should. Antibodies are deploying energetically to combat the illness. Resources are being redirected from routine activities to help combat a clear and present danger to the well-being of the society as a whole and the governmental process by which it does its business. The whole body is affected by the conflict, therefore resistance is sweeping through it.

Consider now, though, what a body restored to health might look like. Indeed, what might an even healthier body look like – one in which all the internal systems and operative functions are healthier than they have ever been. One, where resources are distributed on an as-needed basis and where the ability of all parts to perform optimally to the common good is the standard for healthy living. To get there does not require anything new to be added to the mix. It simply requires a reordering of how things are done and priorities are set. The United States of America is a rare construct among nations, insofar as it was created on the basis of a set of ideas, not as a result of peoples with common customs and common languages happening to settle in their places by fortune or conquest or historical accident. Working off of some of the seminal ideas which shaped the union before it even had a proper name, as a vision a broad mix of citizens could be for, regardless of their present perspectives on current affairs, I would like to propose the following statement of principles:

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

A Declaration of Interdependence for Our Times

As citizens of the United States of America, we recognize that our lives and well-being are inseparably bound up with the lives of all others, as we seek together to fulfill in our own ways the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness set forth in the first sentence of our founding document, the Declaration of Independence. We further recognize that we are all united by our shared desire to live meaningful and rewarding lives, regardless of our differences.

We therefore commit to:

  1. Speak of and treat all people with respect and dignity.
  2. Conduct ourselves privately and publicly in ways that are caring towards others, whether they are known to us or not.
  3. Demonstrate in all our conduct towards others appreciation for the gifts they offer, understanding of the circumstances in which they live, and recognition of the challenges and limitations they face.
  4. Follow these principles in all our interactions and relationships with others, be they citizens, foreigners living among us, or people visiting from other places.
  5. Take a long view regarding the consequences of all our actions for our children, grandchildren and those who come after, and for the Earth itself and the well-being of all other creatures with whom we share this planet.

These commitments will guide us in our personal conduct, in our work, in our social activities and in our law-giving, public policies and jurisprudence. We will incorporate them in how we rear our children, how we welcome immigrants into our national community, how we provide help to those who are ill, aged or disabled, and how we communicate our values through the media about matters of general interest or concern.

◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊◊

This Declaration rests on two operative assumptions. First, it assumes that citizens have, recognize, and are willing to act on a shared responsibility for the well-being of all other citizens. Hence, the importance of the commitments. Citizens are called upon to make them individually. Implied is a recognition that we are all in one and the same boat. None of us has the option of shoving anyone else off the boat. Short of genocide or orchestrating a mass expulsion of “undesirables,” however defined, this is a plain statement of fact. We cannot wish for others to be gone, blindly ignore the fact they are here, treat them badly or tolerate such treatment, without consequences for our own well-being or that of our descendants. Not at least if we want to uphold the idea that we live in a society we can without hypocrisy call free.

This is a moral imperative, but it is not only a moral imperative. It is a statement rooted in the deep truth that we exist interdependently. From the moment of our conception to the moment of our passing away, our existence is bound up with and dependent on others’. Where and how we live, what we eat, how we are cared for when we are sick or injured, how we are prepared and educated for meaningful and rewarding lives, how we live our lives, how we amuse ourselves, how we seek meaning, how we express ourselves – everything about how we come into the world, spend our time here, and leave it entails interdependence on others. We depend on numbers of others who are known to us, and even more on countless others who are not known to us. And they depend on us likewise.

Secondly, the Declaration assumes that the distinguishing hallmark of a free society, drawing its legitimacy from broad-based citizen support, is that it offers to all equal opportunities to lead meaningful and rewarding lives. The key term here is “equal opportunities.” What constitutes a “meaningful and rewarding life” is not a matter for the society to determine. The aspirations and determination of people themselves are the measure of what brings meaning and rewards worth striving for to their own lives. The critical point is that there is a consensus that it is desirable for all members of a society to have equal opportunities to live meaningful and rewarding lives by their own understandings and to the extent that they are able, within the limits of what is practically and reasonably possible, and without thereby infringing upon others’ abilities to do the same.

A big If is embedded in this second assumption. It is not given that a society must ensure equal opportunities as described above to all of its members. Whether it does so – or strives to do so – depends on the distribution of power and wealth and on whether or not a substantial majority of a society’s members adhere to a value system that upholds equality of opportunity as a social value, one that they will invest time, resources, and energy to realize and sustain. “Government of, by and for the people” is not achievable or sustainable, barring such an ongoing commitment to equality of opportunity by a large enough proportion of the population to make it happen. Nor will it happen, if the distribution of power and wealth is such that “government of, by and for the people” is not on the agenda of those dictating the direction of social development and setting the terms for the conditions of social life, such as in an authoritarian dictatorship, an oligarchy or a self-proclaimed theocracy. In our present circumstances, it is debatable whether those who determine how our national priorities are set and resources allocated consider equality of opportunity an objective worth pursuing. Yet to be seen is whether the citizenry as a whole is willing to accept such disenfranchisement over the long run. The turmoil abroad in the land suggests that large masses of the citizenry are not willing, despite passionate differences about what change will look like and how it will be achieved. Broad adoption of the Declaration would be a signal that there is a popular will to reclaim for all the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness so boldly set forth in 1776.

What are we for…?

As I continue to reflect on the disturbing differences that became unambiguously plain in the United States with the recent election, I am struck by how much of our discourse about public affairs, no matter our political orientation, is about what we are against. Comparatively little of it is about what we are for. When we are on the liberal side, we tend to be against free access to guns for all comers, reliance on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs, constraints on a woman’s right to choose whether to abort a pregnancy and having the highest incarceration rate in the world. When we are on the conservative side, we tend to be against socialization of healthcare, impositions on the “right to carry”, taxes to pay for anything from which we do not immediately benefit and regulations setting limits to what goes on in the marketplaces for pharmaceuticals, financial securities and energy supplies. Depending on our views, we are against Islam, police brutality, gay marriage, the Confederate flag, sexual abuse, Vladimir Putin, immigration, Barack Obama, Donald Trump and political correctness.

It strikes me that the preeminence of against is rooted in fear, the most primal of all emotions. Whatever we hold to be of high value, we fear anything that seems to pose a threat to it. Add in the deeply human and very ancient predisposition toward tribal identification, and anything that we perceive as coming from some Other opposing tribe will, barring some highly evolved reflective self-awareness, be registered as a threat. In the face of a threat, if we don’t go into flight mode – in which case you won’t hear from us in the public arena – we go into fight mode, beginning with making sure we and our tribal allies are in sync and on message, and then making threatening noises toward the Other tribe(s) to let them know we are not to be trifled with, whatever their plans. Much of what goes on in social media concerning public affairs manifests both of these things – making sure we have clarity with our allies about our shared message, our party line, and alerting  opponents to our readiness to take them on.

To be sure, embedded in many against-positions are for-positions. People who are against a woman’s right to choose whether to have an abortion will affirm that they are for a fetus’s right to life. People who are against fossil-fuel powered electric generation plants will affirm that they are for clean air and a habitable planet. Yet, we nevertheless live in a culture where we are much more aware of what people are against than what they are for and why. Because I don’t run in the right circles, I have not explored what “Right to Life” actually means to people who are adherents of it. Nor have I had a chance to hash out with doubters why #BlackLivesMatter to my way of thinking is a life-affirming statement, pointing a way forward from which we would all benefit, regardless of race.

Fear is truly primal, and life offers lots of opportunities to feel frightened, regardless of who we are or where, when or how we live. All the world’s great spiritual traditions put considerable effort into helping followers deal with fears, beginning with the biggest one, fear of our own mortality. It’s natural. It’s nothing new. Yet, here I want to focus in on the ubiquity of fear in public life. First, to be clear, public life is framed and sustained by mass media. There are no ideas, no shared sentiments, no visions that are not propagated, challenged, critiqued, or suppressed by mass media. To understand the role of fear in public life, we have to look at the basic business model followed by mass media. When views are expressed and exchanged, it happens almost always in the virtual space maintained by the media, only rarely face to face or shoulder to shoulder.

It is no news (no pun intended), that the media organizations that command the most attention are big businesses.  Fundamentally, big businesses exist for one reason above all – to maximize the profits they generate for their owners. That is what they are for. They may stake out an ideological space, as for example Fox news unambiguously does, yet basic market economics still apply. Fox has identified and shaped a particular target market, thereby successfully generating a sweet rate of return for Rupert Murdoch and other investors. Fundamentally, the same applies to CNN, MSNBC and the rest of the big players in the media universe, whether or not we like the style and flavor of their delivery.

For media, the saleable product is “eyeballs” – unguarded and receptive audiences. Profits are generated by selling advertising access to businesses, institutions, interest groups and political campaigns, who want in turn to sell their own goods, services and messages to as many consumers as they can reach. Consumers are generally most available and receptive when their reflective, critical capacities are idling, preoccupied or at rest – chilling on the sofa, going through the daily commute, hanging out while the spaghetti cooks. How best then to grab and hold their attention? Sell fear. Sell fear of being out of fashion. Sell fear of not knowing the latest NFL rankings. Sell Islamic terrorism. Sell Climate Change. Sell Abortion Mills. Sell neo-Nazi rallies. When time-dollar value is calculated in seconds, selling serious thoughtfulness about the complexity of issues can’t compete with fear.

Suppose, though, we were to redirect our public discourse in more positive, life-affirming, joy-enhancing directions. What might we then really be for? Imagine a bunch of us randomly mixed in a room, no knowing how we voted, what we value, what we hate or what makes our hearts sing. Imagine a conversation framed with exactly two ground rules: 1) We will speak and listen respectfully in all of our exchanges; 2) Our testimonies will be exclusively about what we positively believe in and want to see in our lives and in the world. I confess, just putting this out there this way gives me pause. What do I want to see? What makes my heart sing? Inwardly stuttering here, I recognize that there are parts of me that believe it is naive to talk about the sources of my hope and joy, while remaining silent about the pervasive risks and threats among which I must negotiate the forward progress of my life. It is even more naive to put it out there, implying that it would behoove others to follow suit, and if they did what a wonderful world it would be.

For starters, though, to get the conversation going, with respect to matters of public concern here’s what I am for (in no particular order):

  • I would like to live in a society where all members can joyfully manifest all the greatest gifts, inborn and acquired, they are endowed with, in their work, their interpersonal relationships and their play.
  • I would like to live in a society  where all citizens live healthily and, when needed, have access to the best healthcare, from before they are born until they die.
  • I would like to live in a society where relationships with people at home and abroad are mutually affirming, sustaining and peaceful, and where all people are skilled at building such relationships where they are lacking or at-risk.
  • I would like to live in a society where people approach others always with appreciation and respect – including the non-human others we share the planet with and depend on for our own sustenance and well-being.
  • I would like to live in a society where men and boys have  a strong, vital and enthusiastic sense of what it means to be male; where women and girls have a strong, vital and enthusiastic sense of what it means to be female; where people have a strong, vital and enthusiastic experience loving others intimately, no matter if they are male or female; where people of every skin color, cultural heritage and faith tradition have strong, vital and enthusiastic experiences of their respective similarities and differences.
  • I would like to live in a society where we all treat the planet we live on with a sense of careful stewardship, out of an awareness that it is the most loving thing we can do for our children, grandchildren and descendants on down the line through countless generations, as well as for the other creatures we share it with.
  • I would like to live in a society whereof I could say, if asked by a visitor from another galaxy what its greatest excellences are, that it is known for its peace, its love and its joy.

Your turn.

Talk Politics

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” —Martin Luther King, Jr.

It’s a general rule we all know, at family gatherings like Thanksgiving or other social affairs where people come together who may not have lots in common, that we should “never talk about religion or politics.” Right now, in the wake of the deep, painful and frightening divisions the election brought to light, that’s likely good advice for those of us who will be breaking bread tomorrow with people whose views and votes go in very different directions than our own. And yet. And yet, maybe a good New Year’s resolution would be to start a new practice. At a wonderful yoga studio I used to frequent, we spoke of New Years Resolutionaries when the post-holiday surge kicked in. My thoughts right now are running along similar lines. Let’s learn the practice of talking politics where and when it’s hard.

Take me as an example. I am taking stands all over the place right now. I am completely on board with #BlackLivesMatter, have started making regular donations to Planned Parenthood, the Islamic Networks Group, the ACLU, the Human Rights Campaign and several other organizations advocating for people who are directly at risk due to the ascendancy of the “alt-Right” white nationalists since the results of the election were announced. I have put my stakes in the ground. I have skin in the game. What I don’t have, however, is opportunities to dialogue with people who believe abortion is murder and should be treated as such, who believe for political and/or religious reasons that Islam is a threat to all the qualities that make this country great, who hold intimate relations of any sort outside of heterosexual marriage to be despicable and immoral, or who are convinced that the presidency of Barack Obama was a political catastrophe. I live and move in a universe in which most everyone looks and talks like me, holds the same views as I hold and is distraught at what has now befallen us. This is not okay.

It is not okay, because, with the exception of a very small number of true psychopaths, most of the people on “the Other Side” have reasons that on some very human level make sense and resonate with them for wanting to see homosexuality disappear, “big government” cut down to size, welfare cheats made to work and propagators of “political correctness” made to shut up. I can’t well point fingers at others for agitating to see some group of human beings marginalized, expelled, silenced or (heaven help us) exterminated, while at the same time wishing something similar be their fate. It’s not a matter of wishy-washy-Kumbaya-can’t-everyone-please-just-get-along foolish moral relativism. It’s a matter of, whether I like it or not, we truly are all in this together, for one; and it’s presumptuous of me and  my kindred spirits to think we have a corner on wisdom and moral authority, for another.

In a life rich with many blessings, one I am especially grateful for is the opportunities it has offered me to connect with and get to know many different sorts of people, people of different backgrounds, cultures, faiths, ages, educations, occupations, etc. etc. etc. Why then should I be afraid to sit down and break bread together with someone who deeply believes it would have been a catastrophe for the nation had Hillary Clinton been elected as our next president? The simple reason, of course, is that I don’t really know how to do this and I expect with some justification that likely conversation partners may not either. As with any other difficult skill I wish to learn, there’s no way to do it other than doing it. And I can’t very well tell you that you should start engaging with people on the Other Side of whatever painful issue divides you, if I’m not willing to begin learning to do it myself.

A lot of hard ball politics is going to be played in the years ahead, hard ball such as this country may well not have seen since the run up to the Civil War. I know where I stand on most of the issues getting press now. As far as that goes, I am indeed fired up and ready to go. However, I’d heck of a lot rather figure out where folks on the Other Side are coming from, in the off chance we might find some common middle ground, than go for a zero-sum game out of which all of us will be losers. It’s unlikely I will find much to work with where the Steve Bannons of the world are concerned, but with the cousins and school and college friends and neighbors I hold in high esteem, we might just be able to work a few things out together. If nothing else, it’s not healthy to run around constantly on high alert, wary of attacks from every corner. Not for me personally, not for those I hold dear, and not for the nation I am a part of.

Talk politics. That’s what I want to learn how to do. Not with people I agree with on most things. With people I don’t on some, or even many, things.

A reminder to me: Here again are all the ways we are unique. Happy Thanksgiving.Human Endowments (3)

Be Not Afraid

In these reflections, I find I frequently feel impelled to begin with my own stories, to show the roots of where I have arrived at. So let me say, I am bringing a couple of my own personal truths to the historical moment we now find ourselves in. Chief among them is the fact I was badly bullied when I was in what we now call middle school. The harm it did has taken me more than half a century to work through, to the extent that I can finally tell it out loud, without feeling ashamed or as if I somehow deserved it. It took my asking to be sent away to boarding school at the age of 15 to liberate me from that toxic environment. Had that not happened, I seriously doubt I would be here today.

One of the consequences of the bullying, and the fact that people around me did not know how to support me or protect me, was that suicide became a credible option for me in difficult times. I lived with suicidal ideation from my early teens until well into my adult life. Suicide was a recurring possibility, whenever some adversity came my way. Like many emotionally damaged people, I sought solace in substances until they no longer did the trick. At the age of 39, with all sorts of wonderful adventures already behind me, I finally came very close to cashing in my chips. Dear people in my life, and what I to this day consider an act of divine grace, guided me into a 12 Step meeting. I was blessedly able to hear the messages shared there, and the rest, as they say, is history. I will tell anyone who asks, and many who don’t, that the 12 Steps are one of the Seven Wonders of the World, and it breaks my heart when I meet or hear of people who sorely need what is to be found there and can’t receive it.

So, it is an objectively true statement to say I know from the inside what it feels like to be a Victim. It is also an objectively true statement to say I know what it feels like to be a Survivor. Life has given me repeated chances to move forward by stages with the work of healing, to the point that I now consider myself one of the luckiest people in the world. I am immensely grateful for the countless other gifts and blessings that have come my way – wonderfully exciting and formative educational opportunities, chances to live and study and travel abroad and get to know the world from other points of view, a multi-phase career that has allowed me to connect with lots of different people in different walks of life, active participation in several of the world’s great spiritual traditions,  a relationship I am finally worthy of with a most remarkable woman – and none of it would ultimately have mattered much or become even possible, had I not found my way onto a healing path. On that path this Victim became a Survivor.

Now, when the chips are down, this Survivor does not do fear. Been there, done that. Sure, I fear rejection and worry about my finances and whether or not people will appreciate some professional or creative work I am doing, or whether I am being the sort of partner my beloved has a right to expect me to be, or whether I have enough gas to get to the nearest filling station. I went into and came back out of a very serious heart attack that might have sent me packing for good, feeling annoyed and inconvenienced, but not especially fearful. Indeed, I am no longer afraid of death after visiting the Great Beyond, except that I’d prefer it happen at my convenience, when I don’t have other plans. It is from this vantage point then, that I am contemplating the  historic moment that is now unfolding before us.

As we begin to process the shock of Donald Trump’s election, I notice high tides of fear are flowing. I mean the kind of fear that can be incapacitating, as distinct from the sober, well-grounded, justifiable fear of what the future holds. There is absolutely no doubt that the Trump administration, with the support of a disturbingly misguided Republican congress, will take steps that will have very bad, very direct, life and death consequences for millions of human beings, at home and abroad.

Given my history, I know what a bully looks like and  how a bully behaves. Trump is a bully, no news there. Bullies need two things to really get their jollies, and Trump needs both of them. They need weaker people to pick on and hurt and humiliate, and they need audiences to cheer them on while they do so. “You’re fired!,” after I humiliate the crap out of you; while an audience cheers me on. “Lock  her up!,” … while an audience cheers me on. “I grab her by the pussy!,” while an audience cheers me on. This behavior is not going to stop on Inauguration Day. Be it noted too, that bullies are quick to identify and defer to other bullies – lest we be wondering what the deal is between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. We are well advised to be afraid of what he might do to anyone he perceives as weaker, above and beyond whatever policy initiatives he and the new Congress take.

On a very practical level, then, we have arrived at a point in the history of the nation and the world when some very bad, scary stuff is going to happen. Make no mistake. And yet I say, be not afraid. By which I mean, let not your fear incapacitate you, because we need all your energy, all your good will, all your cleverness and experience, all your acquired savvy for the fight that is now beginning. This is not about being desensitized. Share the pictures of the bloodied gay man beat up by Trump supporters. Share the stories about the Muslim man beaten up and murdered in Wisconsin. Share the stories about women having their hijabs yanked off their heads. Share the pictures of hate messages spray painted on peoples’ doors or left on peoples’ cars. Share the stories of kids unable to sleep, because they are afraid of what Trump is going to do to them. Share your outrage with loved ones and friends and kindred spirits.

And yet, be not afraid. Be cool. Think hard about what is to be done to support, assist and comfort victims of such assaults. Go forward, not back. Speak truth to power. Trumpies think it’s a patriotic American thing to do, to beat up on and humiliate women and gay people and immigrants? Spread the word. It ain’t. Get together. Take action. Interfere with every single step the Trumpies take, from beating people up in the streets to depriving people of access to quality healthcare. (Here’s a wonderful sample of how to respond directly in a critical situation, one transferable to other circumstances.)

It’s on us to see that we come through this and out the other side, stronger and healthier and more caring than we went in. When tired, take a nap. When freaked out, breathe deeply. When broken-hearted, find a shoulder to lean and cry on. When frightened, look for encouragement. When bad news comes in, think about how best to respond creatively and forcefully and then get together with others and do it.

We didn’t ask for this, though we also did not do what we might have done to avoid it – namely get down with the “deplorable” people we preferred to despise. We can now get on with the business of fixing that, as noted in my previous post. No matter, for now it’s Game On.

Fired up.

Ready to go.

We can do this.

For real.