Hope Springs Eternal

So here we are, a couple of weeks later, and there was another terrorist atrocity, this time in Nice; a thoroughly bizarre police shooting of a black man with his hands in the air in North Miami; an attempted coup followed by martial law in Turkey; and the Republican Party has selected as its candidate for the most powerful job on the planet, a man with a very large ego, a very mixed track record, a very threatening demeanor toward many groups of people, and a very unclear vision of how he would actually make the machinery of government work if elected,  while camouflaged militia members carried assault weapons openly outside the hall. Given the headlines, we no longer seem to be able to get through a week without some event rocking us to the core. And that’s not counting Climate Change, the greatest threat the human species has ever faced, whether we think or talk about it (or even admit it) at all.

Turning and turning in the widening gyre   
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere   
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst   
Are full of passionate intensity.
(From W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”)

In this country alone, it is reasonable to claim that we have not been more politically fractious and the domestic peace more deeply threatened since 1860 and the run-up to the War Between the States. And since the United States remains the most economically and militarily powerful country in the world, it is not only our own 319,000,000 human residents whose future well-being is at stake. If we mess up, the lives of billions of human beings elsewhere will be affected too. That the American empire is in crisis is a truly scary state of affairs, no kidding around.

Personally, I’m not a fan of empires, whether Roman, or British, or Russian, or Ottoman, or Chinese, or American, despite their benefits. But no matter, we’re still it, for the moment. Note though that nature is not big on monolithic structures and systems either. It likes diversities, complexities and adaptability in systems that endure. Hence, in the interest of long-term planetary sustainability and to foster conditions hospitable to all children and other living things, I long to see the day when we can gracefully let go of our self-appointed role as the world’s Peacemaker; a role we took on, when the rest of the developed world lay in rubble. Since 1945, the US, despite all our fumbles (Iran, Viet Nam, Chile, Afghanistan, Iraq, anyone?), has indeed been the guarantor, in the messy way of all empires, of whatever stability there’s been; most especially since the Soviet Union threw in the towel in 1989.

And yet I remain hopeful, for a mix of reasons. Some of them are deeply personal, some of them are philosophical and spiritual, and some of them are based on more or less informed observation. To begin with the first:

As suggested in a previous post,  a poem called “But That Was in Another Country“, I see myself as having been reborn twice. The end result is, I no longer see myself as a victim. I am a Survivor. This is the perspective I now bring to everything that happens, whether close to me or far away. The first rebirth happened when I came as close as ever to committing suicide, an idea I had lived with as a regular companion since I was thirteen years old. Rather than follow through, I allowed myself to be nudged into a 12 Step program. I had been badly bullied as an adolescent, and the injuries sustained left deep, unhealed wounds. Joy was not a concept I had any familiarity with from that time until I hit my very hard bottom twenty six years later. Yet I walked into my first meeting, sat quietly, listened, and it took. I learned to walk the walk, and in short order I went from feeling that my life, countless blessings not withstanding, was a fundamentally questionable proposition flawed at its core, to finding a path forward toward a richer, more rewarding and more promising life than I ever conceived possible. I got used to the idea that I am a work in progress, and I’m here to tell you progress continues.

Then 23 years later the second rebirth happened: A near fatal heart attack, arriving without warning, took me to the border to the Great Beyond, before delivering me back among the living six days later. I came back transformed. I felt myself floating in a cloud of love, created by the numberless people, many of them unknown to me, who were praying, sending blessings, lifting me into the light, caring for me, and keeping watch over me. I knew I came back for reasons, and that I had some say in the matter. And I knew – I use the word “knew” advisedly – that life is a miracle. That any of us exist at all, that our bodies work the way they do, that we relate the way we do, that all the rest of the creatures we share the planet with live and die and live again as they do, heck, that the friggin’ cosmos exists and works the way it does, is miraculous. There is no other word for it.

Philosophically, I have thought hard about the fundamental purpose and meaning of life since my early teens, beginning at the time when daily danger lurked and safety was nowhere assured. That questioning drove me as far as a Doctor of Philosophy degree in the humanities. Eventually though, I recognized that academic diligence, no matter how persistently pursued, was not going to solve my problem. For all their virtues as guardians of long and rich legacies, scholars are rarely equipped to play the role of Merlin, or Dumbledore, or Jesus, or Muhammad, or Lao-Tzu, or a Shaman, or the Buddha, or any of the other bearers of wisdom they keep the books on. Still, there were guiding lights I discovered in the course of studies, and I remained comfortable with the idea that study can be one of the paths to wisdom. Not for nothing do all the great wisdom traditions have bodies of holy scripture their devotees are urged to master.

Years later, after the second rebirth, prompted by a discussion heard on a podcast, I pulled a book I’d dragged around for years unread off the bookshelf and began reading Teilhard de Chardin’s Phenomenon of Man. Teilhard was a Jesuit priest and a leading paleontologist during the first half of the twentieth century. As a priest, he thought hard about the meaning of human existence, and as paleontologist he thought hard about how to consider the question scientifically, taking a very long view of evolution. Short and sweet, Teilhard was fascinated by the fact that, as far as we could tell – and if anything the science for this has only grown stronger since he passed on in 1955 – from the beginning of the universe on down to the present, there has been a tilt toward ever greater complexity and diversity, culminating in the emergence of conscious and, finally, self-conscious creatures: us, humans, creatures who know that they know. He imagined the entire process would finally come to fruition at what he called the Omega point – drawing on the assertion in the Book of Revelations that Christ is “the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” He foresaw a continuing evolution of consciousness until that point, where the purpose of the whole cosmic undertaking would be fulfilled.

For a variety of reasons too complicated to explore here, I am not yet sold on the details of Teilhard’s vision of the Omega Point. However, I was and remain deeply affected by the notion that there is a positive tilt built into the cosmic operating system. Yes, death, yes darkness, yes destruction, yes things come into being and pass away, from the level of stars down to the level of the skin cells I slough off as I go about my life. But at the end of the day, as far as we can see, there is a slight plus at the bottom line each time you do the books.

Make no mistake: the horrors perpetrated by humans on humans and on other creatures are truly horrible and manifestations of unfathomable cruelty. The Inquisition, Genghis Khan’s massacres, the Holocaust, the current and seemingly endless atrocities going around and around in the Middle East are no jokes. Think hard about what crucifixion entails and how and when it was used, and you’ll see humanity at its most diabolical. Slavery was and is an abomination, by any name and any standard. Likewise genocide and ethnic cleansing. It’s bad news when orderly systems of public life disintegrate – witness Russia and Germany in 1918 and the following years. Having visited Auschwitz, and the slave quarters at Monticello, and worked in the shadow of the Berlin Wall – and being a survivor of meaningless human evil myself – I have no illusions about such things. They have happened, they do happen, and likely they will happen again. Yet still, the idea that there is a tilt towards ever greater enlightenment resonates with me, not least because of what I learned visiting the Great Beyond.

To come now to our present circumstances, despite the scary news, despite the armed agitation evident at Trump rallies and the Republican National Convention, despite the agitation triggered again and again by instances of police brutality for which there is no accountability, despite the constant questioning of Hillary Clinton’s competence and character as a candidate for the biggest job in the world, despite ridiculous laws being passed regarding who uses what bathroom, despite ISIS attacks,  I still find reason to hope. This is not 1860. This is not 1914. This is not 1945. This is not even 2001. We know so much about so many people living different lives in different places. I may want to snub my nose at people who think the election of Donald Trump would be a marvelous turn of events, yet some of them are my friends. I know it and they know it. Trump may want to build a wall to stop Mexicans from coming north, yet it’s not news that walls don’t work. Ask the ghosts of the Chinese emperors or the First Secretaries of East Germany’s Socialist Unity Party how they made out. Europeans wish Syrians would stop coming north, seeking refuge from the mortal madness at home, yet they keep coming in small boats across a tempestuous sea.

Remarkably, the internet and the globalization of trade, finance and the dissemination of knowledge, trivial and profound, suggest that we may finally be evolving into an entirely new ecological system. Millions of people are in regularly daily contact with people many thousands of miles away, people they may never have met in the flesh. Iran is not an abstraction, nor is China, nor is Zimbabwe, nor is Syria. People know people. Neither, from my own little point of view, is Alabama or Georgia or South Carolina, places my inner Yankee would as soon kick out of the union, because of the fact they keep voting for the wrong people, in the view of my liberally inclined inner Yankee. They are places where deeply beloved and creative and fascinating people live, and I have daily evidence of that. Mutatis mutandi: Shift the variables around, the same applies to you and you and you, and to Iranians and Ukrainians and Israelis and Palestinians and Republicans and Democrats. Some of you would like to kick me and my kind out, but you know I’m a good guy with good heart and a good soul and your world would be poorer without me. So you won’t.

Realistically, shit keeps happening, and bad shit may be coming, but through all of it, remember there’s a tilt, and at the end of the day, there will be a plus in the ledger. Having been where I went, I’m even willing to say you’ll see it, though maybe from the Other Side. That you’ll have to take on faith though. When you get that far, just remember, I told you so.

There is nothing to fear, but fear itself.

We shall overcome. Join in. You won’t be disappointed. Watch.




We Shall Overcome

Well suffice it to say, I am not picking up the thread where I supposed I might when I left off my last post on the topic of fear.

“And yet. And yet fear is really not where it’s at. Not when you’ve paid a visit to the Other Side and come back to talk about it as I did. Not when your frame of reference is broader, deeper, higher, and more expansive than the stuff of the daily news and the permutations of contemporary public affairs. More on that next time around…”

Since then, we have all been emotionally battered by yet two more appalling killings by police officers of black males, in questionable circumstances, followed this time by killings of five police officers in Dallas keeping watch over a peaceful protest rally, by a sniper apparently seeking revenge for the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. Again, waves of fear rushed over the land. #BlackLivesMatter met up against #BlueLivesMatter. Within 48 hours, outrage and grief sweeping through black communities and among the countless friends and allies who care about them, like me, flowed together with the outrage and grief that overwhelmed not only the colleagues, families and friends of the slain Dallas officers, but also the countless people who support and care about law enforcement officers throughout the nation. Here we are, at a time when the nation is bitterly divided along political, regional, economic, generational and social lines, wondering what condition we will be in on Wednesday, November 9, when the voters have marked their ballots and results are finally known; here we are, and the deepest, most painful, most morally divisive, most consequential rupture in the tissue of the body politic once again confronts us with the most incontrovertible reason there is for holding the assertion the United States of America is the Greatest Nation in the World to be the height of hypocrisy: Racism and the legacy of slavery.

Once again those of us who believe that #BlackLivesMatter expresses a deep truth about the United States’ moral condition, a truth that must be confessed and repented for by white citizens as an absolute precondition for there to be civic peace in the land finally, 150 after the supposed end of the War Among the States on April 9, 1865 at Appomattox Courthouse; once again we feel compelled to take deep breaths and patiently explain to the #AllLivesMatter contingent that #BlackLivesMatter is a matter of focus not exclusion. #BlackLivesMatter does not mean only Black Lives Matter. It means if #AllLivesMatter, then we have a lot of fixing to do to ensure that the Black members of the All really get the same treatment in all respects, not least by law enforcement officers, as the rest of us do.

As I have said before, I am very conscious of being a highly privileged member of contemporary society for a bunch of reasons I had little or no say in: Straight White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male with an Ivy League education. Not a bad hand of cards to start with, given the givens of how power and privilege are distributed still, here and now. #BlackLivesMatter is not, however, just a little something I decided to get on board with because I want to be terminally and liberally hip. For me it could hardly be more personal. I have three bi-racial grandchildren, which to our twisted collective way of thinking really means they are black when they walk through the mall or go to the movies or sit in the classroom. They will be black when some police officer eventually pulls them over for any of the myriad of reasons, good and bad, just and unjust, police officers pull people over. Like any self-respecting grandparent, I will tell you with a straight face and without the least hesitation that they are the three coolest kids now living on the face of Planet Earth. I will tell you all you have to do is hang out with them for an hour or two and  you will discover what I say is objectively true. Of course, the fact is, cool though they may be, they are growing up in the same messy circumstances in the early decades of the 21st century that the rest of us are living in. Many of those circumstances would apply to them, even if they were not bi-racial. They are blessed, however, that they are coming along surrounded by parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and close family friends who are truly devoted to them and as madly in love with them as I am. Every child should be so blessed.

We were midway through the week’s atrocities and I was trading posts on Facebook with one of their aunts, who was distraught about what she should do with her young black son so he doesn’t end up like Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or Eric Garner or Alton Sterling or Philando Castile, and with her mother. In the midst of a stream of affirmations about how important it is that the black community actively organize to work for change in community – police relations as a key to ending such killings, it was her mother who first flagged for me what had just gone down in Dallas. Ethel is underprivileged in just about every way that I am privileged, yet her first reaction was distress at these new killings: “LET US GO. THE OTHER WAY. THE ROAD LESS TRAVELLED BY BLACKS UNIFY, DEVERSIFY AND STRENGTHEN WHAT WEAK BUILD UP WHATS BROKEN AND ACT LIKE WE WANT PEACE THE KILLING TO STOP!!!” In the instant, I got a knot in my stomach about the news, and a surge of hope from Ethel’s heartfelt and immediate response.

I came of age with the Civil Rights movement. I was 13 when Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley, were killed in the bomb attack on the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. I was 15 when the March on Selma, a pivotal moment in the campaign for voting rights, took place. I was a month shy of my 18th birthday and less than two months away from graduating from high school when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. There is ample reason to be discouraged that half a century down the road racism continues to be a powerfully shaping force in our common life. Yet I took hope from Ethel’s spontaneous reaction to the news from Dallas. I take hope from the fact that Jennifer and I can share our wishes and fears for her delightful son, who is easily just as cool as his cousins. I take hope from the fact that leaders of the #BlackLivesMatter movement immediately condemned the killings of the police officers. I take hope from the fact that the video post below, which had some hundreds of thousands of views when I first saw it on Friday morning, now as of this writing has well over 32 million views. I take hope from the fact the people of the United States twice elected a black President and there are now prominent black leaders in every field and discipline. We are making progress, despite the setbacks, despite the persistent and too often successful efforts to roll back voting rights, and despite the outrageous numbers of black people incarcerated, living in desperate poverty, and dying as victims of intra-communal as well as police violence.

I came of age with the Civil Rights movement. I came of age with the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead, and with Jimi Hendrix, Jefferson Airplane and the Supremes. But ask me to name the tune, the defining tune, the tune that most clearly expressed what the period was about, and I’ll give you this one:

… and this one:

… and this one:

This “We” is not exclusive. Not “my team” will win out over “your team”. “We” means all of us, whether we are ready to sing along or not. This “Shall” is not predictive. It is imperative. As in “Thou shalt…” This “Overcome” is not about conquest. It is about liberation. Liberation above all from the cultures of fear that cripple all of us and make us miserable, when life happens in ways that it need not have happened. What happened to Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were not accidents. What happened to Sgt. Michael Smith, Senior Cpl. Lorne Ahrens, Officers Michael Krol and Patrick Zamarippa, and Transit Officer Brent Thompson were not accidents. They were the results of deliberate actions undertaken by people who were afraid. Afraid of what they were facing in the moment, or afraid of some future circumstance beyond their power to control – such as an endless perpetuation of racism and all the violence that it entails.

I live with fear as much as the next guy. But I refuse to let it run me. One of these days I will get around to laying out just why. As promised.

Meanwhile, We Shall Overcome, for real.