The Fight is On

[Trigger warning: If you feel the election of Donald Trump is a wonderful turn of events for the future of the nation, you might want to take a pass on this. I don’t and I have trouble getting inside the mindset of those who do, with all due respect.]

Throughout the campaign, though I watch little TV and could name few of the pundits who shape/massage/feed whatever passes for public opinion, I couldn’t imagine that a man who systematically gave offense to women, black people, Hispanic people, disabled people and Muslims, and who was cozy with white supremacists and neo-Nazis propagating racial bigotry and unabashed antisemitism, could put together enough votes to get himself elected president of much of anything, let alone the United States of America. I watched the polls, snagged snippets of mainstream messaging from social media, and stewed not so much about whether Hillary Clinton would win, but about what sort of Congress she’d have to deal with. For no clear reason, abruptly this last weekend I found myself suddenly wondering what I would do if Donald Trump were elected, got a serious sinking feeling in my gut, and began speculating about what might happen should that come to pass. Nevertheless, I went to the polls yesterday, reasonably confident Hillary Clinton had done what needed to be done to make it first across the finish line.

As the evening went on last night, the clouds began to gather as Trump kept leading in electoral college votes, though I still thought she’d pull it out in the end. However, when international financial markets started plummeting, I decided it was time to try to get some sleep. Unlike media smartypants, those guys, with their billions on the line, don’t miss much, I generally believe.  I didn’t get much sleep, up two hours early for me, at least, to learn that the worst possible scenario had been fulfilled, with Trump victorious and both houses of Congress secured by the Republicans. Hope for a Supreme Court configured to meet the needs of the nation in its present configuration was out the window.  Like kindred spirits across the land, I had great trouble simply taking it in. Fight or flight? Flight was all could think of. GET ME OUT OF HERE!!!! Or at least give me a great big rock to hide under. I felt personally betrayed by the Nate Silvers of the world, who had led me to formulate such bogus expectations and assumptions as I went to the polls with. I was grateful when a friend posted a link (here) on Facebook, reminding me to breathe. So much for my yoga practice: it actually seemed like a novel idea.

I couldn’t wrap my brain around the idea that I should do something productive with the day, like do the work I get paid for as an independent contractor. For the most part, I stayed away from the media, not really wanting to know what the same smart people who so badly misread the mood of the country might have to say about the new state of affairs we find ourselves in. I communed with my beloved, puttered away on a creative project I have in the works, and generally let the feelings have their way. I’m glad I did. I am clear we all have a great deal of grieving to do. We need to allow space and take time for our depression, our anger, our outrage, our shame at being American, our bewilderment, our feelings of hopelessness and betrayal, to rise and ebb and flow. That being the case, for some people, what I have to say here may be premature. If it is, bail out and come back another day when you feel better. You will feel better, I promise, at least if you care for yourself and let yourself. Personally, I know I am not out of the woods by a long shot.

I should be grateful for that cloud that passed over me last weekend. It gave me a head start on reflecting about what we do if the worst case scenario should be fulfilled. Two things become clear: 1) We have to fight. Washington is not going to fix this. Consider how little the finest President I have seen in 55 years, since I became grown up enough to pay attention, was able to fix, and his successor is proclaiming his intentions to undo as much of that as he can. 2) We need to make it our business to open our hearts and our minds to the half of the electorate who think Trump is their guy and said so, where and when it counted.

These two things are actually related. Take the second one first: I’m not sure what the smart guys are saying, but I have a strong conviction that Hillary Clinton’s greatest liabilities were not that she is a woman or blew it in Benghazi or was too sloppy with her emails. Her greatest liability was that she was perceived as part of The Problem by people for whom the problem is all the insider baseball played by “liberal” mainstream media, Washington big shots, elected and appointed, and their corporate backers – all the insider baseball where “political correctness” is promoted, while jobs are outsourced to China and wage scales are driven down by immigrants flooding in illegally, who don’t even speak English or worship the God We Trust. For such people, it wouldn’t be hard sell to suggest that the only way they were going to get Washington to pay attention is by sending someone to the White House who is not a Washington insider. Trump may have used the language of bigotry and misogyny and nationalism to get and command their attention, but the reasons that messaging worked go deeper than personally wanting to hurt black people, assault women or drive people from the country. 59 million people don’t get up every day thinking about how they can mess over black people and immigrants and women. They do get up every day feeling disrespected, neglected and short changed. Washington is never going to fix that, even with their guys in the White House and controlling Congress; but a warmer embrace from people like me and most of the people I think of as kindred spirits, people who honestly do hold them in varying degrees of disrespect and contempt, might be a start.

We may not subscribe to their analysis and we may think that they will soon be sorely disappointed by The Donald’s inability to meet their expectations for reasons both systemic and personal. However, the people who voted for Trump are my fellow citizens. Their well-being concerns me. Even if I dislike them, I can hardly appeal to them in the name of the general welfare and having a livable future for our children to care about the people they despise, while despising them myself. We truly are in the same boat, cruising through space on the same planet.They may be misguided, ill-informed and bigoted, but few of them are psychopaths, even if they may have voted for one. And I actually believe, their sense of grievance and resentment may eventually offer a point of contact for change-agents tuned in to the deeper drivers. We write them off at our peril.

Which brings me back to my main point. The fight is on. The future is ours, but it is our responsibility to claim it. For reasons only partly related to the campaign, in 2016 overt racism, homophobia and misogyny rose to levels of public awareness unseen in decades. It is not that the levels of abuse increased, rather our tacit tolerance of it reached breaking points.

Police officers randomly killing black males is not news. Having it recorded and broadcast in real time on social media is. As a result, #BlackLivesMatter is now an active factor in our civic life.

Hillary Clinton’s campaign alone has unleashed numerous initiatives to take on misogyny in all its forms, from employment discrimination to sexual assault. Those initiatives are following the lead of the National Organization for Women and a raft of other organizations that have been fighting for equal rights for women, going back to the days of women’s suffrage.

Having made great headway with marriage equality, the LGBTQI community ran up against fierce resistance by local officials unwilling to recognize its hard-won rights, overt bigotry from the now newly elected Vice Presidential candidate, and the hateful law passed in North Carolina regulating who uses what bathrooms. Yet, the community’s rapid, intense, and concerted resistance led leading corporations, trade associations, sports leagues and others to change or cancel plans to do business in the state, so long as the law remains in effect.

So: Once we have caught our breaths, how ever long it takes, the game plan is clear: Whichever issue is closest to home for you – race, gender and orientation, the environment, access to healthcare, employment opportunities and livable wages – join the fight, recruit others, form alliances, and don’t give up or run. If showing people how to breathe, come home to themselves, love themselves and others, feel peace, is what you do, do it with an open and trusting heart. If  you are a person of faith, of whatever denomination or tradition, reach out and care for the strangers among you, and prepare to offer sanctuary when need arises.

Whether Trump and his cronies and supporters like it or not, the nation’s future is not going to be white, straight, male-dominated, native-born or Christian-only. It is not going to be addicted to fossil fuels. It is not going to be permanently in hock for such essentials as healthcare and education. Nor is it going back to the employment patterns people like me came of age and went to college on. But we will be fighting to protect what we have achieved in the last decades with respect to equal standing for all, equal opportunity for all, and sustainable living and environmental action on behalf of the children and the future. We will make it a priority to attract more allies and more supporters. We will make it our business to educate others who don’t know or understand or believe. We will write off no one, no matter where the dialogue begins, no matter how uncomfortable they make us. We won’t assume “any reasonable person”, or “any moral person” sees things the way we do or is a defective human being because they don’t.

Frankly, I find this a hopeful scenario. I wouldn’t have chosen for history to deal us this hand of cards to play, but I believe it is going to give us an opportunity to grow up, get comfortable living in the real world, to discover neighbors we are suspicious or distrustful of, and to get unhooked from the idea that somebody else – Washington, Wall Street, the boss,  the Superintendent of Schools, the hospital CEO, the president of the university, the head coach,  the teacher, the priest, the rabbi, my neighbor, my mother, my father, my lover, my spouse, whoever – is going to make it good for us.

I have long felt that we in the United States, with our mere 300-plus years of (Euro-centric) history under our belts, frequently behave like adolescents compared to people in most other parts of the world, where thousands of years of shared history are not uncommon. We have the energy, imagination, dreaminess and ambition often found among adolescents. We also have the irritability, self-centeredness, comparative ignorance, and general immaturity about how to handle ourselves among ourselves and with others, that go with the same territory.

Thinking we could blow into Baghdad, of all places – Baghdad in Mesopotamia, where the oldest cities in the world were formed 6,000 years ago – take care of business in a few years and take our leave at our convenience, was the height of folly. An informed grown-up would have known better. Destroying Obamacare with no alternative plan for addressing the healthcare needs of the third of the population who can’t afford to pay going rates and of the Baby Boomers slowly moving into those costly last decades of their lives is at best foolish and at worst cruel: unbecoming of that “Great America” written on the bill of goods Trump sold his supporters. Do the numbers and come up with a plan. It’s what sensible people would do.

This is our time. It is time to grow up. The work is now ours to do. No mommies or daddies are going to do it for us. Let us be positively surprised if the next President actually does something we are on board with. But let us not expect, even tacitly, inwardly, that such will be the case. We know we are right, where our issues and aspirations are concerned – right to fight for equality across the board, for a habitable planet for our children and grandchildren, and for rewarding and gratifying opportunities to make a sustainable living. Back in the day, I learned a lot from reading Karl Marx – the real deal, not the caricature promulgated by Cold War propaganda and alt-Right foolishness. His measure of a humane society was this: “From each according to their abilities, to each according to their needs.” Sounds good to me. But we’ll only get there by going together.

Fired up.

And ready to go.

The fight is on. For real.

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.

 

 

What, Me Worry?

For a while now I have had a sequel in mind to the series of reflections I posted under the heading We Shall Overcome. The post would (will) be about the flip side of the ideas I was exploring in that series. Whereas in those posts I was interested in the fact that what human beings most have in common is the incredibly large numbers of ways we are different and unique, I intend to explore the ways in which we are perceived by others and perceive ourselves to be members of groups and in that way seem not so unique. I am male, not female. I am Euro-American, not Canadian or Filipino or Chilean or Kenyan. I am a Baby Boomer, not a Millennial…etc., etc., etc. You get the drift.

However, events have been getting in the way. Almost two weeks ago, the largest mass shooting to date occurred at The Pulse club in Orlando, and I found myself as wrapped up in the ensuing turmoil as everyone else. I was overwhelmed by feelings of grief, anger, frustration and hopelessness; along with (ever increasing) contempt for Congress’s persistent inability to deal with any issues that have real, direct consequences for public well-being and safety. I was saddened by the fact that the victims, many of them Latino, of this assault were mostly young people, with long lives yet to be lived, who were murdered precisely because they identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersexual or queer; or were friends of people who did. I was saddened that the killer had a long history of violent conduct toward others, and yet no one was able in time to reach him in a compassionate way, to get to the roots of his distress and help him leave the path he was on. Pervading the whole episode were tidal waves of fear, some of it stoked by people – political leaders especially – with axes to grind, but most of it erupting spontaneously from the subconscious pockets where we all stash our habitual fears.

If you are like me, the fears that surged forth had a lot to do with the easy availability of highly destructive firearms to anyone who’s got the money to buy them. My deep fears of the direction I see politicians on the right and the people who bankroll them wanting to take the society roared up to the surface. I was overwhelmed by feelings of vulnerability and helplessness as I watched others’ fears pour out as well. If you belonged to the LGBTIQ community, already carrying a burden of marginalization in most cases and victimization in many, how could you not feel personally threatened and assaulted to see the homophobia that still haunts many corners of the society expressed in the form of a bloody and terrifying massacre? Yet, those of us who felt we were on the receiving end of the assault were not the only ones whose deep fears swept across the land.

On the gun rights side, other fears came to the surface: fears that certain constitutionally guaranteed rights were under attack; fears that one’s ability to protect oneself from threats by criminals, by outsiders, by government agents, or some other Others, were going to be stripped away by forces already lined up against one; and fears that Muslim terrorists are spread across the country, ready to create murderous havoc whenever it suits them. Mixed into the blend were also the fears of adherents of a certain brand of “Christianity”, that sees growing social acceptance of people who identify as LGBTIQ as evidence Satan is getting the upper hand and should be resisted at all costs. And through it all, there swept waves of the formless fears that always run when things happen people find threatening, have no warning of and don’t see coming, and  after the fact have no clear understanding of.

I’m not big on fear. I recognize it is deeply rooted in our biological makeup. I know it is a force that has driven the most abhorrent forms of human conduct going back through millennia. I also know whole industries depend on the promotion and cultivation of fear – from the military industrial complex and the liability insurance – personal-injury/malpractice law complex; to the cosmetics, fashion, automobile, travel and domestic products industries that thrive by suggesting how imperfect our lives are if we don’t look certain ways, drive certain vehicles, vacation in certain places, or decorate our homes with certain furnishings. Personally more to the point, I have my own ongoing history with fear directing, shaping, and inhibiting my life’s progress. As a survivor of bullying in early adolescence, I am still affected by deeply internalized impacts that I have only recently recognized as signs of PTSD. I have a highly evolved fear of failure, traceable no doubt to being the product of a culture and a top tier education where high achievement and performance are the standards by which personal value and worth are judged.

Finally, I have fears grounded in stuff I learned in the course of that education. Knowing more than your average bear about the circumstances that led to the fall of the Roman Empire and that led to and followed the breakthrough to the modern capitalist order marked by the French Revolution, I sometimes lie awake nights worrying about the magnitude of the historic turn now unfolding on every continent, Antarctica included. Having spent part of my career working in energy policy, I know more than the average bear about the magnitude of the threats posed by climate change and why those threats should not be denied or trivialized. Spend a few months as I did working closely with people from the electric utilities as they struggle to restore power to the 85% of the households in Connecticut who were knocked out by the freak October 30, 2011 snow storm, and the prospect of more and more extreme weather events taking out critical infrastructure systems will also keep you awake nights.

By now it is a foregone conclusion that fear will drive the outcome of the US Presidential election. Neither of the leading candidates arouses much positive delight. Donald Trump’s campaign is overwhelmingly fear-based. If Hillary Clinton wins, despite the strong negative views many Americans rightly or wrongly have held about her for a long time, it will be as much because of the immense fear Trump arouses in people who do not belong to his core constituencies, as because of any success she may have setting forth a vision that excites and inspires voters.

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…

 

 

But that was in another country…

The first time was more dramatic

a long time coming

after the fact utterly foreseeable

Inherited predispositions

Unhealed wounds from early traumas

Hungry for love, angry, lonely

tired of the unending bitterness

besmirching and despoiling every undertaking

the more hopeful, the more foully

Love, recognition, achievement, success –

Forget about it

Not to mention hardwired from the get-go

for higher highs and lower lows

Life lived always then provisional,

optional until a more attractive choice

might present itself

Meanwhile make do with the handiest

subculturally approved soporifics

until they no longer quite packed the punch

and misery tired of loving company

 

That time it was a close call

turned away at the first door knocked on

the second blessedly opened

received into a space

where a deadly malady

was already holding court

Good thing

The next door was marked EXIT

A bottom firm enough to stand on

Safe just long enough

to take a walk

into an utter strangeness

where strangers delivered in familiar words

strange messages of deliverance

Grace

at last a shot at a life worth living

Grace

able freely to receive

what was freely offered

Grace

to find the fortitude to live

into another way

to stumble and take wrong turns and go astray

without looking for THIS WAY OUT

Given the givens, a miracle

a miracle lived surely enough and gratefully

though not yet truly seen

Good enough

So thank you

Get on with it

Keep on keeping on

And so thereby a second life

or the same life with a reset

 

Being at last in the world

this world

Life 101

How to

Step by Step

Life 201

Life 301

Life 401

No terminal degree in sight

Up hills, down dales

left turns, right turns

right turns, wrong turns

backtrack, forge ahead

Yes, anger

Yes, sorrow

Yes, partings

No, despair

Keep on keeping on

Emerge

Grow

Look around, down, up, out, in, backward, forward

Say please

and most especially thank you

Notice the generosity

Not having to deserve

For sure often

still a babe in the woods

not yet mastering

the art of  staying on track

Keeping on keeping on

Eventually really taking it for granted

even when not really taking it for granted

New playmates, playgrounds, playthings

and then again new ones

More will be revealed

Just show up

Try new things, ancient things

Go deep

Discover body

Discover soul

Learn to sit

Learn to breathe

Discover fire

Pay attention

It’s all good

Even when it’s bad, it’s good

good to leave

in the rear view mirror

Pay attention

Yes

But not always

Don’t always want to

Know better, yes

but ignorance sometimes is bliss

or wishing would have it so

 

Getting older

aches and pains go with the territory

Regular checkups

Tune up the diet

Drop some pounds

Take a couple of pills just in case

Do what needs to be done

to keep the craziness at bay

It’s all good

Until it’s not

But that is in another country

 

And so the second time

And so the second time

came without warning

which is to say, there were ample signs

signals encoded

in an unlearnt language

from another land

so there was no need to trouble

about what they signified

The first time troubles was all there was

still unprepared when the storm blew in

taking down ancient timbers on its way

Way more ready

the second time, knowing

how to sit

how to breathe

how to pay attention

how to let go and surrender

even when not wanting to

how to lean in and not run

who to call

not alone in the universe

Played it nevertheless close for comfort

A little prelude, yes, on an unseasonably

summerly late September Saturday

A little more emphatic

the signals flaring upwards

but not enough to command attention

or change a game plan

practice in the morning

good deeds in the afternoon

music in the evening

singing along til heart’s content

practice again in the morning

no sweat beyond the usual

Namaste and off

to the big box to pick up

a couple pillows and some edibles

make way for a stressed out mom

with fussy kids at the checkout

home for lunch

The play proper commences

when your heart speaks listen

no fooling now

no amount of breathing

no amount of stretching

there, insistently, center stage

houselights going down

for the main performance

a voyage off to terra incognita

check the program

review the scenarios

make the call

consider the options

follow suit

get ready, batten down

set off

off never to return

this side of paradise

into the channel outward

let the pilots board

who know the way, they say

a last few hasty leave-takings

no fear

all in good hands

fair weather

for now

clouds gather

skies darken

down, then, and out

out, then, and up and away

and down again

out where many go

all eventually

few return

Keeping company with angels

go with it, wherever it goes

dream scenes in black and white

through a far portal

companies of caring spirits

smooth sailing mostly

until the far shore approaches

rough berthing

breathe, she said

and that was all

 

How strangely moored

new light, new space

known faces, welcoming

speaking in half-remembered

half-unlearnt tongues

of half-remembered things

but that was in another country

and so we begin again

take it from the top

wherefrom

whereto

let go

breathe

listen

receive

only connect

that is all

for now

in another country, another time

new customs, new habits, new thoughts

don’t sweat the small stuff

it’s a miracle, all of it

for real

appearances deceive

this side of paradise

nothing is the same.

We Shall Overcome – One and All

Human Endowments (3)Let’s start by acknowledging that every one of us, if given enough time and a safe setting, if asked in a language and terminology she or he understands, and if he or she is self-aware enough, would have something to say about how every one of the factors shown here applies to them, in general and at this particular moment in their lives. There are 28 factors so far and I am sure the list is not complete. To get a sense of just how many ways there are to be different, there are 268,435,456 ways to mix and match among 28 factors. And that’s before we start looking at the exact information to be considered for each one of those factors. And it’s also before we take into account how the weather is today and how we feel about it, good news we received about an insurance claim on the house we lost in a tornado, bad news we received about how our dear next door neighbor’s shaky health has taken an abrupt downturn, how our sciatica is doing today, how the garden looks to us at this time of year and how the candidate we passionately want to become the next President did in last week’s primary; or the impact any of those circumstances have on how we decide to behave here and now. That’s a lot, a lot, a lot of ways to be different.

The real intent with this graphic is to highlight how generalizations about people pervade all manner of discourses, from the self-critical chatter that runs just below the surface of our own consciousnesses, through op-ed pieces and social media posts, and on into public policy and legislation. Whenever we categorize people – “teachers,” “politicians,” “Southerners,” “Germans,” “transsexuals,” “Catholics,” “dog owners,” “teens,” and so on – we efface or suppress the particular qualities that define the mental, emotional and cultural spaces in which individual human beings are living their lives.

The critical point is that each of us operates in a unique space defined by many personal factors over which we have no control. Nobody asked me whether I wanted to be born in the United States of America, in the middle of the twentieth century, as part of the Baby Boom, five years after the end of the Second World War and the advent of the atomic bomb, into a society still not resolved about its legacy of slavery or comfortable about the role of women in public life, or into a white family that worshiped in the Episcopal Church, put great value on higher education and not so much on being socially cool or athletically competitive. Nor did anyone ask me whether I wanted to be endowed with considerable native curiosity and intelligence, poor physical coordination and a predisposition to extreme mood swings. Yet, these circumstances, and a number of others, comprise the water I swim in. What is thinkable for me, how likely I am to flourish in a particular career or relationship or community, depends to a large degree on my unique mix of these factors. Along with the cumulative impacts of what I have experienced as I progress on life’s journey from birth forward, taken together they contribute as much to my personal uniqueness, as the genetic endowment I inherited when I was conceived.

To be sure, there are frequently compelling practical reasons for making use of categorical generalizations. They may be “external” reasons, such as the desire of the institution known as the Catholic Church to have records of who its tithing members are, or the State of Connecticut’s wish to know who is a licensed school bus driver in good standing. They may be “internal” reasons, such as the struggle a gay teen, who has been raised in an evangelical family, may experience if they feel their sense of personal identity is in conflict with church teachings and cultural norms; or the process of self-definition by which I, for instance, come to terms with and live out being a straight White Anglo-Saxon Protestant male, in a society where to be that bears coded meaning and by far most people are not that.

Indeed, in the course of my own journey toward greater psychological and spiritual health and wholeness, seeing more and more clearly the ways I am not a generic human or Baby Boomer or US citizen or Episcopalian or recovering pothead, has been both profoundly enlightening and liberating. The clearer my understanding is of what it means not to be a straight white male, in circumstances where it is socially disadvantageous to be gay or lesbian, to be female, to be a person of color, the more clearly I understand what it means to be me. For in fact the bottom line is, I am unique because of how my life plots out on each of the 28 vectors in the graphic, and I am fundamentally and inescapably connected with the all the rest of humanity, and indeed all the rest of creation. If I wish to communicate and connect consciously and deeply with others, I must bring my full self-awareness to the conversation.

Language, of course, is what we use to communicate with others and with ourselves. Language depends on abstract concepts and categories. Language is what we use to think with, most of the time unconsciously. This entire reflection was triggered by my growing sensitivity about the pervasive finger-pointing and blame games that characterize much of public discourse nationally and globally. Full confession: I do it too. It’s much easier for me to cut a black urban youth slack than a white suburban police officer. It’s much easier for me to feel concern for a Muslim refugee from Syria than for a native German or Belgian or Dane who worries about what will happen to their familiar social arrangements if large numbers of refugees come into the country and stay. However, as I said at the outset, I am a terminal optimist. I see a path forward. It is a path that begins with cultivating, growing consciousness of how what we all most have in common is how uniquely different we are. That “black urban youth” I mentioned has a face and a name and a history and dreams and sore points and special gifts. The same applies to that “white suburban police officer.”

I really, truly, do not want to see Donald Trump elected President of the United States. I have many reasons for feeling that way, not least because he is such an enthusiastic devotee of blame games and finger-pointing. However, I have dear friends, people I care for and respect, who very much hope that he will succeed. I could join the chorus of people who feel the way I do about Trump, who are declaiming loudly and clearly what fools and bigots his supporters are, and ignore the full humanity each of those supporters is bringing to the public arena. Or I can keep reminding myself what I learned from Terence: “Nothing human is strange to me.” This does not mean I shy away from seeing comparisons with the emergence of Fascism in 1920’s Europe or with the progressive degradation of civic life in Rome before the collapse of the empire.

Barbara Barg, a Facebook friend recently introduced the term “pro-people” into a discussion about how supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton talk and feel about each other. I like both the “pro-” part and the “people” part. Not so much about what we don’t want, what we fear or hate. Rather: What are we for? What do we want to see? What will we commit to? What kind of world do we hope to live in? Given that I cannot with integrity deny people I disagree with their “peopleness,” lest I start down the road to genocide in my mind, if not in practice; I must return again and again first to contemplating and then to advocating for the most “pro-people” way of participating in public life. Whether or not Trump, or Clinton, or Sanders, is elected.

We shall overcome.