Archive for category Values

Our Angels Outnumber our Demons

bostonbomb

Trust drives this world.

Think of it, you’re on a crowded expressway with numerous other cars darting between lanes at over 60 miles per hour.  You’re trusting that none of these drivers decides “ah, screw this” and spin out to cause a massive wreck.  If you cross a crowded street you trust that the cars will stop to let you cross.   When you’re at a major event with masses of people you trust that no one is going to try to turn that into an opportunity for mass murder and carnage.

Alas, sometimes that trust is broken.

It’s easy to lose oneself in the sorrow of the Boston bombings, especially the plight of eight year old Martin Richard, who was killed by the explosion as he was there to see his dad cross the finish line in the Boston Marathon.    The pictures are horrific – blood, lost limbs, people in agony, not believing how events are unfurling.   A day that is joyous – Marathon day, with a Red Sox game in the morning and a Bruins game at night – turns tragic.

Eight year old Martin Richard was one of the fatalities

Eight year old Martin Richard was one of the fatalities

Yet the news isn’t all bad.   In a tragedy the ability of humans to reach out to each other, help and often act heroically comes into focus, such as these inspiring images from Boston.    How people empathize, cry and feel a bond with the victims speaks to a core aspect of human nature:  we are connected.   We feel that connection.   Some people find themselves almost unable to function due to the pain caused by the suffering of others.   Some reach out to their loved ones, embracing the reality that they are healthy and together now, regardless of what the future may bring.

Think for a moment – what if it were reversed?  What if all those heroes and average folk who strive to help after an event were all willing to kill and destroy for the sake of some abstract cause?   What if all those who feel viscerally for the victims and are saddened by the events were supportive of murder and terror?    What kind of world would we have?

It’s natural to grieve for humanity at such a time.   The senseless violence, the ability of people to turn off their humanity and kill for some ideology or cause – what a sad world!   To that I say – not so fast!

If people were truly prone to senseless violence, this would happen all the time.   Crowds in sporting events, parade routes, marathons like this are common throughout the country.   Security is never adequate to prevent a determined attack.  It will happen when people are truly motivated to kill.   Yet it is rare.

Former Patriot Joe Andruzzi pitches in to help rescue the victims

Former Patriot Joe Andruzzi pitches in to help rescue the victims

Instead of grieving for humanity or donning a pessimistic view of the world, the fact that such an event stands out as an exception to the norm should cause us to recognize the deep bonds of social trust and connectivity that define our world.   The deaths are tragic – but how many of the 30,000 plus killed each year in traffic accidents are also children?  The fact that this kind of event is so rare says something powerful about the essential goodness of humanity.

Moreover, the way people come together, comfort, help and console shows that our angels far outnumber our demons.  Boston hospitals are turning away blood donors because so many volunteered.    So yes, grieve for the victims, let tears flow for the family that lost their son Martin, feel the sadness of Bostonians grappling with what this means for the city, but don’t become cynical.    Don’t cancel travel out of fear, don’t think that evil is common.   We notice the terror act, we should also notice how often we come together peacefully.

As we grieve for the victims we should celebrate our angels, whether first responders, people who care for and comfort the victims, blood donors and simply those of us who feel from a distance.   Our angels are everywhere, in broad daylight.  Our demons are few and hide in the shadows.    They do not define us.

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Sex and Love

sexlove

I’ve posted a lot about consumerism and the corrosive aspects it has on our culture and our ability to be happy.  Two articles I’ve read in the last couple days convince me that the problems underlying materialist consumerism are also influencing love and sex, and not in a positive way.

One story involves the growth of completely impersonal “hook ups” solely for sex, especially among young people.  It was a Wall Street Journal review of the book The End of Sex by Donna Freitas.   It isn’t that I morally condemn such promiscuity — it’s not for me but hey, everyone has to make their own choices.    It’s more that as Freitas notes, the “hookup culture” (which apparently 70% of college students admit to participating in) increases the risk of assault and abuse.   That comes from the impersonal nature of the encounters.

In the ‘hook up’ culture two people are supposed engage in sex totally devoid of emotional connection.   The other is just a body to be used for sexual gratification.   Freitas notes that this is using humans as a means to an end, rather than treating them as an end themselves.     Much of the time, especially with emotionally vulnerable young women, this puts them at real risk of abuse.

Perhaps more disturbing is that this emphasizes the mechanistic side of sex over the emotional or even spiritual.   If young people learn to see sex as nothing more than a pleasurable physical act, it may be hard to be open to intimacy — indeed, the “hook up culture” seems predicated on a dismissal of romantic and intimate love as naive.

This mirrors the way our materialist consumer culture focuses on “stuff” over values.   The spiritual and sublime aspects of human existence give way to a cold mechanistic view.    Approaches like Carl Jung’s intuitive and spiritual psychology are replaced by evolutionary biology, where humans are just mechanisms used by genes to try to keep the genome alive.   If there is only body and no soul, then love is just an illusion.

Look at our culture now – how easy it is for people to use others as means to their ends.   People cheat others, treat them unfairly, rationalize the obscene behavior of banks and mortgage companies during the real estate bubble, and look the other way when someone is suffering.   If we’re just stuff on a spiraling rock in space, then nothing matters.  Collect sexual encounters and material objects.   What else is there to life?

Consumerism and the hook up culture breed cynicism and a kind of despair – if there is no meaning, then there is only sensation.   But sensations get boring and thus more excitement is needed.   Without meaning the material can never truly satisfy.  Sexual encounters need to have more drama, consumers need to always buy more, and people live trying to fulfill  needs that cannot be met.   Not by the new Porsche, nor by the wild (and usually drunken) hook up.

The review said that the writer, a Religious Studies Professor, doesn’t condemn casual sex (though she spends two hundred pages detailing its corrosive effects) but argues instead for a more open, healthy view of sexuality.   And that leads me to the other article.

Allegheny College hosted in its chapel a talk “I heart the Female Orgasm” which included (from the previous link):

• An emphasis on individuals making sexual decisions that are right for them, including whether to use the information now or when married or in a serious relationship
• Analysis of the messages women receive about their bodies and sexuality from media, religion, families, and elsewhere.
• Body image, and the links between “befriending your body” and experiencing physical pleasure
• The value of learning how to say “no” to sex—and the problems college-age and adult women sometimes encounter when they realize that’s all they ever learned
• An opportunity to talk openly in same-gender groups during part of the program
• Female anatomy
• Tips for partners about being patient and respectful
• The problems with pressure to have an orgasm, to orgasm faster, to have multiple orgasms, to orgasm with a partner, to fake or not fake orgasms
• Answers to the most common questions about orgasm

This created a visceral reaction from some conservative commentators who accused Allegheny College of hosting a session on “how to masturbate.”   They said the talk was smut disguised as education, put on by the radical left to denigrate religious values.   The fact it was in the chapel got others riled up.

I could go on and on about what that says about the politics in play (is the next chapter of the ‘war on woman’ the ‘war against the female orgasm’), but I won’t.    I find the increasing openness to talk about sexuality refreshing – sex is universal, almost everyone wants it, and most people know very little about it.   The idea it is never to be talked about is irrational – something so important should be understood and discussed.   Now more than at any time in the past that is happening.

To me the best defense against the corrosive effects of the “hook up culture” is for people to learn about, understand and talk about their sexuality.    Sex is pervasive in the media, often in very unhealthy ways.   The messages given culturally tend to increase ignorance and misunderstanding, creating numerous problems such as low self-esteem, intolerance and fear.   Knowledge about ones’ sexuality – and an openness to talk – is power: Power to reject abuse by those who will manipulate the situation to treat people as objects.

Call me naive, but ultimately I believe the capacity not to see others as only a means to a sexual end makes true love possible.   Just as materialism devoid of spirit becomes a cold playground of things that cannot satisfy the hunger one has for more, sex devoid of love becomes a playground of momentary thrills without meaning.   And everything is better with meaning.

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The 2nd Inaugural Address

Obama is sworn in during a private ceremony on January 20, 2013

Obama is sworn in during a private ceremony on January 20, 2013

I have long felt that President Obama is destined to be remembered as one of the great Presidents in US history.   He came into office during a crisis, he is governing in a period of intense national and global transformation, and has true challenges to overcome.

In his second inaugural address President Obama made it very clear he’s not just looking to defend accomplishments of the past or stop Republicans from undermining social security or medicare.  Instead he made the case for moving forward, and tackling problems such as climate change, advancing causes like gay rights, and working to undo the slow deterioration of the middle class as wealth gets every more concentrated at the top.

Obama’s speech — and his re-election — might ultimately be remembered as the time when the US shifted from the path of deficits, tax reduction and distrust in government towards a new progressivism, rooted not in ideology but American values.

Abraham Lincoln is one of the few Presidents whose second inaugural address is more memorable than his first

Abraham Lincoln is one of the few Presidents whose second inaugural address is more memorable than his first

A few important snippets from Obama’s speech:

“For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.”

This is a clear indication that over the next four years the President isn’t just going to cut spending and/or raise taxes, but challenge Congress to rethink the core of our economic policies.   The path we’ve been on has lead to the most severe crisis since the Great Depression, and has left the middle class battered and bruised.  We must rethink economic conventional wisdom for an era of globalization.   Another:

“We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That is how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”

People have been bemoaning the lack of attention given by the President to an issue many consider the most important of our time – preserving the planet for coming generations by preparing for already evident climate change.  There is no reasonable way to deny human caused climate change.  There is a self-contained alternative narrative that tries to posit everything from scientists as being frauds to get government funds or cherry picked data, but even one time skeptics are admitting that the evidence is overwhelming.   Moreover, not acting will cause us to fall further behind the development of future technology.  Another:

Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.

inauguration

The President’s words, coming after a reminder of the message of Martin Luther King 50 years ago, makes gay rights just as important a civil rights issue as any.   Just as you don’t deny marriage, housing, service or care to people on the basis of color, the days are ending when bigotry against gays was tolerated because people thought there was “something wrong” with them.

Finally:

We cannot mistake absolutism for principle, or substitute spectacle for politics, or treat name-calling as reasoned debate. We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial, and that it will be up to those who stand here in four years, and forty years, and four hundred years hence to advance the timeless spirit once conferred to us in a spare Philadelphia hall.

A recognition that movement forward will often be slow, and in small steps.   That even if we set goals, we cannot get there unless we are pragmatic, and recognize that change builds over time.   Some activists see pragmatism or compromise as surrender, a violation of principle.  The President is telling those activists that’s not how our nation works.   We move slowly, and we always have.  Partial victories beget more partial victories, and with issues such as gay marriage change grows until it becomes inexorable.

President Obama has the chance to grab the mantel of greatness in his second term.   His vision is there, his leadership has been proven effective, and the country is in the midst of transformation.    I wish for him the wisdom to make the right call in ambiguous situations, to use the Presidency as a bully pulpit to continue to talk about American values, and to forge a path forward into the 21st century!

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The Voice Within

The idea that a new year represents rebirth, renewal and change is on its face silly.  Every day is a new day, the year is just a human construct, making days numbers and delineating them in an arbitrary fashion.  The idea that this is a time for resolutions and transformation is irrational – it’s just a new day, like every day.

Yet perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss that ideal of a new beginning.   Yes, every day is potentially a chance for rebirth and renewal, but usually we squander those opportunities, living hypnotized, following the same routines.  Instead of asking what would make life truly joyful, we check off our “to do” lists and take care of the mundane tasks at hand.

And that’s OK – life is a series of moments and we need to shop, cook, clean, work, and take of things that just need to be done.   Yet we can do those things thinking the mundane is life – that life is about making money, paying bills, achieving success and consuming products.  Or we can work through the mundane with a higher ideal in mind – happiness, love of both nature and others, and a sense of magic.  The world unfolds for us, we just have to trust it.

So my resolution for 2013 is simply to live awake.

To try every day to look out the window and see nature as magical and beautiful.  Not to get used to it or take it for granted. To feel blessed to live in foothills of western Maine, a place of pure beauty.   To be sure, the wide open plains of South Dakota, where I was last month visiting family, has its own magic and beauty as well.   Wherever one is, one key to living awake is not to take nature for granted.

To be true to myself.   We humans are our own worst enemies, we repress who we are, we say what we think others want to hear, we distrust our ability to simultaneously be true and be accepted.   We conform.   We decide that our dreams are silly or unobtainable.   We settle for a life less than we could have.

It’s not that we humans are stupid.   We settle because it’s comfortable.   It’s easy to conform, to go with what others want, to push aside youthful ambitions and dreams of happiness.   We replace those with stuff – or perhaps with societal approval of us as successful.   Prestige replaces joy.   To be normal is safe, to conform is to be comfortable.

And then we slowly stagnate.

Please read this “comic”.   It is a powerful comparison of two good women who choose different paths.    One was true to herself, one conformed.   The price of conformity isn’t always so high – and there is nothing wrong with being like others if one is at the same time true to oneself.

But too often we drown our inner voice and make choices out of fear of not fitting in or somehow missing out.  We fear lacking income, making others mad, or ending up alone.    Fear can’t guide life, to be truly happy one must be true to oneself.    We need to trust our conscience and inner voice, even when it goes against what most people seem to be thinking and doing.    And that is my resolution for 2013.   To live awake, to listen to the voice within, to live true to myself.

 

 

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Welcome 2013!

2013

The world did not end on December 21, 2012 and the country averted the so-called fiscal cliff.   But perhaps the end of the Mayan cycle does symbolize change:  the world has been on an unsustainable path and the direction is shifting.

Politically, the US is becoming more progressive.   Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama are both larger than life Presidents, disliked by their opponents but pragmatic.  Each compromised – Republicans forget the types of compromises Reagan made during his term – but focused on shifting the country’s direction.   Reagan succeeded – for thirty years taxes have been going down and the debt has been going up.   The growth in social welfare projects was halted, while social conservatism grew.

Those days are over.  With states rapidly approving gay marriage, drug laws shifting (remember the vindictive nineties when Newt Gingrich was advocating the death penalty for even selling pot?), and the internet creating a more open and tolerant public, the culture wars are over.   The social conservatives lost.  A new generation is emerging less repressed, less convinced by social conventions, more willing to experiment and be open.

Republican infighting grows as the nation shifts from center-right to center-left

Republican infighting grows as the nation shifts from center-right to center-left

With the fiscal cliff deal people accept that tax reform is necessary to bring more revenue and stop living beyond our means.   The only reason the debt’s gone up under Obama is the recession — something he didn’t create.   Recessions radically increase the cost of government programs, decrease tax revenues and require spending to stimulate the economy.   But Obama has signaled structural reform that will turn around the budget mess, even if the results won’t be clear until the economy is growing.

Until recently concern about global warming was losing support in public polls.   That’s turned around.   Things like Sandy, droughts, and historically high temperatures are convincing the public this is an issue.   A generation of children are coming of age who learned environmentalism and science in the schools.  Environmental activism is becoming cool again.

Beyond that the fossil fuel era is ending.   Despite promising finds of natural gas and tar sands, global consumption has been rising fast and new finds will not be enough — though they make the transition easier if we are proactive.   Saudi Arabia is past its peak and likely to become an oil importer by 2030.    Right now the recession has kept oil prices low, but even with the world in the economic doldrums oil is near $100 a barrel.  If growth returns, oil prices will rise dramatically.

Even with oil sands and fracking for natural gas, the fossil fuel era is ending

Even with oil sands and fracking for natural gas, the fossil fuel era is ending

Luckily, led by the EU, the rise of green technology is dramatic.   Still, higher energy costs will force a shift in life styles.  I doubt it will be the collapse predicted by some, but the days of cheap energy are ending.

The biggest shift is in technology.   Social media and the internet started a revolution in the Arab world that will take years to play itself out.   Those who think this is bad – or could have been prevented – are sorely mistaken.   The regimes relying on fear and bureaucratic control are going to find that people are becoming informed and empowered, able to rise up.    This started back in 1989 with the fall of Communism in Europe, but will grow and spread.

Even in Africa, where a genocide in 1994 and numerous wars involving some of the worst atrocities of recent history went unnoticed, a new activism is emerging.   Though Kony 2012 faded, the connections people are making across borders make it likely that over the next few decades the African continent will have a rebirth.  They own many of the scarce resources that the rest of the world needs; corrupt dictators are starting to fall.

Old political notions of sovereignty, national self-interest, and fear based policies are slowly giving way to interdependence, shared interests and hope.   The world is waking up, change is coming.   It will not be easy, there may be decades of instability and uncertainty before we see a better reality.    But a new world is coming.

The biggest barrier to peaceful change are those who cling to old ways of thinking – fear, anger, greed, self-interest at the expense of others, and a ‘them vs. us’ mentality.    The old mentality will not work in the world that’s emerging, and following the path of fear will yield crisis and conflict.    But change is coming, yesterday has past, now let’s all start living for the one that’s going to last.

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The Spirit of Sandy

Make "Sandy" a word meaning action

Make “Sandy” a word meaning action

With all due respect to those of you out there named Sandy, the destruction of hurricane Sandy and the trauma of the Sandy Hook shootings cause me to think maybe “Sandy” should become a word to embrace.   The “spirit of Sandy” should be a call to action in defiance of the odds, a motivation to make fundamental changes to our world to make it a better place.

“Sandy” may seem like a nominal link between two tragedies, best left unnoticed.  I disagree,  I propose to turn it into a word of change and transformation.   For example, the “spirit of Sandy”  is seen in the actions of Sandy Hook teacher Vicki Soto, who died while trying to save her students from the crazed killer.   She had told friends the day before she loved her 16 “angels.”  On the day of the killing she hid them in the closets and told the gunman her kids were having class in the gym.  He shot and killed her.   Her angels survived.

Vicki Soto, hero, displayed the "spirit of Sandy"

Vicki Soto, hero, displayed the “spirit of Sandy”

These tragedies point to two issues that threaten our children’s future: climate change and violence.  I’m not ready to make Sandy Hook primarily about guns.  Yes, our level of gun violence is so much higher than any other industrialized state that anyone saying guns aren’t a cause can’t be taken seriously.   We also have high levels of accidental gun death, recently I read about a three year old shooting himself.

Yet here in Maine we have lots and lots of guns.   We are very safe.   If I forget to lock the door, I don’t worry.  If I see a guy with a rifle walking along the road, chances are he’s clothed in orange and looking for deer or whatever is in season.  It’s about the kind of weapons available, and also about mental health, our culture, and our attitudes.  To turn this into a question of gun control is to belittle it.  We need to look more fully at what kind of society we have become.

We need to embrace the spirit of Sandy.   (Hey, Steven Colbert started a word with Truthiness, maybe I can do this with “the spirit of Sandy”!)  Ask difficult questions, change course, try to bring our culture to a better place.  Compromise on gun control, improve mental health awareness and support, and display the “spirit of Sandy” with acts of kindness.

Strange weather

Strange weather

Hurricane Sandy needs to open our eyes to the real problem of climate change.   There is every reason to do something.  While the US has dithered, the Europeans have not only met the Kyoto Accord targets, but proved that it not only didn’t hurt their economy to do so, but it gave them a leap forward on green technology.

Climate change is real.  Islands in the South Pacific are sinking, some are signing agreements for population transfers in the coming years.  Yet in the US big money wants to try to obfuscate, hide the science, raise questions, and stymie political action.

Sandy must mean courage – we need the “spirit of Sandy” to recognize that the world we give our children requires on making wise and courageous judgments today.

The spirit of Sandy is the spirit of liberty

The spirit of Sandy is the spirit of liberty

The “spirit of Sandy” must entail the courage to confront issues that were deemed too hard or controversial.  Not to choose the path of least resistance, but the path of change and transformation.

We’re on the edge of a new century.  Technology is changing rapidly, our world is in motion.  The problems that confront us can’t be solved with the old thinking of self interest, us vs. them, and fear of difference.   The spirit of Sandy is to embrace new thinking: us with them, and an embrace of difference!

The tragedies that came in the latter half of 2012 don’t have to be seen as meaningless.    These can awaken us to a better future.   Change is difficult.  Transformation requires sacrifice.   But with the “spirit of Sandy” we can work towards a better future for our children.

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Reflections

Off from the backyard

Off from the backyard

The snow is beautiful here in rural Maine.  The trees seem magical with a white icing, deer tracks visible on the ground, the dull brown colors of early winter given way to a crystal beauty.

Of course, I have to get the snow blower out and the roads are a bit slick.   Cancellations alter the routine and force schedule changes.   Some people complain about the snow and its inconveniences.  Better to live in Florida or California, away from all this!

Life is like that.  Seen from one perspective it’s magical, full of synchronicity, opportunities and beauty.    We reach out and we find friends.   We cry and are comforted.   From another perspective life is a burden.   Children are gunned down in schools, corporations run roughshod over common folk, people break hearts, lie and hurt.

I try to focus on the magical, but the mundane drags me down.

I wonder if I’ve lived my life up until now fooling myself.  I see the beauty, I understand how perspective shapes our reality, I have a grasp of the underlying spiritual truth of existence.  Yet I haven’t lived it.  I’ve lived a bit afraid, too addicted to comfort, comfortable even with boredom.

The wide comfortable path

The wide comfortable path

I’ve not lived a life as full as I could because it was easy not to.   The path of least resistance is enticing.  It may be boring, unsatisfying on many levels, but full of distractions and easy to travel.    Moreover, since so many of us enjoy that path, it’s socially acceptable.    Take the path of least resistance and others nod and approve.  It validates their choice of that same path, we’re all in this together.

There is another path, through the woods, unshoveled and unmarked.   The soul tries to lure us to this path, it contains richness that the path of least resistance does not.   It leads to a life of meaning, but it is risky.   The thorny weeds are all around, the snow is deep.   There is uncertainty.

A path into the woods...

A path into the woods…

We question our soul.   Is this really the path to take?   The other is cleared and easy.   This one requires risk.   The soul says in clear uncertain terms that to achieve true happiness you have to run from safety and be completely true to yourself.   The path of least resistance is the path of conformity.  It is living small, but living comfortably.

The snow falls, the ice piles up on my jacket.  The wind hits my face, a raw wind.   The wind is harsher on the path my soul wants me to take, there are shelters on the path of least resistance.

“It’s worth it,” my soul whispers.  “You don’t know where it leads, or what’s beyond the next bend, but if you are true to yourself life has more value than it ever could if you simply go with the flow.”

“Come on,” friends yell from the path of least resistance.    They’re heading towards a shelter, warm and comfortable.   They seem bored, but there are distractions – games, contests, and comfort.   Who needs meaning, who needs risk, who needs to listen to the soul?   Just go with the flow, relax, unwind, watch the tube, get old and die.   Meaning?   Who needs it?

Yet the soul beckons.   What is life if you live it just to find some comfort and then die?   Why exist if it’s just to distract oneself from boredom and be part of the crowd?    Death awaits in any event.   What’s the point?   What if I want more, what if I want to follow my soul, even if it means risk and uncertainty?

Those on the path of least resistance laugh.  “There is no meaning,” they insist.  “You live, you die.   Avoid pain and discomfort, don’t take any risks.   If you’re lucky enough to be able to glide through, you’ve won!   Why take risks, that would be foolish.”

I stand and look, and realize that I am a fool.    And that is good.   I turn towards the risky path, wave to my friends and say, “I’ll see you around, but I’ve got to go explore.”

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