One Holiday, Two Americas: Memorial Day Thoughts

Some of our fathers and brothers, even our sisters and aunts, served in wartime. Some serve now. Perhaps you too.

Today is the day we honor the fallen in all the many conflicts of this, our country.

Can two Americas fit into a holiday designed for one?

Thus do the two Americas array themselves: those for whom service is a calling and those for whom it is an economic necessity; those powerful and those without prospects; those respected and those afraid; those with fat wallets and those with empty purses; the few who are part of our volunteer army and the majority who choose not to be.

When my father did his duty in World War II, walking the Champs-Élysées on the first Bastille Day after the liberation of Paris, there was such a thing as military conscription: able bodied young men were required to participate. In post-war Germany, as part of the occupying Allied forces, he related the following in an October 19, 1945 letter to my mother:

We have two colored boys in our convoy who were carrying our postal equipment. When we went to supper … the Sargent who ran the mess hall made them eat in a separate room. The colored boys were fighting mad for which I can blame them little. I complained about this treatment to the mess Sargent, who said that the First Sargent made the rule. I went to the latter and told him off plenty (my dad was a Staff Sargent). His answer was that I didn’t have to eat in the mess hall either if I didn’t like the rules.

So this is for what we fight. I finally talked to the colored boys and pacified them somewhat.

Some of us thought we were beyond the racial animus of a time 70 years past. Not just the discrimination, but the idea of discrimination. Still, no matter our domestic troubles, we must honor the fallen. My father, who served but did not die in service, would be troubled at our regression; yet he would honor the fallen, as we all should, amid the burgers and bratwurst and beer we inhale today. In this, at least, we can still be one country, even if the ritual unites us only for a few hours.

I wrote some of this seven years ago. Other parts are new:

If you are unhappy about the polarization of our society, think about the differences institutionalized by the volunteer army’s creation. However much good was achieved by the elimination of conscription, surely the absence of shared sacrifice contributes to the ease with which we oppose our fellow-citizens.

No longer does the USA pull together in the way possible during World War II, “the Good War.” In part, “the Good War” was good because enough people believed in the values for which the USA fought, knowing their children, husbands, and brothers would defend those same values with their lives; and it was good because those at home (regardless of class) shared in the rationing of goods, the terror of having loved ones in harm’s way, the heartache of their absence, and a preoccupation with the daily progress of the conflict.

The soldiers shared something more, and more widely than the smaller fighting force of today. Men of different religions, regional accents, political opinions, and ethnicities depended on each other for their survival and discovered the “other” could be depended on, laughed at the same jokes, and partook of the common fear and dedication all brought to the war effort. Even though military segregation deprived brave blacks and Japanese Americans of the opportunity for such camaraderie except with men of the same color, the nation benefited from the portion permitted. The soldiers benefited by the love and mutual reliance of those in the same foxhole. Our fathers and grandfathers were woven together in a way we are not today.

These thoughts occurred to me as I listened (on CD) to the book Final Salute by Pulitzer Prize winning author Jim Sheeler. The volume is about the officers who inform families they have lost a loved one; and of the families who suffer the unspeakable pain of the death of a son, a husband, a wife, a brother, or a sister; a dad or a mom.

Several families become your acquaintances in this narrative, as well as the warriors — the Marines — who died serving our country. And you will get to know Major Steve Beck, a Marine who delivers a message nearly as shattering as the projectile that killed their loved one.

Major Beck and the Marines live by the creed of leaving no comrade behind. Consistent with this value, Major Beck leaves no family behind, providing comfort and support long after the knock on the door that changes everything, creating a “before and after” without end.

I wish I had the words to convey what is in this book. I don’t. I only will say it is plainly written, eloquent in its simplicity, aching in its beauty, profound in its impact. It does not make melodrama of what is already poignant enough. Rest assured you will contemplate war, any war, differently after reading Final Salute; unless, of course, you are a member of the “other America,” the one fighting the wars and sending its loved ones into conflict. If you belong to the bereft group within this group, then there is nothing here you do not already know at a level too deep for words.

To those who have lost just such a one as the young men portrayed in Final Salute, I can only give my condolences to you and your kin.

We — those of us in the non-fighting America, those of us for whom the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are abstractions — perhaps remain too comfortable, detached from something of desperate importance: the duty done far from home in our stead by the children of other people. And removed and distant from how the “best and brightest” of their families risk and sometimes give up everything they hold dear.

For such families, the human cost never fully goes away, for there is no inoculation against the plague of war, nor any cure.

They are out there, these inhabitants of “the other America.”

We walk past them unaware …

Once a year we give their departed a day of remembrance, if that’s what you call taking an extra day off from work, singing the National Anthem, looking at the maimed soldiers standing at attention, and then forgetting why we sang before our bottoms touch the seats. The words “play ball,” don’t quite capture a sentiment of honor or atonement, do they?

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All the images above are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. 1. “Vice Admiral Scott Swift, Director of Navy Staff holds Savannah Wriglesworth of Bowie, Maryland during a group photo with families of the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) before taking a tour at the Pentagon May 23, 2014. The children of fallen U.S. service members toured the Pentagon seeing different exhibitions from the Navy, Army, Marine Corps and Air Force including Klinger the horse. Klinger has served at more than 5,000 military funerals and has a book published about him called “Klinger: A Story of Honor and Hope” and is often a warm and comforting face for the children to see when making their final good-byes.” (Department of Defense photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo). 2. and 3. The work of Allstrak. 4. “Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt looks on during the singing of the National Anthem before his squad’s Memorial Day Major League Baseball matchup against the San Diego Padres at Chase Field in Phoenix, May 26, 2014. U.S. Marine Corps Sgt. Brandon Kidd, right, was on hand to represent the United States Marine Corps during pre-game dedications.” (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Sgt. Tyler J. Bolken).

What a Woman Wants of Love

I would be presumptuous to tell you what a woman wants from a man (or any romantic partner) in the way of love. But I told you my intentions in the title and I do not mean to disappoint. Moreover, the description of such love will come from another man — just as doubtful a source as I.

I have it on good authority that this other man, Wendell Berry, should be trusted. High praise of Mr. Berry’s insight comes from a wise and lovely lady named Priscilla, who told me (and several of her friends and classmates) Berry got it right. The class includes a number of the Ms., Miss, and Mrs. persuasion, including the instructor. There was no dissenting opinion from even one of them.

Berry’s conception of amour comes from his 1971 poem, The Country of Marriage. As the poet says, “love is always too much.” And later, “We enter, willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.” I find the last three stanzas especially touching.

I’ll be interested to hear what you think.

If your partner doesn’t understand what you want, you can always hand him the poem. If, on the other hand, you are pursuing a female and wish to know her heart of hearts, the verse offers you a lesson in love:

The Country of Marriage

I.

I dream of you walking at night along the streams
of the country of my birth, warm blooms and the nightsongs
of birds opening around you as you walk.
You are holding in your body the dark seed of my sleep.

II.

This comes after silence. Was it something I said
that bound me to you, some mere promise
or, worse, the fear of loneliness and death?
A man lost in the woods in the dark, I stood
still and said nothing. And then there rose in me,
like the earth’s empowering brew rising
in root and branch, the words of a dream of you
I did not know I had dreamed. I was a wanderer
who feels the solace of his native land
under his feet again and moving in his blood.
I went on, blind and faithful. Where I stepped
my track was there to steady me. It was no abyss
that lay before me, but only the level ground.

III.

Sometimes our life reminds me
of a forest in which there is a graceful clearing
and in that opening a house,
an orchard and garden,
comfortable shades, and flowers
red and yellow in the sun, a pattern
made in the light for the light to return to.
The forest is mostly dark, its ways
to be made anew day after day, the dark
richer than the light and more blessed,
provided we stay brave
enough to keep on going in.

IV.

How many times have I come to you out of my head
with joy, if ever a man was,
for to approach you I have given up the light
and all directions. I come to you
lost, wholly trusting as a man who goes
into the forest unarmed. It is as though I descend
slowly earthward out of the air. I rest in peace
in you, when I arrive at last.

V.

Our bond is no little economy based on the exchange
of my love and work for yours, so much for so much
of an expendable fund. We don’t know what its limits are–
that puts us in the dark. We are more together
than we know, how else could we keep on discovering
we are more together than we thought?
You are the known way leading always to the unknown,
and you are the known place to which the unknown is always
leading me back. More blessed in you than I know,
I possess nothing worthy to give you, nothing
not belittled by my saying that I possess it.
Even an hour of love is a moral predicament, a blessing
a man may be hard up to be worthy of. He can only
accept it, as a plant accepts from all the bounty of the light
enough to live, and then accepts the dark,
passing unencumbered back to the earth, as I
have fallen tine and again from the great strength
of my desire, helpless, into your arms.

VI.

What I am learning to give you is my death
to set you free of me, and me from myself
into the dark and the new light. Like the water
of a deep stream, love is always too much. We
did not make it. Though we drink till we burst
we cannot have it all, or want it all.
In its abundance it survives our thirst.
In the evening we come down to the shore
to drink our fill, and sleep, while it
flows through the regions of the dark.
It does not hold us, except we keep returning
to its rich waters thirsty. We enter,
willing to die, into the commonwealth of its joy.

VII.

I give you what is unbounded, passing from dark to dark,
containing darkness: a night of rain, an early morning.
I give you the life I have let live for the love of you:
a clump of orange-blooming weeds beside the road,
the young orchard waiting in the snow, our own life
that we have planted in the ground, as I
have planted mine in you. I give you my love for all
beautiful and honest women that you gather to yourself
again and again, and satisfy–and this poem,
no more mine than any man’s who has loved a woman.

Wendell Berry, from “The Country of Marriage: Poems”

All the images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons, beginning with The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. A Kiss between Bride and Groom is the work of Bleiglass, followed by Hands Free of Takuma Kimura. Finally comes The Kiss by Bernardien Sternheim.

Dying to be Seen, but Afraid to be Seen: Where Insecurity and Invisibility Meet

The quiet ones envy those who are sociable. Not always, but often. They wish for an ease of contact which is not theirs. Too many hunger for understanding, for a kind person to recognize them, accept them; even love them. They are dying to be seen, but afraid to be seen.

Anonymity is the preferred choice. Many escape to the shadows, at least if they can.

Don’t raise your hand, says Mr. Anxiety, even if you have the right answer. Too risky. Your voice might quiver, your hand might shake, and there could be a follow-up question which leaves you speechless.

The insecure ones make a trade. They take the apparent safety of invisibility at the price of being ignored, misunderstood, or quickly forgotten. They leave no mark on the world, hoping to avoid criticism and ostracism. Better to take yourself out of the competition for attention than be told to go away. Of course, you wind up alone, but you persuade yourself this is better than rejection.

Instead of belittlement you opt for the shrubbery, hiding behind the bushes. True, sometimes you get wet when the lawn sprinklers go on. Occasionally a kid throws a ball that hits you or a dog sprays you, but you get used to it.

Group conversations are the worst. When might I jump in? My face will flush. They’ll think I’m an idiot, too boring. I’ll just sit tight or stand and nurse my drink.

Who would have thought a man could dive into his glass, hide behind its opacity? Or imbibe enough to shed his disguise and turn into a more outgoing, confident version of himself?

Once you sober up, you will still be like a person with a fire inside who is afraid of venting a smoke signal. The result? You are consumed from within and your glorious flame is unnoticed.

Mark Twain said, “The man who does not read has no advantage over the man who cannot read.” Change two words and the sentence becomes: the man who does not speak has no advantage over the man who cannot speak. Will you be thought of as the latter? Are you already?

Or have you become someone who is told what he thinks, afraid of challenging a rude or wrong idea? You will be outdone by those with half your intellect. They, the half-brained, are kings and queens in the land of the mute.

You remain unknown, even if others think they’ve sized you up. Many believe you are stuck-up because you avoid them. Some say you are kind, several imagine you lack “personality,” others reckon you stupid, a few timid: an easy mark to be pushed around. Most strangers form no opinion. Not one of them will be completely right, know the whole package. You won’t even be seen in full by yourself.

Your attempt to vanish is exhausting. The task is like running a race, trying to escape the eyes of others, but distancing yourself from yourself. If all escape routes close you will grab your throat and squeeze, stifle your emotions and ideas so as not to offend anyone.

Do you wish asphyxiation by your own hands?

I hear you gagging.

Do I know you? Not completely. But I’ve seen you and I might have been you a long time ago.

It wasn’t fun.

It’s not as if everyone else is completely visible. No one is. One might display an eyebrow or an ankle, even a heart: that most precious portion of ourselves when offered as a present. Such a one is trying, practicing, gathering momentum.

A gradual path toward self revelation can grow on you.

In the end, however, if you are seen but unseen, dying to be seen but afraid to be seen, you should realize something: you cannot be both.

You must choose or remain in torment.

The therapist’s door is waiting, but even there you can try to be invisible.

A pity.

Counselors, you understand, don’t do their best work blindfolded.

The top image is a photo of the cover of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. The cover was illustrated by Ludvik Strimpl and the photo taken by Gallica/Sudoc. The image was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Is Religion Necessary for Morality?

Therapists hear many opinions from their patients. Such beliefs are not always the focus treatment or what the client came to work on. They simply “appear” in the course of conversation. One of those ideas, quite common, has to do with religion. On numerous occasions my clients mentioned, unprompted, that a religious upbringing was essential to raising “moral” children. Without the guidance of a perfect, all-good, all-powerful being, the successful raising of an upright person was hard for them to imagine.

Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th century German philosopher, disagreed. So did moral theorists like Immanuel Kant.

Schopenhauer thought religion clouds our capacity for rationality. According to him, early religious training creates an intellectual blind spot persisting throughout life. We then become susceptible to accepting ideas “on faith” instead of reason. Our dispassionate, analytic abilities are crippled, in Schopenhauer’s view. Childhood religious indoctrination requires us to “believe” (lest God punish us either now or in the hereafter) rather than search for truth with whatever logical tools and evidence we can muster.

Early acceptance of miracles and supernatural beings were, to Schopenhauer, the beginning of a path to intellectual and behavioral ruin. He feared religious education would hamper our ability to separate truth from falsehood. Bad behavior, excused by our confused thought process, was considered another potential consequence of a religion-created blindness.

Schopenhauer offered ancient Athens, the city-state of Plato and Aristotle, as a counter example: a moral community not produced by religion and one he thought functioned better because of its absence.

Athens was a genuine democracy: all the citizens voted on every important issue (as opposed to representative governments in which individuals are elected to do the actual voting in legislative bodies like the U.S. Congress). Schopenhauer argued that religion did not exist in Athens in the period to which he refers. Yes, there were gods and some people made sacrifices to them; but no organized, regular religious services were observed with a formal priestly hierarchy and a carefully prescribed method of worship. Nor did religious documents exist (like the Bible or Koran) or any “inspired” list of good and bad behavior similar to The Ten Commandments. Yet, Schopenhauer reminds us that laws were respected, justice was important, civility was maintained, and philosophical schools like Plato’s extraordinary Academy flourished. The question of the good life and how best to lead it was discussed among educated citizens.

At this point you might complain about the lack of rights for women in ancient Athens or the slavery prevalent there. Do remember, however, equality of the sexes is a relatively new issue despite over 2000 years of Christianity. Moreover, the Confederacy during the U.S Civil War justified the hideous institution of slavery by reference to its presence in the Bible. Nor is slavery condemned in that book.

Schopenhauer believed compassion, not religion, contributed to moral conduct, and such compassion was in man’s nature (making religion unnecessary). Indeed, the ability to identify with our fellow-man seems in short supply these days, whatever the cause. The more closely we identify with the superiority of our national, racial, or religious group, the more we are at risk of excluding feelings of sympathy for those who don’t share our nationality, skin color, or faith.

Immanuel Kant, an earlier German philosopher, argued for a different (but still secular) foundation for morality: the categorical imperative. Kant recommended we each ask a question when evaluating our behavior: should my personal moral standards be made into a universal law — a requirement and duty for everyone without exception, or, as he called it, a categorical imperative. Additionally, in considering our answer, he would remind us to respect the dignity of our fellow-man simply because he is human. “Using” others is therefore immoral.

For example, if sexual fidelity and honesty are deemed proper, they must be required of everyone in all circumstances. Adultery, by contrast, however much you believe it would be in your self-interest, would be of no moral value; because proper action is not a matter of how much you might profit from it, but rather, a duty to what is good in itself.

Let’s say you are unfaithful, steal, lie, and break promises. Are you prepared to give permission for everyone to act the same way against you and everyone else? If not, he would argue you have exposed the moral failing of your own behavior.

These thinkers make demands on us to consider whether what we do is justifiable by a process of reason: to look in the mirror at who we are, beyond any religious rule we follow.

Clearly, whether religion is essential to implant the seed of a life-long moral rootedness, one can argue it provides many other things, including a sense of comfort, order, and hopefulness in the most fraught moments of life, as well as a supportive and congenial community of fellow-believers.

The question remains, however, whether there is something Schopenhauer and Kant are missing in their quest for moral grounding, beyond these potential benefits of faith. Do you believe religion provides some necessary ethical guidance for our children that these men miss?

I look forward to your thoughts on the subject.

The top image is Man Praying at a Japanese Shinto Shrine. It is the work of Kalandrakas and sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The Question Mark is sourced from the Monroeville Community Website.

A Different Form of Bravery

Most of us don’t think of ourselves as brave. We are not the kinds of heroes found in movies, wartime, or a burning building rescue. Yet one must become the hero of his own story. The reason is simple: there is no one else to do the job. If you are a supporting actor in the movie of your life, audition for a better part.

The clock never stops and opportunities, inevitably, diminish with age. Time still offers chances to change, to try, to dare, but we are captured by long-standing routines. One might say we have traveled the same rut for too long, the furrow deepening with each step. To get out we must climb a wall of earth with strength thought lost.

By 65, the age of my friend Keith Miller, some are already retired. But Keith had at least one more hurdle, one waiting for him over 40 years. Such youthful aspirations are patient, sitting quietly in the back of life’s class, hoping for attention, never raising a hand.

Long ago Keith attended a conservatory and took classes in conducting. He even conducted a chamber group a bit back then, more recently a stint leading a community band, no strings. Keith can’t be called a professional musician, though he has taught piano. The insurance company at which he works as a top-tier technical support analyst is not a wellspring of conductors.

Nevertheless, he had the nerve to apply to the International Masterclasses Berlin, where he would reside for six days in March; and, if he survived, lead the Berlin Sinfonietta in one movement of a romantic masterpiece. Keith was one of 11 students from Belgium, Germany, Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Argentina and the USA;  some working conductors with their own ensembles. Almost all were at least 30 years younger than my friend.

But, this is Keith’s story and he needs to tell it:

Packing my luggage for Berlin, I carried expectations, too. Not only from years of listening, but by studying the scores in the months before the masterclass: three symphonies by Brahms, Schubert and Schumann.

This was, after all, my inauguration into the world of orchestral conducting. Sleep medication was the only way to calm my bedtime energy. Most of the anticipation came from the unknown, all that is not in the musical score:

How might the maestro react to my lack of experience? How would I fit, being the oldest student? What of the orchestra’s cooperation and opinion? Would I make good music?

The first rehearsal generated the natural nervousness, heart-palpitations too, but also an internal reminder, “I can do this.” Maestro Shambadal’s steely eyes focused on me. The maestro, Principal Conductor of the Berlin Symphony, was born in Israel and studied with many “greats” including Giulini, Markevitch and Celibidache.

After a few deep breaths I began Schumann’s 4th Symphony. Quickly came a loud clap. The orchestra stopped. Maestro yelled from the back of the room, “It begins on the 3rd beat!” I made the correction and got through ¾ of the first movement before my time was up. A few other stoppages occurred for matters of technique and interpretation. I reminded myself I’d come for just such instruction.

I realized I needed to improve. My desire for the maestro’s approval quickened. The ensemble’s response to my leadership lacked enthusiasm and I knew it.

Three more rehearsals followed and group evaluations, as well, before the concert at which we would all perform. We reviewed videos of the 11 conductors, mine included.

Ugh! My posture was terrible. I looked like a bent old man. Maestro alluded to the same thing. I worked on straightening up, without which I couldn’t communicate command and authority. Here, perhaps, was the explanation for my initial failure to elicit what I wanted from the musicians.

I was selected to conduct the second movement of Schubert’s 8th Symphony at the concert. I marked the top of every page of my score with three words:

POSTURE. TEMPO. RELAX.

Keith worked with an experienced orchestra, many of the musicians retired members of the Berlin Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Symphony and regional orchestras, along with younger instrumentalists.

Hundreds of years of accumulated experience face a newbie. Some such ensembles take pride in being able to size up a conductor in minutes, and tear him down in less time. Or ignore him and give “their” version of the piece. Still, each player has a job to do: taking the conductor’s vision as achieved in rehearsal, and making the black notes on white paper sing. Keith learned the conductor’s job, too:

His score holds all the notes, every instrumental line on the same page: dizzying to see, much less read while everything is happening in front of him. There is no opportunity to search the lines, the musicians’ faces, and be the director, too. Without an instrument, armed only with certainty, the knowledge of everyone’s role, and his ability to persuade and inspire, he must make something old into something new.

Concert time at last.

Striding up to the podium I was confident and enthusiastic. I brought along a week’s education.

I led with warmth, lyricism, and the dark drama there in the score. The players were spot on: tempo, dynamics and music-making.

What was experience like? The most exhilarating of my life.

I turned and bowed to the audience. Smiles all around. When I asked the orchestra to stand, I saw many smiles among them, as well. I shook the first violinist’s hand and received one word enthusiastically delivered: “Bravo!” The first cellist gave me a hearty thumbs-up.

My mind was captured by one idea.

“I want to do this again and again!”

The previous conductor and I gave each other a big hug. Later, an audience member said the maestro was watching me with full attention and nodding (not nodding off!), as if to say “very good!” After the concert, he congratulated everyone.

Returning to my hotel after a celebratory dinner, I sat at the edge of the bed and cried. All of the emotion and memories, the anticipation and fulfillment, overtook me. Once composed, I began to pack for the trip home.

Courage takes many forms. Sometimes it is simply making the music that is in you, waiting to be made. Taking a risk, not asking permission.

As Oliver Wendell Holmes said:

Alas for those that never sing,
But die with all their music in them.

Here is a man who made his music:


Becoming a Traitor to Yourself

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

So begins Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But these words apply to more of us than the black protagonist of his novel. A careful reader will recognize how many psychotherapy bloggers are quick to condemn themselves. They define themselves as terrible human beings, inconsiderate and selfish. They believe their resentments should neither be felt nor displayed. A “better” person would be kinder, forgiving, more generous. Their unhappiness is taken as a commentary on their value, a failing grade in the class of life.

You will see them marching voluntarily to the world’s slag heap of unnecessary and misshapen things, beyond repair or redemption. They say, in effect, “If you wish to find me you must dig deep in a landfill, where I belong.” I asked one, in light of her self-assignment to the discard pile of life, how then she might describe herself if she were a spouse abuser or terrorist. These are far worse human behaviors than she’d reported and, it seemed to me, her self-condemnation went too far.

Here was a lady who sprinted to the local lumber yard, bought some wood, constructed a cross, and nailed herself to her destiny. To my mind, the bowels of hell (if such exist) are occupied by a group to which she doesn’t belong. They’d laugh if she requested admission.

I might have said, “Get off the cross, we need the wood.”

We can, in just this type of self-punishment, turn traitor to ourselves. I’m not suggesting anyone is perfect. But few of us are so unworthy that we must become our own dartboard. We bleed enough at the hands of fate without offering ourselves as a pin cushion. Some of us have been assigned a shape not our own. Life seems inauthentic. We must reform ourselves, shed the shape assigned, and work to improve it.

First, however, we must buy a new flashlight, stand in a new place, and look with new eyes.

Ellison’s fictional young man sought answers about a path forward. He wished to know who he was. The earnest fellow thought it best to ask others wiser and older. No flashlights for him.

Asked or not, those others give us our first sense of self by what they say and do. Their kindness suggests we are worthy. If they blame us we might think we are not. If they offer false gods, we get a counterfeit sense of what life is or “should” be. We are in the dark.

Ellison’s protagonist tells us he was indoctrinated for 20 years and needed another 20 to achieve self-awareness: to throw-off the self-destructive beliefs he had about himself and the nature of the world. Where can you go to find out whether you are as awful as you think, assuming you don’t like yourself?

Some begin by questioning the most basic assumptions they have. These include whether authority figures are usually right. Which authority figures?

All of them: your parents, government officials, best friends, clergy, and spouse are not exempt. The ones in power and the ones who want it. The pretenders and their defenders. The crowd and the solitary man. The critics and the critics’ critics, the know-nothings and the do-nothings, the show horses and the work horses. Include your therapist, too.

Even your God.

What do I mean? If you have been shamed and demeaned or neglected, especially in your early life, such treatment came from those on this list. If you accept their judgment then you internalize the guilty verdict on your character and talent. You will judge yourself as they have, carrying their voice, now your own, inside you. Indeed, if even a house of God is the source of repeated reminders of the indelible blackness in your heart, a religious book can become a cudgel to beat you with.

Worse still, believing them, you will continue to seek their “wisdom” and approval; desiring a possible reconsideration of your character since their magnetic attraction remains powerful. Or, you may search for others like them, those who claim they are only doing this (injury to you) “for your own good;” in effect, redefining harm as “caring.”

Here is the first bit of “fake news” we receive in life, making us vulnerable to those who offer us — their sheep — a caring hand that will instead shear us of the goods we own and the belief in our own goodness. These “wrong choices” of association with “wrong” people depend on the magnetism they share with those who began our “wrong” indoctrination.

Their magic only disappears when you recognize who they really are; and, who you really are.

Some authority figures deserve to pass the test. Others do not, nor should you return to them. You may be scared to be without their shoddy shelter. The security you believe they offer, however, is an illusion. You can only get out and get away.

All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naive. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

The first painting is George Hooker’s The Subway (1950). The second is the work of Tetsya Ishida: The Servitude and Deforming of the Salary Man.

The Music of Catastrophe

If music means something important to us, our contact with a new person finds us trying to discover what musical loves we might share. Thus do friendship and romance begin.

In a world where isolated suffering comes easily, music, like some of the other arts, reveals we have much company in our emotional distress.

Songs add language to instrumental expression, making them more precise in meaning than purely instrumental music. Vocal composition is literally sung to words, but there is just as much of the human experience in the more abstract forms, even if a symphony is not so easily identified with the particular circumstance (say, a broken heart) described in lyrics.

Sound offers solace if a composition reaches the tender, injured place inside. Few pieces, however, deal with cataclysm and collapse. To my ears, one of those is the Symphony #4, the last such work of German composer Johannes Brahms.

Brahms was a life-long bachelor from Hamburg, who died in 1897. He achieved recognition early and much success afterwards. The major unhappiness of his life was his unfulfilled romantic attachment to Clara Schumann, 14 years his senior; the widow of the man who first recognized his genius, the composer Robert Schumann. Some believe their age difference, his virtual adoption by the couple, and the shadow of Brahms’s indebtedness to her late husband made the consummation of his ardor impossible. Brahms’s final symphony reveals he knew much about human calamity, whatever its source.

Lacking a description from the composer about what his symphony “meant” — if anything or nothing — we are left to make our response personal. Perhaps no language exists with which to “understand” Brahms’s Fourth and my use of catastrophe is misplaced, but I am not alone in the opinion.

That disaster, if there is one, occurs in the fourth and last section of the work, the concluding 10-minutes or so. There, too, you will hear a much commented upon “conversational” quality in Brahms, when the wind instruments “speak” to each other. David Hurwitz of Classics Today, finds “active rage and impassive grandeur” in the ending. Jerry Dubins wrote, in Fanfare magazine, of the “final rush to oblivion … on the symphony’s preordained appointment with disaster and annihilation” in “a score of gloom and doom.”

Why might one want to listen given this description?

To me and the many who rank the work one of the most perfect and moving in the entire classical repertoire, much poignant beauty accompanies the ride into the abyss; indeed, because of it. The reasons for listening are no different from those causing us to appreciate a sad song. In Brahms’s 40-minutes we become the composer, inhabit his intellectual and emotional journey, and are seized by towering grandeur; perhaps even  swept away, exhilarated by the suspense and power, and moved to tears. Some would say a great work of art, if masterfully performed, can change us.

Franz Kafka knew the power of all art forms and wrote about the potentially transformational impact of writing:

What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be like an ax to break the frozen sea within us.

Will you be changed?

You can find out in 40-minutes time.

The top photo is the work of Ville Miettinen. It is described as, “A crevasse (moulin) in the Langjökull glacier, Iceland. At the time it was perhaps three or four meters long, a meter wide and some 30-40 meters deep.” The second image is the 20-year-old Brahms in 1853. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.