A Partial Antidote to Our Distress

If you are in distress — suffering from the world without or the world within — remember the words of Robert F. Kennedy:

*Some men see things as they are and say ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and say ‘Why not?’

Whatever the source, we live in a difficult moment. The therapists I know tell me they are hearing the just-mentioned external troubles bleed into their clients’ individual and personal sense of fighting against forces larger than themselves. The American Psychological Association confirms the difficulties from survey data.

It is hard not to agree.

Yesterday, however, I met with an acquaintance of uncommon bravery and resilience, who lost her husband of half-a-century two years ago. Not so long before she said permanent goodbye to seven kin, one after another. Seven is not always a lucky number.

What now?

Listen to another brave soul; another person then in the midst of both exclusive and national distress. My country in 1968 was a cauldron of frustration created by a war going nowhere (Vietnam), a failing and not always honest President (Johnson), racial discrimination, the murder of good men (Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy) and friendships torn over whether you took the side of the hawks or the doves.

Sounds familiar.

The words I’m about to offer you are also 50-years-old. They come from a man, Ted Kennedy, whose spirit was tried by these circumstances, by the loss of other siblings before Robert to violence, including two brothers and a sister. You can hear it all in his breaking voice.

Yet the five-minute eulogy is uplifting as well as touching. And when it is over, perhaps borrow for your own challenges the partial antidote I referred to earlier: begin to “dream things that never were and say, ‘Why not?'”

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The top painting is Emil Nolde’s 1940 Colored Sky Above the Marais. It was sourced from Wikiart.org.

*Robert Kennedy borrowed these words from George Bernard Shaw’s Methuselah: “You see things; and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say ‘Why not?'”

A Simple Explanation of Everything

We are prone to four mistakes in trying to make sense of ourselves and the world:

  1. Oversimple explanations.
  2. Answers of mind-bending complexity incapable of being grasped  — except when smoking marijuana.
  3. The following twin assumptions: a) reason explains more than emotion and b) others would reason as we do if they were reasonable.
  4. The belief we can fathom life in all its fullness.

Why #4 you ask? If I try to understand my inner workings, I only know myself on a conscious level. I do not have quick access to my unconscious even if I enter psychoanalysis with an expert. Nor can I see myself from outside.

Brain scientists don’t agree whether I have “free will.” My decisions — all the ones I think I’m in charge of — might be determined by the intersection of biology, history, and the fixed pathways of the brain pudding. The researchers cannot tell me if my actions are pre-baked into the cake of my being. My choices would only seem voluntary.

I search for comprehension, even so, but the morning’s newspapers cause mourning.

I’m distressed by the factual reports I find in these venerable, award-winning periodicals. I’m disturbed by elected and appointed officials — the kind who offer self-serving opinions without evidence and often without truth — who lack either conscience or courage. I’m troubled by the sightless idolators who follow these Pied Pipers toward the cliff. I’m unsettled by the thoughtlessness of some in opposition to them; and those citizens who complain or worry, but do nothing to defend the democratic republic.

What then is the explanation of the Bizzaro World at the tippy-top of the federal government’s executive branch?

In one sentence, here is the best I can do. This 17th-century wisdom fits into the first and last categories above. Over simplistic, for sure. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek or maybe dead serious.

Sometimes an idea waits nearly 400-years for a person who embodies it:

“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), Pensées

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The image at the top is Paul Klee’s 1921 Portrait of a Yellow Man. The 1978 painting that follows is called Loneliness, by George Stefanescu. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

How Far Should #MeToo Go?

To my knowledge the dilemma hasn’t happened yet, but it seems inevitable. One of the sex abusers identified by the #MeToo movement will die and need burial. Opposition to this will come.

Someone or perhaps many will say, “Not in the same cemetery with someone I respect, someone I love. Not in the same place I will be buried.”

There are historical precedents, as related below.

The question then becomes, how far do we take punishment? Do we make it posthumous?

The link here is to an essay I wrote in 2018, prompted by the death of a World War II Nazi war criminal and the opposition to his burial, not only in particular cemeteries, but by two different countries. Ultimately, no one wanted to inter this man’s body except a group of Holocaust deniers.

I’d be most interested in what you might have to say on the subject. Here, again, is the link:

Are Villains Due Respect When They Die?

The photo of Harvey Weinstein was taken by David Shankbone on May 4, 2010 at the Time 100 Gala. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Understanding Our Anger

Though I will never understand everything about the anger displayed in groups – the rage now surrounding us – I have some knowledge of how it developed. Early man discovered he needed allies against nature, beasts, and other humans. He sought the talents of partners in finding or building shelter, getting food, and providing comfort for fear and loneliness. Those who made their way alone were not likely to survive and, by definition, didn’t create offspring.

Allegiance to the small collective – call it loyalty – both was required by the group and increased your chances of outlasting isolated fellow-men. The band was more likely to thrive and your genes stood a better chance of reaching the next generation and beyond.

We became tribal creatures. Believing rumors of potential conspiracies by groups of competitors for scare resources was safer than thinking strangers meant well. Those who were different – other – were often enough enemies for us; we therefore become wary of all others. Not least, those who looked different and came from elsewhere: the people with odd customs, strange habits, who uttered unintelligible sounds. Rage enabled the fight to survive, to overcome our fear and take on threats. Thus supported and encouraged, everything became possible. Buoyed up by the group, small man became larger than himself.

Such qualities did not disappear from our nature. We now see them displayed even in so-called first world, “civilized” society. We vilify our political enemies. We are capable, as fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance images of our brain) show, of reacting to our fellow humans as we do to furniture. Untermenschen: less than human.

Yes, it is desperately important to vote, take the political action you can, voice your opinions, and make even small financial contributions to defend our democratic republic. Yes, some “others” are carried away. They yell and deceive and might want you out of the country. But not all do. Most, indeed, are rather like the rest of us: struggling with the life project, hoping our children will live in a better world, wishing for peace and security. If we lump them – all of them in the same trash bin, assume they are all irrational or crazy, are we then superior to them – really? If we succumb to our version of the same self-righteous anger, are we then superior to them – really? Do not assume all of our allies are pure. Our “team” is never the sole repository of virtue.

You will learn little from those who echo you. We might learn something from people who don’t, at least on occasion.

We would do well to search for solutions, some amount of compromise with those “others” who are open to it, and vigorously defend against the far smaller group of opportunists and the fully self-interested who only want what they want. Better policies than those now in place must address widely experienced concerns, not just those of your tribe. The country needs a better light bulb, otherwise replacing the present installation will leave us still in the dark.

Our genes won’t change any time soon.

Work for a better world, but do not become the thing you hate.

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The first image is a Cartoon Representation of the Molecular Structure of Protein Registered with 1pi1 Code. It was created by Jawahar Swaminathan and MSD staff at the European Bioinformation Institute. The fMRI image below it is the work of Washington Irving. Both were sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

What We Do in Private: the Story of a Good Man

Legendary basketball coach, John Wooden, said, “The true test of a man’s character is what he does when no one is watching.”

By that standard none of us receive a perfect score. Worse still, we live in a historical moment in which the highest officials in our country don’t even pass the daily public tests. But this story is about someone who did pass. Hearing about him might allow the rest of us to take heart that virtue is still found in quiet places, where a person is willing to give up something great for something good. Where no audience will ever know.

The tale came from an unremarkable man. He was in his late 40s, a guy who blended into the crowd and had a pretty dreadful middle-management job. Not an assertive fellow. His wife had hen-pecked him into submission, inheriting the role passed to her by his parents. You could almost see the peck-marks, the little dents on his flesh. I once asked him about his sex-life and he laughed while rolling his eyes in a way that revealed he hadn’t had sex in a decade or more. If you knew about the less-than-satisfying marriage, you might have told him to “man up.”

Let’s call him T.

T was a religious person, a bloke who took his faith seriously, even if he relied too much on Jesus’s message, “the meek … shall inherit the earth.” Still, he was bright, companionable, and funny. He considered himself Republican in the old style sense of fiscal and religious conservatism, but had friends among Democrats. One other notable quality possessed by T: he knew more obscure baseball statistics than anyone I knew or know.

If you believe a good man is hard to find, he might be your guy. Or not. Too easy, too timid, too unmade and overmatched by some of the challenges of life. Like many in my generation, the Great Depression through which his parents lived left their only son with a tendency toward economy. Not rich, T drove a high-mileage, well-kept car, up in its years. He did much of the maintenance himself. A polyester kind of soul, but not without talent.

T occasionally employed a local handyman to do odd jobs around his home and another property he inherited when his folks died. The worker was a casual acquaintance, not one invited for dinner or coffee. Not even a person T talked baseball with. Just someone T knew and called if work presented itself. By T’s observation, the fellow wasn’t the best jobber, but good enough and available enough and needed the work. In other words, no one special.

Our hero heard the man was in the midst of economic difficulties. I could tell you T was always selfless, but I don’t think so. Yet, on this occasion, he did something pretty remarkable. He counted out $714 (baseball fans will recognize the number*) in fifties and twenties, a ten and four singles; enveloped the bills, walked over to the handyman’s place on a day he was out being handy, and put the money-laden wrapper in the mail box. No message, no name, no return address. He did not want to embarrass the tradesman or make an offer that might be rejected. T needed no thanks or congratulations or celebration of his good deed. He did not expect to know what happened to the cash. Helping another was the end of the story for him. I found out only in passing because I was his therapist. I’m sure T told no one else, including his wife.

We live in a time when every act of greed or self-interest can be rationalized. Where too many “know the cost of everything and the value of nothing,” to quote Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic. The yellow-fellow on top doesn’t ask, “What would Jesus do?” Or Muhammad or Moses or the Buddha or any other prophet or deity or role-model than the god he makes of himself and his wallet. No, he is not the creature you hoped your sister would marry, your daughter would date.

We Americans are said to be a charitable people, but charity too often applies only to those of our religion, our party, our tribe. Virtue signaling – trumpeting our piety or generosity – masks the misdeeds we do elsewhere. I guess it has always been so.

Research tells us people tend to look at some others as objects, the homeless for example. We hide ourselves in social fortresses of like-minded contacts who hate the people we hate (if we still consider them human) and praise the folks we like. No new thoughts are permitted, no doubts allowed, and “virtue” takes the form of rage and self-congratulations.

But when I begin to despair of the human condition, I turn my remembered gaze upon T: the most average of men, the most extraordinary of men.

He and others I can name offer me hope. He is not perfect and he would not tell you he did anything special. Just what any good person would do.

Thanks, T.

You gave me something, too.

Both images are sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The sheet music cover photo of a once popular song dates from 1918.

*The number of home runs Babe Ruth hit in his career.

The Return of Pandora and “The Age of Anxiety”

Feeling anxious? Lots of people are, not least since January. The American Psychological Association (APA) reports the following:

Between August 2016 and January 2017, the overall average reported stress level of Americans rose … according to (an) APA survey. This represents the first significant increase in the 10 years since the Stress in America survey began. At the same time, more Americans said they experienced physical and emotional symptoms of stress in the prior month, health symptoms that the APA warns could have long-term consequences.

Correlation is never a guarantee of causation, but what major event might have occurred in this period to contribute to our new “Age of Anxiety?” I needn’t tell you. Therapists of my acquaintance report hearing the politically charged worries in their offices.

Which brings me to Pandora. One version of the Greek myth tells us she was an uncommonly attractive figure, gifted in many ways; indeed, created by Zeus, the #1 god, to be the wife of Epimetheus. In her new home, however, she discovered a container or box. Curiosity got the best of her, she flipped the lid, and out flew all the tribulations and ills that continue to plague us.

Our forefathers, fathers, and mothers managed to rebox some of those ills, though the task took them much time and sacrifice. Think World War II. Now the lid is off again, unleashed by Pandora’s new stunt-double, a golden-haired male.

The APA offers some advice to those of us inflicted with the post-election epidemic of anxiety:

“If the 24-hour news cycle is causing you stress, limit your media consumption,” said Katherine Nordal, (President of the APA). “Read enough to stay informed but then plan activities that give you a regular break from the issues and the stress they might cause. And remember to take care of yourself and pay attention to other areas of your life.”

Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito

For those who can tolerate stress, action (in this case political) is always recommended. No good comes from becoming a passive victim of circumstance. Before jumping in, however, you might want to learn what a “practical” writer said about challenging political conditions. A place to do so is at hand.

Here is an opportunity to meet a man variously described as evil, amoral, or patriotic: Niccolo Machiavelli. No, not the other guy.

The University of Chicago’s Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults will be presenting several free sample class discussions in which you can participate (in Northbrook, Oak Park, and downtown Chicago).

Online, too, for those in faraway places or who find getting out to the conversations impossible. The discussion topic is Machiavelli’s The Prince. Specifically, Chapter VIII: Of Those Who Through Wickedness Attain to the Principate.

Knowledge can be an antidote to fear. Do you have the courage to take a hard look at the world? Buddhists recognize the importance of seeing life as it is, not as a creation of your imagination or hope. Machiavelli was no Buddhist, but was clear-sighted about the conditions in which he lived and the people in power. He will not elevate your being, but may enlighten you as to the state of the state: the state we are in.

Machiavelli and Pandora are back. This time they just wear nicer clothes.

The top painting is Pandora by Arthur Rackham. The one below it is Niccolo Machiavelli by Santi di Tito. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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 survivors 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).