Reflection 136: Defeated Consciousness

July 31, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

Solving problems is a big part of consciousness and, consequently, failure to solve such problems is another big part of consciousness. Failure can lead to a range of responses, including confusion, denial, anger, blame, depression, leading eventually perhaps to acceptance, learning, and even trying a different approach. Very few conscious acts bring about results as intended. Trial and error is often how consciousness works, leading to unintended consequences, revision, and trying again. When we go back to the drawing board, we give consciousness another run at the problem.

The leveling of the Twin Towers on 9-11-2001 was a defeat for America’s collective consciousness because we never saw it coming. The entire nation went into shock, and then mourning. It was a particular defeat for the collective consciousness of the CIA that had responsibility for keeping the president informed so he could mobilize forces under his command in warding off just such attacks. The resulting confusion throughout the highest levels of government led to a so-called war on terrorism in which conventional warfare was waged against an unconventional enemy, leading to an asymmetrical situation in which terrorists had the advantage because they knew the Afghan terrain and we didn’t. Anger and blame-casting led to our invading Iraq as a scapegoat for our leaders’ being caught napping, and things rapidly went from bad to worse, leading to the looting of every civil and cultural institution in Iraq that might have helped stabilize a sorry situation. Our same leaders failed to see Hurricane Katrina bearing down on New Orleans, or if their radar showed it coming, their consciousness failed to register the threat in that situation, resulting in another blow to governmental consciousness and in the consequent disillusion, despair, and humiliation unleashed by yet another profound defeat for an administration unable to protect its citizens on their own turf.

That’s an extreme example of what can happen when consciousness misjudges a bad situation. The worse the situation, the more stress it causes, making for hasty decisions to show we’re on top of things—when we’re not. Ask anyone going through a divorce and they’ll often blame their former lover for the break-up, reserving all virtue to themselves. A divorce is a defeat of consciousness, neither partner being sufficiently vigilant or having the skills to work their shared troubles through. Who expected it? Who dealt with early signs of stress? When dreams collapse, they tend to shatter precisely because we want them to last forever and a day. Just like the Twin Towers, just like New Orleans. Things aren’t supposed to fall apart. Not in Dreamland they aren’t. In sports, you always go for the championships, not the league cellar. Every song written or sung is aimed at the top twenty, not anonymity.

As anyone can tell you, the human condition is a lopsided mix of  victories and defeats, the victories spread every now and then to keep hope alive. The seat of that mix is our personal consciousness, noted for its highs and its lows. Our attitude toward life ranges from jubilation to despair. That is the nature of adventures, and certainly life falls in that category. Much of it spent as the Lewis and Clark party spent its mission to the Pacific coast—slogging ahead. The daily grind is the norm, punctuated by victories and defeats much like those mountains and valleys on the horizon. Hope springs eternal, yet the wise keep an eye out for weather.

Consciousness can be bested by the situation we’re in, or by our own mismanagement of what it is trying to tell us. Danger is ever present within consciousness itself as well as in the material world. Gerald M. Edelman spoke of consciousness as a “world model,” so in that sense the model may be defective or the modeler lax. Think how often we defeat ourselves because we try to outsmart our own consciousness by being too clever by half.  Indeed, the mighty keep falling one after the other with no one to blame but themselves, each a classic example of consciousness abused and defeated for the sake of gulling a spouse, a staff, a few friends and clients, or a nation. “Well, dear, I’m off to hike the Appalachian Trail; see you when I get back.” “The record speaks for itself: a return of 15% on your investment; tell me where else you can get that?” “It’s a slam dunk!”

We are capable of making spectacular errors in misreading consciousness as a model of the world, as well as the lesser miscalculations we settle for in everyday life. Here’s a homely example from my own life last weekend:

I am in spruce-fir woods digging a slit-trench for a latrine. Over the past 40 years I have dug three such trenches, so have an idea what the soil and the job will be like. First outline the trench in the top layer of duff made of fallen needles, then dig into the light brown soil with occasional stones and boulders, down three feet or so to the blue-gray clay laid down 12,000 years ago by the last glacier. The site is near a large glacial erratic boulder on top of a slight knoll decked with a sparse covering of moss amid dark trees in every direction. What is that boulder resting on? I should wonder, but put it out of my mind. Witch hazel spreads nearby. I have the shovel, Carole the bush-whackers to cut through roots we’re certain to find. I’ve been planning the trench for several weeks now, having finally chosen the site. I define the two ends of the trench, then lift out the duff. Piece of cake. This shouldn’t take long. I connect the ends, then begin to dig down in earnest. A few flat pebbles here and there, but the digging is easy. Scrape, scrape—more pebbles. Little flat ones, like layers of ledge. I ask Carole to pick out the stones when I hit them. We go for an hour or so, scraping away, making two piles, one of stones, one of soil and small pebbles. It’s been raining every day for almost two months; a nearby lightning strike and loud crash of thunder send us back to the cabin. We’ll finish the job in the morning.

After breakfast, we return to the trench, which now looks like the beginnings of one. Carole, eternal optimist, says we’re down two feet—more like seven inches, give-or-take. Dig, dig. Scrape, scrape. The little flat pebbles aren’t getting any scarcer, as I had hoped. In fact, they seem to be packed closer together. Maybe my imagination, but they block every thrust of the shovel with a wall of rock effective as any boulder. Carole scrapes them out of the way with the swipe of a flat stone, and I toss what I can get on the shovel onto the pile of dirt. Soon we’re scraping more and tossing less from the trench. Maybe it’s rotten rock from a deeper ledge, I think to myself. The closer we get to the ledge, the denser the pebbles. I picture little flat stones like a school of fish clustered together. Both Carole and I are determined to get the job done, so we ignore the pebbles and dig and scrape away. After two hours, we’ve gone maybe two inches deeper. And piled up a growing heap of stones. I imagine digging through sandy soil, as I have sometimes done on the far side of the clearing. That’s more what I had in mind. We keep at it another half hour, with diminishing returns. Then we strike hard stuff—the actual ledge, down nine to ten inches. So much for a latrine in this location. We made a go of it, but the site turned us down. We gather our tools, and I go back to prospecting for another site.

In the spring of 1951 I rowed with the MIT freshman crew in the national collegiate regatta on the Ohio River in Marietta, Ohio. The school year was over, but the crew stayed in Cambridge to practice, and didn’t head home until after the race. My folks lived in Seattle at the time, so Ohio was on the way. I’d take the train from there to Chicago and points west. We had a fast shell in the Pocock, named after its maker, and we’d gotten pretty good at both port and starboard oarsmen matching their strengths to keep it set up on its delicately poised keel. I was the stroke, not strong but generally dependable to set the pace the coxswain called for. We’d won only one race all season—against Rutgers on the Raritan—but we were hyped to show the world what we could do. We were positioned in the middle of the river next to Navy, both of us getting a boost from the current. We led most of the way, but near the finish the cox called to up the stroke—and I couldn’t swing it. I was just out of gas. So the University of Washington freshmen passed us—and that was the end of the season. Except I got to ride all the way to Seattle in the same railroad car as the winners. They were flying high while I was dragging as low as I ever felt in my life to that time because I blamed myself for the loss. I’d taken a big bite of defeat and chewed on it for three days. Every time I went to the toilet I had to pass all those smiling faces. Hardly life threatening, but I savored the humiliation all the way home.

Thirty years later I suffered the biggest defeat of my life when my son Michael committed suicide on his 22nd birthday. That, too, was my doing. I’d gotten divorced from his mother in the 60s when Michael was five years old. He didn’t thrive after that, even though I had him and his little brother on weekends until his mother remarried and moved to California, then Italy. He met a nice man on a park bench in Milan, and was into drugs after that, eventually heroin. He returned to the States, had a nice girlfriend, but was in and out of detox. He called me the Sunday before he died and told me, “Papa, I know what I have to do.” I knew what he meant, and said “We have to get together.” He said, “It’s too late.” “Don’t do anything drastic,” I said. He hung up, and I spent several days tracking his friends down to find out where he was. If they knew, they didn’t tell me. I warned the police to watch for a despondent kid, but they didn’t find him either. On his birthday I got a call from the police at eight o’clock in the morning. They’d found him, shotgun in hand, on a bench in the park near the duck pond. It had rained in the night, and his blood had washed into the pond. I went to the mortuary to view his body laid on a slab, face reconstructed, skin yellow.

That was 28 years ago. If he’d lived, he’d be 50 now. I cry writing these words. I still hear that telephone call, still see him on that slab as if it happened this morning. Still feel the defeat, mine and his, both together, inseparable, as his mother must feel her pain inseparable from his.

Every life has much to teach us, something important to make our own. That’s why I’m writing this blog—for Michael’s sake. Because he never felt free or strong enough to live out his own life. I take responsibility for that, and live my own life with that in mind every day. Every moment of consciousness is the entirety not only of someone’s “world model” but of their innermost life—memories, feelings, victories, defeats.





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