(Copyright © 2010)

On the afternoon of January 12, 2010, Haiti was ruined by an earthquake in ten seconds. There were no winners, only losers. For nine years, the U.S. has been waging war against the very Jahadis it helped to create during the Cold War, and the Taliban who gave them a toehold in Afghanistan. Again, no winners, only losers. Looking ahead, in fifty years low-lying shores on every continent will bear scars inflicted by rising seas, upland areas suffer droughts and massive extinctions. Devastation will be the rule, not the exception. Over the long- or short-term, every unique life leads to the same end—in each case unknown. There is no way to evade personal ruin. Life will invariably cease, cells disintegrate. No winners, only losers, unless . . . .

For such minds as can grasp this inescapable scenario, there is only one way to respond: Act at all times in such a way to create as many islands and oases of order, compassion, and social justice as possible to offset the inevitable. Otherwise, the miracle of life has no meaning, or is at best a forlorn hope.

Beset by, and causing, devastation, we live fleetingly in denial, pretending we can sidestep our fate, believing in life after death, the healing power of personal wealth, that deeds can bestow immortality, that death can be deterred, outrun, or defeated. All of which sap our will for doing good rather than simply answering the roll for as long as we can when our name is called.

Living as long as we can is not a good in itself. It’s what we accomplish—what we actually do—in whatever time we are allowed that really matters. What we do for those we leave behind. The certainty of moving from the column of the living to the dead is, in fact, not only our fate but our greatest gift. The tragedy in Haiti is not that life is cut short but, in addition to suffering, that there is no pattern to which people are felled: children, adults, and the aged are equally susceptible. That, together with the violent nature of each death and the utter lack of help, produces chaos, the very opposite of social order. We saw lesser versions in the felling of the Twin Towers, looting of Iraq in the calm after the initial assault, and in New Orleans during and after the passing of Hurricane Katrina.

In better days, mortality is our greatest strength because it frames each day as an opportunity, not a time to endure. It can motivate us to get off our butts and do something positive with whatever skills and energy we can muster on the spot. If death cannot be avoided, we are wise to make the most of what little time we have. Truism, yes, but a compelling one. None packs greater punch. Go for it, live each day to the max! Later is not good enough; now is my time to engage and to act. Not for self because self is invariably a dead end, but for those left behind. For the thread of life that survives us, not our narrow little life.

Norwegian eco-philosopher Arne Naess, inventor of deep ecology, said, “Think globally, act locally.” I add to that, Shape eternity, act in the now. Those who look ahead to consorting with forty virgins in paradise, or sitting on a cloud sipping margaritas, are committing the ultimate category error. Death is the end of consciousness as we know it, the absolute end. All else is myth, fantasy, or delusion. The test of our deeds is the world that lives after us. That is basic Darwinism. The measure of our success is the life (in the largest sense) we make possible. Not only in our genetic line, but in the natural conditions within which it survives. If we steal Earth’s wealth for ourselves today, mere money will not provide for our descendants tomorrow. The meaning or import of mortality—the 100% certainty of our end—is gauged by the living potential we are to leave, not the resources we take unto ourselves. Money in stocks or the bank is life converted to dead notes. It stands for consumption and death, not survival.

Consciousness is a sure sign of life, the realization of biologically-derived human values (reproduction, metabolism, homeostasis, safety, etc.) through actions appropriate to life-giving surroundings. For the self, life is a matter of giving away, not taking from others. That is, it promotes authentic possibilities for action—actions that do not limit life’s choices tomorrow, but maintain or expand them. Acting in the now with eternity in mind is called stewardship. The Na’vi in Avatar live (if fictional creatures can be said to live) in that realization. More accurately, they represent that realization in James Cameron’s consciousness. Jahadi suicide bombers do just the opposite by destroying the possibilities of even their own lives and as many infidels as they can ruin along with themselves.

Now is my time on Earth, my time to live, my time to build a future for all life consciously and deliberately. I don’t have answers to many of the riddles and contradictions life throws at me, but collectively, cumulatively, we can share some few of those answers among us. Each can contribute her coherent actions to the body of the whole, and all draw wisdom and appreciation from that whole as needed. Give-and-take is the nature of our engagement on Earth. An engagement that will come to a definite end. Period. End of life. Maybe eight minutes from now, maybe tomorrow, maybe in fifty-three years. The point is not to obsess over but to deal with that certainty by building a life for ourselves, for those we love, for those we don’t know, and all members of other species. Then, when smitten, we will at least have done our best by Earth and its passengers for the long haul.

Which is far different from the life capitalistic assumptions and thinking would have us live. Capitalism is a farce, a heavy-handed caricature or cartoon of how to get ahead in life. It is drawn by the asset-rich to lure the asset-poor into their employ. It is a class-based system, dividing rather than uniting us. We now think of our lives in terms of the jobs we are offered rather than how we treat other people and other species through our stewardship practices. Sure, we get good at what we do, and earn money in the process, but that is not why we’re here. We are not born warriors, mechanics, or seamstresses, we are born Earthlings who must steward their gifts if they are to survive. We are meant to accrue an understanding of Earth’s truths, not wealth in and for itself. We are meant to act positively on behalf of life itself, not negatively for self alone. We are meant to create organic order, not the mechanized chaos we do by waging wars around the globe—as if that furthered the interests of life in any way whatsoever. There are no such things as natural resources meant for our taking; that is a fundamental category error. Consciousness is an emergent aspect of life itself, a self-contained guidance system. That, our bodies, surrounding communities, and natural environments are what we are given to work with and make the most of where we are. Now, not later on.

What I am trying to say is that ruined hope for a better future is a more accurate measure of any disaster than property losses or body counts. Hope lives in human consciousness as an urge toward a brighter light ahead. True wealth tells the capacity for hope based on possibilities for constructive action in today’s world. Husbandry and stewardship create hope; monetary wealth devastates hope through possibilities removed from the commons. Haiti lying in ruin from a shift in tectonic plates is tantamount to Iraq and Afghanistan lying in ruin from America flaunting its military might. We could not have prevented the one, but could have the others by holding eternity in mind. By making the most of our individual gifts rather than the least through flexing our military-industrial capacity for inflicting devastation and despair. Consciousness is given us as a gift; unfortunately the instruction manual—our living habitat or environment—is now largely made over by us, leaving us separated not only from nature but our own gift for life. With the result we are dead before our time, carrying on, true—but doing so ideologically, not weighing the moment and engaging the living Earth instead of our rote and sorry depiction of it.

Earth is rocked by enough natural disasters as it is without humanity inflicting additional devastation of its own devising. What we need is more compassion, sharing, healing, and hope such as are conveyed by our heritage of survival, and enabled by awareness of our common Earthling predicament. Taking the long view, keeping Earth’s evolving, biological eternity in mind, equips us to cope with natural disasters when they come upon us. That way we work with one another rather than against by taking more than our share, adding our small effort, heightening the possibility that, with or without us, life on Earth just may have a future.

Cannon

 

(Copyright © 2010)

Once, when I was a kid, I was spanked smartly on bare buns with a canvas stretcher (my mother was a painter) and told “Never to say that again!” for pinning my little brother to the floor and yelling, “I’ll murder you,” for his having knocked down the impressive tower I’d built with my blocks. Mother didn’t care about the wrecked tower, only about my angry words. Somewhere in there was a message I’ve remem-bered to this day.

Over the past twenty years, I’ve been to three dermatologists for treatment of two different rashes. Each doctor scoped my chest, arms, shoulders, back, and prescribed some high-priced lotion-cream-ointment to rub on my skin. I spent several thousand dollars buying one brand after another, and none of them worked. I kept asking what caused such punishing rashes, and never got a straight answer. When the first dermatologist got results of a biopsy back, he told me I had a diagnosis of Dermatitis herpetiformis. What causes that? I asked. “A substance that collects in your skin” I was told, and he prescribed a new lotion from Texas that cost over $100 a tube. I went to another dermatologist for a second diagnosis, and he gave me a prescription for a different tube of goo, which I never filled. Years later, when I had access to the Web, I did a WebCrawl for Dermatitis herpetiformis, and the first hit on St. John’s University told me it was a symptom of celiac disease.

Last year, after not eating wheat-rye-barley for over ten years, I had a bright red rash over much of my body, and a third dermatologist told me I had eczema due to low humidity indoors in winter, and he started me on another course of topical ointments. He said I should get a humidifier. One machine didn’t have any effect, so I bought another and ran them both, one in the kitchen, one in the bathroom. I lived with the two whirring motors for several months, but the rash raged on. Until I looked eczema up on Wikipedia, and found a list of causes for such rashes, the fourth being food allergies, particularly to nuts. I’d been eating a lot of cashews, so I stopped. In two days the excruciating rash was gone; my skin faded from bright red to its usual pallor.

The message I got was that my doctors were more interested in treating symptoms than underlying causes, and in seeing multiple patients at a time, each patiently waiting in a confining little room for the good doctor’s attention, which amounted to about seven minutes when it came. Treating symptom as the disease is a fundamental category error which, in my limited experience, is common practice among dermatologists.

Which brings me to September 11, 2001, the ultimate example of treating a symptom and not the underlying disease, in that we staged two wars and caused undue havoc in the Islamic world rather than address the social distress that led to attacks in New York and Washington in the first place. Turning the sights of our cumbrous military machine on Iraq, we avenged the deaths of some three thousand civilian workers with the deaths of 4,373 of our own troops, the wounding of twenty times that many, and estimated deaths of Iraqi civilians of over a million, not to mention those displaced from their homes. Crashing planes into buildings was not the disease itself but one symptom of the disease, along with attacks on the USS Cole, American embassies, transportation hubs in London and Madrid, and other signs of distress.

The original diagnosis was delivered by Osama bin Laden in his “letter to America,” translated from Arabic into English in The Observer (now owned by The Guardian) of Sunday, Nov. 24, 2002. It is understandable that we dismissed that letter and focused wholly on the devastation and pain of 9-11. Under-standable, but not necessarily wise. We chose to react militarily, not to listen in order to learn what was happening in spheres of consciousness other than our own. Not that bin Laden’s letter provided any justification for the attacks of 9-11. But it did reveal where he was coming from at the time, and how he perceived America’s presence in Saudi Arabia and the Arab world in general. Instead of sitting down with those he claimed to represent and going over his points one at a time, we quickly counterattacked in Afghanistan, and preemptively attacked Iraq on our own authority, reducing our assertive presence in the world to bin Laden’s level of outrage. And beyond that, spreading the symptoms of social unrest through further unjust attacks, blind to our own role in stirring up international resentment and retaliation. Bin Laden handily won the shock-and-awe contest in leveling the Twin Towers and scoring against the Pentagon, but we outdid him in leveling Iraq and Afghanistan, two countries each with roughly a tenth of the current U.S. population, bringing both to their knees as client states, in Iraq’s case, hoping to get dibs on its coveted resources for ourselves.

Bin Laden’s justified his letter to America within a self-righteous framework of Islamic belief, guaranteeing that Jews and Christians would dismiss it. As would any secular state. He used threats of violent jihad against infidels in insisting on the rightness of his cause. Clearly, he is no diplomat, and beyond reach of any diplomat. Which is not only sad but pathetic in that many of the points he makes deserve consideration throughout the multicultural world of today. His are fighting words, and in that sense, he got what he asked for.

But apart from his framework of belief, many of his words rang true if there can be any such such thing as international justice. He sided with the Palestinians as “pure Arabs and original Semites” in having their country yanked out from under them. “The blood pouring out of Palestine must be equally revenged. You must know that the Palestinians do not cry alone; their women are not widowed alone; their sons are not orphaned alone.” He also sided with Somalis, Chechens, Kashmiris, and Lebanese. He smarted at foreign governments opposing establishment of Shariah (traditional Islamic law), admitting “a taste of humiliation” and fear. And he saw America backing the suppression of these Islamic peoples, and supporting Israel across the board. As I have said in this blog, fear often opens onto anger, hostility, and aggression. Which is exactly the situation bin Laden felt he was in. A caged tiger, he stretched his claws through the bars, mauling whatever flesh he could reach.

He decried America’s lusting after Arab oil, and its military and industrial presence in his homeland “to protect the security of the Jews and to ensure the continuity of your pillage of our treasures.” He saw sanctions against Iraq as killing 1.5 million Iraqi children.

Do not await anything from us but Jihad, resistance and revenge. Is it in any way rational to expect that after America has attacked us for more than half a century, that we will then leave her to live in security and peace?!!

Eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth, 9-11 was bin Laden’s way of avenging America’s wrongs against the people he identifies with by attacking American civilians as the ones “who chose their government by way of their own free will.”

The American people are the ones who pay the taxes which fund the planes that bomb us in Afghanistan, the tanks that strike and destroy our homes in Palestine, the armies which occupy our lands in the Arabian Gulf, and the fleets which ensure the blockade of Iraq. These tax dollars are given to Israel for it to continue to attack us and penetrate our lands. So the American people are the ones who fund the attacks against us.

His solution was, first, to call all Americans to Islam. Through conversion, they would come “to reject the immoral acts of fornication, homosexuality, intoxicants, gambling, and trading with interest.” He advised us to stop supporting Israel, to get out of Arab lands, not to interfere in Middle Eastern politics, and so on. The alternative he gave was war with what he called “the Islamic Nation” that “from the very core of its soul, despises your haughtiness and arrogance.”

All-in-all, not a very friendly or gracious letter, but certainly one that aptly characterized (from a certain perspective) the disease raging beneath the surface. And one offering proof that military action will never cure the the ills of the Middle East, which, after eight years, are now metastasizing—along with the free flow of weapons, ideas, and people—through every global artery.

I started this blog convinced that communication breakdowns between people reflected failures of human consciousness, and that the remedy is to be found within our minds, not on the shelf of any pharmacy or library, or within the pages of any military manual. Reading Osama bin Laden’s words in translation, I remain convinced his consciousness is skewed by his beliefs, and he and his heirs will be on the rampage until they attain peace in their thoughts. Till then, we can look forward to one jihad after another on every continent. For our part, as long as we have the lustful economic system that capitalism truly is, and the militant will to go to war against every people that sees us differently than we see ourselves, till that time arrives, we will aggravate others into opposing our will to supremacy and reluctance to take others’ views into account as being equally valid with our own.

It is a natural human trait to blame others for our troubles. That, I realize now, is our parents’ and education’s failure to deal seriously with what ails us instead of boosting the claim that we are a higher sort of being in comparison to others with ways and beliefs that differ from our own. What ails us is our own doing, resulting from not inquiring inwardly before asserting ourselves, backed by an arsenal of weaponry that not only gives us false courage but to boot makes us right. The planet is knee-deep in weapons these days, which makes every act of self-assertion likely to be dangerous. What we need is not more arms but better schools teaching the ways and pitfalls of consciousness. As it is, we are born to rightness, no matter what we believe. To a man and woman we are unique, but that does not make each one of us right. We are prisoners of our personal outlooks and perspectives.

It is a parent’s and educator’s job to reveal the wiles of consciousness in fooling us into making the basic category error of confounding our ways with universal truth. We claim all kinds of freedoms to assert ourselves this way or that, but what of the freedom to access truth through doubt and self-questioning? Through looking at what actually causes our symptoms instead of taking them for the whole show? What school or parent teaches that skill? No, we are all bin Ladens at heart—or in my world, all latent dermatologists—sure to be right from the get-go, looking for ways to assert our will rather than edge closer to truth.

Personal consciousness may sometimes be out to waylay us, but as I have said in recent posts, it can also be a master teacher if we will but listen in the quiet of our own minds to what it is trying to tell us. Survival depends on accurately assessing the situation we are in, and the next, and the one after that. The difficulty comes in not paying attention because we are distracted by other priorities, many laid on us by aggressive others who are truly furthering agendas of their own. And in not listening to ourselves because no one ever taught us how or put value on actually doing that.

Education has come to be whatever course of experience other people subject us to, not something we do for ourselves. In this blog I am trying to turn that way of learning on its head. Self-taught, I say, is best taught. And self-teaching takes intent listening to the still voice of consciousness, the most personal, accessible, and reliable road to truth—if ever the most difficult.

Maybe Inner Truth Looks Like This 

 

Reflection 167: Two Women

December 24, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)

I give you two women from two different cultures. One raised to expect a great deal of praise and attention for being pretty, the other to expect to make her way by doing her share of the work. Each making herself happen within her respective culture according to survival values shaped in childhood to reflect the needs and yearnings of her family, particularly of her mother. Two women, two childhoods, two cultures, two ways of being in the world—two different lives, one in Afghanistan, one in California, a nation unto itself.

Actually, I don’t give you two women at all but rather two photographs of women, one I’ve had on my wall since (I think) the fall of 2001, scanned from the pages of (I believe) The Christian Science Monitor; the other scanned from a 1959 photo reproduced on page 13 of the current issue of AARP The Magazine, November/December 2009. I regret I don’t know the names of either photographer because I’d like to give credit to those who created these stunning portraits.

I present these photos side-by-side as symbols of what it might mean to be raised in two different cultures opening onto two different styles of consciousness expressed in two contrasting ways of being women in the world. Compare and contrast; feast your eyes:

Woman 1

Woman 2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagine local men (and women for that matter) meeting these women. Put yourself in their place. Feel what they might feel. Imagine the parents and siblings with whom these women grew up. Imagine their playmates, special friends, neighbors, mentors, teachers, spiritual advisers. Imagine these women trading places, the one switching from herding goats in Afghanistan to herding goats on the outskirts of Los Angeles; the other drying off, taking a stroll through the outskirts of Kandahar in her bathing suit. Run through the routine once again—same women, same dress, different cultural settings. What sorts of response do they get? How are they regarded? How are they judged? How are they treated?

I smile when I look from one photo to the other; I can imagine others frowning, getting upset, wanting to take some kind of action. Someone mutters, “Such things shouldn’t be allowed.” “Obscene, I’d say.”  This is not just a matter of aesthetic dissonance. It’s a question of what’s considered proper for how a young woman conducts herself in public. What is attractive to one might be an outrage to another. (In the interest of full disclosure,) I find both women exceptionally attractive to an equal degree. But in doing so, I take their respective cultures into account. These images depict alternative ways of being women in the world, and the range of such possibilities appeals to me. But the world is divided into regions where one possibility might be appropriate and the other less so.

The local culture we grow up in provides a range of options for expressing our biological values. Moving from one culture to another, we remain the same men or women, but might be expected to conduct ourselves according to the prevailing norms of the places we visit. We’re the same people, but are looked at differently, so come across differently. How we present ourselves as sexual beings is a sensitive issue in every culture. Largely because the relation between the sexes is the fundamental reason we have cultures in the first place. This is such common knowledge, I am almost embarrassed to bring it up. Which I do precisely to make the point that this is the sort of thing that led to nineteen men from a foreign culture to board four airplanes on September 11, 2001 with deliberate intentions of inflicting as much harm as they could on a people with a history of (inadvertently) offending the manhood and religious beliefs of people like themselves.

This was an incident in which males from one culture took a stand against a different culture for, as they viewed it, flaunting its ways and beliefs in an insensitive, arrogant, and offensive manner. When manhood is threatened, watch out!—a punch in the face is sure to follow. Few in America saw the blow struck on 9-11 from a sociological or cultural (rather than criminal or military) perspective. But the outrage felt in response to how Americans conduct themselves abroad as if to elicit some kind of reaction is, indeed, more an inter-cultural than a military matter. If 3,000 innocents had not died, two landmark buildings been leveled, and the HQ of the U.S. military not been attacked, in such a case we might not have lashed out by bombing Afghanistan and subsequently invading Iraq. But all that havoc did occur; the die was cast.

After eight years of war, we can reconsider whether or not that was the most appropriate response we could have made. Certainly the families of those who died are unlikely ever to change their minds. But the families of soldiers and civilians wounded or killed in the aftermath might pause to consider why their sons and daughters bore the burden of revenging the first wave of deaths. Once begun, where does the carnage end? Which prompts me to recall the following rhyme:

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Not that 9-11 is comparable to loss of a horseshoe nail, but once loins are girded and weapons primed, how do we ungird and unprime them? Once offense is taken, can it ever be forgiven? More likely by the seasoned and wise than the ardent and young.

Which is a tremendous burden to place on the two women from two different cultures I introduce at the head of this post. A burden somewhat similar to the one thrust on Helen of Troy, Boadicea, or even Mrs. O’Leary’s fictional cow credited with starting the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. My point is that cultural differences have consequences, sometimes profound ones when accustomed ways of expressing biological values are made an international issue because so passionately adhered to as if they were innately human. The values are certainly human, but the particular ways they find expression in different cultures are regional at best. The fault lies in taking local customs and attitudes to be universal or God-given virtues, with the result that only deviant infidel sinners would dare present themselves differently.

When it comes to the culturally accepted ways through which we give form to individual consciousness, values, and person-hood, extreme absolutism and fundamentalism are no virtues. Acceptance of cultural relativism gives leeway to those whose practices differ from our own. On 9-11, no such allowances were made. As if only one of the women pictured above were right to conduct herself as she does, making the other categorically wrong.

The Catholic Church, with considerable help from its rich out-of-state friends, recently spent millions of dollars to squelch legal acceptance of same-sex marriages in Maine. Right-to-lifers are equally fervent in their intent to outlaw abortions, distribution of condoms, and anything else that smacks of family planning. There it is again, that heavy-handed approach to how human sexuality is expressed. Heavy-handed because not just thumbs but whole palms and many hands are pressed hard on the scales of justice. These are just a few further examples of how our upbringing and life experiences impact the shaping of our biological values. When I see a photo of Rush Limbaugh mouthing off, I see a child three or four years old. I regard many members of Congress with the same X-ray vision. There’s a lot of it around these days, variations on the basic attitudes we acquire in childhood. Hardened and polished, like fake diamonds, they gleam with the brilliance of universal truth.

I think everyone should have photos such as the two I offer in this post on their refrigerator door as an example of how differently we export our internal selves and attitudes to the external world. Each one of us does it for him- or herself because, for genetic, epigenetic (not predetermined), and experiential reasons, we are all personally unique. In the words of Gerald M. Edelman:

From the very beginning of neuroanatomy, there are rich statistical variations in both cell movement and cell death. As a result, no two individuals, not even identical twins, possess the same anatomical patterns (Wider than the Sky, 29).

Given our diversity, it is remarkable we are able to sort almost seven billion people into only eight thousand different cultural groups. To ask or expect that all cultures conform to a standard imposed by any one of them, or by any group or individual within a culture, would be,—and if attempted, is—absurd. Rather than decry our variability, we would do well to celebrate it every day of our lives. Think how dull life would be if we all held to the same beliefs, thought the same thoughts, and conformed to identical standards! What could we talk about that we didn’t already know? I say, vivre la difference, not just between the sexes, but within them as well—as my two examples so beautifully illustrate.

Two Pomegranates 

(Copyright © 2009)

Simply put, we generally find what we look for in life. We expect more of what we are sensitive to. We are particularly sensitive to fear aroused by threatening situations. If we have no time to ponder the circumstances, our unconscious minds convert fear into anger, rousing us either to do battle or run for cover. Consciousness is too slow to be of much use in dangerous situations that arise quickly. It is more suited, once things calm down, to planning how not to let the same thing happen again. In the press of the moment, things we find scary or threatening get us moving without thinking, either toward or away from the fray. As seekers of happiness, like the proverbial donkey, we are driven from behind with greater urgency by the stick of fear and discomfort than we are drawn by the carrot enticing us forward.

As an example, I offer this exchange of letters to the editor of The Ellsworth American, a weekly Maine newspaper to which I subscribe. Concerned (fearful) that Major Nidal Malik Hasan was being tried in the media before all facts were known about the shootings at Fort Hood, I wrote the first letter:

To the Editor:

What if Ft. Hood’s notorious Major Hassan [sic.] were a perfectly sane and sensitive man acting as many Mainers might act under contagiously stressful conditions such as therapists undergo in treating returning service men and women suffering post-traumatic stress disorder? Even those who face an enemy once removed by piloting Predator drones from cubicles in Utah are vulnerable to PTSD. Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation. In the Ft. Hood incident, war itself is the villain that reached ahead of itself to kill those soon to deploy.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

I put my views as succinctly as possible so not to take up undue space on the most popular page in the paper. Two weeks later, this somewhat longer reply appeared under the heading, Save the Sympathy:

To the Editor:

In the Nov. 19 American, Mr. Steve Perrin of Bar Harbor wrote in asking if perhaps Maj. Nidal Hassan was suffering from vicariously induced PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), which drove him to commit his heinous acts of cold-blooded murder at Fort Hood.

He further asked if many Mainers might act in a similar fashion under such circumstances. Mr. Perrin’s comments were unquestionably the most imbecilic drivel I have ever read in The American. His attempt to excuse Maj. Hassan’s acts is incredibly insulting to those of us who have served our country. My Army Reserve unit was activated in late 2003 and we deployed to Iraq for a yearlong tour of duty in early 2004. There were certainly some very stressful moments during our deployment (as a transportation unit we did have several convoys ambushed, but with only minor injuries inflicted). However, we dealt with our stress in a constructive manner. Some of us prayed, some of [us] worked out, but we all dealt with it without harming ourselves or our fellow soldiers.

Mr. Perrin’s attempt to offer his “sympathy” to those of us who have served is a further insult. We are not victims. I, like every American soldier to have served in Iraq or Afghanistan, made a conscious decision to enlist. Not a single one of us was drafted. Our country, which has been a beacon of hope and justice since its founding, called us to duty on foreign soil to free oppressed people and to safeguard our nation. We answered that call and we did our duty. I personally am immensely proud of my service to my country and I in no way need anyone’s misguided sympathy for it. I seek only to live my life as I see fit and raise my family in the greatest nation on Earth. It is through the service of my fellow veterans and myself that I am free to do just that.

The victims of the Fort Hood massacre and their families have earned Mr. Perrin’s sympathy. Maj. Hassan doesn’t deserve it and I don’t want it.

Terry L. Bishop, CPA, Ellsworth

I could feel the blood rushing to my ears as I read that letter in the paper. Had I truly insulted the writer or offered him sympathy? Clearly, he took it that I had. And took pains to rebuff an offer I had not made. Next day, I sat down and wrote a follow-up letter:

To the Editor:

I appreciate the effort Terry Bishop made in responding to my letter about the Major Hasan affair at Fort Hood. In that incident, the victims were soldiers, the killer was a soldier who provided treatment for soldiers, and the location was a military base. It struck me that this was another front in a war we think of as being fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, but is now being waged closer to home by our own troops.

We all hope this is an anomaly, a onetime event. Yet with soldier suicides on the rise, the need to provide effective care for physically and mentally wounded veterans, and uncertain prospects for how long these wars will go on, it is evident the cost to the American people is far greater than merely footing the bill. Lives of thousands of civilians and military personnel on both sides are being shattered—to what end?

Before we leap to judgment in the case of Major Hasan, I think we owe it to all of our troops in these wars to take a long, hard look at the conditions we ask them to perform under, and the consequences we expect them to risk and endure.

I say the true culprit is war itself, which every day is reaching deeper into our country, creating havoc and chaos when what we need is healing and compassion in these troubled times.

I regret that Terry Bishop regards these concerns as “imbecilic drivel.” He evidently has a deeper understanding of the military mind than I do, and is right to take pride in serving without harming himself or his fellow soldiers. Yet I include myself among “those of us who have served our country,” which I feel gives me a certain authority in stating my case. Mr. Bishop is one of the lucky ones. I think his views and mine are not incompatible. My sympathy was intended for the fallen and the broken—among whom I count Major Hasan, his victims, and their families.

Steve Perrin, Bar Harbor

For my part, I saw Terry Bishop as standard bearer for those my first letter was meant to reach. For his part, he committed to engage on the issue I raised. I couldn’t have asked for a more heartfelt response, backed by deep personal experience (beefed up with a good dose of military boilerplate). It struck me that he was engaged on a very meaningful level. His tactic was to blow me from the face of the Earth. Why such a strong reaction? His lashing out suggested the dynamic I outlined at the start of this post. My views seemed to warrant such an attack because they tripped a very sensitive nerve.

Evidently he took it I had fired the first shot in writing, “Like Major Hassan, many in the armed forces are stressed beyond endurance. They deserve public sympathy and support more than condemnation.” Why “many” rather than simply realize, because he had successfully dealt with his stress, that my offer did not extend to him? I think perhaps his military experience was more stressful than he chose to admit. Why else all the boilerplate meant to deny that possibility?

Fear motivated me to write the first letter: I was afraid Major Hasan was going to be made an example of to cover up what training and war can do to civilians in turning them into hardened killers. There is no off switch for such a mindset. Mr. Bishop apparently was afraid I was speaking directly to him. Which I was, but he didn’t want to hear it. Nor did the branch of the military that so carefully trained him. Leaving him to wrestle on his own with whatever fear and anger my letter stirred up.

I do not mean to single out Mr. Bishop for this kind of treatment. I recognize the same struggle in myself—and in humanity at large. Fear is a big part of life, which shows up in a broad spectrum of angry behaviors. Fear starts it off, then anger gets us moving. Together, they are a big part of our biological heritage for dealing with threatening events and situations. Or, more accurately, events and situations which we take to be threatening. Once, when I stepped on a twig while watching beavers in a pond, a Weimaraner plunged through the bushes and gave me what for, the owners calling out, “He won’t hurt you,” but I looked in his eyes and saw he was considering doing just that. My fear turned to anger at the owners for having their dog off-leash in a national park.

For more than eight years now, I have wondered what the nineteen terrorists who felled the Twin Towers were afraid of—what drove their anger. They didn’t know any of the occupants of the buildings—so it couldn’t have been them. The structures themselves were symbols of America’s widespread presence in the world, so it might have been that presence they feared, especially as evidenced in their homeland, Saudi Arabia. I think now the terrorists’ actions on September 11, 2001, were their desperate way of shouting, Yankee go home, we don’t want you here—you threaten our deepest beliefs and way of life! Osama bin Laden said as much at the time. But we were interested in the actions themselves as a show of deadly hostility, not the reasoning behind them. Our reaction was kindled by our fear, not theirs, which is how conflicts arise. Had we bothered to inquire at the time, and reflected on the reply we received, we might have spared the world a couple of wars and thousands upon thousands of deaths. But we committed ourselves to a bold and decisive course of action for the sake of its effect on the world, a course fueled by fear and anger, not any desire to hear and understand.

Through the agency of our upbringing, our culture often warns us it’s not nice to be fearful or angry. So we stuff such powerful feelings deep inside, denying they exist. I-am-not-angry! we shout; I-did-not-flinch! Yet this deadly duo surfaces every day of our lives, craving recognition as driving forces behind much of human behavior. Until we learn to deal effectively with road rage, cutting remarks, feeling left out or wrongly included, trashing the opposition, being cruel, and the countless every-day episodes rooted in anger and fear—until that day comes, we do not yet use the gift of consciousness to full advantage. We are still apprentices at being human, falling short of our full maturity—both individually as persons and collectively as a people.

Black-and-yellow field spider

(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.

Michael