(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 

 

(Copyright © 2009)

Consciousness often seems to operate by an either/or law that excludes the possibility of taking any middle position. We are either happy or sad, pro or con, well or sick, calm or stressed, bold or meek. Ironically, debate teams can flip a coin to see which side of an argument they are to present. We act out our lives more like Lear judging his daughters than Hamlet muddling through to a bad end. One after another, heads of state insist on making “one thing perfectly clear.” We avoid ambiguity, uncertainty, mixed messages, and confusion as if they were sexually transmitted diseases. Regarding judgments and opinions, we act as if there were no room for maybe—no middle ground.

Which pretty much reflects the stop/go nature of how our brains operate. Either neurons fire or they don’t, there are no halfway measures. Even at the last instant, a neuron told to fire by every one of its input signals can be stopped in its tracks by a single inhibitory signal. Cancel! Hold everything! Just say No!

Which is not necessarily a bad thing because it assures clarity of both vision and action under stressful conditions. The job of consciousness is to suggest appropriate courses of action in novel situations. Personally appropriate, that is, to the actor’s most basic biological and cultural values. We grow impatient with Hamlet because he simply can’t act on the basis of what he knows to be true, failing to revenge his father’s murder, or if he does act, skewering poor Polonius trembling behind the curtain in his mother’s chamber. In the end, all major players lie strewn about the stage, the intimate world of the hesitant one fallen in ruins.

But if hesitation proves costly on occasion, rash action in the name of clarity can come at an even steeper price. Take the U.S. invasion of Iraq as an example. The shock and awe was intended for Saddam and his troops, but stunned the whole world. Were there truly no alternatives? Indeed, there were many, all stifled by the overriding thrust of consciousness that ruled the Bush administration. When the looting began, we saw that shock and awe was no substitute for planning ahead.

Defending the selective nature of attention as the gateway to consciousness, Gerald M. Edelman addresses the evolutionary pressure to select one action as being the most appropriate among a field of alternatives:

An animal that is hungry or being threatened has to select an object or an action from many possible ones. It is obvious that the ability to choose quickly one action pattern to be carried out to the exclusion of others confers considerable selective advantage. Possessing such an ability makes it possible to achieve a goal that would otherwise be interfered with by the attempt to undertake two incompatible actions simultaneously (Bright Air, Brilliant Fire, pages 141-142).

I picture Bush as an exceedingly threatened animal in seizing upon the Rumsfeldian strategy of preemptive attack in waging war on Iraq. Within a limited circle of minds, it seemed a good idea at the time. Except it extinguished all the uncertainties that a prudent commander would need to consider before making such a move, with the result that a shallow notion poorly thought through was put into effect, with egregious results.

Obama’s sending a surge of troops to Afghanistan appears to be another example that speaks to much the same point. Again, the military mind is out of its depth because there are too many imponderables in the social mix (it certainly is no nation) we call Afghanistan. Echoes of Vietnam are evident in Obama’s thinking, clouding his consciousness, spurring him to rash action as if he could picture the full consequences of such a move. This time, he tells himself, we will not retreat; we will win. But consciousness offers no guarantee of success; based entirely on past experience, it has no way of predicting with surety how things will play out. If I were the Taliban, I would lie low for a year or two, then, when American forces withdraw as advertised in 2011, step into the void supposedly defended by Afghan troops lacking the American commitment to, and fervor for, battle.

Consciousness is far more fragile than we care to admit, often tricking us into making a good show for form’s sake when, in fact, we don’t fully grasp the problem or threat we are faced with. As a result, we decide on an irreversible course of action with no option other than defeat when victory doesn’t rush from the wings on cue.

On the world stage, the loss of a man here or there (because his past experience does not prepare him to deal with prevailing events) is no tragedy. But when one individual’s consciousness is made responsible for the actions of an entire nation, leading to commitment of all its resources to a particular end, even the rigor of six million years of hominid evolution doesn’t equip us for the task of even imagining what an appropriate course of action might look like, much less recognizing it if we ever came across it. Consciousness is always experimental on the scale of one person leading a particular life. If we survive our personal errors of judgment, we have opportunity to learn where we went wrong. But on a national scale, no one mind can be made fully responsible for decisions affecting the whole. Which is why we have cabinets and advisors and staff to supplement the life experience of the so-called Commander In Chief. Who—like Lear misjudging his daughters, and Hamlet wanting absolute certainty—can aspire no higher than to a mortal level of consciousness.

Where the buck stops, that is where one individual’s consciousness makes a real difference on the national scene. That is precisely where Obama is located in the issue of America’s relation to Afghanistan and Pakistan. And India, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Russia, China, and North Korea. His is a daunting assignment, even with the most artful spies and prescient advisors on Earth. Whatever choice he makes, he is damned one way or another precisely because he cannot admit to his human limitations or the frailty of his personal consciousness.

Our form of government calls for leaders with the stature of gods—when there are no gods available to take the position. Fallible as we are, there’s nobody here but us chickens. Men and women with the gift of consciousness and speech—who are bound to make mistakes in novel situations they are ill prepared to deal with. Particularly in situations they have no chance to rehearse as stage actors have because they take place in real time, every performance playing to an opening night crowd.

In the case of sending more troops to Afghanistan, we the senders are united by the commonalities of American experience in this decade; the receivers by their shared experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan. There is bound to be a meeting of bodies carrying weapons, but not of minds. I cannot fathom any mind but my own, as no American can an Afghan or Taliban or al Qaeda mind, and vice versa. In global affairs, it is the minds inhabiting individual bodies leading particular lives in specific places that set the courses of action which determine world events. There is no possible way we can know what will happen as the result of this surge in military commitment. We can know what we want to happen, but that has almost no bearing on what will actually take place.

What is lacking in this campaign is a sense of humility, along with a realization that concepts in the mind are not events on the ground. The best thing we could possibly do under the circumstances is for all concerned to put down their arms and engage one another as fellow humans, children of the one Earth. Yes, we should engage, but as equals, not as one dedicated to dominating (or killing) the other. Consciousness being as fallible as it is in every known instance, it is foolish to put a gun in any hand that might take the life of a total stranger for reasons that are not fully known or considered. Imagine killing someone and then wondering who he was? Was, but no longer is.

Is there no middle ground between victory and defeat? There certainly is. Between me killing you and you killing me, there is the usual middle way of muddling through by playing backgammon together and trading stories about our mishaps and adventures. Of being human together—you being fully you, me being fully me. Acknowledging our similarities, sharing our differences, balancing the two, not letting ideology come between us to distort our relationship.

No, we have not tried that approach. We are better at building walls between people than bridges. At shooting from the hip before we’re sure of the target. America is now a street gang writ large on the world scene, defending its turf at all cost—unto bankrupting the nation both financially and morally. Because that is the way we are taught to conduct ourselves in the world—by flexing our might instead of listening to the other side of the story. Maybe later, when we do hear the story, we’ll apologize for acting so rashly, lay a few wreathes and call it square.

After all, they invaded our territory on 9-11, which everyone knows is a violation of sacred ground. No matter we violated theirs first. So we send out our muscle to teach them a lesson. As long as they run their turf by our rules, everything will be OK by us.

That’s the stuff tragedies are made of because we know it’ll never happen. That’s not how people are made. Lear was Lear, Hamlet was Hamlet. Liberty means living your own life your own way, being who you are till the curtain drops. We’re scripting our own drama as we act in the world, driven by the dictates of consciousness, which are invariably self-serving as best we can picture our current situation. It’s not only a tragedy for those who fall during their mission in Afghanistan, it’s a tragedy for all of us because we’re making it happen. It’s our money that’s paying for this expedition—a million dollars a year per head. That’s the going price for pretending we can teach total strangers the lesson we want them to learn.

Shakespeare has already written a play about a black man deceived by the advice of his lieutenant, Iago. Othello fell for it, not realizing Iago had his own agenda driven by his own motives. “O fool! fool! fool!” he said of himself when disabused, realizing he had been tricked into smothering Desdemona, whom he had “lov’d not wisely but too well.” Another animal driven by fear, he acted boldly as he thought he must, but acted wrongly nonetheless.

Contrail