442. Why Community?

February 25, 2015

Why am I carrying on about community as I have been in my last three posts? And culture before that? And nature before that? And will be carrying on about the family level of our engagements in posts yet to come?

My point is that consciousness as I see it is not neatly packaged in the brain, but is a messy, collaborative effort between our minds and the worlds around us. I divide those worlds into levels of nature, culture, community, and family. Our brains tell only half the story; the surroundings with which we engage tell the other half.

Without ambient worlds, we’d have no minds at all. Think sensory deprivation, solitary confinement, living in a cave, or on a tiny desert island with one sheltering palm as we depict in cartoons. Our minds are built to engage with outside worlds. Without such worlds we’d go stir crazy because of lack of any kind of response to our gestures.

Community is just one level of the many engagements I find in myself through introspection. I am not alone in my mind and have never been alone. I was born to the worlds of nature, culture, community, and family such as they were in Hamilton, New York, in 1932. I could have been born in Damas in Syria to an entirely different set of worlds in that same year. Or to yet other worlds in Christianshaab, Greenland; La Libertad, Guatemala; Banzyville, Belgian Congo; or Saigon in French Indo-China. But, no, I wasn’t born to any of those sets of worlds; I was born to the multi-layered worlds of Hamilton, New York.

Schine State Theater was the movie house in town when I grew up; that’s where I first saw the Wizard of Oz. The image of the man behind the curtain manipulating the wizard still lives in my brain. My family went to the movies there on December 7, 1941, when for some reason I ran home and turned on the radio, then told my father that something bad had happened in Pearl Harbor, wherever that was. Rausa’s Cigar Store next door had pinball machines and an electric cigar lighter that threw sparks between electrodes. My young mind was shaped by engagements in a Hamilton that now no longer exist in the world, yet still exist in me.

My early mind was shaped by events in Hamilton a long time ago, yet I carry my naïve version of those events to this day. That’s why I blog about community, because it is one major strand of experience that makes our minds what they are. Other formative communities I bear with me are the Seattle of 1947, Cambridge of 1951, Kaiserslautern of 1957, Ames of 1960, Burying Island of 1987, and now Bar Harbor of today. I am he who has just such a mind that dwells on the nature of consciousness.

What else would I blog about but the myriad engagements with nature, culture, community, and family that make me who I am? Introspection opens onto just such a complex world as stirs up my consciousness to this day. The same world that situates my intelligence from moment to moment within the field of memory I carry with me wherever I go, sparking my attention and concentration on themes called-up and directed from inside my head.

Neuroscientists blog about information being passed to and processed by different areas of the brain. It is my belief that they will never discover consciousness in their research; what they will find is what they bring with them and project onto the workings of the brain. Until they acknowledge that a great chunk of what they are looking for exists in such layers of experience as nature, culture, community, and family, I believe their expensive machinery will tell them more and more about less and less because it misses the point that consciousness is given us to help us collaborate with, and adapt to, the several worlds we actually live in, not the world as it exists in their highly trained and indoctrinated minds.

But what do I know? Only what my mind whispers to me in my dreams, and I struggle to organize as simply as I can in my waking hours. I can only speak for myself from my personal experience. Which, I believe, is all any of us can do, each being unique as we all are. But at least I can do that, and as I see it, owe it to the world to publish one post at a time as an honest account of one man’s situated intelligence, against which others are invited to compare their own.

 

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(Copyright © 2009)

If feelings are involved, consciousness creates a record of itself in memory. And those same memories inform consciousness for the rest of your life. You don’t need to take notes, it’s all there in the shadows of your mind, a ready reference when required. An amazing system! Yet we seldom think what it means—that every stream of consciousness is autobiographical. The world you live in is the world you make for yourself by living your particular life. No one else lives the same life, so yours is historically unique. What makes sense to you won’t make the same sense to anyone else because your frames of reference are different in the most intimately personal way. When we die, our frames of reference—our histories—die with us. Each of us is irreplaceable. We get our one run at life in this universe, and that’s it.

I keep thinking of all the questions I could have asked my mother about her life in Maine—but never did. I am stuck having to view her as my mother when that role was only a bit part in her history. I know almost nothing about her personal memories, the intimate historical details she lived out every day, giving her an identity, making her who she was to herself. Who was that woman? Besides being my mother, she was that female stranger I lived with until, at seventeen, I went to college 3,000 miles away from her home near Seattle. It was her home, not mine. I only lived there; she ran the place.

Does anybody remember Jean Shepherd’s riff on mothers as sink creatures? Shepherd was a radio personality—basically, a storyteller or narrator of personal history—from the late 1940s to 1977. His nighttime program, as far as I could tell, was wholly unscripted. He’d start talking about some minor event from childhood in a steel town in northern Indiana, developing his theme as he went. Usually in there somewhere was a rhapsody on his mother standing at the kitchen sink. Peeling potatoes, washing dishes, filling the coffee pot—that was her role in his life. Like a woman in a Vermeer painting staring out the window—as far as we know that’s all she ever did—so she stands through the ages, seen through Vermeer’s or Shepherd’s eyes, creatures of the respective kinds of consciousness as cast on them by others who see something in them.

We know so much about ourselves and so little about anyone else—even our closest companions or blood relatives. What do spouses really know about their partners’ inner lives? So physically close and mentally remote, it’s hard to tell. My bet in most cases is not very much. When he claims to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, how do you know he isn’t hanging out with his Argentine sweetie? Besides being bed, dinner, and parenting creatures, what else would we want to know about those we care for? My answer: the full history of another’s conscious inner world.

The outlines of consciousness are sketched by our genes, each of us making proteins and metabolizing our food a little differently, so we all deviate somewhat from the basic human norms for body, consciousness, and behavior. From there, exposure to social and cultural influences takes over and we begin compiling our respective personal histories. What nature roughs out, our individual cultural engagement finishes in fine detail. Unique experiences persist in episodic memory; repeated experiences with overlapping features persist as concepts in semantic memory. Our stories develop both ways at once, specifically and generically, concretely and abstractly, the two in combination culminating in meaningful lives simultaneously rich in sensory detail and overall meaning.

If members of our family and social group get around by walking, then we become walkers as well; if they ride mules, horses, carriages, motorcycles, or public transportation, then we do likewise. Our mirror neurons make it seem natural for us to follow the example of what people do in our part of town. If we grow up without experiencing airplanes, iPhones or stone tools, then they are not part of our personal consciousness or the history it lays down. My grandfather used wooden tools, my father used metal tools, I use electrical and electronic tools. Mothers can cook with open fires, wood stoves, electric stoves, microwave ovens—or not cook at all if somebody else is up for the job. Not many sons would dub their mothers sink creatures today—nor would many mothers permit what sounds like a slur. Tooling around in an SUV is more like it, or toting a briefcase to work. 

These days, cultural ways change so fast, it is hard to keep up. I used logarithms in school, a slide rule in college, a mechanical desk calculator at work, and now a photon-powered electronic calculator. My early film cameras were variations on a black box with lens on one end, film on the other. Then I got a 35mm rangefinder, followed by a 120 twin-lens reflex, later a 35mm single-lens reflex. Now I’ve gone digital and abandoned black-and-white photography altogether. Whatever happened to pens and pencils? Typewriters? Linotype machines? Newspapers? I remember them all as essential parts of the world I grew up in. A good many parts of my consciousness were shaped to their use, parts now obsolete. If you don’t keep up, you become obsolete yourself because your mind is tooled to times gone by. Corporations can suffer that fate (think General Motors, Bell Telephone, IBM, Sears), or even once-great nations grown too full of themselves (France, England, Russia, the U.S.A.).

Language certainly changes over time. As a kid, I read six or seven Dr. Dolittle books from the library. Wanting to reconnect with those days, I planned to reread them—but got only to the third page of the first one I picked up. Hugh Lofting wrote in a stuffy style intended for a world gone by, now largely extinct. As the Hugh Lofting part of me is extinct. I recently had a similar experience trying to reconnect with Ralph Waldo Emerson. In today’s world, Thoreau has a touch of the archaic, but he is too original a mind to be classed with the dinosaurs. So is Walt Whitman. And Thomas Paine. As for the classic texts of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, efforts to keep them alive through heroic efforts are so desperate and extreme, it would be better to shut off life-support and retire them to the Museum of Outworn Cultures so modern consciousness can deal with current problems such as overpopulation, excessive consumption, the collapse of capitalism, global warming, wars without end, among others we have yet to develop ways of thinking about or vocabularies adequate to suitably framing so we can come up with workable solutions.

To draw a few examples from the history of my personal consciousness as recorded in memory, I offer these as determinants of modern history as this blogger has lived it:

  1. The 1937 crash and inferno of the hydrogen-filled zeppelin Hindenburg in landing at Lakehurst, New Jersey after crossing the Atlantic—I remember the spread in the rotogravure section of the Syracuse Post Standard.
  2. Admiral William Byrd’s bright red, six-wheeled, crevasse-proof Snow Cruiser being driven in 1939 along U.S. Route 20 en route to New York and ultimately Antarctica, where it promptly got lodged in a crevasse—I yearned desperately to be that shirtless guy stretched out in the sun along the sloping engine hood.
  3. The film version of The Wizard of Oz changed me forever by setting the standard for what entertainment could be—I loved the story, the characters, the sets, the music, the visual effects, the colors.
  4. Racing ahead of the family after the Sunday movie, turning on the radio, hearing serious voices tell of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—me telling my parents something bad had happened.
  5. The Life Magazine cover photo during the war showing the head of a German soldier roasted alive in an armored vehicle in North Africa—the first time I remember being drawn to look again and again at something so horrifying.
  6. The school assembly called the day FDR died in 1945, me sitting in tears on a folding chair at the end of the row, being told school would let out early—which I knew wouldn’t do any good.
  7. Walking along a gravel road at scout camp in August, looking up at the blue sky, wondering what an atomic bomb was—I’d never heard of one before the raid on Hiroshima made it into the newspaper.
  8. Walking by Symphony Hall on Mass. Ave. in Boston, seeing door ajar, walking in on an open rehearsal, sitting in back under the balcony, seeing Pierre Monteux conduct the Boston Symphony in Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique—I suddenly realized what music was all about, and that LPs didn’t capture half of it.
  9. The turbulent era of the 1960s with war in Viet Nam, flower children, the pill, racial violence, drugs, JFK’s assassination in 1963, RFK’s and MLK’s in 1968, and civil strife throughout—my father died, I had two children got divorced, remarried, changed jobs, every day demanded total concentration just to stay even, this was not the world I grew up in.
  10. In the late 1970s I took three courses with Sigmund Koch at Boston University, the one truly inspirational teacher I had in college or graduate school, a man big enough to critique the entire field of psychology at mid-century—he showed me what applied consciousness could do.

My conscious history is a tale of anxiety and revelation, which may be true for others as well. Evolution sets us up for such a life, we and our times do the rest, culture following through on what nature and our heritage have begun in our genome. Consciousness isn’t just for the moment or the day, it’s for a lifetime. Very little of it goes to waste. Coming to us in scraps, we stitch it together into the coherent tapestry of our outlook so that expectancy rewards us with a future containing more of the same. Which sometimes it doesn’t, so we settle for another round of anxiety, hoping for revelation. Consciousness, such as it is, steers every life to the end, creating the history of ourselves as individuals long before the history of a people or the world is even imagined, much less recorded.

Sailboat-72

 

 

(Copyright © 2008)

In this blog I have presented consciousness as a means of assessing novel situations so to derive and execute appropriate courses of action. Which sounds all very judicious and reasonable. But consciousness has its dark side. What can we make of the human mind when it perpetrates vicious acts inflicting excruciating pain and suffering—and even death—on other beings?

 

When I went through basic training at Fort Ord in 1955, I was taught to kill with pistol, rifle, and bayonet. I remember the infiltration course, Sarge leaning against a framework of beams holding a straw dummy suspended spider-like in its web, him shouting “Kill, kill, kill!” as I met the dummy, me thrusting bayonet into straw, so tired I could barely gasp a weak echo, “khill.” I was a mock killer.

 

But there are real killers in the world. As conscious and aroused as they are cruel. And fully conscious victims of atrocities, often women and children. And fully conscious indirect victims (it is safer to kill a wife than her husband, the intended victim, who gets off being humiliated). And fully conscious witnesses. And, drink in hand, fully conscious watchers of the news seated in comfortable living rooms on the far side of the world.

 

Here, too, is the human mind making sense of real life situations.

 

Journalist Ann Jones has a devastating piece on pages 16-20 in The Nation (Dec. 29, 2008): “A Crime Against Society: Rape destroyed the social fabric of Congo. Now women are beginning to repair it.” The gist is that women are trying to put social life in eastern Congo back together again. But the heart of the article is her depiction of the atrocities that Congolese women have suffered—and are still suffering:

 

Men singly or in gangs rape women and girls of all ages. (Recorded victims range in age from 2 months to 83 years.) Men also cut off women’s nipples or breasts, mutilate or cut off external genitalia, and eviscerate living pregnant women to remove and kill fetuses. After rape, men commonly insert foreign objects into the vagina: sticks, sand, rocks, knives, burning wood or charcoal, or molten plastic made by melting shopping bags. Killing the rape victim by firing a handgun or rifle inserted in the vagina is a common practice; some victims have survived. Rapists have blinded many women, apparently to prevent identification, and left countless others to die in the forest after chopping off their arms and/or legs. Soldiers also abduct women, and especially girls as young as 10 or 11, as captive “wives.”

 

Reading these words, I cannot imagine the women and girls’ suffering, but I can feel sympathy for the victims. I am stunned. Shocked that such things can happen. This is beyond truth and reconciliation. My urge is to round up the soldiers, cut off their penises, and leave them to die. Beyond that, I try to put myself in the killers’ place. What would drive me to perform such violent acts of deliberate cruelty? Who are these men, and how can they find such behavior appropriate? Ann Jones suggests a few answers in her article, but none of them justify the acts she depicts.

 

Then I remember crimes against humanity committed in other locations on other occasions. The Holocaust. Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Darfur. Pearl Harbor. Incendiary bombings of Dresden, Tokyo, London. Assaults on Native Peoples everywhere. Napalm and agent orange in Vietnam. Mai Lai. Civilian deaths in the current Iraq War. Israeli bombings of Palestinians in Gaza.

 

Such horrors as Ann Jones relates are not limited to eastern Congo. Every one of us can be trained or driven to commit atrocities. And when questioned afterwards, we justify our actions because we feel we had ample reason to do what we did under mitigating circumstances. Consciousness always makes sense to itself. We did it because. . . (select your rationale of choice).

 

Those of us alive today are the survivors of atrocities. Born to survivors, who were born to earlier and earlier survivors, back to the beginning. Consciousness has been with us the whole way. Consciousness of drought, flood, famine, disease, war, cruelty of others, our own cruelty.

 

Does that excuse us, or make us a better, tougher, or more deserving class of people? Are we one bit nobler or more moral than the soldiers of Congo? As far as consciousness goes, is morality even relevant? Is the precious cargo of our genes the only thing that counts?

 

In Congo, countless women died horrible deaths. And even if they survived brutalization, part of them is dead. If soldiers are the victors, what kind of world—what kind of consciousness—have they won for themselves? As survivors, what kind of consciousness have we won for ourselves? If one eats while another starves, what kind of world is that? If one “earns” billions by victimizing others while billions scrape by, what kind of world?

 

We know what kind of world because we wake up to it every day. Consciousness has much to account for; it is no justification in itself for simply surviving. It comes at great price. Our assignment, should we chose to accept it, is to honor the suffering that got us where we are and sustains us today.

 

How honor suffering? By being aware of it, remembering it, and conducting ourselves accordingly. By doing our best by all concerned, which is everyone. Women as well as men. Children as well as adults. Aborigines as well as settlers. Workers as well as management. Strangers as well as friends.

 

Here it is a new year. In 2009, let us be fully conscious of those who suffer and die for us, that we may live the bravest we can on their behalf.

 

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