(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)

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.

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