Archive for June, 2012

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Hope

June 29, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

This afternoon, a gorgeous fall one, as I lay in the hammock–I was home alone, my wife’s having gone shopping with her sister–the dogs barked, which meant somebody had come onto the porch. I got up, walked around the corner of the house, saw a man I used to work with. In town on some matter, he told me, he thought he’d come by. He lives forty of fifty miles away, and I had not seen him in a few years. I told him, though it was not exactly true, that I was about to put on the coffee, would he like some. He said he would. After the coffee brewed, we each poured a cup and sat by the pool. The talk was the usual banalities, comfortable talk, exactly what talk should be on a bright afternoon by the pool between men who really don’t know each other all that well. He did tell me that Mr. Randolph Mouzon (not his real name) had died, apparently of old age. “He was the richest man in the county,” he told me. “He must have owned several thousands of acres of land. Money can’t buy everything in this world.” He gravely uttered this cliché, as if he were the first person to come to such a conclusion. Oh, it’s true: money can’t buy everything in the world, but nothing, whether it be money or sterling virtue or supernal knowledge can acquire everything in this world.

I had heard of Mr. Mouzon. On my way to and from college, years ago, I passed his big house in the country. Yes,  Mr. Mouzon was rich, as rich as some kings I guess, as wealthy as Midas and Croesus and all the rest of the fabled rich we drag out to make comparison. He was a rich man for a very long time. And then he died.

So now he’s just another dead man, but, no, I didn’t express such sentiments to my guest. As is the wont of men, we quickly forgot Mr. Mouzon, his wealth and his death, and talked of other matters, gentle, placid talk, easy conversation, devoid of ambiguity or depth, of anything likely to spark argument, so scripted to be courteous and polite that it could be called a social rite, one filled with bromides and clichés. In other words, it was just the right kind of talk for my guest and me to have. It wasn’t the time to unriddle the mystery of existence, the anxiety eating at the human heart. My guest did not stay long. He drank his coffee, and not long afterwards he left. He and I are not good friends, so we talked just long enough, both of us having the good sense to end the session before either of us became uncomfortable. He and I played by the rules. It made the episode pleasant.

When he left, I got back into my hammock, content to lie alone in the afternoon, just look at a few thin cirrostratus clouds scratched, as if by a cat, in the blue sky. Noticing the sun lower in the sky, I thought that the days are much shorter now. Thinking about Mr. Mouzon’s death, the impotence of his wealth to keep him out of his grave, I remembered a poem from the Greek Anthology:

       I am the tomb of Crethon; here you read
His name; himself is number’d with the dead;
Who once had wealth not less than Gyges’ gold;
Who once was rich in stable, stall, and fold;
Who once was blest above all living men–
With lands, how narrow now, how ample then!

Regardless of how “big” a man is in life, the size of his grave is the same as that of the “little” man. ( I fail to see, though, how this observation brings relief to the little man: a grave is a grave.) It’s true that the paths of glory (so says Thomas Gray in his famous poem about his stroll through country churchyard, it’s small cemetery) lead but to the grave, but, then, all paths lead to the grave. Emily Dickinson saw death as democratic, the beggar and the queen equal, and of course we know that poor Bartleby in Melville’s story about him now sleeps with kings and counsellors. I can’t see, however, how this fact—and it’s irrefutable—makes up for the wretchedness of Bartleby’s life.

For me, at least, the most profound and most poignant comment on this “theme” is Prince Harry’s address to the just-slain Hotspur, slain in battle by the Prince himself (Henry IV, Part 1):

Ill-weaved ambition, how much thou art shrunk!
When that this body contained a spirit,
A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
But now two paces of the vilest earth
is room enough. .  . .

Such epitaphs make for good poetry, and if we aren’t careful, we catch ourselves nodding sadly at such revelations, but, my goodness, what is revealed? that we all die? that in the end we all end up the same? food for worms? Well, if death is such, then life takes on paramount importance. If the rich man and the beggar end up the same, then it seems to me it’s better to be the rich man, the happy man rather than the sad man, the wise man rather than the fool. The tragedy of Hotspur is not that he has become carrion for blind creatures burrowing in the earth but rather that his jaundiced and absurd pride cost him his life, scores of years in the happy bright sun, the caresses of that beautiful and witty woman who loves him.

Only schoolboys find Hotspur admirable. We might all be the same in death, but we aren’t the same in life–and if we have no control of death: it will come–we do have a certain amount of control over our lives. How much and to what degree? Well, that’s why some of us study our Becker, none of us knowing whether we will find a definitive answer or not, probably suspecting we won’t, but Becker, odd to say about a man who warns us not to look too long at the sun, offers us hope. It’s reductive, I know, but Becker says that knowledge is not as curative as hope.

“Hope is an illusion,” I have heard bright men say, educated men, and it’s true: hope might be an illusion. These same men declare that all is illusion. The statement can’t bear the scan of logic, the statement itself being an illusion, but never mind. Shakespeare says that we are but the “stuff dreams are made of” and “our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Life as illusion, life as a dream—how is one to make sense of things?

Dr. Neil Elgee would say, however, as he has said to me on more than on occasion: “If we cannot live without illusions then it’s best we choose the most life-enhancing ones.”

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Of Pets and Humans

June 26, 2012

“Normal Dan” Dan Liechty

After a wonderful week at the Ozark Sufi Dance Camp, it’s back to “real life.” Gratefully, I take with me the many conversations I had there with fascinating people who have pondered deeply the meaning of human existence and are engaged in significant projects of spiritual renewal and social revitalization in our culture. Among these, one that stands out is a gentle and loving man named Bodhi Be, who led a daily workshop on issues of death and dying. He is the originator of a very interesting project in his home area in Hawaii. The Death Store describes itself as an end-of-life community resource center. I encourage you to spend a bit of time at their website (thedeathstore.com) and perhaps get on their email newsletter list.

The conversations we had in that workshop reminded me of a message I received a couple months ago, and I thought perhaps excerpts from that correspondence might be of interest to Denial File readers as well. The message read, in part: Why is death so insulting in our culture? Why isn’t it acceptable to part with a friend like it is to part with a pet? I just wanted to ask for your opinion. Following, in part, is what I wrote in reply. Feel free to criticize and add to the discussion!

Dear friend, you pose a very important question, for which there is no easy answer. You ask why our culture is insulted by death, but I suggest it is not just our culture. Any viable culture, to one extent or another, makes implicit claims to having been founded on a supernatural basis. Therefore, by participating in its cultural pageant, following all the rules and being a good citizen, it offers to its people the opportunity to transcend and elevate mere earthly existence into an imitation or reflection of divine existence. With few exceptions, cultures that initially appear to be the most “death accepting” are exactly those cultures with the most elaborate transcendence ideology, and in which that ideology is strong, intact, and plausible (because everyone a person rubs shoulders with believes it as well.) The very function of culture is to buffer us against the deep anxiety about death we all have, an anxiety that results from simply being human, driven by the conflict between a strongly organismic survival disposition and the cognitive power to understand that death is inevitable.

What appears to make Western culture “stand out” among others is that, at least since the European Reformation and Enlightenment, we have honored as culturally heroic the pioneering spirit of inquiry, embodied especially in science and in iconoclastic and anticlerical” dissenting” religious views, which includes at the edges even agnosticism and atheism. Eventually, as we encourage the heroic spirit of “thinking for yourself,” and “questioning authority,” the eagle eye of iconoclastic inquiry focuses on the transcending mythology of the culture itself, resulting in scholarship and educational that tends to debunk the foundational stories and beliefs, making them seem childish and implausible.

Thus it is that a significant sector of our culture, the highly educated sector, gains its own sense of heroic transcendence (meaning and purpose) exactly by questioning, undermining and debunking the very foundational, mythological stories of our culture which neatly combine doctrines of supernatural religion with sentimental patriotism. But this cultural mythology is the very substance from which a much larger sector of the society continues to gain its own sense of transcending meaning and purpose. The conflict that arises between these sectors is what we have called the “culture wars,” with one side assuming what is needed is “more education,” while the other side is just as sure the problem lies with smugly subversive and vaguely un-American “elites” whose covert agenda is to dominate others and undermine what is most sacred to the majority (Sarah Palin’s “Real Americans.”) We end up with defensive and exaggerated affirmations of the cultural mythology on the one hand (“In God We Trust!” “One Nation, UNDER GOD!” ) and the corollary elevation and adoration of “substitute gods” on the other (the pantheon of rock, sports and movie stars, the superrich, even people famous just for being famous) who function to fill our need for identification with something, anything, beyond the “merely human.”

So now (three times around the barn to get to the house–sorry about that!) we come back to your question: Why isn’t it acceptable to part with a friend like it is to part with a pet? Of course, from a purely logical point of view, it would be, and there is a lot we could do to bring a more logical perspective into our end-of-life customs and activities. (Nota Bene: visit the website of The Death Store mentioned above.) But at the same time, we clearly see that cultural norms are neither formed in nor driven by logic, but rather the deeply emotional and psychological need for assurance of transcendence. The reason we cannot simply bury our friends and loved ones with the same equanimity we do our pets is exactly because, in direct confrontation with death, our knee jerk human response (even of the most secular among us) boils down to a five word cry: We are not just animals!

Addendum: Our particular cultural traditions have made a categorical distinction between humans and other species. Much of the culture warrior resistance and even revulsive disgust against “evolution,” or PETA philosophy, is rooted in the need to defend and maintain this distinction. We might speculate, however, that in a culture whose norms distinguish most highly between, say, plant species and animate species, it would be more acceptable to part with a friend as with a pet. We might further speculate that in our own culture, as the sacrosanct distinction between human and other species breaks down, at least one result is elevation of close pets to something parallel to other family members in relation to their parting–a fact suggested in the fast emerging commerce in pet mortuary services.

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Fido at the Food Dish

June 21, 2012

“k1f” Kirby Farrell

What we can’t think about:  People vote against their self-interest especially when nobody challenges them

Why do working people vote against their own self-interest?  The question could hardly be more important. In The Guardian ( June 5th ), social psychologist Jonathan Haidt argued that:

In sum, the left has a tendency to place caring for the weak, sick and vulnerable above all other moral concerns. It is admirable and necessary that some political party stands up for victims of injustice, racism or bad luck. But in focusing so much on the needy, the left often fails to address – and sometimes violates – other moral needs, hopes and concerns.”

Hold it.  “The left” isn’t just whining about the needy.  The left is howling because the injustice is systematically poisoning the lives of the 99% of Americans whose living standards are in trouble.  But let the professor go on:

“When working-class people vote conservative, as most do in the US, they are not voting against their self-interest; they are voting for their moral interest. They are voting for the party that serves to them a more satisfying moral cuisine.”

Note the metaphor: morals are a matter of taste.  This sounds trivial or absurd, but he insists on it:

“Loyalty, respect for authority and some degree of sanctification create a more binding social order that places some limits on individualism and egoism. As marriage rates plummet, and globalization and rising diversity erodes the sense of common heritage within each nation, a lot of voters in many western nations find themselves hungering for conservative moral cuisine.”

Now “taste” is a matter of “hungering for conservative moral cuisine.” Usually “cuisine” is artful food, where hunger is the body’s cry for nourishment without which you die.

The problem is that this is feel-good rhetoric.  Laughing gas.  You’d never guess that real hunger means that the number of people needing food stamps has nearly tripled.  In the last 11 years, the number of people living in poverty has risen by a third, from 33 million to 44 million.

Why should “marriage rates” and globalization be more moral than the suffering and damage caused by real hunger or injustice?

Despite being in the wake of a financial crisis that . . . should have buried the cultural issues and pulled most voters to the left, we are finding in America and many European nations a stronger shift to the right. When people fear the collapse of their society, they want order and national greatness, not a more nurturing government.”

Wait.  This is a quicksand of confusion.  The “financial crisis” may be agonizing, but the left wants “nurturing government” as a remedy.  But this isn’t enough for conservatives, who want “national greatness” instead because society may be “collapsing.”  Whew.  Where to begin.

Why shouldn’t conservatives fear the finance and consumer rot causing the financial crisis?  Arguably that’s more fatal than the shine coming off “national greatness.”  One answer is that corporate propaganda is smothering the nation, distracting people 24/7 from real hunger and pain. After all, the financial crisis has destroyed families–their livelihood, their homes, their education, their future.  Why shouldn’t “nurture” be a quality of “greatness”?  If nurture’s not enough, how about policing the executive crooks who’ve been running amok?  In fact, since the crisis has been poisoning people’s belief in their government, their neighbors, and their nation–and paid off egoistic rich predators–why shouldn’t policing the perpetrators and their propaganda be morally imperative?

For that matter, what is “national greatness” anyway? Isn’t it a form of self-congratulation and unearned superiority over other people?  How could it possibly be measured?  Isn’t “greatness” the crowd-sized version of “egoism”?

Could “greatness” be the ability to spend trillions of dollars invading third-world countries while fighting to eliminate food stamps for the poor at home?  Wouldn’t that be disloyalty, disrespect, and evil?

Is politics only about what working class people want?  Aren’t we hearing a lot of anger from conservatives, especially from men?  And directed at women and blacks and immigrants?  This sounds like rage pumping up self-righteous ego.  Help me out with the “morality” here.  Why do working folks get enraged at people treated even more shabbily than they are?  Is it national greatness they want?  If the right protects the predatory rich and flogs the poor, why vote for them?

One answer is to watch the usually affectionate Fido at the food dish.  He snarls at any dog who comes near their food dish– except of course for bigger and fiercer dogs.  They get a pass.  They’ll tear your throat out. They’ll fire you, outlaw your labor union, send you to invade a third-world country and try out luxury high-tech weapons.  Oh, and kill your pension.

You can understand the snarling.  We’re built to associate scarce food with skinny, shrunken bodies and death.  It’s a reason to feel fat and happy with supersized “national greatness.”   Feed me.  Feed me.  But do tell me I’m feeding myself, please.

Well, Professor Haidt works in NYU’s Stern business school.  You could be excused for wondering if business schools find “national greatness” more tasty to contemplate than financial crisis and the predatory rich.

But the man is onto something in wondering about working class fears of the nation’s collapse.  Only he euphemizes it. “Collapse” isn’t cuisine.  Collapse is fear of death and social death.  Collapse is fear of pain and helplessness.  These are understandable fears for financially stressed and cheated working folks. They have an incentive to talk about phony “cuisine” morals because nobody in politics will address their real fears and the practical, problem-solving steps necessary to manage them.

What would help? Meaningful work.  Fair pay for work, for men and women.  Affordable housing.  Add your Santa list here.  Really what’s needed is self-esteem and realistic self-confidence–not easy to find on a planet with 7 billion highstrung bipeds.

More realistic education would help.  Most education is as much cheerleading as it is critical awareness.  Think of the “conservatives” who rant against “big government handouts” while blindly relying on Medicare, unemployment insurance, or social, security.  This is self-deception fattened up for slaughter on a diet of broadcast lies.  It’s a delusion to crave “national greatness” — the snake oil of the bigshot and the Nuremburg rally.  Enough pulpit palaver about the cosmic bigshot.

If you want morals, how about emphasizing that modern nations are fabulously intricate systems, and that people we need to work together and to look out for one another in order to be healthy. Behind conservative moral “cuisine” is a different metaphor: triage.  Get rid of that other dog sniffing at “your” food dish.

Hard for the animals to work together or even eat when your throat is busy growling.

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Choosing our illusions without care

June 14, 2012

“Svaardvaard” Bill Bornschein

It is poetic justice that the Ernest Becker Foundation’s home base, Seattle, also provides us with the leitmotif of our age, expressed in the final lyrics of Nirvana’s song Smells Like Teen Spirit: “the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial, the denial.” We are indeed a culture of denial and the EBF Fall Conference dealt with climate change denial and the reluctance of many to accept the findings of science. This denial certainly comports with what Becker says about the unwillingness to challenge the cultural systems through which people experience an ersatz immortality. There has recently been a whole spate of books dealing with this denial. I’m thinking here of Benjamin Barber’s book Consumed and Chris Hedges’ Empire of Illusion. One recent addition has really caught my eye, James Kunstler’s Too Much Magic. Author of The Long Emergency, Kunstler  is a leading analyst of peak oil and its repercussions for a society premised  on constant growth and expansion. Subtitled “Wishful Thinking About Technology And The Fate Of The Nation,” Too Much Magic examines the irrational faith that we moderns have in Technology to save the day. The appeal of such a belief is that it doesn’t require any real change on our part. “They will come up with something” has become the background mantra for a culture unwilling to face the death of a particular lifestyle, which Kunstler refers to as “happy motoring.” Fantasies of flying cars of the future, algae-based energy and the like are systematically chronicled and refuted. The political implications of our cultural reset are analyzed as well. The overall picture is not pretty. Insightfully, Kunstler also connects our denial to the generational cycles described by historians Bill Strauss and Neil Howe in their book The Fourth Turning. Our culture of denial is reflective of a “third turning” wherein systems become sclerotic and more and more effort has to be put into maintaining them. The banking bailout is a prime example of this.

 

The aspect of Too Much Magic that really caught my attention was the way it demonstrates our Janus-like relationship to technology and how it can be a form of death denial. On the one hand, some deny science because it is a threat to their immortality ideology. On the other hand, many of the same people have a childlike faith that technology will save us. Ken Wilber has a wonderful image for this contradiction, people happily sawing off the tree limb on which they sit. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in Kunstler’s description of Disney World. Born in the gee-whiz era of scientific miracles following WWII,  the Disney experience simultaneously trades on our nostalgia for a simpler, bygone America of the small town. Listen to Kuntler’s description. “I was amused to discover some years ago, on a visit to Disney’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, how much of the overarching metaphor in old Walt’s kinetic semiology of thrill rides and wish fulfillment galleries revolved around the invocation of death.”  Later he writes, “From Main Street, the Disney World visitor moves on to the many rides featuring brushes with death, haunted houses, animatronic corpses, holographic ghosts, screaming mummies, ghouls, skeletons, coffins, graveyards and all the other stock trappings of our national bent for necromancy. The place is drenched with signifiers of mortality.” Wow!  I wonder if Kunstler has read The Denial of Death. He certainly seems to be barking up the same tree. There are some dots to be connected here, namely our techno-utopianism, our cultural paralysis, and our death denial. Kunstler’s new book is an important contribution to the conversation.

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Still

June 1, 2012

“The Single Hound” Bruce Floyd

Another hot day here, a bronze sun sits blazing in a cloudless sky. A warm wind stirs the leaf-laden trees. The ripeness build and builds, growing fatter and fatter, slowly aiming for its apex. It’s early June. I hear no voices prophesying the fall from fecundity, the inexorable rottenness to come, this green and vibrant world heat-blasted and withered by the time August comes. How weary, finally, summer will become, how tiresome, how ragged and worn, its vitality leached out by the relentless heat, the long, scalding days, heartbreaking days.

After my workout, I came out of the large room out back, looked at the profusion of green washing the fig tree. Then I saw at my feet, lying there in the green grass, a dead mole, a little fellow not as big as my little finger. How tiny it was. He hadn’t been dead long because his grey fur (I wish I knew the names for the gradations of colors) still looked glossy in the June sunlight. Dead lay the creature. I did not see a mark on it, but dead lay the creature. I went inside the storeroom and got my shovel. I came back out, gently scooped up the dead mole, and walked over to the ground cover about the house and tossed the creature into it.

When I first saw the little mole lying dead in the sunlight, I thought, “How still death is.” Even in a world bursting with green, gone mad with it, death lies still in the sheets of light spilling from the sky.