Author Archive

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Boston Strong: Engendering Self-Examination

April 4, 2015
TDF Guest Edward Mendelowitz

TDF Guest
Edward Mendelowitz

The 2014 Boston Marathon took place, like last year’s, on Patriot’s Day on a glorious spring day here in transcendentalist New England. It was a moment of triumph for so many people around our city and world, one that was preceded and accompanied by great anticipation, jubilation, sadness and an outpouring of municipal and patriotic zeal. The winner of the men’s division race was an Eritrean émigré, the first American to do so in over three decades. The entire event was typified by a spirit a determination, resilience and resolve. One year later, Bostonians were rightly triumphant, joyous and proud.

Several days after the horror of Marathon 2013, I noticed that a banner suddenly appeared suspended from one of the overpasses along Route 93, the northsouth expressway that half the population of metropolitan Boston seems to be traveling along at any moment in New England time. In large capital letters, it read: “NO MORE HURTING PEOPLE. PEACE.” These were the fateful words written by eight-yearold Martin Richard, who had made the sign under the graceful counsel of his teacher, Rachel Moo of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester where both student and teacher resided. Moo had taken the snapshot of the boy holding a sign that would become a rallying cry in the aftermath of tragedy. On the day of the race, Martin Richard’s family had been scrambling for safety after the first explosion when the second bomb detonated several feet to their rear. Richard’s seven-year-old sister would lose half of her leg; his mother would go blind in one eye; father suffered shrapnel wounds and would lose partial hearing. Martin Richard himself was one of three people who died in the blast. It was, as the press accurately reported, a “gargantuan crime.”

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the younger of the two brothers suspected of perpetrating the bombings, was found several days later hiding in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, a suburban town just northwest of Boston. It is he that the surveillance videos disclose placing the device near the finish line that would take Martin Richard’s life. On the inside wall of the boat, Tsarnaev had scrawled these indignant, haunting words: “The U.S. government is killing our innocent civilians. Stop killing our innocent people and we will stop.” He, too, is certainly not wrong. We are doing it in Afghanistan and Pakistan and Yemen as well. And aiding and abetting it elsewhere with shipments of arms and sundry material and political supports. The Rabaa Massacre one year ago in Cairo and recent atrocities in Gaza. So many surreptitious and sinister activities in the purported interests of humanitarianism, security and peace.

Tsarnaev has reportedly indicated that he and his brother had been influenced in their beliefs and ultimate ungodly act by lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen and Yemeni imam whose own message—once patently non-violent and proAmerican, albeit critical of its policies with respect to the Muslim world and the Middle East—had become increasingly radicalized as our government’s policies continued unabated and he himself became a hunted man. Eventually al-Awlaki was singled out for “targeted killing” and taken out by a drone attack on September 30th, 2011. Such targeted killing of an American citizen without charge, trial or conviction was unprecedented. Two weeks later, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, Anwar’s 16-year-old-son, was killed by yet another drone strike in Yemen. A U.S. citizen born in Denver, Abdulrahman had no interests in radical movements of any sort. “He was a typical teenager,” recalls his grandfather Nasser al-Awlaki, a former Fulbright scholar. “He watched ‘The Simpsons,’ listened to Snoop Dogg, read ‘Harry Potter’ and had a Facebook page with many friends. He had a mop of curly hair, glasses like me and a wide, goofy smile.” An intelligent, gentle and circumspect soul, the elder al-Awlaki implores: “My grandson was killed by his own government. Shouldn’t it have at least to explain why?”

“Stop killing our people and we will stop.” “No more hurting people. Peace.” To be sure, Martin Richard’s exhortation is the more rarified moral code, but Tsarnaev’s chilling rejoinder, if we are honest with ourselves, has also its place.

And this, in the words of William James, is “the worm at the core”—something which it is difficult to discern precisely insofar as the locus of machinations resides within our own nation and selves. Going forward, we can best aspire to the democratic principles and ideals that underwrote those first shots of the American Revolution at Battle Green in Lexington and the Old North Bridge in Concord to the extent that we honor the multiplicity of contending voices. Those banished, unwanted voices comprise an essential part of the dialogue and narrative We must embrace, as Rollo May kept admonishing, the daemons within if we are to forestall future returns of the Furies. The Obama administration has garnered voluble and near-unanimous support from the third force from the very start. Important, then, that we, especially, attend to the stirrings, voices and alternate aspects and selves on those Jamesean “margins” of consciousness. Only in this way will life yield the “richness” and eventual good works to which luminaries like James and May and Ernest Becker tirelessly pointed. If Martin Richard’s message of peace is to be had, this is the way to do it. “God,” said C.G. Jung several days before he died, “is the name by which I designate all things which cross my willful path violently and recklessly, all things which upset my subjective views, plans and intentions, and change the course of my life for better or for worse.” And then there is the poet Kafka who muses quietly in his diary, “Only in the chorus may be a certain truth.”

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Nothing Focuses The Mind Like The Ultimate Deadline: Death

February 13, 2014
TDF Guest Jim Lieberman

TDF Guest Jim Lieberman

The “Deadline Watch” was a recent topic on National Public Radio. You put in data about yourself and the ticker on your wrist continuously estimates your time left on Earth. Its inventor, Fredrik Colting, a 37-year-old Swedish former grave-digger, then publisher, calls it “Tikker, the happiness watch” because it helps focus on the worthwhile and enjoyable use of time remaining.

Ernest Becker was present in spirit:  psychologist Sheldon Solomon cogently handled questions, emphasizing that death awareness can make us more appreciative of life, but also hostile and xenophobic: “intolerance against people who are different is the result of a psychological inability to tolerate death.”
Colting agreed that wearing it could push one in either direction. A live example came from a couple who tried out the device. Theresa experienced brighter colors around her, while a chore–making the bed–seemed senseless. Jeff was impatient, resenting time wasted with junk mail; he couldn’t wait to end the experiment. For Theresa the world was “sharpened” and she wants to get the Tikker for herself.

The media constantly remind us of death, loss and grief affecting someone else–a form of reassurance. Most Americans are believers who count on a glorious afterlife, but want to take their good time getting there. The grateful owner of two artificial hips at 79, I don’t need a countdown watch to appreciate a little more time. We do need a watch that tells us when Mother Earth will likely die, to raise anxiety constructively. Disease, famine and war are crude yet insufficient remedies for overpopulation. Human life is choking the planet to death and the powers-that-be are in denial.

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At the Altar of the NFL: Sports as Eucharist

September 20, 2013
TDF Guest Don Ashe

TDF Guest Don Ashe

The NFL has fired up again and I felt myself reacting with pleasurable thoughts and feelings. Watching great passes and catches, running backs out maneuvering or just plain running over opponents, the fumbles, the upsets, the falls. I anticipate watching it all and feeling good throughout the process. In fact , it sounds so good, I think I will enhance the expectable party with equally anticipated fattening foods and imbibery. Bring it on!

I paused and asked, why was this so? I’m happily anticipating sitting in front of a flashing flat, glowing multi-colored screen emitting various sounds that, when projecting a so called football game, typically generate happy feelings in me, so much so, that I will, of my own free will, sit in place for 2 or more hours staring happily at the glowing, noise emitting screen, often smiling and vocally, and often uncontrollably, crying out with joy or anguish in response to the projections entering my eyes and ears. Is this what life’s about? Well, that’s a big question, but one thing I know: I like thinking about watching football games I’ve never seen before. For me, football is a bit special. It’s one slight, tiny smidge of an inch closer to what resonates deep within people a bit more than other sports. At least for now.

Try this. Think of football, along with many other cultural expressions, as a reenactment of humankind’s prehistoric narrative of life’s terrifying moments when survival meant clashing with another tribe who are attacking for food or territory. Successful strategies, split second reactions, and out maneuvers were the difference literally between life and death, not just winning or losing. Of course, the stories remembered, the historical narratives, recall the most successful of humans, the survivors; the nimble, powerful, and quick heavyweights battling it out until one succumbs and the other triumphs.

These experiences were so powerful they were likely indelibly etched upon the memories of all survivors. As hard as one might try to forget it, the memory resiliently returned of the ferociousness and immediacy of horrific, bloody, frightening scenes. Then again, as bad as it sounds, what better for the survival of the tribe and species than to recall over and over the actions that either conquered and/or defended oneself? “Remember that day when Uncle Soandso killed the hyena by . . . ?” Even defeats were remembered as valuable lessons of what to avoid.

Another sobering speculation about prehistoric time is, these battles took place at a time when it was more likely than not to have witnessed one of your immediate family members, including children, being eaten alive by a more powerful animal or pack of animals. Again, the memory of that gory, agonizing spectacle would have scorched on the memory of any survivor a constantly persistent and fear filled memory of what might happen to them any day in the future as long as they survive. Not just the idea of death in the rational sense, but death in the sense of what they already watched in horror and felt as sickeningly conflicted in their reaction between naturally wanting to help the victim and naturally wanting to flee for self survival, a true double bind. Prehistoric guilt.

And it only takes once of going through the experience of witnessing death at work to leave survivors with a permanent sense of never ending vulnerability. Yet this permanent mental scar actually served the blind survival purposes of the species, acting as a beacon of warning to never forget the constant possibility of death’s threat, to be ever vigilant in looking back over one’s shoulder in fear of being the target of the next attack.

So this ability to use one’s brain to remember and analyze key threatening events contributed to the survival and flourishing of these otherwise relatively weak animals, the early homo sapiens. Amazingly, using memory and language, homo sapiens were able to successfully transmit critical survival knowledge to offspring.

While Jungian archetypes may be too much of a stretch empirically to explain this memory transmission between generations, it is reasonable to suggest that early imprinting upon an offspring’s neural pathways of how to survive and remain vigilant against the threat of death took place quite naturally via verbal stories and warning signs all through early formative development. Prehistoric storytelling acted as embryonic seeds of what would much later evolve into the multifaceted wonder of human culture.

Of course, these early oral narratives had more than mere entertainment value. They constantly reinforced what’s ultimately important to remember in order to survive and flourish. In other words, the chances of survival are increased in direct proportion to the ability to remember the constant threat of death. But remembering death’s threat is a delicate business that forces the human to walk a tightrope to maintain psychological equilibrium. Too little remembrance results in vulnerability and death, too much remembrance results in crippling fear and death.

So how did the homo sapiens manage this seemingly elusive balance? Could it be that familiar remembrance rituals reenacting the critical moments and battles eventually evolved over years of interpretation into safe and predictable social events as actual death threats became less frequent? As human beings learned to organize themselves and understand their enemies the actual violent death events became less unavoidable and more a thing of unfortunate timing.

Still, remembrance rituals can never be completely abandoned. This would spell certain death for humans whose very neural brain pathways had evolved to service this purpose. The ritualized remembrances persisted through early simple culture such as drama and religion. In drama these early humans may have taken the basic form of a reenactment story and infused it with interest by changing the names or characters in the story, but always remembering the salient points regarding survival.

Prehistoric religious expressions may have been much like drama, but paired back to the essentials. Abbreviated stories using symbols and appealing to any power larger than oneself. Sacrifice to offer to unseen powers and to bring to remembrance the bloody horror of the eternal death threats. Eucharistic-like images to bring one back to the point of it all: Suffering and pain unceasingly chases us, so do your best to survive each and every moment.

And the rituals not only persisted, but exploded through sport. Games of competition, whether one-on-one or team competitions, both fulfilled the purposes of the needed remembrance reenactments of battles and prowess while affording pleasurable distraction from the crippling truth of the determined inevitability of succumbing to death.

Though sports alone are not the only cultural expressions based on early human struggles with death they certainly are one of the most ubiquitous and diversely attended, not to mention extravagantly funded, rituals that to most humans often appear meaningless when viewed as a mere end to itself. I enjoy basketball, baseball, soccer, hockey, golf, and the Olympics. But when you extract it from out of the people and their feelings, it’s nothing more than persons playing with balls.

We the people infuse the games with importance, the need to conquer, self worth, achievement, cleverness, and ability in the face of opposition. The quarterback sizes up the enemies, calls out any modifications to the battle plan, initiates the attack with the snap of the ball. Suddenly, the biggest, strongest, and fastest warriors are desperately and maniacally clawing there way toward the man holding the prized possession, such as, oh who knows, maybe a pigskin, through a titanic crash of deadly forces.

The idea here is to kill the possessor of the prized possession by bringing him to the ground where he can be subdued and incapacitated. In a split second move the possessor may hand off or throw the prized possession to another warrior, redirecting the attackers to him who must now fight to get the possession to a safe place before he can be incapacitated. This requires hand to hand contact, out maneuvering, out running, and out smarting the enemy, all in a matter of a few precious seconds. The exciting and violent clash of these death battles between gladiators repeats again and again, thrilling spectators with the rush of witnessing the test of their best soldier’s power, stamina, and strategy.

It’s a great reminder of the daily battle we must all endure. And it all takes place in both symbolic and nitty gritty fashion before the altar of the NFL. Symbolically reminding us on the one hand that life is threatening and humans must continually fight to survive. On the other hand, pass the chips and watch these dudes go at it.

Yes, there’s something about the ole Gridiron that heats me up at the core.

Don Ashe has been a Becker enthusiast since 1978. He graduated from Fuller Theological Seminary in 1980 and served in ministry for 10 years. He has been teaching philosophy at Azusa Pacific University since 2001. Don lives with his wife of 36 years in Hermosa Beach, CA.

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Flu Shot Resistance – A Symptom of Death Denial?

February 14, 2013
TDF Guest Scott Murray

TDF Guest Scott Murray

Cornell psychologist Thomas Gilovich has made a career out of studying the cognitive processes that sustain dubious beliefs. There is something about flu season that makes me wish I could combine his work with that of Becker and enlist their aid in a cultural intervention. It seems there is a robust resistance to influenza vaccination despite the potential risks of the flu – a subject rife with extensions into Gilovich’s work. If the flu is so dangerous, what dubious beliefs inspire resistance to vaccination? And a glance at Beckerian thought might raise the question of why the fear of death wouldn’t drive more people to get vaccinated. But a deeper understanding of what death denial actually entails helps inform us why many resist the shot.

We’ve had rather mild flu seasons the last year or so (http://news.yahoo.com/why-years-flu-season-bad-173457272.html), but as statistics readily predict, occasionally influenza strains are more potent and many cases of serious flu infection can occur. The cost in dollars – and lives – can be quite serious. So why do some resist influenza vaccination?

Certainly the media, with its drive to fill air time and sell stories that attract attention, is part of the problem. Flu hype sends millions scrambling for a vaccination each year – but the media is known for its hyperbole, slanted use of facts, and even fear-mongering. It’s no wonder, then, that many cautious, critical individuals would see reports of this year’s raging epidemic and dismiss the need for a flu shot. But as Gilovich is insistent in pointing out, we tend to be most critical of that information which does not agree with the beliefs we already possess. As he puts it: “when the initial evidence supports our preferences, we are generally satisfied and terminate our search; when the initial evidence is hostile … we often dig deeper.” (82) In other words, those who suspect media hype and doubt the need for a flu shot may already believe that a flu shot is unnecessary, and be looking for reasons to support this belief.

Is a distrust of the media, with their tendency to overstate or distort facts, sufficient to explain dismissal of flu season severity? Becker might disagree. Cognitive biases are in one respect no different than elbows and thumbs: they’ve evolved to serve a purpose, and where Gilovich leaves off, Becker nicely steps in. Gilovich is a laboratory psychologist, a statistician; he resists the temptation to speculate too grandly on why the human brain comes hard-wired to accept information that supports existing beliefs while remaining doubtful of information that does not. Becker’s focus on death anxiety provides a compelling furtherance of this line of questioning.

Disease and death are deeply connected concepts. Disease is a limiting of life and brings the carefully repressed reality of our mortality painfully to the foreground of our thoughts. It’s no surprise, then, to discover a deep desire to believe that the flu shot is essentially needless. The CDC, in addressing the most prevalent myths that prevent influenza vaccination, have to deal with the ‘argument’ that influenza is only serious for those who are very young, elderly, pregnant or otherwise already ill. Your average healthy person can deal with influenza using natural means – namely, the immune system (http://www.cnn.com/2013/01/11/health/flu-shot-questions/index.html).

The challenge with this argument is that it isn’t untrue; in fact, the majority of people who come down with influenza nowadays – certainly in the more affluent Western world — survive relatively unscathed. But the problem with the argument is that it isn’t actually an argument against vaccination at all. Just because you can survive the flu does not mean you shouldn’t avoid it, if not only for yourself than for the basic public health service of not acting as a transmitter of the virus to someone who is more at risk of hospitalization or even death due to influenza. So the question persists: if vaccination serves yourself and the community, why resist it?

There are other studies being conducted on what is termed ‘naturalness bias’ (like this one at Rutgers: http://mdm.sagepub.com/content/28/4/532.short). The result of the study is essentially that some people make bad decisions because of a cognitive bias towards means that feel more ‘natural’ – in other words, if you tell them a kind of tea is a great counteractive agent to influenza, they will drink it, but if you suggest that they get vaccinated, they will find all kinds of reasons to dispute you. Tea is from nature; vaccines are a mysterious, dubious concoction brought to you by the same science that supported cocaine as medicine and DDT as pesticide.

So all kinds of reasons exist to doubt the flu vaccine. What’s in the flu shot, anyway? Many believe that the flu shot can actually get you sick, which is itself a medical misunderstanding involving a combination of known statistical nemeses. For starters, a large number of influenza strains and influenza-like viruses exist, and the vaccine can only protect you against so many. Some argue that this makes the vaccine worthless, when in fact it means that the vaccine is only as good as the severity of the strains it actually protects against. Those concocting the vaccine work hard to ensure it protects against the most severe strains predicted to be active in any given season. Nevertheless, the likelihood that some who are vaccinated become sick soon after is statistically guaranteed given a large enough sample, either because the vaccination didn’t come in time or because those unlucky few caught something the vaccination could not defend against. To these few (a minority, particularly if you establish a clear window of time after vaccination where sickness constitutes a possible response to vaccination), it is not surprising that they feel cheated and suspect that they’ve been had — not only by flu hype, but by flu shot hype.

The other factor in play has to do with anecdotal evidence and word of mouth narrative; it’s a simple tale of how everyone knows someone (who knows someone?) who has ‘gotten sick from a flu shot.’ The CDC is very candid about why this can seem to happen to any who cares to actually read up on it: (http://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/qa/misconceptions.htm).

In the light of these cognitive factors that influence these behaviors (influenza vaccination denial and the anti-hype hype), is there a motivational determinant that can be identified? Becker’s theories outline what Gilovich’s work suggests: something at work deeper than cognitive tics, deeper than the prevalence of poor science in pop culture. Isn’t it safer for the psyche to believe that disease is less of a threat? That the body has what it needs to defend itself against death? Don’t flu severity denial – and the cognitive factors that help sustain it – work in the service of protecting the embodied self against the reality of its own fragility?

Sources:

Gilovich, Thomas. How We Know What Isn’t So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life. New York: Free Press, 1991.

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We Give Birth Astride a Grave

November 25, 2012

TDF Guest Kim Pereira

I’ve been fortunate never to have experienced the crippling effects of chronic depression, although I’ve had my share of despair where the world seemed to spin out of control and even sleep, if it could be had, offered no respite. Like so many others, I have known late nights sprawled on a couch, clicking the hours away, remote in hand, finding nothing worth watching, relying on endless checking of meaningless Facebook updates to authenticate the feeling that I’m not alone in this spiraling vortex. Are we that obsessed with distracting ourselves? And if so, from what, I wonder? Being alone? Not alone by ourselves, though that too, but alone with our thoughts. Do we fill our days with sidetracking paraphernalia to avoid the agony of introspection which would inevitably lead to the central question of our lives—our mortality? The consuming question is this: are our lives being driven by the specter of death? Is that behind our attempts to fill every moment with something, anything, just to avoid confronting the only truth of which we are certain? Are we trying to divert ourselves from ourselves? What fears lurk beneath the urgency to keep busy, rushing through manufactured tasks and mundane events, going to church, jamming trivia into our days as though they were somehow meaningful, bestowing significance on them by virtue of our attention, deluding ourselves by clinging to an impuissant work ethic, a hand-me-down from past generations that prized it above all else? We save very little time for vacations, have the least number of public holidays of any country, and when we do take a break we’re lucky if we find time to enjoy a sunset!

When I first read Samuel Beckett’s anguished cry (the title of this essay) from his seminal work, Waiting for Godot, the full implications of it didn’t really strike me, although it vaguely echoed Thoreau’s “lives of quiet desperation.” Since then my fascination with the so-called Theatre of the Absurd has offered insights into the world as I traveled across the globe, making more sense of what I saw than I cared to admit. Looking through literature I found those sentiments reflected in other works—the sacrifices of “scapegoated” heroic figures from Shakespearean and Greek tragedies seek transcendence from the desolation of the human condition; comedic structures attempt to reorder societies by changing the rhythms of the old world to fit the melodies of youth, exchanging a past for a new future that will in time become replete with similar characteristics that made the past so unpalatable! The tortuous cycle continues.

These depictions offer only glimpses of hope as they strain against overwhelming realities. King Lear ends in a world as hopeless and barren as can be imagined, prompting Beckett to use the king and his fool metaphorically in Endgame, that entropic image of a world we have destroyed. For all his eternal optimism, Dickens’ brilliance lies in his excoriating portrayals of industrial London where little orphans were swallowed by rapacious thugs lurking in alleys and the trammels of England’s Courts of Chancery ensnared families for decades! Any journey through his pages cannot ignore the glowering pessimism of the nineteenth century and the crushing weight of factories and machines leading to disenchantment and inertia—Chekhov’s characters are unable to rise from their indolence and go to Moscow, preferring to yearn for what will never come, for longing is their raison d’etre, replacing vibrancy with torpor, banishing the cherry orchard to the lumber yard as commercialism and utility sweep away beauty and grace, false notions anyway, having been acquired on the backs of serfs and the underclass!

The machines have changed, but the effects persist—digital technology, once hailed with the same enthusiasm as the industrial machinery of the nineteenth century, is viewed with growing suspicion as intrusive, leading to questions of privacy and loss of identity, reducing us to disembodied voices on answering machines or twitter feeds. The ability to stay in contact with a swath of people robs us of the desire to do so; if it’s always available it loses its urgency, without which we drift into isolation, cocooned by the minutiae of every day, paralyzed by the burden of trying to authenticate our existence.

We don’t purchase products any more—they buy us!! Walking through shopping aisles we are attacked by displays that scream for attention; row upon shiny row leer as we walk past, similar to walking through a jail cell corridor showered by abuse from inmates on either side. Under relentless pressure we succumb, reach out and grab one; maybe we even read the specifications on the container to delude ourselves into believing we made a wise choice. But the selection is quite random, for the plethora of available products deadens our ability to choose. With our identities eviscerated by years of slavery to the gods of marketing strategies, we don’t know who we are, much less what we really want. We are now on sale, possessed by our possessions—clothes, household products, food, holiday resorts, TV channels, movies, books, and everything else; we have to take what we are given. They choose us!

There’s a moment in Ionesco’s Bald Soprano where the Smiths are discussing Bobby Watson’s death, reported in the newspaper; as the conversation proceeds we realize every single one of Bobby Watson’s relatives is named Bobby Watson. Of course, the amusing irony is that a couple named Smith is making this discovery. Keeping up with the Joneses (or Smiths) has turned us into Joneses, with the same houses, same clothes, and the same status updates. Look through the myriad photographs on Facebook and after a while the pictures of kids, families, and vacations devolve into endless cycles of sameness. We are all Bobby Watsons, interchangeable and alike, indistinguishable from one another, with nothing meaningful to say. Our political and social parties and FB profiles are vain attempts to distinguish us but very little there is unique.

Towards the end of The Bald Soprano dialogue descends into gibberish, culminating in a show of aggression. Failure to communicate leaves violence as the only option, for we desperately need something to remind us that we’re alive, that we still live in a social world, but all we have are anger, violence, and the instinct to survive—witness global skirmishes and full-fledged wars, ethnic cleansing, government sponsored torture, terrorism, street violence, political discourse and TV discussions that are shouting matches, mass murders in villages, movie theatres, and even temples! The jungle paths to destruction have always been available, obscured sometimes by the underbrush of forced civility, but easily accessible when survival is at stake.

This is the Age of Saturn, a sullen, scowling time where malevolence permeates the republic and millions of bloggers can pen their unfiltered thoughts; where politicians lie with impunity and truth is lost among thousands of commercials; where we cling to worthless promises because we’re desperate to believe someone cares about us; a time of distrust, skepticism, and fear! Music now finds its greatest audience only through competitions and the hushed loveliness of verse has descended into poetry slams. A hundred years ago Expressionists rebelled against the dehumanizing effects of an industrial age, distorting reality to give vent to passions and feelings, releasing their creative streams unencumbered by constraints of logic or order; they themselves were victims of an emotional angst that settled upon Europe before exploding in a massive conflagration across the continent. It almost seems like we have come full circle ten decades later. In the new reality of this century, language and relationships have been compressed and distorted—140 characters (as random as the work of Dadaists) are enough to say what we feel and the social networks of cyberspace have supplanted front porches, parish halls, and even playgrounds. We can now count the number of “friends” we have right there in the left column and on the right we know exactly what we “like.” And still we are alone. Waiting…

Earlier I alluded to the fear of death being the driving force behind much of what we do, suggesting that much of what we do are merely distractions designed to keep us from contemplating the void. Perhaps the most successful thing is to make it through each day. When one considers the absolute haphazardness of life (people dying accidentally or being stricken with fatal diseases—who among us doesn’t know someone we love in this situation?) it’s a small miracle we are alive at any moment! Despite the winding down of the world in Endgame they are left with the possibility of tomorrow; Godot never comes but Everyman still waits on the empty road; we persist. The original French title of the play is En Attendant Godot, WHILE waiting for Godot! Like Beckett’s tramps we find ways to amuse ourselves while waiting for the end—we play games, make art, have sex, get drunk, persevere in our jobs, convince ourselves that death is not tomorrow, and do a million things that slap our faces to wake us to the fact that we’re alive.

Dr. Kim Pereira is Professor of Theater and Director of the Honors Program at Illinois State University.

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Soulnerd: The Third Spiritual Option

August 28, 2012

TDF Guest Jeremy Sherman

“Life is like getting on a boat that is about to sink.”

-D.T. Suzuki

“The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity–designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”

-Ernest Becker

We are mirror mortals, the first known species with the capacity to imagine the full arc of life and to know in definitive detail that we die.  We get on the boat; we row with great enthusiasm knowing that no matter our destiny, our real destiny is the inky deep.  We invest in our journey, conscious that we must eventually divest.

And it isn’t just the one death.  Getting on a boat that is about to sink is a fractal experience played out in the arc of minutes, hours, years, eras, epochs and millennia. Every day something dies.  You lose your glasses, your friend snubs you, you realize that the thing that thrilled you yesterday isn’t great after all.  Over the months, too, the people and joys come and go.  Then each of us dies.  Our families die.  Our civilizations fall.  Our species.  The universe itself is terminal. Everything we embrace as exciting and new comes with its time-release aging, decay, and breakdown.  When you buy a pet dog you buy a pet dog’s death.

None of this would matter if we never got on the boat.  But here we are. We care. When we fall in love, investing, it’s like a taste of heaven—joy eternal. When we break up, divesting of each other, it’s a little taste of hell—dissolution eternal. The deeper you go in the more it hurts to come out. Whether we choose to divest or divestment is thrust upon us, there it is, the inevitable, looming no matter where we go.

This view of life fits with disconcerting snugness.  Because we throw our lot in with the garden, we grieve when we’re cast out of it.  Because we accelerate into what enthuses us, our brakes squeal and our wheels shudder when we are forced to stop.  Union is sweet, disunion is sour.  Yes, no one gets out alive, but also no one gets out without great grief and loss, and here we are, knowing we’ll be evicted eventually. And what can we do about it?

I’ve had a hard time with the word “Spiritual.”  Powerful but ill-defined words make me wary.  Since I can’t find much consensus about what it means, I feel at liberty to offer my own definition.  Spirituality is one’s overall strategy for coping with the challenge of investing, knowing that one must eventually divest.  Spirituality is a kind of preparation, a pre-grieving. Defined this way, I see three main spiritual paths, each with myriad variations, but still ultimately just three:

1.     Make One Eternal Investment: Build a pillar of belief to hold onto, one thing from which one never divests for all eternity, something that can’t be credibly challenged or tested and proved wanting, something that explains why people leave and people die and why there has to be so much pain and disappointment and letting go, a belief perhaps that explains how it will all make sense by and by or will be made equitable in the world beyond, a belief that makes the world beyond—the eternal realm–one’s primary focus, aiming us toward its purpose ever after and toward the happily ever after that we expect to come from serving its purpose ever after.

2.     Let Go Into Thin slices: Since letting go is the hard part, make a practice of divesting.  Practice divesting by being present in every instant. Excise memory (of what’s lost) or projection (to what’s in store). Be here now, quieting the hungry ghosts of intellect and conception.  Become one with nature which doesn’t think, theorize, speculate or foresee, but just is.  Return to animal simplicity. In pain, simply say “ouch.” In pleasure simply say “ah.”  Don’t generalize or theorize about implications. Know the arc but live in the moment, the cross sections, one slice of life at a time.

3.     Make a study of the arc: Put one’s grief in context of the patterns structures and trends of human and natural affairs. Study that larger context with heart and head full open, feeling waves of sorrow and joy and thinking about and analyzing the waves, using your intellect and capacity for conception, giving voice to hungry ghosts, the desire to understand, and to manage, to minimize grief but also to face it squarely.  Study it through the many disciplines, culture’s long arguments, quests, debates and accounts, the peculiarly stubborn attempts to see clearly that constitute intellectual culture.  Cut a path through big time, the “long and wide now” by absorbing evolutionary biology, intellectual history, philosophy, anthropology, and above all, literature. Become worldly so that you can say of whatever life deals you, “Yes, this too life has in its vast and intricate creative capacities.”

Every once in a while people ask me if I’m spiritual or have a spiritual practice.  By their definition I think they’re asking about the first two kinds, in which case my answer is an obvious no. But I balk a little because though the third kind is in some ways an anathema to the first two, it feels like my spiritual path, so I haven’t known exactly what to say.

My deepest spiritual experience came by reading a novel about a normal couple divorcing.  It was during my first mid-life crisis (I’ve had two and am expecting one more).  My wife was in love with someone very spiritual. My marriage and my career were both falling apart. My eldest son was showing signs of severe chemical imbalance. My expectations of success as a man felt snuffed.  I was terribly uncomfortable in my skin, crying every day, an embarrassment to my wife and children, an endless font of anxiety imposed on my friends.

I had to get away and decided to spend a month in rural Guatemala where I had worked in my early 20’s.  En route I stopped off to see my brother, an English Professor living in Chicago. He asked me what I brought to read on my journey.  I showed him my books, all Buddhist tracts. “These are all so aspirational,” he said. “Why not read some fiction?” He gave me a book of short stories by John Updike spanning the arc of an ordinary marriage. It captured people just as we are. It laid us wide open in precise non-judgmental detail, including all our shocking neediness and coldness and yet free from authorial scorn.  It was  people just seen.

On a bus from Guatemala City to Livingston, a long drive that flew by I was thoroughly absorbed, feeling as one with us, but not in some platitudinously abstract “we are all one” kind of way.  Rather, intimate with the details, and generalizing intellectually with my heart wide open experiencing the full catastrophe of being one of us, fearful in our embraces, haunted by the pairing of investment and divestment. It was grace, forgiveness from the universe, but grace in the fine details set in the context of the real predicament, not in God’s sweeping and peculiar forgiveness for His making us wrong on purpose.

On my spiritual path, Updike is a master, as are so many practitioners of fiction.  Though I now work among theorists and scientists, philosophers and psychologists, I contend that no theoretical or scientific or spiritual work is anywhere near as capable of representing what this is, this life of ours, than good fiction. Literature is a yoga, a soulnerd’s intellectual-spiritual practice of contour-fitting what we know to what is so.

[Cross-posted from Jeremy Sherman’s Mind Readers Dictionary]

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Hollywood does Becker

July 10, 2012

TDF Guest Don Emmerich

What we can’t think about: In the following essay, I recommend the recently-released film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and discuss how it illustrates many of the insights found in the works of Ernest Becker.

“The final mission to save mankind has failed,” a radio announcer declares.  “The 70-mile wide asteroid known as ‘Matilda’ is set to collide with Earth in exactly three weeks time.  And,” the announcer continues, his voice gradually taking on a more chipper tone, a tone reminiscent of Casey Kasem announcing the week’s Top 40, “we’ll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days, along with all your classic rock favorites.”

So begins Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a film that comically—and beautifully—illustrates the different ways people deal with the awareness that they’re going to die.  Several characters respond by putting their trust in different transference objects.  Some, for example, go about buying more insurance, seeming to believe that their wealth and preparedness will save them from the giant asteroid set to obliterate the planet.  “I’m afraid the Armageddon package is extra,” Steve Carell’s character tells one of his clients.  “That protects you and your family against any sort of apocalyptic disaster—asteroids obviously, famine, locusts…”

Other characters immerse themselves in their jobs, carrying on as though everything is normal.  Carell’s maid, for instance, keeps showing up to clean his apartment.  When Carell kindly suggests that she instead spend her last days with her family, she assumes she’s being fired and begins to cry.  Only after he agrees that she can continue cleaning the apartment does she regain her composure.  Her denial, it seems, is so great that the planet’s impending destruction doesn’t even register.

This latter scene reminds me of one of my favorite Becker passages.  “Gods,” he writes, “can take in the whole of creation because they alone can make sense of it, know what it is all about and for.  But as soon as man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death, the meaning of a rose or a star cluster—then he is in trouble.  Most men spare themselves that trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as society maps these problems out for them” (The Denial of Death, 178).

So, in other words, many of us are like the maid, so consumed with the minutiae of our lives that we don’t have time to confront life’s bigger issues.  More disturbingly, many of us are like a group of rioters we encounter later in the film.  Unlike the maid, these rioters have responded to their imminent deaths by looting their neighborhoods and brutalizing anyone they can get their hands on.  Their actions illustrate Becker’s argument that the fear of death often leads to scapegoating and violence against others (Escape from Evil, Chapter 8).

Needless to say, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a feel-good movie.  Early into it we learn that, just as in real life, we’re not going to be given a clichéd Hollywood ending; we learn that this fictitious world really is going to end and that everyone really is going to die.  And yet the film gives us hope, much in the same way that Becker’s writings give us hope.  The hope comes not from a mystical revelation that life has a transcendent meaning and that we have souls which will survive death.  The hope is that each of us can live happier, more fulfilling lives and that the key to such lives is self-awareness.

In the film’s final scene—which is so beautiful and powerful that, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t describe here—we see that self-awareness is terrifying.  And yet we see that it is only through such awareness that we’re able to extricate ourselves from the idols which rule most of our lives.  For instance, it is only the film’s self-aware characters, those who have accepted that the asteroid really is coming, who are able to get past their own neuroses and form genuine and loving connections with others.  Carell’s character in particular has what Irving Yalom calls an “awakening experience,” a confrontation with death that shakes him from his self-delusion and apathy and causes him to live a life of intention and value.   (See Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death).  Again, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t say any more about it here.

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World certainly doesn’t provide the perfect Beckerian solution to the problem of existence.  For Becker prescribed that we embrace both self-awareness and a Kierkegaardian-like religious faith.  Both, he believed, are equally necessary.  Yet I can’t help but consider this a very Beckerian film.  It sends the message that people in our death-denying culture most desperately need to hear, that message being—to quote Yalom—that “[a]lthough the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death [that is, the awareness of death] saves us” (33).