PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Einstein’s Letter

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
| Alexander Pope, An Essay On Criticism

Einstein's Letter

As the headlines each day confirm the increasingly damaging impact of climate change, only the most ignorant and complacent of us still refuse to acknowledge that the consequences of what passes for human civilization may be moving us toward the brink of global catastrophe, perhaps extinction. It is not the first time that we, as a species, have been summoned to confront what we have created. If Oppenheimer, Feynman, Szilard, Fermi, Bethe, and the others responsible for the development of the atom bomb at Los Alamos had considered the longterm consequences of what they were unleashing, the Manhattan Project might never have happened—and how different our world would be today. There was a context, of course, within which developing the bomb made sense. The Germans were already at work on enriching uranium. Einstein’s famous letter to Roosevelt made clear that the Allies could ill afford to let the Nazis gain the atomic advantage, and therefore that the United States had no choice but to inaugurate what would become the nuclear arms race. Wielding the awesome power of science recklessly, not even knowing what to expect, they opened Pandora’s Box, perhaps setting history on a road with no turns and sealing the fate of humankind and the planet.

It did not take long for them to realize the enormity of what they had done. On 16 July, 1945 at the Trinity test site, upon witnessing the detonation of the first nuclear bomb, which yielded a roughly 20 kiloton explosion and sent a mushroom cloud towering nearly eight miles into the sky, Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity test, said, “We’re all sons of bitches now.” Similarly appalled, Robert Oppenheimer, who had been chosen to head up the Project, quoted the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” and when this “foul and awesome display,” as Bainbridge later described it, was reprised over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Oppenheimer was stricken with a crisis of conscience that would haunt him for the rest of his life. Years later, Einstein, who had played no direct role in the Manhattan Project, said: “I made one great mistake in my life, when I signed the letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending that atom bombs be made.”

At the time that he signed what would become known as “Einstein’s Letter,” which Fermi actually had written, Einstein saw “no other way out.” The situation was clear: Either we get the bomb first, or they do. Such reasoning is guilty of the fallacy of “false dilemma” in presuming that there are only two options, in this case both based on the assumption that successful development of the atomic bomb was a fait accompli, which it was not. There were other courses of action open. Roosevelt could have ordered aggressive steps to disrupt the German effort rather than throwing open the door to the proliferation of weapons capable of such monstrously destructive power that the future of humanity would hang in an increasingly precarious balance. The same binary logic was used to justify dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ostensibly to “save lives,” and end the war—but was there really no “other way out?” Japan already had been defeated by a merciless campaign of incendiary bombing under the orders of Gen. Curtis LeMay that had reduced all of its cities capable of producing the machinery of war to smoldering ruins, immolating hundreds of thousands of civilians in the process.

When an overriding focus on technological capability is given unchecked license, it becomes possible to proceed with the unthinkable. But the fact that we can do something does not mean that we ought to do it. In these terms, the evolution of scientific knowledge and its technological spawn bears tragic witness to our corresponding failure to evolve socially, philosophically, and spiritually. Long before technology releases the vast power biding its time in the equations on the theorist’s blackboard, our wisdom or lack of it is setting the stage in ways that may have enormous consequences. For better or worse, the awesome power of science and technology rests in the hands of a species that time and time again has proven itself too rash, too shortsighted, too reactive, and too violent to be entrusted with it.

The development of weapons of mass destruction is not the only example of heedless science. Another coming out of the quantum camp, the so-called Simulation Hypothesis, views the universe, including ourselves, as the encoded information of an advanced computer program running on supercomputers somewhere in the distant future. Taken seriously, the claim might be existentially disturbing were it not riddled with circular reasoning, slanting, and other fallacies that render it impotent, but that is beside the point. Theorists often put forth ill-conceived hypotheses and interpretations with little or no consideration for their real-world consequences. In light of the juggernaut of video games involving first-person shooters bobbing across virtual landscapes as they blithely commit increasingly lifelike acts of virtual carnage, one shudders imagining what the impact might be of the Simulation Hypothesis on certain unstable individuals upon hearing the idea that the physical reality around them, including other people, are mere simulations. All too frequent news of mass shootings suggest that there are a growing number of such individuals with ready access to automatic weapons who already have a sociopathic inability to recognize let alone empathize with others. Entering a school or shopping mall or place of worship “locked and loaded” for mass murder somehow constitutes for them what William James calls a “live option” in a way that for most of us would be unthinkable. This is not to say that video games are either directly or solely the cause of such violence, or that the perpetrators of these shootings necessarily suffer from an inability to distinguish the real from the virtual. It is, however, to point out, that the suggestion that reality is a simulation is far more likely to be part of the problem than part of the solution, because the simulated violence that sells video games has a desensitizing component over which developers do not appear to be losing much sleep.

The Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics, taken seriously by about twenty percent of the world’s leading physicists, may similarly contribute, even if unwittingly, to a devaluing of life by claiming that all versions of reality exist. Apart from the contradictions and other logical problems with the interpretation and despite the fact that many of the assumptions made by its most vocal proponents are baseless, there are the ethical implications that such a model tends to overlook. Nor does it do to argue that quantum interpretation is a highly specialized field, and as such, far removed from the mainstream where the moral question can take on life-or-death significance. In the age of the Internet, even sophisticated scientific ideas have a way of seeping down into the soil of popular culture where those exposed to them as a rule do not have the safeguards against misunderstanding enjoyed by their authors. Beyond this, as we noted earlier, there is the question of the difference one interpretation may make over another in the technological advances to which it inevitably leads—advances that affect the life and future not only of those who endorse it, but potentially the whole of civilization, perhaps all life on Earth. David Mermin’s instruction to physicists to “shut up and calculate” is an ignorant and negligent mandate, because how we understand and interpret and explain reality, the universe, and ourselves may well save or destroy us.

Mermin’s “shut up and calculate” follows from the fact that virtually all current interpretations of quantum mechanics are consistent with the same predictions, a position that hubristically presumes that predictions are all that matter. This is a serious problem for science and for all of us. As the ancient Greeks warned, hubris before the gods is a fatal mistake. In modern terms, we might say that whether or not we survive as a species, whether or not life and the planet have a future, depends on whether or not we will finally grow up and acknowledge that however much scientific knowledge we may accumulate, there is always a great deal that we cannot see about the forces affecting us. We cannot see what lies in the shadows or around the next corner, indifferent to our preconceptions. Hiding in the atom was the power to obliterate entire populations literally in a flash, and who can say what irremediable horror, “its hour come round at last,” as Yeats puts it, lies waiting in the things we have yet to discover. Those who live and work at the leading edge of science and technology, who design and conduct experiments or interpret their results and certainly who apply those results to the development of new technologies have a far-reaching moral duty to look beyond the political exigencies of the moment, to think carefully before promoting views concerning the nature of reality, and to remember that we are engaging elements that we did not create and may not be able to manage, even when we think we can. If a little learning is a dangerous thing, a little humility that errs on the side of caution, in the end, may be the thing that saves us from ourselves.

20 January, 2019

Angels in the Darkness

Embrace your thousand angels,
Embrace your thousand demons.
| Buddhist saying

Angels in the Darkness

Boston drivers will tell you: The one who isn’t looking has the right of way. This is a lot like the child who, imagining a monster under the bed, covers his eyes to hide from it. Both demonstrate a curious aspect of human nature: Denial. If you can’t see it, it isn’t there. We’ve all done it at one time or another. Something dark rises before us—something we hate about ourselves or someone else or the situation we’re in and especially in the face of which we feel powerless, whereupon the psyche, like the driver on Boston’s fast-forward roundabouts, looks the other way and steps on the gas, jamming signals of awareness or perception to shield us from whatever we feel is too daunting to face. The sum of this disowned information makes up what Jung termed the “shadow self,” the dirt of our personality that seems too foul to be left on top of the rug, in plain sight.

These distressing elements have nowhere to go but into the shadows, from which place, still wanting acknowledgment, they can wreak havoc on our appetite, weight, sleep, dreams, health, relationships, checkbook, and sense of well-being. What goes up, must come down; what we suppress has a way of popping up where it’s least expected. This seesaw effect is such a fundamental dynamic of inner life that if we’re feeling chronically lousy, it pays just to be still, take a step back, and look to see if there’s some important bit of business we might be neglecting, marginalizing, ignoring, or resisting.

For years, I had a persistent daydream, and not a pretty one. Frequently, often when I was lying in bed after a long day, my imagination would take to the closet where lurked this sinister fellow with a knife, waiting in the darkness behind the door. I would see myself walk over to the closet and open it, at which point the fictive assailant would leap out and commence a merciless barrage of stabs, hacks, and slashes. Sometimes, enduring this horror show, I would flinch or even gasp and have to get up and do something to shake the nasty image from my mind.

My immediate reaction, which remained unexamined for years, was always to run from the vision the way a person would run from a real-world assailant. In this flight, I found myself stumbling over barricades of fear, avoidance, and denial that, somehow added to the emotional power and presence of the fantasy. Then, one day, it occurred to me to look past these barricades by using a Jungian method known as creative imagination, which involves giving oneself to the daydream, intentionally participating in the events that come to mind, letting them unfold without attempting to direct them. It is a powerful tool for exploring dreams that ended confusingly or were interrupted. Waking up, as Jung realized, does not have to render the essential information embodied in the dream inaccessible. Through creative imagination, we can return to the dream without going to sleep and allow it to play out, retrieving its symbolic imagery by consciously assuming our role in the drama.

The man in the closet was a particularly brutal character, real enough in the climactic moment in which I became immersed. A closet killer. Closed in. Who was he? What was the source of his bloodlust? I decided it was time to find out. Turning to creative imagination, I approached the closet again and opened the door. The slasher hissed, raised his knife, and was about to bring it down as he had countless times before, whereupon I asked him calmly, “What do you want?” Immediately, he lowered the blade and eased out of the shadows so that we were facing each other, and I could see that he was myself. Gently, I repeated, “What do you want?” and his expression changed to one of immense sorrow. “I want,” he said, “for you to acknowledge me.” With that, he took a few halting steps toward me, and I opened my arms. As we embraced, he began sobbing, and I held him like that until he was absorbed into me and the waking dream ended.

Some noteworthy things followed. First, the fantasy never recurred. This in itself was startling; in fact, I couldn’t bring it back with effort. The emotional charge was gone. Second, I realized that the self-image I had always championed, that of the good, kind, compassionate rescuer had usurped another side of me, banished it to the closet of denial where families keep their skeletons and murderers—the personae non gratae of the clan. In truth, there was an angry, even violent side to my psyche, and all the more violent for having been long denied. I had stuffed this side into the closet because it contradicted my image of myself, which left it forsaken, isolated, and enraged.

I came away from the exercise with a broader, more realistic and integrated sense of this thing I call “I.” Metaphorically, when the prodigal son comes home and rejoins the family, everyone is better off for it. Through a conscious act of creative imagination, I found that I could acknowledge and accept an inner reality that I had put out of my awareness, and reclaim its splintered and therefore hostile energy as a vital part of myself. When I was willing to own the violence in my psychic household by literally embracing it, the sense of relief was immediate and palpable. A demon embraced is an angel released.

We erect these palisades of selective emphasis and denial to prove and protect our self-image. Denying that I had a violent side served to confirm my belief in my virtuousness, a self-definition acquired in early experiences that conflated being virtuous and being safe. Eventually, however, what was denied surfaced in a fiercer form and demanded its due. This flight from an integrating darkness may go back a long way, and yet is fully contemporary, because our sense of being alive is constricted far less by what happened to us when we were young than by our persistent refusal to face what happened to us, less by what was done to us than by what we do to ourselves as a result. James Hillman suggests that childhood wounding may be seen as an initiation, the trauma that leads us to the treasure of who we are; along the same lines, Joseph Campbell writes, “Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” Viewed from this angle, our wound is our gift in every sense: a gift we were given, our essential talent, and the gift that we, in turn, can offer others.

The logic of the wounding of initiation may sound glib if not heartless to, say, a victim of incest. Some gift. It can be all but impossible to see that what has gouged us also has deepened us. We don’t come to such a vision overnight, but no one should doubt that we can heal our way into it, and that when we do, we will see that the worst of what we have been through has added in priceless ways to who we are and what we have to contribute, and that there is nothing to regret or change. It is exceedingly good news that the wound can be healed in the balm of a greater identity, that the disowned parts of ourselves can be reclaimed and redeemed. The demon is ultimately an angel that we were unwilling to embrace. What we have cursed in ourselves, however agonizing it may have been at the time, can be transmuted in the crucible of a richer, larger, and more empathetic view of things. In the expanding horizon of this realization, in the deep-breathing acceptance of what we may have spent a lifetime resisting or denying, the barricades fall away, and we find ourselves standing in the great circle of our native wholeness, open to the unique history that has shaped us into this moment.

21 November, 2018

Blackbird in the Church

Blackbird in the Church

My friend and teaching colleague Charlie Beall was a fist of a man. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so much anger in one place, or such style in managing it. Before his damaged heart finally burst at a football game—burst with pride, perhaps, as his son caught a long, touchdown pass—Charlie and I spent many hours talking about philosophy and politics and the women we loved. And we always left shaking our heads and saying “I don’t know,” with Charlie usually a few beers heavier, and both of us glad as hell that we knew each other.

The hole in Charlie’s heart left his beautiful wife Mary, his year-old son Stephen, his two other children Sandy and David, and a church full of family members and friends, including me, with a hole in our lives. At the house, after the funeral, David came over to me and gave me an uncharacteristic hug, saying, “Thanks for coming.” Then he tightened his hold suddenly and, almost in another voice, said, “Please, don’t leave,” and I sensed that this plea was really for his father, but it was too late for that, and so I held him, mute with the nothing to say that death always leaves us with.

I remember only vaguely the call from Mary telling me that Charlie was dead. I made hurried arrangements and drove to Gainesville, seized by memories and the usual guilt and regrets over not having said this or that, not having spent more time. When I got into town, Mary asked me if I would be part of the service, offer a eulogy of some sort, and of course, I said I would, knowing that Charlie was the last person in the world who would want to be eulogized. He would have found the idea humorous.

A teacher of philosophy and literature, Charlie loved Auden and Yeats, and had a special fondness for Yeats’s piercing line: “Man is in love and loves what vanishes. What more is there to say?” This verse seemed a fitting introduction to my comments about Charlie, and as I recited it, the church fell into a muffled silence almost like the silence one hears under water. I confessed that when I had met Charlie, I didn’t like him. That was back in 1973, and I was teaching an introductory course in philosophy at the Hotel Thomas campus of Santa Fe College in Gainesville. It was my first term out of university, and I was still bristling with the defensiveness that graduate study of philosophy instills. Among the texts that I had chosen for my course was Krishnamurti’s Freedom from the Known. Charlie walked into our common office and noticed the book in my hand. “What’s that?” he asked, grinning, “Freedom to Be Ignorant?” And with a smirk and dismissive wave of his hand that practically became his trademark, his conversational signature, he let me know what he thought of me and my book and my philosophy, and walked off.

A man like this is not hard to hate straightaway, and at faculty meetings after that, Charlie and I always looked at each other sideways, if we looked at all. He viewed me as one of those quasi-mystical philosophers who have a problem cooperating with the law of gravity; I saw him as cynical and complacent and belligerent, and so it went for about a year.

Then, one day, Charlie approached me. At least I think it was Charlie. The form was the same, but everything else had changed. His voice had dropped from his half-clenched teeth into his heart, and he asked if we could get together over coffee, which we did, though clearly something else was brewing; I wasn’t sure what it was, but I wanted to find out. At a local café, Charlie was soon telling me of the feelings of unrest and compromise he had teaching at Santa Fe, his past marriage, which was only legally over, and the vivisecting conflict of loving a woman who was, as Proust puts it, not his type. I listened for a couple of hours while before my eyes, a colleague changed from an adversary to a friend.

As you can imagine, Charlie was not well-liked in the department, a fact he would have found entertaining. A former soldier in Korea and dean of men at Emory, he had long ago lost his tolerance for nonsense and bureaucratic swagger, and had an irritating talent for cutting through officialese to the jugular of any issue. In Korea, under enemy fire, he crawled through a snow-covered landing zone to retrieve a box of supplies that had just been air-dropped. When he reached the box, he found that it had split open, and he could see that it was filled with Fig Newtons—frozen Fig Newtons—which he commenced to eat while tracer bullets whistled over him on their way to killing someone. This image of eating frozen Fig Newtons in a combat zone stayed with him for the rest of life, a fitting image of the banality and raucous idiocy of war, and somehow a point-blank metaphor of human existence itself.

Death had spared him in Korea, but as always, won the chess game in the end, and now it had taken him beyond the last wall, where we would share no more beer or coffee or philosophy. The church reminded me of another I had been in ten years earlier, when I played the guitar and sang at Charlie and Mary’s wedding. There was one song in particular that Charlie loved—Blackbird, from the Beatles’ White Album. I had played it then, at his wedding, and now felt that this song somehow belonged to the sad thing that had happened, that it marked the coming and going of a marriage and a life, and I arranged to borrow a guitar so I could play it for Charlie again, not knowing, of course, if the dead can hear the music of the world, but hoping they might. The lyrics arced through the soundless church like birds stalled in the air, fluttering, looking for a place to light:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these broken wings and learn to fly.
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,
Take these sunken eyes and learn to see.
All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to be free.

And at the bridge:

Blackbird fly, blackbird fly,
Into the light of the dark black night.

It is a strange wall that we pass through, this dark black night, this death. Maybe it has no other side. Socrates says that it may be the greatest good that can happen to us. I don’t know. I know that one second, a person is there, and the next, gone, wrenched away by decree of a court that hears no appeal. The wall of death is always far off, at least in our assumptions, receding the way a horizon recedes as one approaches it. Oddly, this faraway death is at the same time, ever as close as a breath, a swerve on the highway, a touchdown pass. It’s only a question of which breath.

But this dying that we have to do, we don’t have to do all at once. Life gives us lots of opportunities to practice, if by dying we mean a willing walk into the unknown. Maybe this mysterious wall that we fear our whole life would reveal a little of its secret side if we questioned the obvious. What is the obvious, here? That we don’t know whether the awareness that says “I” in us survives the dissolution of the body. That we don’t know if there is another side to this dreadful wall of being. And that it is this not knowing that fills us with dread.

What do we know, then? We know that this fear of death is a fear of not living, of not being. The mind stutters trying to voice this: How can I not be? How can Charlie be no more? And, of course, there is a horror hiding in the logic here, for “I” cannot not be—it is inconceivable. But this is precisely the shudder—that death might extinguish the very “I” whose non-being is inconceivable. In the face of such considerations, logic spins into itself, the inner structures of the psyche tremble, and maybe we’d better just detour over to the refrigerator or push a button on the TV remote and switch from this whirlpool of thinking to some mind-arresting sitcom.

But is this fear of not being really about physically dying? I don’t think so. Even when, as a boy, I almost drowned in a swimming pool, I knew, somehow, knew in the moments of struggling under the water, that my death had not touched me yet. Not-being, on the other hand, is a familiar theme. Long ago, I learned how to look the other way when I felt my life rising within me, to leave my body and its emotional protests in a mad rush to meet someone else’s expectations. This loss of oneself to another, to one’s mate or an intimidating supervisor or the government or the church or the seductiveness of an advertising campaign—there is a dying here, a sneak preview of not-being. We should never make the mistake of thinking that a person isn’t dead just because he’s still walking around.

This image of the walking dead frightens me more than the specter of mourners taking their leave of my final resting place, with heads bowed and clods of cemetery soil falling from their shoes—not that I might die, but that I might not live. Here is the sting of death that you asked about, dear Paul: The grave is victorious when we bury ourselves alive in a life that is not our own, when we kill our feelings, our sorrow, and so, our joy while we are here, in the carnival prison house of time. The death we rightly fear is the death we already have died.

There is, of course, the instinctive, animal fear of physical death that surges in the cells now and again, but this fear preserves life; it doesn’t get in the way of living, which in its fullest sense, means far more than merely the state of not yet being deceased. Maybe this is in part why I didn’t feel overly sad at Charlie’s dying. I knew that he had lived, that his life had been a rodeo of living, and that in this sense, he did not die before his time. He knew that daring to live was more important than being comfortable or popular or even safe, and his life was not made easier for this, but it was made more a life. As he wrote in one of his poems, “Getting up in the morning is a death-defying act.” Few men live their poetry so courageously and so well.

Not surprising, then, that the Beatles’ song should seem such a fitting statement of Charlie’s life and death. Flying with broken wings, seeing with sunken eyes, living each day with a little death—these images show us how to affirm the fundamental contradictions of being human. Letting go of lovers we never wanted to lose, feeling our own death when we survive a friend or relative, admitting our sadness over what the world has become and the bittersweet joy of what it might yet become—these are some ways we might bow to our walls, honor the little deaths they require of us all our life. And still, we can sing, we can fly, we can be among those who die at the right time, as Charlie did. We can give ourselves to death enough to really live, rather than live cowering by a wall, living in death until death takes us.

I keep coming to this. Thirty years after my grandmother’s death, I was able, finally, to feel the loss, the sorrow, to let that blackbird fly, to let it into the church and sit there while it flapped about the room like urgent words being released from parentheses. Fitfully awake in the middle of the night, I dragged myself out of bed and over to the computer, where I typed the goodbye I had never said to her. I felt as though Mama were sitting behind me, then, smiling softly as I typed. Soon, she was joined by my other grandparents, an uncle, an aunt—the dear ones who had disappeared so many years ago, when, even then, I was too vanished to feel their vanishing. I wept while I wrote, and the tears fell onto my hands. When the feeling was spent, I found that it wasn’t really so hard to say goodbye. And as I let go, a part of me came alive that had been dead for decades.

There is a death-in-life that comes over us when we’re unwilling to let go into our grief or fear or anger, and this wall built against pain keeps out our happiness, as well. Such dying prevents our living. Edwin Markham describes this sorry state in his poem, The Man with the Hoe, which tells of someone whose life has become like that of an ox, a beast of burden, yoked to his days, merely existing:

Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?

Ironically, if we learn to die while living, our lives come alive. Only a man or woman who grasps this, who thinks in a “marrowbone,” as Yeats puts it, can eat Fig Newtons under fire in the snow.

Beyond the dreaded wall of death, then, there is no drop off the horizon as the ancients feared, and who knows?—perhaps all our journeys, as T.S. Eliot writes, bring us full circle. In the end, it may not matter. But it matters now. We don’t have to know where we’re going to get there well. And if the whole shebang ends with a whimper and a slide into eternal night, what of it? For the time being, the blackbird is not only in the church, he’s flying. In the dead of night, with sunken eyes and broken wings, surrounded by walls. He’s flying, and he’s singing.

27 October, 2018

Home Again

Home Again

On the stage of my childhood, walls were an essential part of the set design. My friends and I hid behind them, skulked along them, vaulted over them, pretended we could see through them, and drew rectangular pitching windows on them for stickball. Once, my brother playfully threw me face first into a bank wall, and I still have the chip in my front tooth to show for it. Unlike so many children in the world, I was blessed with the safety and cozy predictability of real walls to go home to after a hard day of having fun, and I took these walls for granted as all children should be able to do. There were the brownstone walls of our early home in Ozone Park; the rose brick of our bungalow in Laurelton; the concrete-aspiring-to-alabaster of Walden Terrace, our apartment building in Queens. In this apartment, our last home in New York, I remember a rough-plastered wall in the bedroom I shared with my brother, on which we shined the glaring light from a desk lamp and made shadow-animals with our hands as late into the night as we could get away with. Wherever we lived, there were these walls, wonderful walls sustained by my father’s hard work, to keep us safe and snug in our world as surely as did heater warmth in winter and family warmth in all seasons. Had I thought of it, I might have marked my boyhood years by these walls that came and went and changed along the way, recording my early life in a documentary of surfaces and textures.

Viewed this way, walls are more than walls. They are projection screens, mirrors, enemy fortresses, murals, shields behind which boys smoke cigarettes and set off firecrackers and say dirty words, dipping their toes into the pounding currents of manhood, and sometimes slipping through secret doorways into winding tunnels of time. Children know the power of walls instinctively, which is why a toddler will take his crayons to the nearest one as soon as possible. It is as though, even before we have words, the walls around us beg to be written on, to be claimed through some signature, however rudimentary. And no matter how old we get, does it not still come down to this—that our humanness compels us to scrawl in a language we don’t understand, and when we’re done, somehow to read, to make sense of, the handwriting on the wall?

We’ve come so far from those days of crayon innocence; our life’s walls no longer seem like canvases on which to scribble our enthusiasm, our vitality, the unpremeditated colors of ourselves. But what is native to us can never be far from us. Coming back to what is native for me includes the understanding that my life is a story—in fact, a play. As usual, the Old Bard was spot on; metaphorically, the world is a stage, complete with props, scenery, action, dialogue, other characters reading their lines with conviction—a stage on which we act out our inner promptings, see what follows, and move our story along through precipitating event, conflict, climax, denouement. All the elements of good writing, of drama, are present in every life, sometimes on a small scale, sometimes large, because each of us, consciously and unconsciously, is working within the tug and shove of the psyche’s incessant urge to get beyond the walls that hold it back, and by expanding, to become more itself. On this incredible stage of the world, we can confront our inner conflicts and contradictions and move on to what’s next, something easier said than done.

I remember helping two friends, Rich and Shaye, build a two-story pole house by a lake. It was 1972, and we were a motley group of hippies finishing our graduate degrees at the University of Florida. Jimi was there, our Socratic professor and friend. We didn’t suspect then that he would be denied tenure the following year in a political lynching led by ultraconservatives in the philosophy department, that he would pack his canvas horse-feeder bag with a few books, clothes, trail mix, and a bamboo flute, and hitchhike from Gainesville to San Francisco to make a new home on the West Coast. Annie was there at the house-raising, too—voluptuous, flaxen-haired Annie, skinny-dipping in the lake, and as the late afternoon light and water glistened against her skin, it was all I could do to keep my mind on my work.

We were talking the sort of lazy talk that builds houses, when Jimi suggested that I climb onto the roof and try my hand at nailing boards in place. This meant that I’d have to hoist myself through a small opening between the rafters and perch on what seemed to me an unlikely platform—the four-inch strip of roof that had been installed so far—four inches that ended abruptly in a twenty-five-foot fall that ended in a sudden stop and the breaking of things that should not be broken. The mere thought of this tight-wire act was enough to fill me with the nasty chemistry of anxiety. High anxiety. Stalling, I scanned the cage of wood, then looked topside again: Theoretically, I knew that the more roofing boards I hammered in place, the more I’d have to hold on to while I worked, but this wasn’t much comfort, and I began to feel as though I would not be able to muster the courage to move from the safe framework of joists and studs to the daredevil duty waiting for me overhead.

To distract myself, I watched the others laboring away. Annie, mostly—but not just Annie. One shirtless and taut-muscled young acrobat was ambling along the edge of the roof like a gymnast on a balance beam, and I began to feel the jabs of a fast-deflating ego. I can do this, I thought. So, with chugging resolve, buoyed by the need to look good in front of one’s fellows—especially when one’s fellows include Annie—I lifted myself through the opening and emerged, willy-nilly, on the roof of the house. There, I took a few stuttering breaths and smiled wanly, feeling as though I had just taken on Mount Everest and maybe the whole thing wasn’t really such a good idea.

After a few minutes of covert hysteria and roof-clutching, I ventured back to work and soon realized that I could use the claw of the hammer to keep myself in place while I grabbed a nail, and that I could then hook my little finger over the most recently fastened board, holding the nail in position with the same hand. This kept me from sliding even slightly toward the edge and the headlong plunge a breath beyond. In a while, the labor settled into a rhythm: hold on with claw, grab nail, position nail, hook little finger, hammer nail, hold on with claw, grab nail, and so on. Soon, I was shuffling along the sloping roofline, and what had seemed terrifying fifteen minutes earlier was exhilarating.

Annie came slinking out of the water as the sun started to set. A chill had made off with the last of the day’s warmth, and everything was rapidly fading into the tarnished light of evening. Then, from my perch two stories up, I saw something remarkable happen. At the same moment, as though someone had given a secret signal, everyone—about a dozen of us—spontaneously stopped working and turned to watch the sun go down. Long feathers of gray and mottled bands fell across the lake as the last remnants of day sank meditatively into dusk. And I thought, this is what it means to come home. The planet turns a few degrees, and work stops, because we recognize a presence that’s been with us since time began building the house of the world.

Under me, the structure was taking shape. Before long there would be pictures and candles and throw rugs and the smell of cooking when all our work had turned lumber and long hours and aching backs and blisters into a place to live. A home. I remembered gathering my courage and climbing out onto the roof, and there was something familiar about it. Hadn’t I struggled through an opening once before, in a passage far more momentous, to find a world and a home and a self less limited than the one I had known? In the last streaks of light, I scrambled down from the roof knowing that home is just this—the place we keep coming back to, the place we find each time we venture beyond our fears and take a chance—the place where we belong. Throughout our lives, as we move through one opening after another, finding our way, catching our breath, losing and winning, building and doing what we can to steady ourselves through countless sunsets, the only place we’re headed is home.

30 September, 2018



The human psyche is like an intricate system of living walls presenting a broad range of architectural styles: brick walls that stop you cold, glass walls you can see through, walls with French doors that invite you in, high walls of learning and status, frescoed walls announcing conspicuous taste, walls taken hostage by everyone else’s graffiti, simple wood-frame walls superbly maintained, like the flawless red-and-white barns that seem to grow wild through the New England countryside.

I’ve been fortunate to have wonderful teachers, people of substance and depth; people who taught me that we need to extend ourselves beyond the walls of old beliefs and unexamined assumptions in order to climb to new physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual elevations, trusting that the next handhold will be there when we reach for it. But this is only half the story. Because at the same time that we need to open, to leap in the faith that we will land well, to say yes and risk who we have been for the sake of being more, we also have to be able to draw boundaries, to make a home within ourselves, to deny access to trespassers, to lock the door when it’s dark outside, to say no.

Many years ago, I taught philosophy to jail inmates as part of a special college outreach program. The readings for the course included the four dialogues of Plato sometimes referred to as The Last Days of Socrates, comprising the Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, and Phaedo. In the third of these, Socrates’s old friend Crito offers him a chance to escape from prison and flee Athens, which Socrates rejects, arguing that it’s better for him to suffer an unjust execution than to betray his freely accepted duty to obey the laws of the state. My captive audience reacted to this with boos and hisses, and more passion and involvement in the issues than anything I’d ever seen in a college or university classroom, where the imprisoning walls are far less apparent. Most of all, my inmate students were struck by the fact that even while doing time on death row, waiting to toss back the nefarious hemlock cocktail, Socrates remained free enough within himself to stay true to what he believed and valued.

Robert Frost could have written his famous something-that-doesn’t-love-a-wall line about prisoners, in and out of the slammer, to be sure—but no less about international affairs, or as a commentary on the state of human affairs at the end of the twentieth century, or an intimate observation on love and family. Think of the husband and wife who sit on either side of a newspaper or a wall of mute resignation, the teenager who can’t talk to parents who love her but they’re too busy trying to fix or rescue or judge her to learn her language, the old woman in a nursing home who’s jailed each day in isolation and loneliness and a life that’s become purposeless in the hour of its richest accumulations.

This is one of the sad ironies of our evolution to date as a species—that while we’ve conquered frontiers of air, land, sea, space, technology, medicine, and knowledge, we’re still flapping to get onto land spiritually, in the way we treat ourselves and each other and our planet. Despite all that we call progress, we haven’t done much to bring down the psychic and political walls that keep us trapped in pain, prejudice, fear, isolation, scapegoating, greed, exploitation, and other blunders of the psyche that never worked and never will no matter how much politicians gift-wrap them in glittering campaign rhetoric, no matter how much their verbal hit men try to spin the simple truth into something else.

Walls have been symbolic of an old world order more rightly described as a disorder. No doubt this is why the human race went out dancing on November 9, 1989, when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down. Evolutionarily speaking, it was a growth spurt. The uniting of East and West Germany struck us as a powerful metaphor, a harbinger of deeper healings and reunions and possibilities, globally and individually. Soon after the razing of the Wall and the democratic reforms that swept Europe and South Africa came the war in the Persian Gulf, assuring another body count for the twentieth century and reminding us that, despite the pontificating about a so-called new order, despite the real political changes that had taken place, some walls hadn’t even begun to come down; they were just being given a new coat of blood. Then, in December, 1991, the walls securing the now erstwhile Soviet Union crumbled, and with it, Lenin’s utopian experiment. Perhaps in light of all that’s happened since, the rise of terrorism and reactive populist surges, the intrusion of tech giants into our private lives through mobile and “smart” devices, and the exposing of a culture of predatory misogyny and sexual exploitation by those in positions of power and influence, we would be wise to turn our attention to the condition of our own walls.

Walls can keep us imprisoned or call us to newfound freedom. They offer a profoundly useful paradigm for self-examination, allowing us to recognize the ways we cling to the status quo, hold back, keep ourselves and others out, keep life out, keep awareness tied up in safe little habits that do everything but let us live—or the places where we give up walls we need, those psychic boundaries that tell us and others who we are. Some of our most basic beliefs may be called into question along the way. We may encounter the dark corners, steep climbs, towering cliffs, and quicksand pits that always appear when the journey is genuine and not just an advertisement for a new brand of detergent. In such moments, we must remember that a little heroism steels the soul and gives us a sense of worth, that greatness always demands much of us. Perhaps Frost’s line anticipates this, for not loving a wall is not the end of the story but the beginning. If we face our self-made prisons with courage, tearing down walls that overly limit us while acknowledging and securing those that serve us, we find we hold the key to our liberation. In this way, walls can call out the best in us, show us what the next step is, and dare us to take it.

30 August, 2018

Make America Great Again

Make America Great Again

Emma Lazarus’s inspiring poem inscribed on the plaque of the Statue of Liberty beautifully affirms the spirit of America at its best. These days, we have to wonder what became of this America, this nation of compassion and civility and opportunity. At this writing, hundreds of immigrant children, terrified and confused, remain separated from their parents. Worse, hundreds of parents have been deported without their little ones. These families, deeply scarred by a callous, reactionary U.S. immigration policy spend each minute of the day heartbroken, praying, waiting, living for reunion. The ignorance that spawned this humanitarian crisis does not make America great. There can be no greatness without kindness, no national security built on cruelty. Stripped of its glittering rhetoric, “America First!” is a puerile cry that those in power have invoked to ideologize selfishness and rationalize disgraceful violations at every turn—else why would they continually be lying, “walking back,” and denying their actions? Is greatness something that needs constant justification? Pushing to the front of the line with no consideration for who gets hurt in the process is not greatness. Casting America in the role of victim as a pretext for alienating longstanding allies while fraternizing with “strongman” dictators does not make us great, nor does demonizing immigrants. These things are ugly, unworthy of us as a nation, and deeply un-American. They constitute a betrayal of our most noble self-definition. Let those in power take this to heart: Congress must set political self-interest aside and act at once and decisively to repair the untold damage that is being done to our democracy, restore relations with our allies, censure authoritarian regimes, humanize our immigration policy, and salvage our standing on the world stage before it is too late. This, and nothing less, truly will make America great again.

26 July, 2018