Category Archives: consciousness

Does “It Take A Village?” Yes, It Does!

“Families are to be from.”  This was a wry quip from a high school student of mine in the early 80’s when a sociology class discussion about families was wrapping up.  This young lady was grasping the complexity of family relationships even at her young age, recognizing poignantly that one needs to extricate oneself at some point in life from the familial orbit.  This is usually done with the normal developmental process as young people reach maturity, seek a mate, marry, have children, and begin a family of their own.  But sometimes even then the emotional ties with the family of origin will be inordinate and, one or both of the marital partners will not have “cut the cord” and complications will develop.

The family is a primary dimension of social life.  Family structure is the template in which a child finds his place and learns how to “find his place” in the family at large, i.e. the community, and eventually even in the world “family.”  The family is where connection is established, and explored, and the skills…or lack thereof…will be offered in the social body. The anchor of the family is the mother and father and if their relationship is not stable, or insincere, then the children will not have a stable basis upon which to find their roots in the family dynamic.  A college psychology professor of mine, decades ago, noted that for a child it is more important for a child to know that his parents love each other than that the parents love him.  For the connection between “mommy and daddy” provide an anchor for an inchoate identity and from that anchor will arise a knowledge of parental love that is not prosaic or formulaic.  The script always includes “mommy and daddy love me” but the nuances of the family dynamic, based on the connection between “mommy and daddy” often convey otherwise.

But let me close this grim assessment with a positive note.  The human soul is indomitable.  Most families provide what British psychiatrist Donald W. Winnicott described as “good enough ‘parenting’” (his term was “good enough ‘mothering’”).  If parenting were perfect, then children would get a naive impression life is about and would be ill-equipped to face that “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.” And a facetious note is here in order.  My children are perfect!  That is because my “children” are only whims and fancies of what might have been, whims and fancies that I pine for, but have never experienced.  That is because I never had the courage to take that important plunge into the “dog-and-pony show” of this human endeavor and father children, trusting that Life is good and that all would be well.  But I firmly believe that “there is a destiny that doeth shape our ends, rough hew them as we may” and that all is well in the end.  Yes, even with this current political maelstrom that is gnawing at the soul of my country.



T.S. Eliot, George Eliot, Hope, and Despair

Hope comes when we have lost hope.  “Loss” is the beginning of life, as in the teaching of Jesus…to paraphrase, “Find your life only in losing it.”  And that brings immediately to my mind the almost inscrutable Jacques Lacan who noted that nothing of any significance in life takes place without the experience of loss.  And the consummate summation of this wisdom is the words of Jesus on the cross, “Father, why hast Thou forsaken me?”

It is really hard to lose.  It is hard to lose even in a simple game of checkers, or chess, or a football game with our “local sports team” but even more so in an existential crisis when our soul and spirit are on the line, especially when our “soul and spirit” are infused with the immaturity of ego.  In those moments our ego demands that we “dig in” and cling to our self-deceptions, our “well-worn words and ready phrases that build comfortable walls against the wilderness” (Conrad Aiken).

The loss I am presenting here is the gateway to humility, that which T.S. Eliot described as, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”  This is particularly challenging for those of us who are “spiritually” inclined for it often involves realizing just how “the flesh” has dominated our spirituality which we then realize was intrinsically ersatz.  And, therein, I must plead, “Mea culpa.”

The anguish of this realization is here captured in a couple of quotations from George Eliot:

“But what we call our despair is often only the painful eagerness of unfed hope.”  And elsewhere she noted, “There is no despair so absolute as that which comes with the first moments of our first great sorrow, when we have not yet known what it is to have suffered and be healed, to have despaired and have recovered hope.”

Vulnerability, Faith, and “Opiate of the Masses”

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, observed in his book, “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” that self-awareness is a very subtle and  often misunderstood phenomenon.  According to him, “Imagining that we have arrived at a satisfactory level of self understanding is clear indication that we have not in the least.”

Self-understanding is the process of becoming conscious.  And this is a task that we never finish completely though it is so comfortable to convince ourselves that it is.  The resulting certainty allows us to function in the smoothly-oiled social machinery of day to day life but only at the cost noted by W. H. Auden, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”  At some point in life we need to be able to challenge the smug certainties that we are ensconced in and tippy-toe into the risky domain of faith where we deal with the vulnerability that makes us human.  Otto Brown noted, “To be, is to be vulnerable” and until we have learned to live with some degree of vulnerability we have not become human. But use of this word “faith” is risky territory as it brings to mind religion and often there lies one of the most pernicious traps available to mankind.  For, “god” which often is the key figure in faith can often be merely another escape, a veritable opiate as in Karl Marx’s observation, “Religion is the opiate of the masses”

Fletcher Knebel Rises from the Dead!

Knebel was a writer of popular political fiction during the Cold War of the 1950’s and 1960’s, novels such as “Fail Safe” and “Seven Days in May,” being made into popular movies.  Another novel which did not make it into the movies was entitled, “Is the President Stark Raving Mad.” However, nearly sixty years later someone…for reasons unknown (wink, wink), the novel is being re-released, certainly in part because of references made by Bob Woodward and Rachel Maddow.

Did you ever wonder what would happen if you were “stark raving mad”?  Would you know it and be able to tell someone, “I’m nuts.  Help me!” or would you refuse to acknowledge it.  It depends upon the degree of madness.  The closer one is to total madness, the less likely is he to ask for help as the ability to acknowledge any such infirmity is beyond the capacity of his feeble, fear-ridden ego.  Most of us deal with internal duress at some point in our lives…and times throughout our lives…and one might think of this as “madness” but not anywhere near deserving the label madness.  Life is difficult and at times the difficulties test our resources and our ability to make appropriate adaptation is challenged.  But we do it and never merit the label “mad” though often…perhaps, ”neurotic as hell.”  But those who are “stark raving mad” are so far beyond the pale that they are immune to any external feedback and will listen only to the feedback from their own internal haunts as well as those who have subscribed to the influence of these same haunts. Those who are under this influence have permitted this to happen because the haunts of the mad man, the “identified patient”, have resonated with some muted haunt in their own depths that they have surrendered to the siren call of this embodiment of madness that was before them.

Shakespeare offered pertinent wisdom on this matter, asking the question, “What is madness but to be nothing else but mad?”  Shakespeare here recognized the point made above, that we are all mad to some degree, and the problem would lie only with those who are “nothing else but mad.”  He realized that “madness” was only a problem when it consumed the individual to the point that his judgment was gravely impaired so that his choices put himself and/or others in danger.  Such an individual is out of touch with reality, relative to another observation by the Bard, “Madness in great one’s must not unwatched go.”

I hesitate to describe Trump as “a great one” but he does occupy a “great” office with immense power and influence in the entire world.  The evidence of his instability goes back decades, has become more prominent in recent decades as he became a more prominent public figure, and now is glaringly obvious as he occupies the office of the President. No, he is not “mad” for there is, at this point, “something else than mad” present.  But there is madness, “stark raving madness” roiling in the depths of his being, and it cannot but escalate as the Mueller investigation continues to close in on him.  “Acting out” always leads to conclusion, either humility and recognition of one’s excesses or an explosion of violence upon oneself, or others, or both.  The ugliness within must find expression.  We can run from it but it will always follow us until we address it or find a steady diet of “others” upon whom to project it.

I find it interesting that my country, the United States of America…the sole surviving superpower…has the ability to destroy the world but so far does not have within its heart the will or power to even “limit” this personification of its own avarice.  Like any individual, my country is powerless before its hidden, feared, subterranean depths which are now glaringly obvious to us all in this embodiment of our heart’s darkness.  Even his minions are aware of this but they are so “dug in” with his delusional system that they cannot admit it. This is the ‘will to self-destruction” which will relentlessly pursue its ends unless the gods, i.e. “God”, offers us a “deux ex machina” to resolve this mess.

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.

“A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds”

Ralph Waldo Emerson once noted, “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”  But he would certainly agree that consistency is not but is the reflection of the presence of a “conscious” mind.  To illustrate, Donald Trump when running for election repeatedly criticized Barack Obama for playing golf too much but when he assumed the office proceeded to play golf much more than had any president.  He never offered an explanation and the press never pointedly challenged him on the matter.  When campaigning for the office, he criticized Obama for spending too much time on the golf course when the country had so many problems facing it and declared that, “I’m going to be working for you.  I’m not going to have time to go play golf.”

A “conscious” mind would recognize, “Oh, I said that I would not play golf like my predecessor as that would be in-“consistent” with what I said” but an unconscious mind would not be governed by any need for such any such “consistency”.  This past week a story broke which indicated that Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, suffers from the same malady it turns out that she has used a private email server in her role as a presidential adviser for her father.  This was after Trump had furiously denounced Hillary Clinton for doing this during the 2016 campaign and even created the battle cry of, “Lock her up” over the matter.  If Ivanka had been “conscious” as most of us are she would have realized, “Oh, to use a private email server” would be a bit awkward.”

Trump has demonstrated an imperviousness to rules of decorum, civility, and respect for others.  This is because in the depths of his heart he has no regard for others as he does not play by the same set of rules that we do.  For example, we would probably not tell anyone…at least in public…who had asked us a question, “That is a stupid question” and “You always ask stupid questions” as he did a couple of weeks when a reporter asked a simple question to him.  Trump can do that because of this imperviousness to these societal rules and conventions and he knows he can get by with it and has always been permitted to get by with it.  He has never had firm limits set with him and when anyone attempts he bullies them into submission.  Witness the Republican Party.

Franz Kafka on the Power of Books

“A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.”  Kafka knew that our internal life is always “frozen” to some degree, confined to structure and routine which allows us to live our lives in a structured and routine life.  But he knew that at some time in our life this “frozen sea” needs to be broken up and that literature, i.e. “books”, are one means by which this is accomplished.  But he also noted that the only books that could serve this purpose are those that, “wound or stab us” to “wake us up with a blow to the head.”

Routine and structure provide safety and no one can fault humankind for desiring safety.   Otto Brown noted, “Reality is a veil we spin to hide the void” but he also knew that this was a necessary “veil” which provides the safety necessary to go about day-to-day life and keep the wheels of our social organization spinning.  But Kafka’s concern, and the concern of other writers and artists, is that the need for safety can become so great that life itself is stifled and instead of an interior “flow” in our heart we have only a “frozen sea.”  W. H. Auden put it this way, “We have made for ourselves a life safer than we can bear.”

If the risk of life is not acknowledged…the fragility and vulnerability of being a mere “meat suit” in a relentlessly grinding cosmos will be avoided; but so will the experience of being alive. It is disconcerting for humankind to consider his vulnerability, to realize that he is this mere “sack of bones” on a speck of cosmic dust on a lonely planet.  It is this finitude that he seeks to hide with this specious “safety” that Kafka suggested books could “crack.”

This is a personal issue for me, thus a recurrent theme in my daily life and in this blog.  Literature has been the primary means whereby the “frozen sea” in my heart has been shattering for the past three decades since a good friend gave me a copy of Shakespeare’s Sonnets and introduced me to W. H. Auden and T.S. Eliot.  Good literature comes from the depths of the heart and speaks to the depths of the heart, described by the Psalmist as, “deep calls unto deep.”

Here is the Kafka quote in  full:

I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we’re reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? So that it will make us happy, as you write? Good Lord, we would be happy precisely if we had no books, and the kind of books that make us happy are the kind we could write ourselves if we had to. But we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us. That is my belief.

“Good” and “Bad” Shame

Theodore Roethke with his poem, “Dolour” capture so poignantly the prison that shame can create for us.  He captures the daily grind of routine, devoid of spontaneity and spirit, which Emerson had reference to when he bemoaned that, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”  For desperation is what ensues in spiritual deprivation, which always leads to addictions such as drugs, alcohol, ideology, (including religious ideology), and consumerism:

I have known the inexorable sadness of pencils,
Neat in their boxes, dolor of pad and paper weight,
All the misery of manilla folders and mucilage,
Desolation in immaculate public places,
Lonely reception room, lavatory, switchboard,
The unalterable pathos of basin and pitcher,
Ritual of multigraph, paper-clip, comma,
Endless duplication of lives and objects.
And I have seen dust from the walls of institutions,
Finer than flour, alive, more dangerous than silica,
Sift, almost invisible, through long afternoons of tedium,
Dropping a fine film on nails and delicate eyebrows,
Glazing the pale hair, the duplicate grey standard faces. 

Healthy shame is necessary as it can nudge us into the tribe we are born into, teaching us to “make nice” in the interest of group coherence.  We then respect rules of decorum, civility, respect for each other, and even agreed upon ruses that have an important function in making the tribe cohere.  But toxic shame often steps in and these necessary “rules” are forced upon children, sometimes with subtle and often not so subtle brutality so that the whole tribe is force-marched toward some unknown end, driven only by the force of habit etched deeply in the old brain.

Toxic shame breeds a tribe/nation of automatons who are readily manipulated by the power structure which controls the reins of the economy and government. And in the modern world, particularly in present day America, we find ourselves enthralled by a demagogue who in less than two weeks could further squash dissent and allow him to continue his assault on traditional American values, including those that we like to describe as “Judeo-Christian.”  People who are shamed into submission lack the capacity for critical thought; critical thinking would evoke in their heart the experience that Rick Perry suffered in 2011 during a debate, an excruciating spasm of self-awareness, when he realized he had made an ass of himself and had to utter the famous word, “Oops.”  It is very hard to admit “oops” when you are shame-bound as you just cannot admit having made a mistake.  (Now how Rick Perry did it, I don’t have an explanation.  But it did speak well of him!)  We make asses of ourselves, much more often than we are willing to admit, and when it happens it is redemptive if we can say…perhaps, merely…”oops.”  Oh, if Trump could just learn this simple word!

Here is a list of my blogs.  I invite you to check out the other two sometime.