Tag Archives: extremism

Emily Dickinson Offered Wisdom Relevant to Modern Religious Zealotry

The mass murder in New Zealand illustrates again the problem with “True Believers,” those who believe so strongly they will even resort to violence.  This is because if one knows the truth, and knows it with enough passion, it will shut down the “pauser reason” which would tell one that another person might feel differently about what the truth is so that violence would not be necessary.  Furthermore, it would reveal internal boundaries, i.e. discretion or “the faculty of judgement” which would allow for value of life, in all forms, so that any belief that one has would not merit acting with violence.

There is inherent in belief a peril as one can be so invested so strongly in his beliefs that the aforementioned discretion is obliterated.  This discretion involves a “still small voice” in one’s heart which might tell one thinking of acting in this fashion, “Well, maybe I don’t really have to go to that extreme.” And if this discretion is fully functioning, the issue of acting out will not even be on the table.

Poet Emily Dickinson offered wisdom about this matter of discretion and related it to meaning.  She wrote that at times, “a certain slant of light” will break through our consciousness and will bring an “oppressive” mood into our heart; it might even bring us “heavenly hurt” though “we can find no scars, but internal difference where the meanings are.”  The ability to feel “difference” in the depths of our heart, though often bringing distress, i.e. “heavenly hurt,” will offer us meaning to our life which will empower us to see meaning beyond the values and beliefs we hold dear to ourselves. The inability to experience “difference” that would offer a meaningful life will create a rigidity denying the “heavenly hurt” that is part of the human experience; it is then more likely that the resulting pent-up anguish will be projected on someone else.

People who can’t handle this internal “discord” which intrinsic to a heart that is alive, will inevitable have to “them” someone else or some group of people.  They will have to find someone who is seen as an “other” and vent their self-loathing on them.  This is a spiritual issue which is the reason why we find it so common among religious individuals and groups as spirituality often taps into a very dark dimension of the human experience leading to speech, attitudes, and deeds which can only be described as evil.


The Perverse Delight of Being Right

I grew up being right.  How did I know I was right?  Because I “knew” that I was right.  How did I know that?  Because I was taught what right was, and how to merit that label, and therefore it was simple to just adhere to the definition and make sure your thinking and behavior complied to its premises. “Right” is always something external to the subjective experience of a young child and gaining the delight of knowing that he/she is right requires dutifully imbibing the definition of right that is proffered.  I used the term “imbibing” because it is more than a mere cognitive matter; it is a matter of “soaking up” the nuances of the culture to acquire a subjective “experience” of being right, meaning it is not likely to be questioned.

I have questioned this “rightness” of mine my whole life.  Oh, somewhat less in my youth as just did not have the self-confidence, the courage to stand on my own two feet and think for myself.  “Thinking for oneself” in a collective mindset that discourages it will leave one with a sense of alienation and I got a double dose of that malady.  The experience of alienation was so intense that I desperately tried to comply, to believe the right things, to do the right things so that I would have the comfort of belonging.  But if you must “try” to belong, you are in deep shit as far as having the comfort that belonging offers.

This “splinter in the brain,” as Emily Dickinson called it, has tormented and blessed me, the whole of my life.  Even today, as I am standing on my own two feet, there is the deep-seated nagging realization that I am now defying nearly all of the offerings of the tribe I was born into that would offer one the “delight” of being right.  I now see that the desperate desire to be right of my early youth was merely the result of the implicit assumptions I had gained from my tribe that I was intrinsically wrong, leaving me with a deep-seated experience that my simple “being” in the world was wrong.  I now seek “The Joy of Being” wrong, which is the title of a very important book in my life by James Alison, the complete title being, “The Joy of Being Wrong: Original Sin Through Easter Eyes.”  I personally believe this joy is what the teachings of Jesus was about, that he assured us that we could have this joy if we found the courage to relinquish all the pressures to fit in and just “be” present in the world.  This, in my estimation, is “salvation” which in the words of T.S. Eliot is, “a condition of complete simplicity, costing not less than everything.”

A very important caveat is warranted.  This freedom to “be,” to live free of the bondage to social norms, does not allow one to live in disregard for the conventions of one’s tribe.  Many of these conventions might not apply to me but that does not give me the freedom to go on the war path against them.  In that case I would be guilty of the very same obnoxious contempt that a tribe utilizes to stamp out the individuality of a soul. But it does give me the freedom to speak out about perceived injustice and evil as long as I don’t get so arrogant with self-righteousness that I encourage violence, overt or subtle.

The inspiration for this discourse stems from an article I read this morning in the New York Times about an Indian woman, Gauri Lankesh, who had this courage to be herself and speak out about the injustice of her country. She was a journalist who was murdered in 2017 because of her bold, and at times brazen willingness to “speak truth to power”.  Extremism always springs from knowing you are “right” and the arrogance that gives one this assurance arises from deep-seated darkness that permits violence.  This darkness arises from primitive fears and anxieties so intense that the light of conscious awareness is disallowed, a light that would permit respect of difference.

Emily Dickinson and the Imprisonment of Specious Truth

The subject of truth continues to fascinate me with the term “fake news” becoming synonymous with any viewpoint that does not fit with ours.  Truth appears increasingly to be very relative with no real standard being applicable.  Oh sure, I’m a “relativist” myself but then I continue to believe in some basic standard of veracity which, should I breach it, I would evoke some sense of shame and an attempt to apologize.

But the wonderful 19th century American poet Emily Dickinson knew that it was possible for the human soul to select its constituent elements and fashion a private, “society” that would be, “proof and bulwark” (borrowing a term from Shakespeare) against truth.  She was a keen observer of the human situation in her day and noted how people tended to create a very private reality for themselves, congregate with like-minded souls, and then repel any contrary viewpoint.  Here is how she put it:

The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —

Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —

I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —

Note that Dickinson observed that after constructing this autistic shell of a world view, the individual would, “shut the door” and then assume a “Divine majority,” that is assuming a Divinity to which nothing could be “presented” any more.  She knew that at this point an individual had said, in the depths of his heart, “My mind is made up.  Don’t confuse me with facts.”

But often in this closed-minded world, Dickinson knew that Truth often visited and “kneeled at her low-gate,” bidding for admission.  But she had already pledged her troth to a particular viewpoint and “closed the valves of her attention like stone.”  The imagery of valves of attention, “closing like stone” is powerful, evoking an auditory image of the gates of attention clanging shut with finality.  When one has barricaded him/herself into a prison of specious certainty, and labeled it Truth, there is no way for those chariots that are always passing by to breach the force-field it faces.  The poison that results inside such a prison always makes me think of Westboro Baptist Church, David Koresh and his disciples, and Jim Jones and the Jonestown, South Africa disaster.

W. H. Auden offered relevant wisdom, “And Truth met him, and held out Her hand. And he clung in panic to his tall belief and shrank away like an ill-treated child.”

Mental Illness is a Reference Problem

It is axiomatic in clinical lore that mental illness is a reference problem arising from having formulated too narrow a field of reference, one’s decision-making guided by internal whims and fancies with little or no concern for external validation. In recent months I have “discoursed” re the extreme close-mindedness of the Republican Party in my country and yesterday’s post might make one think I had them in mind. Well, kind of, but only “kind of” for if I would deign to call the Republican Party “mentally ill” then I would be revealing my own “mental illness.” For they are not “mentally ill” though they do have a “mentally ill” dimension in their collective psyche just as do all groups, including the Democratic Party. This “mentally ill dimension” is the inordinate need to maintain and perpetuate group identity to the exclusion of any long-term, broad-based, inclusive agenda.

All groups function like individuals and have a need for homeostasis and go to great ends to achieve this objective. And this is good, if it is not carried to an extreme. When homeostasis becomes an inordinate concern for a group they will become excessively concerned with boundaries and self-definition. Inevitably a need for purity will emerge and one will see a tendency to threaten or exclude anyone who departs from the party line. This is reflects a profound insecurity in its collective psyche—the aforementioned homeostasis is perceived to be very tenuous and great energy is invested in shoring up its precarious internal sense of identity. The reinforcements employed to shore up this tenuous identity become profoundly important as without them the fear that “the center will not hold” and a beast will come “slouching toward Bethlehem.” (See W. B. Yeats poem at conclusion)

The key is for homeostasis…or the bedrock of identity…to be based on some belief system that finds unity in a whole larger than oneself. This belief system will allow the group identity to be maintained but without such inordinate emphasis that the larger context of which the group is part will be de-emphasized or even rejected. Such an impoverished identity does not see…and feel…its connection with the larger context (i.e., “the world”) as it cannot forego its pristine, private, “unique” view of self and opts to live in an autistic shell. It makes me think of Hamlet who pined, under his great duress, to “flee to a nutshell and there be king of infinite spaces.”

The following poem by William Butler Yeats conveys the terror of a group or individual who experiences existential insecurity and fears that “the center will not hold” and will fall prey to “the beast” of chaos:


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

“Perfect Love Casteth Out Fear”…Eventually!

Hmm. Well, if it does I’ve got a lot of work to do for I have a lot of fears. But these fears are diminishing as I’m slowly beginning to accept God’s love, realizing that this love is a dimension of life that is not “out there” in some objectified projection from our collective and individual heart. God is immanent as well as transcendent.

But fear will never go away completely for it comes with being human. Those who are so proud of being totally fearless might take caution as this could be merely the brazen arrogance of psychopathy. To be is to be vulnerable. And to be fully human, or to be in the process of maturing as a human, is to be increasingly comfortable with the experience of vulnerability. And that is often scary!

I have tried most of my life to escape vulnerability…and human-ness…with ideologue-ism. It is a very dependable escape and when we opt for that “fig leaf” we will always have the affirmation from others who have subscribed to similar ideas. And, I can assure you that it is so comforting to know that one is in the comforting warmth of like-minded “believers” and to have that firm conviction that one’s view of the world is “right.” Coming to the point of maturity and seeing that this “escape from freedom” was a self-imposed prison has taken courage that I didn’t know that I had…and, I don’t really know that I have it even yet! But I see so clearly now the tyranny of ideas when not moderated by an open heart. I see now so clearly how the ideologue-ism of those days of my life included participation in a group effort to control others. And I see this same poison so vividly illustrated today in extremist groups such as ISIS and political factions in my country who seeks to deny rights to minorities, even the right to vote and the right to health care.




Breaking news! GOP Hates President Obama!

“We wage the war we are.’ I use this W. H. Auden quote so often because it so vividly describes my life. But I think the quip is relevant to each of us, individually and collectively. American politics has been demonstrating this “warfare” in a vivid fashion since Barack Obama became president. Senator Mitch McConnell announced upon Obama’s election, that the “primary goal” of his party was to “make Barack Obama a one-term president.” And this Republican game plan has sought egregiously to undermine the President each step of the way, even to the of bring harm to the country and the threat of devastation to the world economy.

sThis single-focus is often good for any group as it provides coherence when otherwise there might be none. But this “single-focus” often goes beyond the pale at times and eventually lead even to internal conflict in the group itself. This is because this “single-focus” is so intense that “reality” is disregarded, the “reality” in this case being the welfare of the country but also the welfare and integrity of the group itself. This “single-focus” can galvanize such intense emotions that actions result that are so short-sighted that the long-term outcome of the actions leads to  catastrophy. The resulting autistic frame of reference is vividly illustrated today on the world stage with Islamic extremist group, Isis. And, sure enough, there are signs that the Isis organization now is experiencing internal conflict.   When your subconscious need is to project your violence on others, eventually “others” will not suffice and the group  begins to have conflict within; it begins to feed upon itself.

The Republicans have graphically demonstrated their antipathy to the President so many times, most recently when 47 Republican senators signed a letter by Senator Tom Cotton which sought to undermine complex negotiations between the White House (and other world leaders) with Iran on nuclear disarmament. A few weeks earlier, the Speaker of the House John Boehner intruded in Obama’s purview on the same issue by inviting Benjamin Netenyaho to speak to the Congress without the customary formality of going first through the White House.

But the seething hatred has even gone to comical at times. In Obama’s second inaugural address, one Congressman interrupted this very formal very event with a cry of, “You lie!” This Congressman had imbibed his party’s hostility toward the President to the to the point he could not control himself, and felt he had the liberty to behave so rudely. He lacked the self-awareness, or meta-cognition, which would have given him impulse control and the realization that such an outburst would be so egregious that both parties would later chide him for the offense.. Another event even more clearly illustrated the childish nature of the hostility when one Republican Senator during intense discussions with the President over the budget, told the President to his face, “I can’t stand to even look at you!” To make this even further comical, when the Senator was “outed” on this rudeness, his response was a fervent denial, followed by a threat, “If anyone was tape recording that meeting, they will be reprimanded for violation of the rules.” The lack of self-awareness kept him from realizing that he was then tacitly admitting guilt.

Obama’s response to the Republican intrusion into negotiations with Iran revealed a truth that is too painful for most members of the Republican party—the extremists who have so much power in their party is ideologically similar to Isis.   Obama noted, “I think it is kind of interesting that the GOP is aligning themselves with the hard right of Isis. I think it’s somewhat ironic to see some members of Congress wanting to make common cause with Isis. It’s an unusual coalition.”

I have wanted to liken these hardliners to the Isis myself. But it is important to note that this is an over statement as our system of government and our culture will not permit this radical extremism to lead to overt violence.   But the subtle violence in their collective heart just two years ago led them to jeopardize the world economy when they tried to shut down the government rather than compromise with the White House on a budget deal. As that political battle approached denouement, the extremists (i.e. Tea Party) began to realize that their childish intransigence was not going to succeed. At one of the conferences within the GOP, two of were quote as they came out of committee meetings exuberantly avowing, “We are rightI”

Hardliners who venture into extremism cannot be negotiated with. One cannot negotiate with any individual or group who is desperately convinced they are “right.” Furthermore, this being “right” is very much related to the conservative religion of that contingent of the GOP who are convinced that God is leading them. It is hard to negotiate with anyone who so desperately believe God is on their side. This issue is a demonstration of the danger of ideology I have blogged about recently. Anyone who is so invested with any idea…even those that might be “good and noble”…cannot approach any issue on the table with reason. Oh sure, they have reason but their reason is blinded by the hatred which is the underlying unifying force of their group. As Goethe so pithily described it, “They call it reason, using celestial light celestial, just to outdo the beasts in being bestial.”

These people are so deeply embedded in their own thinking that they cannot see beyond “the small bright circle of their consciousness.” This is called narcissism.  Emily Dickinson described it as a “mind too near itself to see itself distinctly.”




Lunacy in Religion Surfaces Again!!!

Christiandom has given Bill Maher and other stand-up comedians more fodder for there routines as a 53 year old former fundamentalist pastor has been arrested in Brazil to face 53 charges of sexual abuse. I will offer a link to the story as it is really creepy, primarily many of the parents willingly “followed God’s leadership” and entrusted their teen daughters into the care of this man’s reclusive and isolated ministry with a promise that he would make these girls God’s women! (http://www.cnn.com/2015/03/01/us/victor-barnard-brazil-caught/index.h)

I see so much lunacy in contemporary religion. And, history has many other stories of additional religious lunacy enough to bring anyone to the point of consideration, “Is all of this just nuts?” And I look at contemporary Christianity and am amazed at how intelligent, educated people can believe some of the things they believe in the name of Christ; and, yes, on the fringe I see many “nut-jobs.”  However, the social context that produced me some six decades ago would label me “nuts” also, or some variation of that term And, in a sense, they would be right for it is the context that gets to define the terms and in reference to the context from which I hailed I certainly merit some disapproving label.

Spirituality deals with the issue of meaning or our quest for meaning. And meaning is always found in a search into the depths of the heart. Unfortunately, the “depths of the heart” are chaotic to say the least and contain good and bad, a veritable Pandora’s box of mischief and worse. Sometimes one’s spiritual quest will take one right into the “Heart of Darkness” and there are times that temptations leads to catastrophic decisions, often “in the name of God.” An equally sordid route is when someone is so fear-bound, so fearful of that dark realm in his heart, they will not allow the Spirit of God that he professes to believe in to lead him in the depths of the heart in the first place. This person will keep it all in the head and become an ideologue, one picture of which we have today is Isis but in Christianity in my country there is Westboro Baptist Church.

But, this issue is ultimately a human issue and not the fault of the religious/spiritual impulse though certainly that impulse goes awry and we see catastrophe. We are complicated little critters because in those hoary depths of our heart monsters do lurk and sometimes our adaptations to them are inadequate, even in our faith. And this realization keeps me a little less rigid than I used to be though often I will find myself relapsing into an arrogance even with my “liberal” and “open-minded” and “all-inclusive” notions of Christianity. And this realization always brings me back to the basic emphasis of spirituality—chopping wood, carrying water. For all of our lofty and noble thoughts, what are we doing to make this world a better place for our kiddies?