Monday, February 15, 2021

William James, Trumpism & Tomorrow

"There is the imitative tendency which shows itself in large masses of men, and produces panics, and orgies, and frenzies of violence, and which only the rarest individuals can actively withstand.”

The above is a line from psychologist William James, in a passage about the human instinct to imitate and to follow others. It follows a quote from the Roman Terence, a slave who became a playwright: “Humani nihil a me alienum puto”, which the poet Maya Angelou translates into: “I am a human being. Nothing human can be alien to me.”

It’s pure coincidence that I happened to be reading William James (a friend and I decided together to explore some volumes of ‘The Great Books of the Western World’) at the very time that Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial was taking place. It’s not so much of a coincidence that I’ve also been reading William Shirer’s “Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, because it’s the disease of Trumpism in America that drove me to study the rise of Nazism in the first place.

There was a time when Americans looked to Nazism and asked the following questions in total bewilderment: How could they? Can they really believe that? How can they follow him? Don’t they see what’s happening? How can they hate so much? How can they be so stupid, so gullible? If they do see what’s going on, why won’t they stand up to it, defy it? Now, we Americans – on both sides – look at each other with those same questions.

William James (1842-1910) did a deep study of human beings, how we are physically put together and how we work. A lot of his massive work, “Prinicples of Psychology” – at least the parts I’ve read so far – has to do with how we perceive, react, learn and form habits. And when I came to the sentence at the top, and researched Terence’s latin phrase (which James doesn’t bother to translate), I was stopped cold.

It was just two days ago that 43 Senators excused Trump’s involvement in the January 6th insurrection, after experiencing the assault themselves and after watching hours of evidence linking Trump directly to the attempted coup. Immediately after the acquittal, instead of cries of outrage against the 43, a flurry of attacks and censures was directed at the seven republican Senators who voted along with the democrats to hold Trump responsible. And all those “How could they?” questions are back, pounding in my brain again, as they have for going on five years.

But actually, it’s been a lifetime. A lifetime of wondering how others can see what I see and know what I know and yet hold such drastically different thoughts and feelings about it. How can racists really believe in their judgements? How can so many men believe that women are treated fairly? How is it that adults – who were once children – can accept the use and abuse of children?

The answer that I’ve usually (but not always) strained to reject is that those other people are fundamentally different. I’ve had to strain because this explanation is apparently true. Men and women; black and white; adult and child – all such obvious differences that the answer presents itself. Growing up, I heard this explanation a lot. The horror of racism was explained by, “White folks are different. They don’t think and feel the same. They don’t have souls. They are devils.” Luckily or unluckily, I was able to perceive, in my then mostly-black community, that there was a degree of devilment going on there, too. And there was plenty of conflict – some of it very passionate conflict – that grew out of people not thinking or feeling the same. There were even a few people who gave no evidence of having functioning souls. And so, while it was very obvious that people differed, in subtle and drastic ways, there wasn’t any obvious or simple way to explain those differences.

As I grew up, was able to travel, and began to know people whose lifestyles and backgrounds were very different than mine, alternative answers to the problem of differences began to suggest themselves. Maybe other people didn’t actually see what I see, or couldn’t know what I know. And maybe people’s personal experiences shaped them is such ways that the differences were inside of us rather than in the world.

Maybe one of the most useful experiences in my own life, so far as understanding our differences, was my gradual shift from one who couldn’t understand how people could reject a belief in God, to one who now often struggles to understand the things that people believe to be of God. I don’t struggle nearly so much now as I did before my shift because I still remember my fervent Christianity of before. Because this belief hasn’t totally vanished, but it has changed drastically. The belief system that resonates most for me these last many years is Buddhism. Though I doubt that I’ll ever call myself a Buddhist, I see in that practice the recognition of an essence of goodness in the basic fabric of the universe, in the mechanics of living – that lifts us when we surrender to it (and surrender is a very hard word for most of us these days. Other ways of expressing it are: fully accept, be in flow with, acknowledge as a fundamental principle that will not be evaded). And I experience my connection to a greater, transcendent whole to which I believe we each belong. These notions have totally replaced for me the idea of the egocentric, white, male humanoid whom I once prayed to fervently for my personal salvation. But I can still understand – even feel – the power of that belief. And it allows me to understand the power of belief, whether in Allah or in the hoax of MAGA or Q-Anon.

Access to any belief system requires a process of critical thinking at some point. But, as William James points out, our brains and nervous systems go through phases that predispose us to accepting or rejecting influences at particular times. So that we are influenced when young by trends and styles and revolutionary philosophies that can’t touch us when we are much older. It will continue to take generations for Americans – and, of course, humans all over the planet – to outgrow our traumatic comings-of-age. It had seemed to me forty years ago, that there were levels of healing going on that we’d never again regress from. Now, there are so many fresh, psychic wounds that all that progress seems as lost. Except that the good stuff burrows as deep in us as the ugly, and most of us will try and cling to it tighter.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

The Hard Work of Giving a Fuck

I had a difficult realization today, which led to a self-assessment, and then an understanding that I was causing harm to someone who has been a friend. And because it wasn’t an in-your-face kind of harm, but rather one that was caused by retreating, by going silent, I was able to ignore it for a long time.

I only realized the degree of harm I might be generating when I caught myself having thoughts of anger and resentment against someone else for behaving in a similar way toward me. Both situations involved failure to follow up with contact that had been assured, and which was both meaningful and expected. The worst of it was that this behavior had been directed at me by a casual acquaintance, while I’d directed it at a friend.

It isn’t as though I was ever unaware that my own callous act was potentially hurtful. But, the situation was uncomfortable. Basically, I had come to believe that I wasn’t likely to invest the energy in the relationship that was called for, and I just backed off, knowing that it was unlikely that my friend would pursue things. I was faced with a difficulty that I found easier to ignore than to deal with.

This very sobering insight brought to mind the phrase ‘the banality of evil’, coined by Hannah Arendt in her writing about the crimes committed by the Nazis. I know that she used the phrase in reference to particular circumstances and contexts that don’t align with my personal situations, and that are far more serious. And yet, the phrase sticks because what both sets of problems have in common is a refusal to think a situation through, to the point of grasping how ones actions will affect another human being.

My responsibility in this situation is something I want to hold onto. I’ve reached out to the friend I hurt and I intend to endure whatever discomfort may come if he chooses to respond. After all, it was a desire to avoid discomfort that led to me acting as I did.

But I also reflect on the extent to which our society seems increasingly to invite us to not think deeply about how our actions might affect others. An example that resonates powerfully for me is how casually people are fired these days. I have worked in social service programs in which great pride was taken in dealing with clients in a very ‘client-centered’ way, taking their feelings and circumstances into account during every interaction. But employees were regularly fired from these jobs, with no notice or explanation, as casually as documents were shredded once no longer useful.

And I can’t help but think of the political realm, in which it has become more and more common to level devastating personal attacks, picket a person’s home, depict them as monsters, and even issue death threats, simply because someone holds a different political opinion. I don’t think that these ways of treating people would be possible – certainly they wouldn’t be so casual, so easy – if we forced ourselves to think deeply about that person’s actual, physical, temporal humanity, how their human experience brought them to the beliefs they hold, and how they will be affected by the treatment they receive.

All this is pretty obvious, but laziness or the desire to avoid the discomfort of seeing and thinking more deeply often keeps us from taking this step. It plays such a role in racism and other forms of prejudice, as well. We’re so quick to judge others’ behavior against our own perspective and experience. When it might generate so much more understanding to ask ourselves: What life experiences might lead me to act, think or feel as this other person does? Even better, of course, would be to engage in direct communication, while seeking to understand rather than convince or out argue.

Understanding requires effort. Empathy involves the expenditure of emotional energy. It’s work. And it’s often hard work. I intend to work harder.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The Present Calm

I’m amazed at the difference of not having the image, voice, news of Donald Trump constantly disturbing the mental and emotional space of the nation, and of myself personally. It’s like when the neighbor finally finishes mowing the lawn, and the sudden silence sweeps over me, and I find myself taking a deeper breath, and a tension in my shoulders eases.

I experienced an almost instantaneous release of tension a week ago, on Inauguration Day, when the possibility of some final, desperate grasp at power dissolved. The four years that I and many others had endured with clenched teeth was finally over. The fate of the world was no longer dependent on the whims of a spoiled child. (Trump may in fact be a sociopath, but I’ve always seen him as one of those obnoxious and immature adolescents that we’ve all experienced, who plays bully when he can, but most often flails against the reality of not getting his way).

This second relief, emanating from the relative calm and quiet of the past week, is even deeper than the first. It’s a return to normalcy – yes, relative normalcy, despite the pandemic, the economic instability and the resurgence of racial and civil rights concerns. But I won’t allow myself to turn entirely away from all the civil poison that Trump’s presidency brought to the fore.

I find it deeply disturbing that four in ten Americans still support Trump’s politics. And I’m not sure which is worse: that many of them feel that his actions are morally and legally appropriate in a constitutional democracy, or that many of them are aware of the fascist and racist underpinnings of his actions and just don’t give a damn about maintaining a constitutional democracy. Either way, it reveals a stunning disconnect between the foundations and principles of our democracy and almost half of the American population.

I recently started reading William L. Shirer’s “The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich”, because of Trumps determined effort to undermine the election. In retrospect, I’m disappointed in myself for going through my entire adult life with so little curiosity about how the phenomenon of Hitler came about, particularly in a population that was as progressive, educated and advanced as early twentieth century Germany appeared to be. Well, it’s a shocking read.

So much that characterizes Trump’s ascent and rule parallels the rise of the Nazis, including: the scapegoating of minorities, the constant denouncing of political opponents as enemies of the people and of the nation, the sanctioning of political violence, a distain for majority rule, and the total subservience of government and party to a single man. As much as I’ve distrusted the American right, I never thought that it would stoop to these depths.

But sheer selfishness and stupidity are much to blame. Because too many Americans – left and right – are unwilling to educate and train themselves to look beyond immediate self-interest, and to consider how attitudes and policies will affect the health of the nation and of their communities in the long run. More than ever before, I feel that there needs to be a shift in emphasis away from political candidates and to the responsibilities of voters. That alone would make voters less susceptible to misinformation and manipulation. How to bring such a thing about, I don’t know. Especially in this political and social climate, when we can’t even agree on basic facts.

One thing that reading of Hitler’s rise alerts me to is that the danger of far right insurrection is far from over. It’s a threat that has been building for decades, and it hasn’t been widely recognized for the threat that it is. Whole families and communities – including many Christian communities – have grown up around the supposed threats to the white race, the rise of communism and the social evils of liberalism and humanism. As anyone who has been listening has heard lately, there are many who feel that a civil war of good versus evil is long overdue. I guess one of the saddest things about any such war is always the total disagreement about what is good, and what is evil.

Friday, January 8, 2021

Reflections on a Would-Be Insurrection

               If your eyes are skimming these words, you – like me – are probably unable to divert your attention from the car wreck that just happened, and you’re still half expecting to glimpse a mangled carcass or two that has so far been over-looked.

              I have so many thoughts on the events of Wednesday the sixth of January, another “date which will live in infamy”, and I haven’t stopped looking at it from many different angles, including lots of supposes and what if’s.

              Some of them are/were:

-       -   Who didn’t see this happening? Everything was pointing to an overflow of anger and outrage. How was anyone surprised at what descended on the Capitol on Wednesday afternoon?

-       -  It could have been so much worse, given the lack of preparation, and I’m actually surprised that it wasn’t.

-       -   Wow! Police and security forces can be so gentle and patient, when they have a mind to be.

-       -   What a pleasant, surprising, even moving beginning to the end of that night, with Kelly Loeffler giving ground, Mitt Romney sounding so statesmanlike. Even Lindsey Graham, washing his hands of Trump (though, at this late date, that isn’t really possible) and proclaiming the incoming regime. These are all individuals I’ve had to work hard at not outright despising (throw in Mitch McConnell). To think that they each brought me moments of optimism and joy?! Go figure.

-       -   I never in a million years expected that by the end of the night, the way forward would seem clearer and easier than it had a few hours earlier. I’d probably have been less surprised had a full scale insurrection broken out.

-       -   Isn’t it amazing that the historic and impactful events of January 5th, in Georgia, were so quickly and neatly relegated to the rear view mirror?

-       -   What’s in store for 20 January, I wonder?

What I think is true is that no one knows what’s going to happen, how America will survive 2021, just as not a soul on Earth knew what was about to happen a year ago.

I feel a bit lighter and less tense today than I have because I sense that Trump’s power may finally be breaking. A day after he turned on his lap dog of a vice president and accused him of cowardice and treason (and does any loyal lap dog deserve such treatment?), I hear that some of his Q-Anon idolizers are now turning on him and accusing him of treason, for renouncing the feeble uprising that failed. Karma can be so, so beautiful!

Not for a second do I believe that the madness is over. It’s just that there might have to be a casting call for disruptor-in-chief, and it’s possible that the insurrectionists will break into camps. But it’s not over by a long shot. I hope that the 6th served as a wake-up call, and that security will be much more prepared on the 20th. 

One of the things I’ve done over the last couple of days is to look a little deeper into Q-anon, and it’s helped me to get a better grasp on what these folks believe and what drives them. They are serious! And they are obsessed! They take it as a point of prophecy that Trump will serve a 2nd term. And there are thousands armed and ready to help bring this about. Understanding their mindset and movement makes some of the things Trump has said, and the way they’ve been received, clearer to me. I gladly refer you to the following link for a primer ( It's disturbing and frightening. But it has helped me to remember that people are often driven to madness via their warped and manipulated sense of patriotism, or justice, or religious devotion.

I still believe that the only way out for America will be for more of us to become able to understand that our opponents are often genuinely motivated by good intentions, even while others are motivated by greed and hatred and poisonous ideologies. It’s hard to break through the level of delusion, fueled by intense fear, that has so many in its grip. It seems to me that Q-Anon and many other right wing movements, spring from fear of Black folks (the bogeyman of the guilt conscience, a legacy of slavery), and the fear of loss of self, that was tapped into by Obama’s ascendency, and heightened by Hilary Clinton’s threatened ascendency. Just as a Century and a half ago, the KKK arose from the fear stirred up by the ascendency of Black power during Reconstruction.

These fears are wrong and baseless, and they succeed by dehumanizing us. But we mustn’t fight back by merely dehumanizing them. It’s no more true or right to label all of those thousands marching in DC the other day as racist, terrorist, insurrectionist thugs, than it was last summer to label every protester against police murder as an anarchist, terrorist, insurrectionist thug. I brand them gullible fools, for believing that Trump is a good and honest leader who cares about them. But all gullible fools aren’t monsters.

Things are pretty damned grim in the US these days. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris sure have a job ahead of them. I wouldn’t swap places with either of them, not for anything. But if Trump’s power is truly ebbing, we may someday look back on 6 January as the bottom from which recovery began. Good things are possible. And hey…they have Stacey Abrams on their side!

Thursday, December 31, 2020

Promising and Creating Tomorrows

The main reason I’m writing this post is to keep a promise I made to myself a year ago. At that time, having fallen into a very unproductive writing rhythm, I resolved to post three times each month. If I maintained that pace, it would generate the highest level of blog productivity in several years.

This post marks number thirty-six of the year, fulfilling my commitment to myself. That’s a good accomplishment for a New Year’s Eve, on the verge of what most of us look to as, at the very least, an opportunity for a fresh start.

One of my best personal gains from the year 2020 was the relearning of a very simple lesson: that a habit, a commitment to keeping promises generates great power, that can be sustaining, generous and even transformational. This is the case because, when promises – or goals – are taken seriously, they bring the future present and turn possibilities into actualities.

If I tell myself that I will write a page a day, there is potential to complete a novel within a year. But if I elevate this intention to a promise, one which I bind myself to, then I am changing ‘might’ into ‘will’. I am transforming those imaginary and wishful 365 pages into certainties. When I bring myself to a state in which I trust and value myself enough to believe in my word to myself, my word then becomes very powerful, and speaking becomes an act of creation.

I have to give at least partial credit for this ‘lesson’ to Landmark Education, which grew out of the work of Werner Erhart, and whose programs have benefited me. Erhart’s expressions about promises and personal integrity are perhaps the most succinct that I have ever come across. And I’ve been using them to re-empower myself.

This re-empowering became necessary when I had to acknowledge that, over a long period of time, my words of commitment to myself had lost force. It began with making commitments that I wasn’t entirely committed to, so that it became easy to back out of them. And this progressed to the point where I hardly believed promises I made – to myself or others – even as I spoke them.

Taking up the lesson again meant, first of all, not to make any promise or commitment lightly, but only after consideration, and a clear-sighted acknowledgement to myself that the act of promising is either total or it is nothing. Because if a promise can’t be relied on, trusted in, completely, then it has no more power than a passing whim. And life had shown me how little whims are worth, when it comes to building a life.

One of the first fruits of beginning to take promises and commitments as expressions of my integrity, was becoming reacquainted with the power of will. I began to see how, once I’d promised something, and when abandoning that promise became an impossibility, the ‘will’ to fulfill always generated a way. It’s true. It works. However magical it may seem – and it sometimes does – it is also that simple.

And so, completing and posting this post, on this day, in this ‘last minute’, is important and meaningful to me. It reinforces the power and possibility of promises, as every fulfilled commitment does. And it deepens my believe in the magic that 2021 will bring!

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Reflections on a Year

I think it’s always a good thing to look around and remind oneself of all that there is to be grateful for. That may be even more important at a time like this, when it’s so easy to dismiss the entire year as lost, painful and wasted. We are all looking forward so eagerly to 2021, to things being different, to hardships being in the past. It’s tempting to erase 2020 from memory, to let if fade like a bad dream.

But there are always flip-sides to a situation, aren’t there? Silver linings and serendipitous nuggets of goodness. Some of these have emerged because of the painful aspects of the fading year, and will disappear once things are more normal. For example, a lot of us have been blessed with a sense of more space and more time, both for privacy, self-discovery and solo pursuits, and for intimacy, ‘other’-discovery and activities shared with those we have bubbled with. So while I’ve shared accounts with many friends of our struggles with isolation, stagnation and boredom, we’ve also had experiences of re-connection, enlivening and reinvestment that would have eluded us if not for the strange pressures of this year.

Dilok Klaisataporn /iStockphoto

So, much has been lost, and much has been gained. We can each tally up the sides of our personal ledgers, if we want to. But I’m not so sure that it’s important to generate a ‘net’ result. I’d rather just hold on to as much of the good as I can. I want to keep the fresh eyes the year has given me, maintain the renewed connections, be more deeply appreciative of things I took too much for granted or allowed myself to be bored or impatient with.

Personally, I’m not one of those people who is very eager to see things return to the so-called ‘normal’. I’d rather welcome the many new normals that are coming about, though many of them are sure to be ugly. Collectively, we have opportunities to shape and tweak these ‘developments’ as they take place. And it looks like there are massive shifts taking place in work places, in political space and in communities everywhere, as well as inside of each home, each life. Which means there will be displacement, anxiety and fear. 2021 may or may not bring the level of upheaval that 2020 did. But it can’t help but bring a lot that’s unexpected, new and disruptive, because every year brings that.

My list of things to be grateful to 2020 for will be a long one. For all the insanity, it’s been a beautiful year. I won’t be sad to see it end, but I’ll try to hold onto much of what it has given me. It’s good to be alive!

Monday, December 14, 2020

Step by Step

It’s going on a year and a half since I retired, and I can hardly recapture the frame of mind that I lived with for so many years, rising five days a week to go to work and organizing the rest of my life around those committed hours. Fortunately, I managed through most of my life to work at jobs that excited and motivated me, so that whatever resistance there was to the constraints on my time was balanced by an eagerness and commitment to the work itself.

Quite a few of my jobs were project or contract related, or were new or cyclical in some sense, providing me with a sense of creating, developing or building on something that either had a finite end, or that would reach a natural, periodic conclusion. Working through a school year was like that, or counselling a group of youth transitioning from incarceration back into their communities, or putting together a life skills program for a new group home. This enabled me to work at specific jobs for one to three years, and then to move on at a natural end or completion point. Which in turn enabled me to feel just fine about my frequent changes of employment.

My very last job, however, was quite different. I remained in it for over ten years, which proved to be much too long. And while it was work that brought me onboard with a new and growing enterprise, and so had those elements of newness and development, this aspect was essentially done after the first three or four years, after which I found myself in increasingly stagnant and repetitive environments and routines. I should have moved on from there but failed to make that happen, and had become a burnout case by the time I coasted numbly into retirement.

Looking back, I’m struck by the levels of depression I experienced in that last job, and by the depressed energy and suppressed frustration and resentment in those around me. It wasn’t an atmosphere I had much prior experience with. In the past, I’d always felt well able to flee such environments long before the souring had set in. But this time around – having failed to succeed with a number of applications for other jobs, I felt stuck, resigned and hopeless. So I accepted what I’d always considered a ridiculous and unthinkable proposition: remaining in a role where I largely went through the motions, unhappy with the quality of my own work, and finding little or no fulfillment in it.

Retirement has become a kind of drawn out adventure. I feel that I’m engaged in an ongoing process of reinvention and rediscovery, but it progresses slowly. The pressures I’m under are set principally by myself. Goals and projects are my own, self-defined and willingly embraced, but not promptly executed. When I don’t accomplish what I’d planned to in the course of a day, there is no external consequence, and that’s an aspect with two faces.

On one hand, I’m thrilled at how completely free I feel. What didn’t get done today, I can easily put off to tomorrow; there’s no one to care or even to know. The absence of the mounting pressure I’ve associated with procrastination all my life is really beautiful. Whenever I do get to whatever it might be, I feel motivated by my own concerns and wants, instead of by a desire to avoid criticism or disappointment from someone else.

But the other side of the coin is that I let many things slide for longer than my own standards can tolerate. And the feeling of disappointing my own expectations cuts deeper than those complaints I occasionally got from others. And they are a lot harder to dismiss.

Maybe the best side of this process of developing a self-generated work process and rhythm is the fact that it’s so personal, and has involved me getting a deeper understanding of how I tick. For example, I’ve confirmed that the most productive work times for me are late morning – shortly after getting up from bed, and late at night – early morning, really – when the day is over and the next hasn’t yet started. That latter time is like a space in between, and it feels that way, almost as though it floats between those two days, untethered from regular clock time. My late morning and my early morning sessions have totally different feels, and I’ve also found that the second is always best if I’ve already made an investment in the first.

There are a few other things I’m learning about myself and how I work best that are carrying me toward the goal of writing and publishing regularly. I’m sometimes amazed that I’m seeing a piece of the puzzle of myself so late in life. And I’m also seeing that some lessons are so particular to my current stage of life that I couldn’t have learned them any earlier than I have, just as I’ll never do the writing I failed to do at earlier stages, because I’m no longer the person who held those seeds of stories inside himself.

All of this together seems to be opening up a present tense in my living that, while it’s always available, can only be entered into by conscious choice. And I only seem capable of making that choice when I’ve freed myself of distractions and fears, while at the same time accepting whatever structures and demands the moment brings for what they are. And often, as weird as it may seem, that means being willing to act without explanation or understanding. It’s like giving voice to another dimension of my own awareness and intelligence, and trusting that it won’t let me down, because it can’t.