Category Archives: Politics

Maybe Something Doesn’t Love a Wall

“To show we’re great, we’ll build a wall!”
He shouted, “Long and big and tall!”

Does God define those out and in
By race or creed or next of kin?
If that’s the purpose of your wall
May all your bills in Congress stall!

But a worse lesson you must learn
Before you take one more bad turn:
Your wall cannot change to a boat
When every house now has a moat.
Walls will not be thought of more
When men must now rebuild a shore.

Your surety you thought would keep
But even you must watch and weep
As walls and towers built to abide
Are strewn across the countryside.

And now will the jeweled isles cry
While you continue to deny
The changes come upon our land?
We can all see the stronger Hand.

We know pride goes before a fall.
Do you think God cares for your wall?

Kids Whose Parents Fight All the Time

The fighting didn’t start January 20th or November 8th or even two years ago; it’s been going on a long time.  The volume was turned up when Republicans decided they would vote “no” on any Obama proposal.  After the 2017 inauguration it exploded to an unbearable decibel level.

If this were your home, and you were an adolescent who had grown up with years of fighting all around you, you would be traumatized. In moments of clarity, you would see that your parents fight over anything. Even when something as clear as day occurred, like the trash pickup accidentally spilling garbage on the street, they would argue over whose fault it was that the can was too full or it wasn’t placed in a correct position.

Likewise: for three days we have listened to arguments about blame.  Today you can read a well-researched article on assigning blame to “alt-right” and “alt-left,” based on historical and statistical analyses of how extremists on either end have engaged in violence over the past 50 years.  WTF?  says the teenager.  As if that would stop the fighting?

So, three points.

Point 1: Listening to this day and night is not good for us; we need healthy choices. What would the guidance counselor advise the kid who is stuck in this impossible household for 3 more years?  Work hard, get good grades, plan your own future.  Learn from the mistakes around you.  Don’t take drugs or drown your sorrows in binge TV.  Join a club at school. Volunteer for an organization on the weekends.

You get the analogy.

Specific additional advice for our situation: Ignore those quadrated screens of commentators saying the same things every time there’s another fight.  If you must get the news, check it quickly in the morning (not before bed, it damages your sleep), ask yourself if this is worthy news, then go on with YOUR day.

Point 2:  This is like a captivating magic show; we are the gullible audience.  You know how the magician works: he keeps his hands moving around the objects on the table or waving the wand, saying “Watch!  Watch!  You see it, keep watching!”  (Watch Russia v USA. Watch Kim v Trump. Watch alt-R v alt-L.)  But the action is happening where you aren’t looking – in the magician’s other hand, or his feet, or on the other side of the stage.

While everyone’s attention is distracted, be smart!  Look at what’s going on elsewhere, backstage. That’s where you find the directors with scripts, stage managers, and the crew – mostly the group called the “Cabinet.” Orders are being given, the scene is being redone as they try to create a society in Trump’s image.  But unless you look hard, you won’t see those folks until the end, when they come out to bow for the credits – and try to get their boss re-elected in 2020.

Point 3:  Learn from what has happened. This could be a teachable moment for people, for any of us who thought “there’s always a way to work with a situation.”  For example, the CEOs who quit acquiescing to this administration are thinking differently. Maybe this is a time when those who think mainly about management – of money, resources, people — can think together about ethics, about fairness, the public good. Maybe they will listen now to people other than big shareholders who want to make megabucks.  Charlottesville was a very loud wake-up call.

The fighting could become worse, and that’s the fear that arises, in a child or in us. If we give into fear, we become paralyzed.  But we aren’t helpless.  Day by day, we can make good choices.

For Emma Lazarus and the Mother of Exiles

in reply to Mr Stephen Miller:

 

Not like the silver tongues of ancient times

Who taught with wisdom in the city gate —

Today a brazen youth steps forth with hate

To twist the meaning of an honored sign!

Our mild-eyed lady need not yield a line

Of meaning from her poem. O let him prate

With facts and figures all drawn up to mate

His pompous thoughts. But we will not resign.

When we refuse the despots in their tower,

Resolving to undo their secret schemes,

Heart’s knowledge reveals to us a different power:

The race is won by courage, love, and dreams.

The golden door will long outlast this hour —

The torch remains aloft, undimmed its beams!

–A Cosmopolitan

In the Wilderness

This particular post takes some leaps that may be difficult to absorb. On the one hand, it builds on the psychological insights discussed in the last post. On the other, it takes up a very different subject, the biblical story of the ancient Israelites particularly in the book of Numbers (BaMidbar, which means “In the Wilderness). Biblical scholar Avivah Zornberg has explicated both Exodus and Numbers in a way that bridges psychoanalytic theory and the collective experience of the Jewish people portrayed in those books. I’m adding an additional leap to use this perspective in understanding our modern situation.

I’m asking my readers to follow patiently as I make these links. I don’t claim that this is a “correct” interpretation of the Bible; rather it is a work of imagination, to engage in thinking about our situation in a different perspective, and feeling our way out of the impasse between utopia and apocalypse.

In a sense, the Bible’s story of redemption of the ancient Israelites represents a utopian project. Although it is God’s idea rather than a human one – the plan having been prophesied to Abraham in the book of Genesis – it depends on the cooperation of the people, and eventually on their persistent effort in settling the land promised to their ancestors. It does fit with the idea of utopia as expressing a desire to “reconcile with that from which we have been estranged,” the estrangement of the intervening generations of slavery in Egypt. But even with God being the chief promoter of this new development, it ran into several stumbling blocks from the people who were to be the beneficiaries of the promise.

Zornberg elucidates the dynamics of the situation, by focusing on the Jewish people’s inner conflicts. These take the form of doubts, complaints, idol worship in violation of God’s commandment, and outright rebellion against their leaders Moses and Aaron. As she says early on, the Israelites’ behavior and attitudes suggest that they were not “ready for redemption.”

For our purposes, we join the timeline at a point after the famous revelation at Mount Sinai and the golden calf episode, for which God has forgiven them (in the book of Exodus). Now in the wilderness, scouts are sent on a reconnaissance mission to spy out the land they are about to enter and settle.

God has promised they will inherit a land of “milk and honey,” and indeed the spies discover it is rich and fertile; they confirm precisely that it “flows with milk and honey.” However, its cities are also well fortified, and the spies see some descendants of an ancient mighty people. In delivering their report, ten of the twelve spies express doubt about their ability to conquer it. The other two spies, Moses’ right-hand man Joshua and his nephew Caleb, counter their fellows’ opinions and strongly advise moving ahead. But, the story continues, the ten spies “spread an evil report,” turning from the simple facts to exaggeration: “The land eats up its inhabitants; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature.” “We were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight.” A difficult proposition has turned into a vision of monsters.

This sends the people into paroxysms of despair. They refuse to move forward. “Would that we had died in the land of Egypt, or in this wilderness!” they moan.

They see only death ahead. “Why did the Lord bring us to this land to die by the sword? Our wives and babies will be prey. Isn’t it better to go back to Egypt?” They murmur against Moses and Aaron, ultimately saying to one another, “Let’s set up a leader and return to Egypt.”

Notice how Egypt suffuses their fantasies – and this was not the first time. When they complained about the manna from heaven, they remembered Egypt — “the fish and cucumbers we had in Egypt, melons and onions and garlic.” Suddenly, the future seems bleak, while the past — back-breaking and heartbreaking slavery — is idealized.

The promise of a land of milk and honey, the land of their illustrious ancestors, had resonated in the minds of the Israelites like a return to Eden. But Egypt still hung in the air. Leaving Egypt was like separation from their more recent “mother,” even though a harsh and cruel one. Now, the promised land seems even more cruel. The story echoes those folktales where the children leave the wicked stepmother only to fall into the hands of a witch.

We see the people leaping from one projection into another, from the lost edenic past to a future that is threat rather than promise. Then God condemns the faint-hearted generation to remain in the wilderness for forty years and die there. Faced with failure of the enterprise, they fall into resigned silence. As Zornberg notes, despite all the rebellious talk, most of the generation that marched out of Egypt disappears without a trace in the text. One challenge to the leadership arises, but after that, there is no sign of creative effort or solutions to challenges. A few chapters later, we read of the death of Miriam, and suddenly realize we are near the end of the decreed 40 years. Has anything of import happened? The people complain about lack of water. This is exactly what the previous generation had done when they arrived in the wilderness.

We have here a paradigm for an unresolved inner conflict. The future ideal – the promised land – now seems impossible. The horrific past begins to seem like a refuge. But these are fantasies, projections, which in social and political life then appear as different factions and opinions.

We can see this happening in social movements today. A “return to nature” is proposed as an ecological utopia. But others tell us that nature is becoming terribly distorted. (I just read a review of a book on the Great Lakes that talks about the monstrous – yes, that word is used – species that have been invading the Lakes and destroying their ecology. This is like the people spying out the land and saying, “all the inhabitants are giants.”).

On the other hand, we hear that technology will continue bring more and more wonders. That utopia has for a long time been presented as giving us “labor-saving devices.” Most people still work as much as ever – but many find their labor less valued. Solutions? Return to the values of the rugged frontiersman, or the economics of the Reagan era. Back to Egypt?

Many people have fallen into resigned silence, worried but not feeling effective. Will we soon, like the generations in the wilderness, be crying, “Give us water”?

Zornberg’s observations diagnose this kind of dilemma as the human state of being “unable to mourn,” that is, in the fundamental case of early childhood, unable to accept the loss of the original mother or parent. What happens in healthy development is that the child gradually acquires the ability to accept, invent, and creatively use substitutes. In symbolic play, and later in increasingly rich languages, the child develops imagination. The process can also include episodes of fear and anger connected to the original trauma. Those feelings are often repressed, and can be triggered again when the person faces a threat to their stability.

In the biblical example, after the first trauma of the disappearance of Moses, the people had created a golden calf. This was a inappropriate direction from the biblical point of view, going back to pagan practices like those of Egypt. We might say it was an immature substitute for Moses. God gave them instead the tablets of the law in a portable tabernacle that was also a object of beauty and symbolic potential. This was an object in which they could and did invest their creativity – we could call it a good substitute or “sublimation,” a stable representation of the Divine that did not depend on Moses.

After the “sin of the spies,” the rejection of the land that God had promised them, the situation was more difficult to repair. The people exemplified not only an emotional attachment to a fantasized past (“let’s go back to Egypt”) but lack of faith in God’s vision of the future. One might say that the golden calf had a certain ‘spiritual’ dimension, even if misguided. The later sin had no such dimension. Only with the arising of a new generation – by waiting for time to pass – would there be movement forward.

The deeper meaning of our current situation is illuminated here. Over the last two centuries and increasingly in the past several decades, our cultural moorings have been badly shaken. For generations our societies were anchored to God by strong religious ties; our daily lives were relatively predictable and changes were slow. With the rapid growth of technology and global change, we found ourselves in a new world. It was exciting at first. Like adolescents who couldn’t wait to leave home, we turned our backs on both our “parents,” God and nature, and didn’t speak to them again.

We embraced utopian visions of society and of technology. As we observed, most of those collapsed. Many voices are saying, “Let’s go back to Egypt” — to the traditional religions, to political eras where we vaguely remember some success. On the other hand, the future has become full of unknown monsters, giants in the land. Many voices are frightening us with the threat of apocalypse or ecological collapse.

The utopian vision of technology still amazes us, but as it has gone global and created a new elite, the outlines of the future are no longer clear. Is this an empty, ultimately sterile utopia full of gadgets but no meaning? We are in the Vacant Space, from which God withdrew (or we pushed Him/Her out).

What human development teaches us is that we must reach deeper within ourselves, freeing up the channels of creativity again. We need to bridge the gap between ourselves and God, ourselves and nature; but not in the same old ways. If the climate is changing, our spiritual climate has to change too. And that is in our hands.

 

 

Why We Can’t Go Home Again

In examining utopian thinking, we discovered an inner contradiction:  The goal of establishing an ideal society must be happiness, that is, the fulfillment of people’s desires, but success requires that people accept limitations on their desires.

One can soften the tension of contradiction by agreeing to less than perfect success, but still, when we recognize how disastrously some utopian experiments have failed, ranging from horrifying totalitarianism to mindless consumerism, we may suspect there’s more than just a moderate amount of tension here.

So we came to the conclusion that we must explore desire.  Why are human desires apparently endless?  Why do they often become destructive?

Espen Hammer gives us a clue when he cites Ernst Bloch’s argument that “all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home.”

The ultimate “back home” is, of course, our origin in the primal family.  Home and family with all that it might have meant – security and stability, with love and encouragement supporting our growth – is the ideal utopian situation. But virtually none of us experienced the complete fulfillment of our desires.

It was Sigmund Freud who pointed directly to this issue, locating the source of inner psychic conflict in those original desires.  He named the force of desire “Id,” meaning essentially IT, an anonymous vital life force that had to be tamed. But he also created a storm by associating this force with sexual impulses in infants and children.

Still today, many people find Freudian theory hard to accept because of this dimension. If you’re one of them, it may help you to know that I also was resistant to much of the theory, and found it all the more annoying because my resistance could be diagnosed as denial – a double-bind that I thought was extremely unfair.

Not until I began studying the work of the extraordinary biblical scholar  Avivah Zornberg  did I return to considering Freudian theory in a different light. Zornberg also had at her disposal a century of clinical work, research based on close observation of infants and children, and insights from other disciplines that contributed to deeper understandings of the phenomena of desire.  When she demonstrated how to read biblical narratives wearing the lenses of psychoanalytical insight as well as Hasidic commentaries, I came to see how this work on Desire could be helpful in understanding human psychosocial dynamics.

Here’s a summary of what I have been able to understand and integrate, simplified for the present purpose.

Humans experience almost intolerable frustration of desire before we are emotionally able to manage it. We are born totally dependent, needing almost constant presence and attention, and even the temporary disappearance of the mother is potentially traumatic. This is unlike most other mammals that are able to walk and feed themselves shortly after birth. Even when the mother is physically present, our emotional dependence on her, other early caretakers, and a supportive social environment continue to be essential to psychological stability. This level of emotional fragility is unknown in the animal kingdom.

When the infant or child experiences loss of this care and sustenance, stability is undermined. On a temporary basis, the psyche can tolerate this “missing.” But if it is too much – and individual variability is high in defining what is too much – natural desire becomes painful longing and yearning. Disappointment of desire generates irrational anger and hatred – irrational simply because it arises long before reason has any place in the psyche. Unfulfilled desire generates a search for substitutes that will replace the lost presence, and rage at substitutes that are ineffective (as eventually they all will be).

I could now see this dynamic in my experience as a mother and, watching with less involvement, as a grandmother. I write from the maternal perspective, with the understanding that this can apply to any early caretaker(s). I now understood Eros, desire, as that magnetic realm where one being extends itself toward another – the infant with radiance and with need; the mother with wonder and generosity; their gazing at one another. Through sheer energy they leap over the distance between them.

Yet she is also an independent being, while her child is not. She has thoughts that pull her away. Sometimes the baby’s desire is not met. At that instant, a chasm opens and the leap of desire becomes a fall into loneliness, abandonment into empty space. Hopefully the space is filled again, soon, so that the infant can learn that the movement from presence to absence is like the in and out of breathing, or perhaps more accurately the pleasure of eating but the discomfort of digesting, to be followed again by presence / eating.

But at some point it will become more difficult. Some accidental separation that is too long, or some willful anger or rejection, will create unbearable trauma. Or the child will experience the mother’s grief or terror, beyond his capacity to understand. Or the child will begin to sense there are other objects of the mother’s Eros, different and mysterious. (Sexualization of desire here often becomes confused with our associations from adult sexuality, so I will not use that language.)

The variants on the narrative are of infinite variety but generate the same dilemma: She is gone. Will I find her again? Must I lose her forever? How will this empty space be filled?

And when she returns — if I could put words to, say, an 8-month old’s feelings, they might be: I am so sad but – now, what? there she is, unbearably beautiful. I want to fall in her arms and weep. But will she leave again? How could she have done this? I am angry. I will not look at her. But I need her. …

The older child’s feelings become more complicated, as mirroring begins to yield some sense of “the other” with her own feelings. But they can easily be confused: Did I cause her to go away? I don’t want her to get angry at me. When I am angry she turns away. She looks sad when she sees me sad.

Virtually all of us carry some version of these traumas of dangerous and fearful absence — and some version of healing from them, or we would not be alive. Yet most of us can be triggered into trauma again, later in life. That’s when fear and rage arise, along with actions that are destructive to ourselves, to others, or both. To the extent that they were unbearable to us as children, to the extent that we were not helped to bear them, these feelings will still lurk under the surface, and may again become unbearable. Then we will turn them on ourselves (as in addiction), or outward on an enemy.

No wonder utopias don’t work. They promise a way to fulfill desire, but inevitably they fail in some dimension, and the disappointment is like losing one’s parents. Of course we would fantasize “reconciliation” with that from which we have been “estranged.” But do we really want to walk into that dangerous ground again, where we have been wounded to the heart? Or, if we take the risk to build community with others, are we always walking on eggshells, waiting for the chasm to open?

So communities degenerate into jealous factions, people become suspicious of neighbors. Authoritarian governments arise to administer the “utopia” — to manage rage and to displace one’s own rage on those lower in the hierarchy.  And “government” becomes an object of resentment too, but that is only one dimension of the frustration of desire.

I could go on.  The point is, we can’t talk about utopia or even seriously about social improvement unless we understand the volcanic dimensions of desire.

Zornberg treats these issues in her exposition of the biblical book of Numbers, entitled Bewilderments, where she follows the ancient Israelites in their wanderings in the wildness – the wilderness – of desire. We will look at her thinking more specifically in the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

Utopia, Anyone?

In recent posts, we rejected apocalyptic thinking for its tendency to play on fantasies of destruction, as well as for encouraging polarization and an “us vs. them” mentality. But another futurist vision perhaps should be considered — namely, utopia, the ideal society.

You might think it’s the reverse of apocalypse, the flip side of a negative vision. But looking more closely, we see it’s a different phenomenon. Utopia doesn’t require a disruptive collapse. And, although some apocalypses might prophesy a utopia at the other end (with the saved remnant or a new race), the two aren’t necessarily connected. Utopia can emerge gradually and grow toward perfection. Moreover, utopia doesn’t necessarily divide humanity into good and evil parts; it can be inclusive.

Yet oddly, the attempt to put utopian thinking into action often had destructive results.

In a recent essay, “A Utopia for a Dystopian Age,” political philosopher Espen Hammer, summarizes the modern  history of utopian thinking. He says there have been three main types of utopia — utopias of desire (pleasure), of technology (ease), and of justice (socioeconomic equality). All of them inspired new social programs and planning, but also demonstrated serious weaknesses.

The utopias of desire make little sense in a world overrun by cheap entertainment, unbridled consumerism and narcissistic behavior. The utopias of technology are less impressive than ever now that — after Hiroshima and Chernobyl — we are fully aware of the destructive potential of technology. Even the internet, perhaps the most recent candidate for technological optimism, turns out to have a number of potentially disastrous consequences, among them a widespread disregard for truth and objectivity, as well as an immense increase in the capacity for surveillance. The utopias of justice seem largely to have been eviscerated by 20th-century totalitarianism. . . .

The great irony of all forms of utopianism can hardly escape us. They say one thing, but when we attempt to realize them they seem to imply something entirely different. Their demand for perfection in all things human is often pitched at such a high level that they come across as aggressive and ultimately destructive. Their rejection of the past, and of established practice, is subject to its own logic of brutality.

I would add that another type of utopia has been tried, namely the spiritual or moral utopia, guided by either religious inspiration or an overriding value such as “Love” or “Enlightenment.” The nineteenth century saw the emergence of many such communities founded either by a charismatic leader, such as the Shakers, and/or by a group adhering to higher principles, such as the Transcendentalists’ “Brook Farm” or Theosophist communities. Most of these did not survive beyond the 1920s. They demanded a high order of behavior and most believed in the perfectibility of humanity.

Interestingly, unlike the secular utopias, most did not become outwardly aggressive (perhaps because they lacked the machinery of state; perhaps because they believed in voluntary adherence). Most failed for economic reasons or the normal processes of social groups — their ideals did not appeal to new generations, their leadership weakened, etc. A few adapted sufficiently to survive, for example as religious denominations such as the Latter-Day Saints (Mormons).

Utopias of justice are, we should note, also moral utopias, focusing specifically on socioeconomic issues. One that did not become totalitarian was the kibbutz movement in Israel, inspired by socialist ideas, which made outstanding contributions to the development of the land and the early state. Many kibbutzim do still exist, having adjusted some of their original practices over time. But they are no longer foundational to the Israeli economy; they did not succeed in competing with capitalism.

In any case, Hammer believes that two factors are relevant to understanding the difficulties faced by utopias: one, the utopians’ demand for perfection is so high that they “come across as aggressive.” Hmm. No, the non-religious utopians of “justice” actually were aggressive; it wasn’t simply a matter of perception. Most used coercive force (such as violent revolution) to create their societies.

Another problem was their rejection of the past which had “its own logic of brutality.” This seems to mean that people resented forced change, which is probably true; but in these social experiments many people also agreed to it. I think, for example, of the anti-religious tendencies in socialism and communism in Russia, China, and Israel. Yes, they were emotionally brutal; and yet the ideology that saw religion as delusional required submission on that issue.

With regard to utopias of desire, Hammer’s issue is not so much brutality as the cheapened versions of pleasure that modern society has come to adopt. The brutality, again, is moral and aesthetic rather than physical. I would suggest that we actually achieved, through capitalism and technology, a certain utopia of desire – but as he suggests, one that unintentionally mocks our philosophers’ greater visions of human potential. We became instead a society of accumulating material things for self-gratification.

Hammer holds that only one candidate for utopia is viable today, a particular version of a utopia of desire, namely a human society that is integrated and balanced with the natural world:

That candidate is nature and the relation we have to it. . . . As the climate is rapidly changing and the species extinction rate reaches unprecedented levels, we desperately need to conceive of alternative ways of inhabiting the planet. . . . The German thinker Ernst Bloch argued that all utopias ultimately express yearning for a reconciliation with that from which one has been estranged. They tell us how to get back home. A 21st-century utopia of nature would do that.

Hammer observes that industrial and capitalist society would have to make changes to accomplish this “reconciliation.” Of course, many have been saying the same for decades, without claiming to be promoting utopia. The underlying problem is lack of willingness to change.

In reality, despite the cheap consumerism, we in the West we already possess many of the qualities of utopias of desire – healthier and longer lives, material plenitude, creative endeavors. Why should we change except for the fear that it won’t last (here we lean suspiciously toward apocalyptic)? Why should we do anything that interrupts our current pleasures, on the questionable premise that we’ll feel better if “reconciled” with nature? Utopia is always a vision toward which people strive if they feel strongly enough about it.  But the idea of getting back “home,” finding that from which we have been “estranged,” doesn’t appear to be strong enough to overcome our addiction to immediate pleasure.

The mistake, as Hammer himself points out, is in the premises. Utopians wanted to find a formula that would satisfy human desires so fully that conflict would cease. The classic Utopias of desire (like Sir Thomas More’s) presumed unlimited resources, with the world always able to meet the breadth and depth of human desire. But in the real world, resources were still limited.

Enter technology. Extracting matter and energy from the natural world, we hoped to overcome the limits of our resources. Transportation and communication vastly expanded our reach. We even seemed to be able to solve the problem of scarcity by applying technology to agriculture. (Does anyone remember the apocalyptic prophecies of the 1970s that we would be starving within a generation?) Technology has done amazing things, but we now seem to be approaching intractable limits. We consider colonizing other planets, but that is even less likely to attract a genuine following than is a project of reconciling with nature.

Logically, we must conclude that utopia is possible only if desires are limited. Precisely this was recognized in religious utopias, where personal discipline was demanded, and social justice utopias also recognized the necessity of personal sacrifice for the sake of the greater whole. As Hammer well knows, virtually every social thinker in modern times recognized that a functioning society requires some individual sacrifice, at the very least through compromises and deals (in democracies) and often through giving up personal freedom (in autocracies – where, if people don’t want to limit their desires, they will be forced to do so). Of course, this seems counter-intuitive to the idea of utopia, which promises fulfillment without hardship.

I spent some time reflecting on whether any program demanding the limitation of desire has been successful on a broad scale over a long period of time. The only one I could come up with is the promotion of monogamy. One can argue that it succeeded only in the legal sense, with a multitude of private breaches. Even so, it would not have been as successful as it was, had it not been that women were generally happier with it, and it provided economic relief in that a man had to support only one woman.

Celibate communities also succeeded on a voluntary basis, in both Christianity and Buddhism. And in both cases, restriction on sexual desire was accompanied by the limitation of desire for personal property. Both of those have been historically successful, with the surrounding societies picking up part of the tab by supporting these communities through charity. Dedicated communities were seen as a moral benefit to all.

Religions in fact have been primary voices speaking out about the limitation of desire. Buddhism declared craving to be the source of suffering. Christianity put avarice, lust and gluttony among the seven deadly sins. Other religions may be less dogmatic on the issue, but all recognized the dangers of untrammeled desire and the necessity of personal discipline (for example in Judaism, the necessity of taming the “evil inclination”). Admittedly, convincing people that the dangers were greater than the pleasures required some heavy theologizing about divine punishment or other future disasters.

But we don’t need to turn to theology. We can now document that greed, jealousy and competitiveness have been the downfall of even the most promising utopian societies. We also know that restrictions on desire usually repel people, and they must be heavily persuaded or even forced to submit to limitations.

What is this problem? Animals don’t eat gluttonously, demand sex out of season, or accumulate stuff they don’t need. Indulgence and restriction have no meaning in the natural world. Yet we, as a species, seem thoroughly unwilling and unable to control our desires. And now we are at the point that if we don’t, we may see the end of civilization and even earth as we know it.

Now we’re getting to the crux of the matter. Why inordinate desires?

More to come.

 

A Long Shorter Way

When we are collectively anxious, we want relief – fast!  We want immediate results and we want to find shortcuts. If people offer a quick path to success, we are likely to jump on the bus. What could go wrong?

Do you remember a time when you were on a vacation and you wanted to get to the next town in time for lunch, but the traffic piled up and so you decided to take a shortcut? In unfamiliar territory, that fantasized shorter route could turn out to be awfully long.

We are in unfamiliar territory.  In two key areas of society we have experienced an enormous amount of change in just a couple of generations.  One is social change, encompassing ethnicity and immigration, gender identities, and women’s roles (which of course affects men’s roles). The other is technological change, moving from the society built over 200 years by an industrial revolution, to the digital revolution; from a manufacturing, nationally-oriented economy to a high-tech, more globally-oriented economy.

We don’t know what future to prepare for – just as our ancestors could have had no idea, after the steamboat and the sewing machine, that in a few more generations people would be driving private cars instead of riding horses, and women would be freed from hours of physical labor that had been the norm for all of human history.

The road ahead looks very complicated and is full of traffic.  So we look for shortcuts.  “There must be an easier way.”  “That guy gave us the wrong directions.”

In politics, the parties are expert at claiming they have the easier way and that the other party gave the wrong directions. That’s where polarization comes in:  We start seeing only two sides of an issue, and they start to look as different as “night and day.” (For yet another example of “polarization is the worst ever,” see this article on North Carolina politics.  Read it not to confirm your fears, but as another variety of apocalyptic projection of a terrible future.)

We forget that “night and day” are only metaphors, and shortcut ones at that.  Our actual experiences of night and day are rich and varied, and one moves slowly into the other. As a Jewish prayer says, “the day rolls away before the night, and the night before the day.”

So we have constructed oppositions of urban and rural, rich and poor, white and nonwhite (really?), religious and secular, nationalist and globalist, liberal and conservative.  Sometimes we project all the trouble outside — it’s terrorists or immigrants or another country scheming against us.

Both sides of a polarization promote the divisions. Leaders suggest, “Follow us! We can turn night into day!” Even though journalists and scholars do write more sensitive and complex analyses, they don’t get headlines or votes because they don’t promise a quick fix.

Conclusion?  In addition to rejecting easy polarities, we need to take time, each of us, to sort out the issues in our own lives. We can try to find a place in ourselves that can appreciate other positions. (Note, not just ONE other position – we’re trying not to reduce things to one OP-position.)

It helps to make this an active exercise, one that evokes your creative expression. For example, you might imagine you received a letter from a relative with a problem that relates to one of our polarizing issues.  You will now write a letter back to that person, then read it back to yourself.

A couple of examples – you can make up your own:

  • Your cousin, 48 years old, just lost his job to a downsizing — his employer is bringing in robots for the job.
  • An old friend who is in a difficult marriage writes you that she is pregnant and because of her religious beliefs is afraid to have an abortion, but also worries that the marriage is dissolving.
  • An uncle who became very wealthy in the tech revolution asks you to work in an organization promoting a tax reform bill that will favor the rich. You need the job.

If letter-writing is not your cup of tea, try another form of expression.  Pick up a sketch pad and draw any images that come to you of social and political issues significant in your life.  Or, make spaces in your garden or patio for “Republican plants,”  “Democratic plants,” “Independent plants,” “Green plants,” etc.

Watch your own reactions as you try these “thought experiments in action,”  and share your reflections with a friend, or as comments.