Thursday, December 21, 2006

Imagine

What is the state of the mind that says, "I do not know whether there is God, whether there is love," that is, when there is no response of memory? Please don't immediately answer the question to yourselves because if you do, your answer will be merely the recognition of what you think it should or should not be. If you say, "It is a state of negation," you are comparing it with something that you already know; therefore, that state in which you say, "I do not know" is nonexistent.... So the mind that is capable of saying, "I do not know," is in the only state in which anything can be discovered. But the man who says, "I know," the man who has studied infinitely the varieties of human experience and whose mind is burdened with information, with encyclopedic knowledge, can he ever experience something which is not to be accumulated? He will find it extremely hard. When the mind totally puts aside all the knowledge that it has acquired, when for it there are no Buddhas, no Christs, no Masters, no teachers, no religions, no quotations; when the mind is completely alone, uncontaminated, which means that the movement of the known has come to an end - it is only then that there is a possibility of a tremendous revolution, a fundamental change. The religious man is he who does not belong to any religion, to any nation, to any race, who is inwardly completely alone, in a state of not-knowing, and for him the blessing of the sacred comes into being.

J. Krishnamurti, The Book of Life

Age of Enlightenment

So, ... my brother sent me a link to a webpage that shows how the influence of religion has perpetuated the spread of war. It asks: "How has the geography of religion evolved over the centuries, and where has it sparked wars? Our map gives us a brief history of the world's most well-known religions: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Selected periods of inter-religious bloodshed are also highlighted. Want to see 5,000 years of religion in 90 seconds?" Click here for a full screen view.

I Love My Guru


I love Guru Rasa.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Vicissitudes

"Courage, it would seem, is nothing less than the power to overcome danger, misfortune, fear, injustice, while continuing to affirm inwardly that life with all its sorrows is good; that everything is meaningful even if in a sense beyond our understanding; and that there is always tomorrow." Dorothy Thompson (1893-1961)
It is not who we have become that matters but rather what we do with that person. Can you remember a time in your life when obstacles did not exist? I cannot. In every phase of life, something had to be overcome. A thing had to "die" in order for another thing to be born. Someone had to cry in order for someone else to smile. (Think of a woman's labor pains and of her baby's trauma at birth.)
You smiled again.
I did not.
Without warning you left me,
But you returned immediately.

From Mother: A Cradle to Hold Me, by Maya Angelou

Yes, yes, and in the midst of it all we find laughter. It is not people and events that make us laugh but something inside of us that recognizes humor, something that causes our "funny bone" to feel the tickle of an unseen hand.
"We all know we're going to die; what's important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this." Anne Lamott (b.1954)
Anne also says that clarity of vision can make up for a lack of articulateness in writing. I wonder about that. Anne is so articulate and clear in what she writes. But, like any human being, she can only be viewed through a broad, all-encompassing lens. I am attracted to her writing because it is damn funny. She makes me laugh in the sense that she tickles my funny bone and also inspires me to make light of my own traumas, the imagined and the real ones.

We might not be able to control things (nor should we really want to either), but we can steer them in particular directions. Just as wind pushes a sailboat along, just as wind drives rainfall, and just as someone breaking wind causes a change of atmosphere in the room, we (the collective) can say and do things that affect change. What power! What might. Oh, it's a mighty wind indeed.

Powers of observation are most acute in the presence of impossible cuteness. What?, you might ask. It's true. And being content within the boundaries of one's own soul is, I believe, the ultimate challenge in life. (What?)

Well, you might as well enjoy
yourself while you're there.
(While you're where?)
There, inside of yourself.
Don't piss in the water.
Go to the outhouse,
then return to
the house of the holy.
Keep it pure, baby.

What in the hell do you do with impossible cuteness but admire it from afar? You can't embrace it, you can never kiss it enough, and it leaves you longing for more. Of what, though? The impossible? No, of course not. We must embrace the possible at all times. What is possible is to remain faithful even when love is faithless.

The highest kind of love never fades, but we sometimes must transcend the impossible to get to the possible, which is to experience the higher love. If one is happy and another is sad, a kind of balance has been achieved.

Life's vicissitudes do not have to disturb or disappoint us. The human heart is a physical place, a thing of the material world. We all must die one day, but to live today as if we might not wake up in the morning just might be a way to bring us closer to our potential, for that is really what it is all about.

Success comes from reaching (or at least striving to reach) your potential.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Boomerang Effect

My friend Walt attended an event recently. He took several photos there, including this one: Gun Art. These works of art were created with guns purchased at a gun buy-back event. What a great way to "say" that which cannot be expressed in words.

In my previous posting, about poetry, Walt helped me say what I was trying to express in the poems he had commented on. Those poems grew out of something I was experiencing at the time, a thing I couldn't express outright, in plain speech.

Words can be as dangerous as physical weapons, with the power to wound the soul every bit as deeply as a bullet can wound the body.

Trauma comes in various forms, yet the damaging results are similar. Sometimes we create traumatic situations for ourselves without even realizing that is what we are doing, as we are doing it.

Laying our thoughts bare makes us vulnerable, sometimes to abuse. When a person recognizes that he has been abused, he is faced with how to respond. One way is to abuse back, and that method seems to be at the heart of war, if war can be said to have a heart.

Boundaries crossed can result in various kinds of punishment. I regret crossing boundaries that have brought pain into my life. I want to say needless pain, but perhaps experiencing that pain is the lesson I needed to learn to recognize that it happened because I trespassed, ran recklessly through boundaries that should have been warning signs of the danger that exists on the other side.

Unfixable problems cannot be treated with a "quick fix." It's the old existential angst, you know. We attempt to cover up our anxieties and fears in various ways, through self-medication or simply by hiding behind them, refusing to admit we are experiencing them.

Hearts are fragile, and souls (including our own) can become badly damaged if we are not careful with them. Causing harm to a soul brings bad karma back to the soul who initiated the harm.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Why?

My friend Walt says "poetry erupts from below us into our consciousness and has a high probability of being true."

Yes, it does. And I wonder why poetry only erupts at certain moments and not at others. The three poems I wrote this month (posted below) arrived unbidden. They just showed up, unannounced. Rarely do I write poetry.

And I censor myself way too much! How can one break such a terrible habit?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Diffused Boundary

Eroded or enmeshed boundaries where subsystems do not differentiate and provide appropriate separation.

Happens all the time, you know. Each time you talk to a person, you risk overstepping boundaries, treading somewhere you don't really belong, a place where you are not only not welcome but where you will actually bring harm to yourself and to the person through whose boundary you have trespassed. Once there, however, it might be too late to walk away....

Yesterday morning, I sat in a bookstore café drinking coffee, writing morning pages, and inadvertently eavesdropping upon a nearby conversation in progress. Four women were seated, facing each other, playing a board game. I caught snippets of what they were saying, speculations about someone's psychological state and the divorce he is apparently going through. A tsk-tsk attitude of superiority and lack of compassion seemed to permeate the atmosphere of the group during this discussion, as they sat in judgment of someone's obviously tragic marital and family situation.

I thought about a friend of mine with whom I am currently estranged, and asked myself how much the loss of that friendship really means to me. I pictured her, twenty years from now, sitting like these gossipy women and making conversation about someone else's tragedy, grading and labeling it with the smug assurance of an expert.

It gave me a smug sense of satisfaction that only lasted until the next thought: I will not pretend I am okay with this friendship being over; at the same time, her judgment of my decisions doesn't change why I made them and why certain ones were needed at the time. Her decision to end the friendship seems to be more about her own inability and lack of emotional and mental capacity (plus will) to be with me, now, as I need a friend to be. I can live with this.

Karma is such a strange and mysterious process, isn't it? Life in this seemingly shallow, materialistic society without spirituality and spiritually aware friends would be unbearable. I am fortunate to have close friends; and even if this one friend and I are currently in conflict with each other, I trust that synchronicity will bring us back together again, in the time it needs to manifest what is needed. I do still love and care for her.

Our lives necessarily include tragedy and loss. And I guess our success in life depends not so much upon what happens, but upon how we deal with what happens.

And reciprocity in love is what makes life worth living.

Why am I so drawn to cooking and food, but find the actual cooking of food boring? I remember an old friend who once edited a family cookbook, collected everybody's recipes and compiled them all together. She hated cooking, but boy could she write about cooking! I get a strange sense of deja vu when I am cooking, as if in a past life I spent a lot of time in the kitchen.

I just finished reading a fantastic book, Trust Your Vibes, by Sonia Choquette. I got tickled by something she wrote in a chapter on laughter. She was talking about a client who in her seriousness about her spiritual quest actually lost the point of it altogether. She writes that this person

"... meditated for hours each day, ate only the most pure organic food, gave herself wheat-grass enemas every morning, and wrapped herself in every amulet, crystal, talisman, and titanium gadget she could get her hands on for purification and protection."
What ended up happening, though, is that she became bitter and, ultimately, uncreative.

"She was so controlling that intuitively she had no connection to her Higher Self, her heart, her humor, or anything really spiritual."

Friday, November 24, 2006

O Happy Day

"The worst readers are those who proceed like plundering soldiers: they pick up a few things they use, soil and confuse the rest, and blaspheme the whole."

Friedrich Nietzsche, Mixed Opinions and Maxims
I hate to be such a pessimist, but some days it is the only way to think. I am sick of people telling me I'm a "good writer" because I'm not. I never say what I really want to say in writing, instead churning out drivel that's not even close to what is really on my mind or in my heart. I dance around issues and shoot at moving targets, peering in at the truth with envy, jealousy, greed, and self-loathing.

I watched an old Elvis movie this morning and thought about how sad the typical "life" can be. Two women vied for the attention of "Mike," who was as self-absorbed as he was handsome. In the end, he performed what he considered a courageous act (diving off a cliff in Acapulco -- yes, yes, the movie is "Fun in Acapulco" and how ironic is that) and everyone around him all of a sudden saw him as a hero because of that act of daring. He did it to win the girl he truly loved and also to atone for what he viewed as his part in causing his brother's death, prior to his sojourn to Acapulco. It was an interesting and entertaining film overall, but I found myself feeling so sad for the women, seeing how they both suffered over their attraction to this self-centered man, especially the one who loved him the most, who I presume is the one he "won" in the end. (That was never shown, though.) I also found myself (once again) puzzling over men's behavior and wondering why complications and complexity have to enter into otherwise fulfilling relationships with them. I think it is because we are cursed with brains, forced by nature into the absurdity of thinking.

The day before, I watched "Jailhouse Rock" with my daughter. Even more arrogant in this movie, Elvis treated his love interest (the girl he ended up with in the end) very shabbily and I thought of how these movies give people "scripts" they (we) can copy, imitating behavior that is demeaning and ultimately disappointing. Well, I know by now I must sound bitter and angry. So be it.

Both of these movies did provide some enlightenment, though. In "Fun in Acapulco," I appreciated the Mexican cultural influences. It also reminded me of a trip my mother and I made to Acapulco in 1983. In "Jailhouse Rock," Elvis plays "Vince," who ends up in prison for killing a man who was abusing a woman. Vince's cell mate was a guy who wanted to take advantage of his good fortune and tricked him into signing a contract that gave away half his income. During the scene where this transaction was taking place, my daughter reminded me that this very thing happened to early African American blues artists.

Why does life have to be so fucking unfair?

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Leaking Color

Something so beautiful could only turn hideous, right? Beauty always was terrible, or so it seems. Writing to heal now, with each new word creating another imprint on top of the one below it, stamping over the madness of yesterday and pressing down hard, squeezing it so tightly it leaks color. Brilliant color, like birds in flight. Blue lake, stretched out there. Thank you, thank you, thank you, I whisper. Even though I don't mean it. Maybe one day I will, I will, and again ... I will.

Heartmarks

Heartmarks don't erase
Like pencil marks.
White out, blot out
Ink on paper.
Delete key, press:
Gone.
Words said reverberate,
Boomerang back
Killing all chances
To save what got lost
In words
That cannot be
Whited out, erased
Like pencil marks.
Heartmarks don't erase.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Waiting

Somebody
That I used to love
Crossed my mind,
just now.
That well-worn path
he carved,
Still there.
Still.
Untrodden
for too long.

Finally Free

He walked away
from my heart
And I let him go,
At last.
I wouldn't, at first
Trying to hold on
with childish gestures
Meaningless tuggings
At his already detached
Heartstrings.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Heroism


Abstract

The topic of this paper is heroism. The purpose is to show how heroism emerges in everyday life, and how it is significant in the life of an ordinary person. It covers a variety of aspects of heroism, in particular the heroes who have crossed my path, how their heroism has manifested, how heroism manifests in ordinary people, and some components that are present in a heroic life. I have used personal observation, a personal interview with a psychiatrist, and various published literature, including the
Life-Span Development textbook. The conclusion of this paper is that by observing the lives of people we consider heroes, monitoring our own behavior, and modeling our behavior after heroic people, anyone can become a hero.

Heroism, Dignity, and Reality

I wonder what it really means to be a hero. It is surely tied in with living a dignified life and facing reality. Current and past critical family issues are helping to clarify the dignity issue now, so from that perspective, I am writing not only from need but also from pain. Especially, I am needing to face that pain in a constructive and life-affirming way.

Viktor Frankl (1984) points out the importance of finding meaning in life. In his book,
Man’s Search for Meaning, he explores the stages prisoners go through and determines that it is only when they find meaning in their lives that they find the will to live, to survive. When I wake up in the morning, I do have a reason to live. Although I do not have the words just yet to articulate it precisely, the reason has to do with a task and mission that must have been charted out long ago, perhaps even before my birth. And although I don’t remember it, I met my first hero the day I was born.

The doctor who delivered me saved my life, literally. I was born with a defect known as omphalocele. The doctor happened to be a surgeon as well and he made a decision to operate on me without my parents’ consent. He risked being sued, but his risk was my family’s gain. I lived, and have the scar to prove it.

I thought about that scar in class one day during a discussion of the adolescent stage, specifically about the desire of teenagers to have plastic surgery. I clearly recall my childhood dismay over the surgical scar on my stomach since birth; it inspired feelings of inadequacy and difference from my peers, who (as far as I knew) all had normal belly buttons and not grossly deformed ones like the one I got stuck with. My mother assured me that when I got old enough, I could have it repaired by a plastic surgeon.

I assumed surgery would make things right, so I eagerly awaited that day. When I turned sixteen, my wish was granted and I had plastic surgery on my scar. The result was that I now had a
different scar! It wasn’t what I had hoped, but merely a less severe disfigurement. Although disappointed, I accepted the results and continued my angst-filled adolescent journey.

Now, the older I get the more I realize the surgery I had was unnecessary. My birth scar has become symbolic. I stop short of saying I am grateful
for it, but I am grateful in spite of it because of the heroic act it represents, the saving of an infant’s life by a man who trusted his intuition and took a risk that could have cost him his professional reputation and more.

I think about what might have caused the doctor who delivered me to make such a decision. I imagine a certain tension and conflict were present, the result of a battle being waged in his mind. This brings me to one of the points I wish to make, the way we use military terminology to describe ordinary, everyday events and circumstances.

I interviewed Dr. Joel Feiner, Medical Director of the Comprehensive Homeless Program at the Dallas VA Medical Center. He has gotten to know many veterans of military combat — people who have seen unspeakable violence, many of whom have perhaps even committed acts of the same.

When we came to the topic of heroism, the first thing Dr. Feiner said was, “I don’t believe that anybody is unflawed, right off the bat.” (It didn’t occur to me then, but it does now, that the birth scar I saw as so flawed in my childhood has come to represent something completely different now.) The next thing he did was to recite something he attributed to Philo, an ancient Greek philosopher. “Be kind, because the person you meet is fighting a major battle (personal communication, October 12, 2006).”

He went on to say that he begins every lecture he gives with the following statement: “Three things are important in life. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. The third is to be kind.” Dr. Feiner says if a person is not kind, he loses stature.

I think of kindness also in relation to the way we view ourselves. I have discovered that one of the most rewarding ways to be kind to yourself is to create art. It is a way to express yourself freely and without fear. In addition, it is calming and peaceful and the result is a kind of satisfaction that is difficult to describe.

W.B. Yeats believed art is made out of the conflict with the
daimon (Hirsch, 2002, Yeats’s Daimon chap.). This word refers to a deity from Greek mythology; the dictionary suggests it might be a heroic deity (Pickett et al., 2002). It is also defined as an attendant spirit or genius. I cannot help but wonder how the word, also the related words daemon and demon, have taken on more ominous meanings over time.

The history of the word and its derivatives notwithstanding, one thing that comes to mind here is the tension between what is observed and what is determined as a result of that observation. The tension seems to be a force that leads an observer to do what he will do, make a decision or come to a determination or judgment. Here is an illustrative story. A family friend who lives in Richardson, where residents are currently voting on whether beer and wine can be sold in stores there, opposes the idea and put signs saying so in his yard and in other places around his neighborhood. The signs were later vandalized with graffiti. I thought of the difference between the person who would drive by his house and think the signs were good, nodding in approval, and the person who would be so offended by them as to want to destroy them. The same message can elicit different responses. One person might view the signs as being placed there by a courageous hero, willing to risk ridicule or worse for a cause he believed in. In contrast, another person could just as easily view the signs as a threat and become angry, so much so that he “speaks” to the signs (and to the people reading them) in a very visible way.

The word duende comes to mind as a possible name for this force or tension between observation and the kind of evaluation that leads to judgment then action. Duende is an Andalusian (Spanish) term that is not easily defined. Federico García Lorca’s work has inspired much thought about duende, which is — in simple terms — a kind of “frenzied earthly power” and a source of inspiration for art (Hirsch, 2002). Furthermore, Hirsh asserts there is “an
inevitable conflict between power (the body, the conscious mind) and knowledge (the spirit, the unconscious mind).” I emphasized the word inevitable to draw attention to the fact that we cannot escape conflict and tension.

Duende can be seen in a poem by Yeats, “Ego Dominus Tuus,” which translates to “I Am Thy Master.” It consists of a dialogue between two figures given the Latin names Hic and Ille, which translate to This and That. According to Yeats, these voices are two opposing types: primary and antithetical. I view the force or tension (duende) as symbolic of a similar dialogue going on inside a person who is suspended in that space between observation and evaluation. Things are not always as they seem, at first glance.

Pat Schneider (2005) suggests we have a “primary” voice and that this is the one we use “all day every day in our adult home and place of work.” Furthermore, she writes:

It is the natural, unself-conscious way we talk to the people we most love and with whom we are most comfortable. It has taken on color and texture from every place we have lived, everyone with whom we have lived, and all that we have experienced. It has traces of our original voice — more or less depending on how much dialect or regional color was in the speech of our childhood family and how far life has taken us from that place (Schneider, 2003, 6th chap.).
Schneider works with women in low-income housing projects who have taught her that “everyone has at least one strong, beautiful voice.” She says, “By not valuing the voices of those whose education has been interrupted by the culture of poverty, we participate in silencing them. Then we don’t have to hear what they might teach us.” This reminded me of a passage from the Life-Span Development textbook, about adolescent girls and how their intense intimacy is not valued in our culture. “The dilemma arises when girls are presented with a choice that makes them look either selfish or selfless. Gilligan argues that, as adolescent girls experience this dilemma, they increasingly silence their ‘distinctive voice’ (Santrock, 2006, p. 337).”

Could it be that we also have a primary
purpose — one thing that is prominent, the highest priority — and might it have traces of our original purpose? What all of this points to is that our primary purpose is linked to our primary voice; and if we don’t discover that, we might fail to realize our purpose, too. When a person uses his primary voice, he is speaking in a way only he knows how to speak. Likewise, when it comes to life’s subjective purpose for an individual, only he knows what it is.

Returning to Hirsch (2002, The Intermediary chap.), he makes a distinction between duende and what has come to be known as demonic. At the same time, though, he notes they might be unconsciously related. As an example, he points to Martin Luther and the struggle he had with the “theological demon of doubt,” which resulted in him throwing an inkwell at the devil. I use the example of Luther to note the important difference in duende and the demonic. Hirsch states that duende “bypasses the negative Judeo-Christian implications of demon” and that it “side-steps the moral terminology of foul possession.” I also use this example to point out something else common to heroes, their fallibility. Martin Luther’s heroism notwithstanding, his anti-Semitism created many problems. (The history of Martin Luther is beyond the scope of this paper, but a Google search using key words mentioned here will yield good information about it.)

This leads back to something else Dr. Feiner suggested, that the tendency to ask questions can lead to heroism. Question everything, he says. Don’t accept anything as dogma. Being heroic also involves knowing when to defer to others, he says. “Recognize that there are people who know more than we do, and who have thought about everything that we’ve thought about, and to not feel that we have to do it all ourselves.”

I have come to view Dr. Feiner as a hero, too. He listens to his clients and conducts himself in a way that inspires them to help themselves. Here is an example he gives of what he means by deferring to others.

We have people who have been through almost everything, the toughest things men and women have been through. They’ve been on the streets, they’ve been addicted, they have post traumatic stress disorder, they’re seeing a psychiatrist, they’re on medication. But they’ve made it through. We now have a training program for a certificate. People receiving this certificate become peer specialists. They have the capacity to connect with others in a way that even the best of us many not. And so they have a way of also making the point about being deserving in a way I haven’t thought of because I haven’t been there (personal communication, October 12, 2006).
Dignity in the face of adversity is a form of conduct that inspires like responses. It is so easy for a person to allow negative emotion and the circumstances out of which it grows to drive his behavior. But the fact is, because these emotions are normal, natural responses to various stimuli, it is imperative for people to learn effective ways to handle them if we want to be effective in our lives.

I cannot help but think of heroism in connection to the military because many links exist. Many people view military life as adventurous, and plenty of opportunities to perform heroic deeds arise during the course of military service. James Hillman suggests we have a terrible love of war, and wrote a book with that as the title (Hillman, 2004). If it is true, as Philo has stated, that the people we meet are fighting major battles inside, the potential for a violent response from those people must exist, too. At least this would seem to be the case. We are all different, though. Nobody really knows what is happening inside another person. As was described earlier in the example showing the difference in observation and evaluation, events are witnessed differently by different people.

The internal world of a person is really only known to that person. For example, nobody but me knows what I am experiencing at this very moment. I might be in turmoil or at peace; the waters might be churning out an impending storm, or they might be so still that a perfect image can be seen in them. My friends and family might wish me well and hope that I am in a peaceful state of mind at this moment, but what if I am not? Only I really know that for sure.

James Hillman says peace is “darkness falling.” Is he correct? I read the following passage from
A Terrible Love of War to Dr. Feiner.

I will not march for peace, nor will I pray for it, because it falsifies all it touches. It is a cover-up, a curse. Peace is simply a bad word…. The dictionary’s definition, an exemplary of denial, fails the word, peace. Written by scholars in tranquility, the definition fixates and perpetuates the denial. If peace is merely an absence of, a freedom from, it is both an emptiness and a repression. A psychologist must ask how is the emptiness filled, since nature abhors a vacuum; and how does the repressed return, since it must (Hillman, 2004, p. 30)?
Dr. Feiner admits this is a pessimistic view, yet he appreciates how Hillman reframes the issue, encouraging people to think about peace in a different way. I wonder, though, could it be that peace is what an individual believes it to be? When faced with the question Hillman posed about how to fill the emptiness and how does the repressed return, Dr. Feiner’s mind turned back toward itself. “I can’t even begin to think about that,” he said, “because I just think we have a billion brain cells, and they are firing— one way or another — all the time.” The answer to the question, he said, is the brain (personal communication, October 12, 2006).

I believe Hillman’s theory of peace shows the conflict and tension in his own mind. Does he want to do away with the “bad word” altogether, or just redefine it? In my view, it is as bad (or as good) a word as war, its opposite. War means someone will win, and that winner will force the loser to give up something; the winner will take spoils of war. In a spoils system, the ones who have become the conquerors reward their supporters in various ways. In other words, the conquered ones — the opposition that lost — become subservient to the ones who defeated them. And is this not the nature of the political beast that lives among us, too?

But now I would like to turn to what is beautiful, that which can be seen in art, as in the monuments erected to honor heroes.

When peace follows war, the villages and towns erect memorials with tributes to the honor of the fallen, sculptures of victory, angels of compassion, and local names cut in granite. We pass by these strange structures like obstacles to traffic (Hillman, 2004, p. 30).

One of these memorials is shown above. It stands behind a traffic circle, in a garden inside the VA Medical Center complex. These prisoners of war are people who were being held against their will by other people who were in a position to do that. Again, in a spoils system, the winner takes what he wants, including human life.

People who have put their lives on the line, a metaphorical tightrope, for a national cause become heroes. They are honored with memorial statues and plaques such as this one.

I honor these heroes, too, yet a hero is often an ordinary person who brings something to light in an extraordinary way. Dr. Feiner is a hero because he helps disenfranchised people find dignity and meaning in lives that have gone horribly awry. I propose that a hero is a person who has faced tension and conflict with dignity and self-composure, who has moved from fear to courage in facing his battle head on.

People influence each other. How does this relate to heroism, reality, and dignity? And consider observation. Is it possible to observe without making an evaluation? Even if we automatically come to determinations (make judgments) about things, it is important to separate observation from evaluation in our minds.

Think about a person on a tightrope, a circus act. In order to get from one end of the rope to the other, the performer must concentrate on what he is doing. When he focuses his attention on the end of the rope and does not permit himself to be distracted by the distance between the rope and the ground, or of the consequences of falling from the rope, or anything else except the rope itself and staying on it, then he does just that. He stays on it. An observer might be totally unaware of what is happening inside the man on the rope. In fact, an observer might be on the edge of his seat, feeling a sense of terror over what he is seeing: a man walking across a rope that is suspended high in the air.

He is a hero! But only if he makes it. If he does not, then his act has failed and he faces not only humiliation but much more, the worst being injury or death. But regardless of whether he succeeds or fails, what the performer observes is different from a spectator’s observations. And only each one knows what that is.

So, what separates observation from evaluation, and why is it important to distinguish between the two? Here, as well as in other instances, it is a matter of tension and the potential for resistance. For the tightrope walker, I think it might be a precarious balancing act between two competing ideas in his mind, expectation of success and fear of failure. In general, however, we are talking about effectiveness.

In that space between observation and evaluation, a dance is in progress. It is a dance between This and That, between one thought and another. These dance partners are engaged in something unseen to the eye but experienced within the person who is faced with the decision of how to respond. Think of it as a flamenco dance, one in which fiery passion transforms to energy, balancing body and spirit. The dance floor can be seen as workspace here, “a place where ardor animates and sometimes trumps technique (Hirsch, page 52).” The conduct of the dancers informs our senses, wakes us up to what is alive and needing to be expressed.

Yet passion is also present in anger. Marshall B. Rosenberg, founder and director of the Center for Nonviolent Communication, addresses the topic of anger, which I also believe is important to heroism. The way a person handles anger can determine whether his actions will be heroic or not. Rosenberg says “it is not the behavior of the other person, but our own need that causes our feeling.” It is also important to note how “anger is simply absent in each moment that we are fully present with the other person’s feelings and needs.” He also asserts “it’s not what the other person does, but the images and interpretations in … [a person’s] own head that produce the anger.” (Rosenberg, 2005, pp. 143-145)

Images can lead to labeling, though. And labeling — even in a neutral sense — can distort reality, thus limiting our perception of the things and concepts being labeled. “While the effects of negative labels may be obvious, even a positive or apparently neutral label … limits our perception of the totality of another person’s being (Rosenberg, 2005, p. 28).” In the tightrope example, the observer and the performer each experience something different. The observer might be sitting in the audience and thinking about some real-life “tightrope” he is currently walking; he might relate what the man up in the air is doing to a current problem in his life, hoping and praying the guy makes it across without falling. Not only would that be a victory for the tightrope walker, but might give this person hope that his own walk across the metaphorical rope will be successful as well. Likewise, the man walking across the rope might recognize his role in the lives of the observers. If he comes through as a hero and succeeds, then everyone wins!

There is often much more going on that meets the eye. Going back to Hillman’s discussion of peace, he writes: “Books of war give voice to the tongue of the dead anesthetized by that major syndrome of the public psyche: ‘peace’ (Hillman, 2004, p. 31).” Not only did he label it things the dictionary failed to mention, he gives it yet another label: syndrome.

Does calling a thing something make it so? Not necessarily. Yet the fact that Hillman calls
attention to it, and that it speaks to him in such a powerful way, says quite a bit. For one thing, it says peace means something other than what the dictionaries say it means. It also demonstrates the internal battles Dr. Feiner mentioned in the Philo quote, the ones waged within ourselves. Hillman fights the definition of peace because he knows it means something else. I have the same sense about the word, but do not necessarily share Hillman’s perception of it. What I see is as subjective as what Hillman sees.

Why do we use military terminology to describe something going on internally, within ourselves? The answer to this question could tie in to why brave acts performed in a military context are considered heroic. In the military hero, Hillman writes, “a transcendent spirit is manifested.” Returning to Marshall B. Rosenberg, he asserts that context matters in nonviolent communication (NVC), specifically with regard to separation of observation and evaluation. Rosenberg writes: “NVC is a process language that discourages static generalizations; instead, evaluations are to be based on observations
specific to time and context (Rosenberg, 2005, p. 26).”

Looking at heroism in a military context, I return to Hillman. He points to one sentence from the movie Patton as being a good summary of what his book attempts to understand.

The general walks the field after a battle. Churned earth, burnt tanks, dead men. He takes up a dying officer, kisses him, surveys the havoc, and says, “I love it. God help me I do love it so. I love it more than my life” (Hillman, 2004, p. 1).
A hero is someone who has the grace of a dancer and the will to look for salvation within each battle. It is not an easy task. Hillman (2004) talks about the “salvational aspect of battle.” I believe our battles are waged on a level that sometimes even we do not understand. Just as it is almost impossible to wrap our minds around the complexities of the brain, and the conscious mind and how it might connect to (and be separated by) the subconscious and unconscious mind, we also cannot fully grasp the meaning of some of the “battles” we encounter in our daily lives. Furthermore, what happens in the subconscious and unconscious mind might or might not be a “brain” function; these realms could possibly be contained within the nervous system or some other inner working system of the human body. My point here is that there are some things we might never understand.

The ways in which internal wars are waged might very well be not only obscured from our view but something that can never be known! We know they are going on inside, but we cannot quite point to why or how. We can search for meaning and come up with reasons. One of them might be simply that life is struggle. That can explain partially why we are so often at war with ourselves.

Nature informs us otherwise, though. Does a flower, for example, struggle to bloom or does it just bloom? I am looking out a window at a pink flowering tree. I cannot see any struggle taking place; all I see is a peaceful tree, swaying gently in the breeze. What is happening within that tree is “known” (experienced) only to the tree itself. We can observe it, even film it over an extended period of time. If we keep the camera running long enough, we will observe the flowering of the as yet unopened buds. But we cannot accurately call the process “struggle.” That is an arbitrary and limiting label.

Nature informs us of our limitations in many other ways, too. Confined within our bodies, we discover how needy we really are. We must eat, drink water, and eliminate our bodies’ waste products; we must, we must, we must. Just as the flower must bloom, our nature is to be who we are.

These existential realities lead back to the idea of meaning in life. Frankl (1984) discusses meaning in relation to death. Another author, Bill McKibben, links death to heroism: “Without the possibility of death, heroism would disappear — and heroism has always been one of the deeply human callings (McKibben, 2003, p. 159).”

Monuments are built to honor heroes of all kinds: political leaders, scientists, artists, soldiers, social activists, and more. Yet the hero is a human being, fallible and sometimes weak. Martin Luther King, Jr. was named after a famous theologian who accomplished many heroic feats, yet his anti-Semitism remains evident. I’m sure the doctor who saved my life at birth has his foibles and weaknesses, too. But it takes nothing away from what he did on that day of my birth. The homeless veterans who are served by the VA medical system, in particular the ones who become peer specialists, are heroes.

You and I and each person who chooses to face reality with dignity, however grim or unbearable it might seem at times, are heroes, too. If we do not view ourselves as such, we might not recognize the opportunities for heroism that enter our lives. A healthy balance of appreciation for all heroes — past and present, ourselves included — will help us appreciate also the necessary process one must go through to achieve that status and reap its rewards. Like the tightrope walker who beams triumphantly at his audience upon reaching the end of the rope, the ordinary person can achieve a similar satisfaction at his own conduct when he: first, observes and recognizes how it is chosen and second, exercises restraint and measured judgment of what he comes to observe. All it takes is focus and attention to detail, with a goal in mind.


References

Frankl, V.E. (1984).
Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy (Touchstone ed.). New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

Hillman, J. (2004).
A Terrible Love of War. New York: The Penguin Press.

Hirsch, E. (2003).
The Demon and the Angel: Searching for the Source of Artistic Inspiration (First Harvest ed.). Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc.

McKibben, B. (2003).
Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age. New York: Owl Books, Henry Holt and Company, LLC.

Pickett, Joseph P. (Ed. Et al.). (2002).
The American Heritage College Dictionary (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Rosenberg, M.B. (2005).
Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life (2nd ed.). Encinitas, CA: PuddleDancer Press.

Santrock, J.W. (2006).
Life-Span Development (10th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Schneider, P. (2003).
Writing Alone and with Others. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Not Out of the Woods Yet

I had a dream recently and believe it is connected to my cousin's situation. In this dream, I was on a winding road in a beautiful ancient-growth forest. I came to a dead-end that led me to an unfamiliar neighborhood. Reluctantly, I boarded a bus but asked the driver whether it would circle back to where it started; he told me yes. I rode the bus, although it felt uncomfortable. It seems that I got off this bus on some kind of rolling platform, like a skateboard but wider. I rolled on this platform for awhile then jumped off, feeling the sensation of my feet running and noticing the contrast between rolling and running. Finally, I broke down sobbing in my loneliness and alienation, wailing, "I want to go home." In another part of the dream, I arrived at a cliff with a suitcase. I looked down with the realization that if I tried to jump, I would be injured. I tried "hanging" from the suitcase, but it was still too far down to jump safely. After a little while, the suitcase strap stretched enough to let me drop down comfortably. I was gently lowered to the ground. People were around me and I still had the sense of being around uncooperative strangers, people who either would not or could not help me. I recall feeling a sense of confidence, however, that I could make it on my own, with patience. (As was the case with the suitcase on the cliff.) The old forest was gorgeous. My fear was real, and so was my sadness and isolation.

A lot of correspondence has been generated lately with regard to my cousin. His next psychiatric appointment is this Wednesday, the 31st. I would like to be there and will probably take the train to meet him at the VA hospital. My uncle continues to speak on behalf of the entire family yet his words do not reflect my own beliefs about my cousin. Much of this has to do with perception. Certain family members are convinced he is mentally ill. They are speaking with authority yet with no foundation, no basis for what they are saying. Their opinions are simply that: opinions, and nonprofessional ones. I do not possess a degree in psychiatry either, but I know that the perception of this cousin as mentally ill does not serve him; in fact, it only reinforces the victimization to which he has already been subjected for far too long. My uncle is making the claim that his parents were in denial about this alleged mental illness until he was 36 or 37 years old. I wonder how he can make this claim when my cousin's father passed away in 1992. When my cousin was 36 (he is 42 now), his father had been dead for 8 years. This uncle even goes so far as to speak for "the cousins," including me, in a recent report in which he claims we all view him as "weird." Well, I was never asked and do not appreciate being lumped into this group. (We are actually 20 cousins, including the one in question and his brother, and I doubt each one was consulted about his or her perception of this particular cousin.) I hope things can be resolved. It is difficult for me to communicate my true thoughts and feelings because of the protocol of respecting the elders in my family, especially since this uncle in charge happens to be a retired Lt. Col. in the Army, a guy who is accustomed to being in charge, and being right. It doesn't matter who is "right" where my cousin is concerned. What matters is him getting the support he needs. It looks like he might be autistic or perhaps have Asperger's syndrome.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Definitive Diagnosis: An Imaginary Session




The man in the chair turned to the question that would put an end to the small talk. To the man on the couch, he enquired, "So, what symptoms have you been having?"


No symptoms.

"None? Why are you here?"

Oh, I don't know. I was bored and wanted to try something new.

"You could have bought a round-trip plane ticket for the cost of this session."

Yeah, I guess you're right. I can still do that, though. I'm loaded.

"You're a wealthy man, you say?"

Yeah, family money. My old man made a killing during the oil boom.

"The oil boom, eh?"

Yeah. Oil boom.

(Silence in the room.)

So, doc. Do I seem to be a guy who has issues?

"What kind of issues?"

Shall I answer your question with another question?

"Are you being intentionally annoying?"

Are you?

"This is your hour, bought and paid for."

Have you ever considered wearing a Houdini hat while you're diagnosing patients?

"No. I take my job very seriously."

You do?

"Of course. Don't you? What do you do for a living?"

I'm a clown.

"Are you always this irreverent?"

I'm deadly serious. I am a clown. I work for circuses, on contract.

"So, there's good money in clowning?"

Not bad. (Pause.) Y'know, I was thinking ... you must come into contact with a lot of nutjobs. I mean, most people who come to see shrinks don't just do it for sport.

"What do you mean by nutjob?"

Good one, doc!

"That wasn't a joke."

I know.

"You just reminded me of that old Smokey Robinson song, 'Tears of a Clown.' Do you remember the last time you cried?"

Very distinctly.

(Silence.)

Do you?

"Yes."

Tears are healing.

"They are."

(Both men take several deep breaths.)

"Well, is there anything I can help you with today?"

I don't know, doc. I do a lot of thinking about people, in general. Why we are the way we are and how we become the people we turn out to be. I'm a lucky man, doc. Some people are born into situations that seem like breeding grounds for poverty and misfortune. You know, disadvantaged. I've never really known serious lack of anything. But some people, you know, it's all they know.

"These are the people who come to see me."

Yeah, that makes sense. Hey doc, did you know all shapes are made up of triangles?

"No."

My kid learned that in geometry class.

"I see. Thanks for sharing that."

I've thought about it often; it makes sense.

(The men looked at each other until the silence became uncomfortable and they both looked away.)

"That’s fascinating, actually. (Pause.) Well, we've got five more minutes."

Doc?

(The two men's eyes met once more.)

Here's what I'd really like to know: Has anyone ever come to you asking for a definitive diagnosis?

"What do you mean?"

Well, wanting to know - once and for all - what is wrong.

"Sure. Everyone who sees me wants that."

And?

"If I were ever to dispense such a thing as a 'definitive diagnosis,' I'd have to be wearing a Houdini hat."

I understand you, doc.

"You can't escape yourself."

Thanks. I'll remember that.