The First Snow

The rain forest tour guide had yet to travel outside the region of Central American. I knew this because, after he’d described the intensity and impact of the rains, I asked him if he’d ever seen snow. He smiled. “Only in pictures”, he replied. Then he surprised me, “Can you describe it for me, like I just tried to describe the rains and rainy season for you?”

I looked over to my wife and asked her with a gesture if she would like to do the describing and she bounced it back to me with a nod and a smile. I am always amazed and grateful for these moments, even though they occur with frequency. They are the evidence of an ease and love between us that warms my heart and gives me courage.

As our guide had been providing us with a rather idyllic version of the rains and the forest, I opted to give him a similarly edited description of the first snow of the season. I tell him:

Before the flakes start to fall, there’s a heaviness and a distinct chill in the air that people sense. “Feels like snow”, we all tell each other. And, soon enough, it usually does. Fat feathery flakes drifting down, gently transforming every surface into something smooth, white and new. In spite of all the flakes, there’s a pervasive stillness. If you listen closely, there’s the feintest tingling of ice crystals that will tease your ears into hearing them. There seems to be a collective pause in all other forms of outside activity. It sometimes feels like an innocence is being restored.

The guide and I looked each other in the eye. He smiled. I followed suit. “I will have to see that sometime for myself”, he said. I told him that I was sure that he would.

My working and interacting with others often involves my attempting to put the indescribable into words. I am acutely aware of the limits I continually bump into. Sometimes I manage to be helpful, and that is enough in any moment to try anew, but I want you to know, dear reader, that the first snow waits for you too.

To pause.

To listen.

To smile.

And be made new.

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Roots

“To be aware is to be willing to suffer.” (I’ve seen this sentence attributed to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but I can’t really vouch for that).

“The unexamined life is not worth living.” (Once more, I’m not vouching, but this is attributed to Socrates, another philosopher from a similar location and time in history).

I was educated in America. The ancient Greek culture’s arts and sciences were always presented as a high point of Western civilization. The ‘roots’ of our society, so we were told, were to be found in Athens. There was a great deal of respect, credit and admiration given to the Ancient Greek civilization by textbooks and teachers. The warring, conquering, pillaging, raping, enslaving aspects of their empire’s expansion (the soldiers, politicians and businessmen) aside, apparently there was a segment of the ‘at home’ population that had the time and inclination to ruminate and dedicate their energies to exploring and explaining things. Lots of things like math, the stars, why things float and what constitutes a ‘good’ life.

I might be mistaken, but the people (exclusively male, by the way, that’s how it was taught to us) who were engaged in these dialogues and discoveries may have been some of the one percenters of their day, those who were privileged enough by birth line or circumstance to be unhampered by the menial tasks of survival. Regardless, history has chosen to overlook their indiscretions and atrocities in order to focus exclusively on their achievements.

That’s some seriously good public relations work over time, if you ask me.

My point is this; underneath many of the cultural values that we inherited directly and indirectly are some outdated notions and mistaken premises.

An unexamined life is not worthless. It’s less fulfilling sometimes. It’s prone to painfully repetitious missteps or mind numbing, boring routines, but that doesn’t make it a worthless life. If it’s the best that someone knows how to do, if it’s what they’ve been taught and only what they know how to do, so be it. Every life is still valuable and worthwhile. Socrates was being an arrogant elitist, an intellectual snob. That’s if he actually said anything like this at all.

Associating awareness with suffering is misleading. Certainly one element of being ‘aware’ is the willingness to feel and, yes, some of the feelings we open ourselves to are difficult and even painful. But our awareness also opens us to beauty, joy and love. When we are awake, aware and alive the full Monte of human emotions is available to us. Not just suffering.

But many of us have grown up with the assumption that human beings naturally are supposed to seek pleasure and avoid pain…pleasure = good…pain = bad. As a result, many of us habitually turn a blind eye towards the unpleasant or the painful as if that would somehow make it go away.  We avoid, deny and pretend…all of which create a whole new realm of suffering.

I realize that tracing the roots of some of our misconceptions and cultural neurosis back through the ages doesn’t change a thing.

But it might help a little to recognize that we didn’t start this mess.

 

 

Upon further review…

The 2016 Olympics were winding down. It was time for me to fact check a story I had once been told concerning elite athletes. There was an intensity and singleness of purpose that I saw in expression after expression on so many of the competitors’ faces that I wanted to separate urban legend from misremembering from what the truth was.

As it turns out, there actually is something called the Goldman Dilemma. Back in the 1980s a researcher named Bob Goldman asked world-class athletes in power sports this question: “If I had a magic drug that was so fantastic that if you took it once you would win every competition you would enter from the Olympic Decathlon to the Mr. Universe, for the next five years but it had one minor drawback, it would kill you five years after you took it, would you still take the drug?”

He found that more than half said they would take it. This result was consistent in his findings over a period from 1982 to 1995. (He asked every two years during that period)

Before anyone gets twisted up here, there has been subsequent research which claims to blunt Bob’s research and his conclusions.

Personally, I suspect that what changed from the time of the initial research until the latter studies wasn’t human nature. I suspect that the athletes learned to answer less candidly. The truth was unflattering….ok, the truth was downright disturbing.

The level of dedication and sacrifice that is demanded of these elite athletes can hardly be exaggerated. The reward, for most, is meager. Even for medalists. Non Hall of Famers in any sport very often need to have second careers.

Athletes know this . (You do realize that they do talk amongst themselves.)

On the faces of these Olympians, there is evidence of more than a desire to win.

There is a need to win.

To win is to be validated and justified. To not win is to be tossed into the dust bin of ‘also rans’. Earlier television coverage hammered home the emotional images of the ‘ecstasy of winning’ and the ‘agony of defeat’. There is no glory ever given to ‘trying’.

Alongside a person’s natural physical abilities, there is a mind-set that is cultivated through coaching and competing that grips these athletes. It is easy to understand how personal values can be compromised and state sponsored doping flourish.

Athletic competition is introduced to children as a path towards developing character and abilities, a form of self improvement through dedication and perseverance. At entry level and mid level events, this is more true than not. At these levels, there is still the joy of trying, the love of the game and the opportunity for self-discovery.

Beyond these levels, however, the genuine value of competing becomes distorted. Money, pride and ego, obsession, compulsion and a person’s sense of self-worth combine to drive these athletes, coaches and programs towards unhealthy choices.

Competition, as a motivator or as a way of life, ultimately does not bring out our best. Time after time, for the sake of ‘winning’, we are often making choices that reflect ourselves at our worst.

Upon further review, I simply stopped watching.

 

 

 

New & More

As a comedian once noted, “You can’t ever get enough of the stuff you don’t really want in order to impress people you don’t really care for.”

This sums up the angst and the futility of consumerism and capitalism.

The comic was not referring to the basic stuffs like sufficient healthy food, decent sanitation and adequate shelter, access to affordable health care and education, along with an equal opportunity for employment with fair compensation. These basics are the foundation of a sustainable society and the hallmarks of an effective system of government.

No, the comic was referring to the collective obsession with and association of the twin notions of ‘new’ and ‘more’ as somehow adding up to something that is or that feels ‘better’.

I’ll start by looking at the notion of ‘more’. Here’s one of the underlying beliefs: “If a little bit of something is good, than more of that something must be better.”  Some examples:

  • if two aspirin relieve my headache, than four aspirin will do even better.
  • if buying one piece of junk at $19.95 seems good, than getting two at the same price is even better.
  • if recipe calls for a teaspoon of an ingredient, than a tablespoon will be even better. (come on now, you all know you’ve thought and done this)
  • if running two miles every other day feels good, than running four miles everyday will feel even better.

So, ok, you get the idea of how we turn the concept of ‘more’ from a measurement of comparative quantity (or frequency) into an indicator of quality. We don’t just have a boat, we have two boats for changing conditions or a different boat for every condition. That’s better, right?

But how many boats can you be on at one time and how often do you really like to go boating?

More money, more sex, more travel, more houses, more clothes…when I have more of any or all of these, I will feel better, right?

Eventually and inevitably, we all come to the realization that more is just more. More is an empty promise of satisfaction and not anything that’s really better…always only more. And even when we are surrounded by plenty, we still feel empty and not enough.

‘New’ is the second notion that we automatically link to ‘better’. Fifty or so years of being brainwashed by advertisers has something to do with this. It was their stock in trade phrase used relentlessly to get us to purchase anything, “New and Improved”. That has become our whole concept of progress;  whatever is ‘new’ has to be better than what came before, otherwise why would we be buying it or doing it?

Again, much the same as with the notion of ‘more’, the ‘new’ is not a qualitative measurement. It is a temporal one, simply noting the appearance of an object, person or event in the sequence of time. We can have a new job, new relationship, new boss, new neighbor, new…car…pair of shoes…laptop…haircut…and what have you…and not a single one of these are necessarily ‘better’ than what we had before. Still, we chase after the latest, the newest, as if it were the holy grail.

….Until we ‘see’ them for what they are….

Mirages leading us off into the desert.

 

 

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Passing the Torch

That’s the metaphor we often hear to describe the transmission of a vision or an inspiration or a philosophy (or something) from one generation to the next. We pass the torch. We try to impart what we have gleaned along our way. Some of this may be ego based and self-centered, rooted in the desire to have a legacy or some impact lasting beyond our years. We have all seen how vanity struggles to extend beyond the grave.  We know, though, that enterprises, empires, pyramids and plans all crumble eventually.

So I’m not referring to that type of torch passing….the banner waving, standard bearer corporate mouthpiece or those who make a living by capitalizing on someone else’s glamorized and photo shopped public image (Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Ronald Reagan, etc.)

I’m referring to the torch of the sea faring captain, the house painter, the traveling salesperson, the grocery clerk, the Wal Mart greeter…the everyday sort of us…

What torch have they?

What torch any of us?

Here are the overview numbers: over 151,000 people die each day (world wide), that’s        55 million plus each year.

Did they each have a torch and did they get to pass it?

Closer to home and even more poignant, over 500,000 Americans die of some form of cancer every year. I say more poignant because with a terminal diagnosis comes the real time opportunity, however short or lengthy, to attempt to pass your torch intentionally.

So what is it that we are actually trying to pass along?

I understand that whatever it is will be deeply personal. I gather that it’s a summation of  sorts…the distillation into essences of what we’ve experienced…the truth(s) we may have uncovered…the wisdom we may have earned…

But to what end?

What is the purpose, what is the impulse that stirs in us as the numbers of our days dwindle?

I have come to understand that what we so desperately would like to do is to help someone else avoid the mistakes we ourselves have made and the pain we have experienced as a result.

That’s the torch…we’d like to do our small part towards the easing of human suffering…for family, friends and strangers alike. “Learn from my missteps”, we want to say…don’t eat that type of mushroom…don’t stay too long at the office…don’t smoke…don’t take tomorrow for granted…and on and on…the things we wish we could just pass on so that no one else need suffer from them again…

It’s an act of love really.

It’s a torch that’s worth passing.

Which brings us, the living, to the question: Do we have to wait until the end before we try to pass this along?

 

 

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Trickle Down

“We were not born critical of existing society. There was a moment in our lives (or a month, or a year) when certain facts appeared before us, startled us, and then caused us to question beliefs that were strongly fixed in our consciousness – embedded there by years of family prejudices, orthodox schooling, imbibing of newspapers, radio, and television. This would seem to lead to a simple conclusion: that we all have an enormous responsibility to bring to the attention of others information they do not have, which has the potential of causing them to rethink long-held ideas.”  Howard Zinn, 2005

Income inequality, the gap between the 99 percenters and the 1 percent, has reached historic proportions in this country and in others. I was around when Ronald Reagan and his band of merry Republicans popularized and promoted “trickle-down economics” as a sure fired way to help the middle class and the poor. They’re aim was to pour gasoline on the fire of economic inequality while convincing us that their intention was to put it out.

I, for one, didn’t know that the phrase, ‘trickle down’, was coined by the American wit Will Rogers who, when satirizing President Herbert Hoover’s economic recovery plan, made the remark that the “money was all appropriated for the top in the hopes it would trickle down to the needy.” His remark was intended as a joke and everyone understood that. It was an insightful and obvious poke.

It took a Hollywood actor to sell it to the American public as a sound economic policy. At the heart of that snake oil pitch was the idea that any economic benefit targeted for the wealthy–investors, entrepreneurs, big business and banks–would inevitably and necessarily ‘trickle down’ to the less wealthy members of society in the form of creating jobs. The theory was that the tax revenues and spending that would be generated by those jobs would drive the general economy’s growth and more than make up for the tax breaks that the wealthy had received. It was a two part plan, however. First, the 1 percent needed to get their relief up front. Then, the theory proposed, there would be an outburst of new businesses that would benefit the 99 percenters.

The 1 percent in America enthusiastically supported any politician at any level of government who would endorse and promote this theory. Purse strings were loosened and campaigns were well funded for those who would hitch their horses to this wagon. We still suffer from that loosening today.

But the general public bought it. The idea was simple enough to understand. In a way, it seemed like it might be a fair way to share.

Long ago, the cartoon character, Wimpy, from the ‘Popeye the Sailor’ series would always declare, “I will gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”. What could go wrong with that?

Well…

Decades of financial data since the Reagan era have completely debunked the notion of there ever having been a “trickle down”. The 1 percent basically said, “thank you very much” and found ways to keep their windfall for themselves. If crumbs fell off their table of abundance or some manner of profit managed to spill over, it was the result of sloppiness and not a sense of fairness.

To be sure, the 1 percent were quick to find ways to clean all of that up.

And the disparity between them and the 99 percenters continues to grow even faster.

What could go wrong with that?

 

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