Sunday, September 21, 2014

On Showing Your Hand, or Consolation Unfixed

My teacher Appa was my appa, a “father” in more than figure or authority, he loved me and I loved him so.  I'm confident I will never “get over” his premature death, no amount of soporifics will create the promised blessedness.  The loss and the pain far too real for that, the harvest of experience that I reap is the hope I still cherish as a gift of mortal birth.  There can be no nourishment without toxicity, no medicine without unforeseen implications or unwanted vulnerabilities.  When there is love there is terror, the certainty of losses and the fear of fear.  That rage of fear is the bedfellow of love’s rage.  There is nothing more dangerous in life than certainty, especially when it’s certain.

We look for ways to make our endemic humanity a richer ground for reflection as we traverse the territory of outrageous fortune.  There is no denying slings or arrows even for those whose religion promises, well, what exactly does it promise?  Most spiritual paths invite some kind of palliative and consolation, even claims to exemption, immunity, and transcendence.  Let’s add mystery to that and if we put it in capitals we might feel all the more Mystery.

Who is more famous for offering consolation than Boethius’s (De consolatione philosophiae) where all misery defers to a higher source, our human love mimetic but incomplete in comparison to Platonic form or God’s mysterious Love.  More Capital Letters.  More affirmation that limited human experience seeks not just more of limitation but something more that is Else and More.

Nunc fluens facit tempus,
nunc stans facit aeternitatum.
The fluent now makes time,
The remaining now makes eternity.

We pick and choose our consolations but my inner historian reminds that Boethius is not conforming to my preferred readings but rather making his case.  And I would not deign to deny him: we all prefer our boats to float than be sunk in a tempest of criticism or, dare I say, evidence to the contrary?  Being dissuaded of our needs is tantamount to declaring another’s consolation unsound.  But religions do this all the time; it’s one of those things that make religions so sure of themselves.  Even religions that validate others’ experience don’t maintain the Other is just as sound, because sound means really true and who holds an opinion he doesn’t think is true?  True in that sound kinda' way. We can be offended and dissociate from dogmas and we can interpret privately to suit ourselves but religions prefer to claim things whole even when every interpreter---be that institutions or individuals-- is by equal terms picking and choosing.  I’d like to say that a spiritual life invests in making one’s own picks and choices but that would be denying that religions are somehow not doing as much, notwithstanding their claims to completeness, certainty, and finality.

Do recall that most forms of admitted incompleteness refer to an unfinished project: you are not yet liberated or enlightened or you can rejoice for your reward will be great in heaven.   The word “faith” now appears and you’ll notice that this is a preferred way of describing someone’s expressed preferences for private experience.  We call them “faith traditions”---think of how American politicians try to talk about religion this way.  I want not to be annoyed at another's claims of faith, their prospects or promises made but I can’t help myself.  I see them as a con game, a scam, a grift, a hustle, a bunko, a swindle, a flimflam, a maneuver, a wheedle, a honey trap, sweet talk, sing along string alongs, a get around, a gaffle, a racket, hornswoggle, a bamboozle, a caress made of mere blandishment.   Shall I go on?  This too takes us, again in decidedly American First Amendment terms, to the invitation to be hands off, accommodating, opinion-free, in a no disenchantment zone because we confer the dignity to the Other no matter what we might be thinking.  I may well have already offended because what’s at stake is another’s experience---to which no other human has access and so is without claim--- and it looks like I just called that out.  Called out always feels insulting or diminishing; no one likes to be shown wrong and how much less brought to account for what she or he feels and told is subjacent to another’s version of reality.

But this private-only club of experience begs the question: what do we share when we say we share a personal experience?  If it’s that personal then there’s nothing left to say because there’s no way your feeling is my feeling.  Peace at last?  Tolerance doesn’t mean we agree, it means we agree to disagree without talking (more) about it.  The damage has already been done.  What we do about those feelings matters aplenty.  When does our inner forbearance become acquiescence, the sort of phlegmatic, groggy compassion we tell ourselves keeps the peace but maybe doesn’t feel so peaceful?  I confess I prefer vexation with tolerance because that’s the emotion that comes with not knowing, not being able to know, and wondering how another could feel so differently.  Or just apparently so.  How would I know?

It was Jefferson in his Notes on the State of Virginia who wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  Jefferson was making a case for taking private belief out of certain public domains, a kind mind your own inner business zone for the State’s common weal.  We all know how that’s working out these days.  We humans seemingly tolerate Other’s religions only so long as they conform to ours.  The ideal of a secular politics has never been so manifestly forsaken as in our recent American experience and never been more conspicuously banned nearly everywhere else.  There’s no getting ‘round the issue that convictions remain a topic of conversation despite efforts to spray non-toxic tolerance on the leaky crannies of intolerance.  We offend and are offended.  It comes with the territory of having experiences, not just opinions or even well founded opinions, the kind with evidence and reasons.  The alternative peace is not merely silence but permissive inaction.  How we doin’ with that?  Not working out so well, is it?

In a world of powers sought and inflicted we all seek some form of personal authority.  This is one of those frightening things about delegating and deferring, about being cajoled, bullied, or determined by the will of others.  We all succumb to the vicissitudes of time, pain, and death, well, unless we tell ourselves otherwise.  How do we choose to live taking on such powers when our experience tells us there’s no way to have it only our way?  Running from is running into.  Run hard.  Then relax enough to run again.  Appa taught me that.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The Black Swan

"If I say to you, ‘all swans are white’ how many black swans will it take before your belief changes again?"

When my teacher, my Appa, Dr. Gopala Aiyar Sundaramoorthy, invited me to live with his family in India he took risks I didn’t fully understand at the time.  I was but twenty years old, an eager student, devoted to learning, and to him.  He had placed his trust in me and, no matter what might happen, I meant to earn that trust each day.  But that was the simplest of matters.  Appa wore his dignity, his intellect and courage with such poise and decency that one always felt welcome, safe, and respected---even those who might not have earned such privileged shelter.  He spoke so softly one had often to lean in to hear him.  Yet this gentle voice was equally resolute to invite every question.  Nothing was beyond the pale.  No matter how contrarian or probing the query, he encouraged the all of it, it was a duty to ask, to doubt, to push beyond the merely comfortable or consoling.  With an intention to empower critical awareness, it was Appa’s belief that belief itself was far too often an obstacle to change, to serious learning, to engaging knowledge as process rather than end.  We don’t just have beliefs, we want to believe in beliefs.  This is as much a liability as it is ever an advantage.

“How can we learn if we are unwilling to question?  Our questions include all that is discomforting, difficult, awkward, even painful.  How can we expect to learn if we do not risk error or challenge even our most cherished beliefs?  We are here to have that conversation.”

The invitation to live in his home might well have jeopardized his standing in the Brahmin community or brought family members an unwelcome or unnecessary exposure.  After all, the youngest of the children, nieces, and nephews were still at home.  Who exactly was this young foreigner he had so wholly taken in?  It was no obligation on his part.  It was trust and no small compassion.  It was risk and a clear sense of what he deemed worth the risk.

“I was taken in by a family of Diksitar priests at Chidambaram when just a child, when my mother was a widow, penniless, homeless, and illiterate, when there wasn’t even enough in the priest’s house to feed his family.  But what did he do? He opened his heart and he understood we were grateful.”

Appa’s home was rooted in tradition and orthopraxy, his mother wore the blouse-less saffron widow’s sari from the time of his father's passing at just nine months of age, his brother-in-law a professional priest skilled in smarta and Vedic ritual brought a cast of colleagues and patrons almost daily visiting the house.  But Appa was as revolutionary as he was committed to the value of his ancient heritage.  He had been born into worlds he meant to change while embracing the occasions of greatness.  And while his invitation might well discomfort conservative elements in the community not as determined as he to subvert their privileges of caste and sexism, Appa was unwavering in his commitment to create what had been offered to him: a chance, an opportunity to make something honest and enduring.  This wasn’t just about me.  This was about everyone around him he could help, his family and now the thousands of children who have over these many years passed through the matriculation school he founded in Madurai.  I still don’t fully understand how he made himself into such a person ---born into abject poverty in a remote village in south India in the 1930s, with so very little but his wits, a loving, strong mother, and just the splinter of a chance.  Whatever we might think about karma and consequences, sometimes we’re just plain lucky.  I knew that was my life when we met.

“Grace just comes: you don’t earn it, you don’t deserve it, and you can’t pay it back.  It’s lila, the play that comes, as Krsna puts it in the Bhagavadgita, ‘by rare chance.’  You can say ‘thank you’ and you can offer your gifts.  The best gift, of course, is yourself.”

Indian traditions praise the guru to supernatural ends.  Such persons are not only regarded as the indispensible sources of liberative wisdom, they are its embodied form.  This is said so often, in so many scriptural sources, that the normative claim is tradition.  With that too come magic wands and holy ashes appearing out of nowhere, implicit claims of implacable authority, and license to act beyond the reach of our ordinary human accountability, beyond the boundaries of individual conscience, with indifference to others and to society’s claims.  And Appa would have none of it.

“Guruji…” I said, wanting so badly to say it that I might hear it for myself so he would know how I felt about him.  And how I wanted him to be that guru.  Up went his hand in abhaya mudra as he smiled and averred his glance, at once to welcome fearlessness and to create a place safe for fear.

“If you call me ‘guru’ we will tumble into a chasm of tradition that implies submission when we could only mean respect and suggest deference.  Everything we learn we learn from traditions of learning.  But these traditions must seek ‘truth’ by discovering ways to revise themselves rather than confirm their dogmas; to create new understandings that always challenge and subvert their most cherished beliefs; we must be relentless to learn more and to change our minds.  If we submit to gurus, to ultimates, to absolutes, then at what cost to our conversation, what chance do we have?  We must keep asking the discomforting questions.  And this is where Indian traditions of the guru, especially Tantric traditions, have so often been corrupted.  They tell you time and again to surrender all!  But you must never abandon your power, your gifts, your own critical abilities.  Nothing is more dangerous than certainty. Perfection is a claim that ends conversation because it admits no change.  Better we learn with our imperfections and from our mistakes.  We become only less human when we believe the guru or the god or any such ‘realized being’ is beyond the conditions of mortality and humanity.  Let others find consolations where they may, perhaps in such authority with claims to religious salvation.  But I choose another path, a different path.  Every tradition’s orthodoxy is another’s heresy.  Perhaps I am too happy to be an apostate to tradition.  But you don’t think I invited you to live here because I wanted you to receive magical initiation or because your ‘guru’ is perfect, do you?  Your ‘guru’ is flawed like every human being and that is the truth we learn from, from each other, and from the lessons of life.  Our imperfection is not the problem we are here to solve.  A conscious welcoming of ignorance is our gift: to be human is to learn.  That commitment we make to bind ourselves to what we understand is valuable, that too is a teaching.”

Appa spoke often of his conflicted feelings about modern gurus.  How can we not admire their efforts to build hospitals and open schools?  And yet how can we overlook the abuse that invariably follows when traditions endorse disciples to grant them spiritual immunity, transcendental authority, and place them beyond the reach of human accountability?  From historical texts in Sanskrit we get little sense of the social impact that gurus are meant to create beyond their duty to educate.  “Teacher” is indeed the most endearing and empowering sense of the word.  Drenched instead in the theological language of immutable knowledge, non-dualist or divine consciousness identity, and unconditional recognition that is beyond critique, we are encouraged to profound acquiescence, offered an aspiration to wonder while treated to claims of supreme experience that are, at best, remote or unattainable in our current human birth.  What is usually reserved for The Almighty amongst theists, so many yogins confer upon their gurus.  But Appa would have none of it.

You mean then there is no salvation from this human condition? 

“What I understand is this: there is such a thing as good conversation.  Bring all of your thoughts, your feelings, your values, your questions and doubts, bring yourself.  Become the company you mean to keep and make that a gift to others.”

Happy Guru Purnima.

Douglas Brooks
Bristol, New York

July 12, 2014

Sunday, May 18, 2014


Over the past twenty-eight years serving as Professor of Religion at the University of Rochester I have been occasionally charged by my esteemed colleagues to offer the Valediction, quite literally, the “words of farewell” as our class of senior majors graduates.  
I’ve done this plenty of times but I thought this time the words might be of some interest to others.  No one really remembers the speeches they heard at college graduation.  I think they might remember if somehow those words struck a chord but I’ve no such pretentions.  I read the great work of Steve Jobs and David Foster Wallace, and of course I consulted the remarkable rhetoric of the late Christopher Hitchens.  Added a little Zen.  Voila.  But what really happened was this: Last week I saw an interview with Bruce Springsteen.  The Boss was asked why he still did this, go on the road, write new songs, keep going.  After all he’s richer than the gods and sixty-four years old, what compels him?  He said something like this: Things still bother me.  Things have to come out.  Why does a man my age do this?  Because he has to.

I got that. 
Loud and clear.  So that’s what I told them. 
Here. We. Go.

The Valediction for the Graduating Class of Religion and Classics Majors, 2014

Congratulations graduates, it is truly your day.  And you did earn it.  Yesterday in the NYTimes there was a column from a professor who’s also the president of the American Enterprise Institute.  That’s a think tank but in this case you can reserve the word “think” for something more useful.  His principal commendation was “earn everything”, which you must realize is fatuous nonsense, a fantasy of redolent seduction that means to juxtapose your sense of independence to entitlement, as false a contrast as the purported existence of a sacred is to the profane.  Remember Eliade?  He was making things up too.

So while I will not purport to tell you that my own platitudes are less trite, I will instead do something familiar to your education.  I will make an argument.  What is best about arguments is that they aren’t quarrels.   Rather, as Orwell put it: an argument is the art of telling someone else what they don’t want to hear.  This is because everything not grounded in strife and rooted in well-founded bias is merely public relations.  Argument is not optional to a well-lived life, in fact the reason it is essential is because it rises to that rarest level of worth: it is valuable for its own sake. 

Religion majors learn this in every class, in fact it might be the point of every single class you’ve taken.  Did you know that?   In Classics it is Plato’s reason to be, not merely his method.  But just in case, here’s the reason why this argument about argument is true.  It’s provides the reason you can graduate today with the confidence you will need to survive the questions that will follow you around the rest of your life (and not excluding today): You majored in what?  What are you going to do with that?

As students of religion you know that conversion plays a role, we forget that in some sense all religious persons were at one point converted to if not from.  Most people skip conversion because they have forgotten that fact of heritage and so never had a chance: they were indoctrinated.  Religions prefer to indoctrinate rather than argue, and that makes studying religion decidedly different than being religious.  Those asking the uncomfortable question ---what are you going to do with that major?---not only fear for your future economic well-being, they wonder about indoctrination.  Little do they know, argument is itself another way to live life with conviction, the conviction of doubt as the best gift of learning.  But rather than begin your reply with an argument, my first suggestion would be to lull them into thinking you are confirming their opinions---since one of the most important things you have learned studying religion is that people love their opinions more than they care about the possibility that others also have theirs. 

Tell them a story.  Now you’ve got’em right where you want’em.  The conversation can go something like this:

“What are you going to do with that degree?”
“Why, everything.”
“And how is that?”
“Well once there was a seeker on the path who came upon the obstacle of a great river that ran wide, deep, and fast, the kind of river that would daunt any sensible person from crossing.  Continuing along she gets a moment of lucky, seeing another person on the other side.  She notices that this person is holding a staff, which suggests a fellow traveler, or cripple, a wizard, perhaps retired hockey player, it’s not clear.  But it so happens that this is a teacher, the spiritual kind.  
He shouts across, “Can you tell me how to get to the other side?”  
The teacher ponders a moment and replies, “You are already on the other side.”

If the questioner took our class, From Confucius to Zen, you may now be at a disadvantage but I doubt it.  And don’t fret: you don’t make arguments to win them anymore than you stand a chance at conversion by arguing.  If religions were arguments, we’d all be Buddhists but we know that’s not an option.  The Rabbis of the Mishnah have made that perfectly clear.  What you’re facing in this ‘what are you doing with your life conversation’ is a religious situation: minds are made up in advance and, at the same time. confused by the necessity to change, just a little, but only if your reply warrants a reply.  The story of the journey gives you an out, the questioner isn’t sure why you told it much less what it means to convey.  Wait.  The reply is coming.

“So you did something you really wanted to do.  That takes courage.”
Your answer is obvious to you, less to the questioner.
“Umm, I don’t think so.  It was neither just what I wanted to do nor did it take much courage.”
“You did something you didn’t want to do?  Leave it to religion.”
“Not exactly.  Of course I wanted to do this but some things you find out aren’t just wants, some things you just have to do.  That’s how you find out who you are: you find out you have to do it.”

College really happened for you when no one else was looking but you.  Now you are being asked to explain that.  Consider it a privilege.  As personal a choice as it has been to choose your majors, it’s just as true that your necessities now implicate everyone, especially those who really care because they ask discomforting questions. 

Your self-esteem, even your pride is up for grabs (Are you being tacitly insulted and loved?) so you recognize that there is something more here than a point of argument, there is near-religious concern for your well-being and a challenge to your self-allegiance.  You don’t win arguments by converting the other; you feel the ground beneath you move in ways that also compels the other to realize that he too must make concessions, refinements, forced to adjust opinions rather than revel in the safe and familiar atrophies of self-complaisance.  Everyone leaves a little differently than they came.  That’s success.  To ask for more is to seek a conversion, an indoctrination, and that is something you learned about, but not the something you learned.

Knowing how to think---what we purport to teach you when you are fledglings here in college---must give way as adults to what you choose to think about.  For as many choices in life as we can imagine, the important ones become necessities.  As enterprising as you will be is already evident in the enterprise you have completed today.  But do remember: you will earn and indeed achieve important goals (graduating college today is exactly that) but you will not earn everything.  Instead you will gain an advantage by virtue of a privileged life of education and participate in creating opportunities for yourself---and should you choose greatness, for others too.  Frederick Douglass reminds us that those who expect truth or justice without a struggle only imagine the sea without a tempest.   Conflict may be painful but there are no painless solutions.  Strangely enough, that was meant to be encouragement.

When the semester’s toil seemed like it would never end, much like our Rochester winter, you understood how the evolution of learning can be tenebrous and equivocal, but that it never fails to incite real demand for more.  There will be no simple explanations that cleanse the ambiguities of meaning to life precisely because meaning itself has been assailed, understood as a human invention that arises from considering whatever is meant by the word “divine.”  What you have gathered from the classics and the study of religion is that there's something sentient in the relationship between the primal and the purposeful that threatens sanity with something better than complacency.  Facts are necessary and replaceable with better facts, but people are not.  And that takes us again to you.
The liberal arts cliché about learning to think is true and not just because that’s what makes clichés what they are: necessary truths.  What you have before you are not infinite possibilities since possibilities are, by definition, finite.  What you have before you is the honest opportunity to answer to your inner necessity.  Not to choose who you want to be but rather to become what you must.

You’ll go make a living, you’ll do things you don’t want to do, sometimes to make money, but you’ll also have another kind of necessity.  Not the sort that the world demands of you but the one that you create in yourself.  Answer to that and you will live, not seduced by irrational wants but rather by forging ahead knowing you are always in the middle of things.  You aren’t only self-made even as you realize you must make yourself.  In the process, take Christopher Hitchens’ advice: don’t subordinate or annihilate yourself just because you fear being called arrogant or selfish.  Prefer dignity and give that to others rather than mere argument.  Then have a lived life, not just a career.  Pay attention and complain precisely when there is something worth arguing about. Don’t expect to come out the same when your antagonist is just as convicted as you are.  A good argument is one that changes who you are, even when you can’t quite tell what’s changed.

I was standing in the Port Authority once awaiting a bus home to New Jersey after a long stint in India.  A young woman came up to me with copies of the Bhagavadgita, the great Indian classic.  She was a member of the Gone East movement called the Hari Krsnas.  They aren’t so popular anymore, not since George Harrison died and they’ve been banned from stalking bus stands.  But there I was.  She hands me the book and explains that this is the portal to divine truth.  That in this book, written in the holy language of Sanskrit, nearly impenetrable for its recondite grammar as it is for meaning, I would find all that life has to offer.  Oh really, I replied.  I would positively know who I am?  Oh yes, she insisted.  She pushed the book into my hands as the bus approached.
“I gotta go,” I said. 
“But this…this is The Truth!  This is the answer!” 
Handing her back the book, I began to recite the familiar opening verse in the original Sanskrit..dhamaksetre kuruksetre samaveta…She halted.  Eyes agape.
“Wait. What? Who are you? And how did you know that?”
“Well,” I replied, “you never know in what form the Lord might come.”

 And so onto to New Jersey I went.  I suspect that this woman is still wondering from her home in the Hamptons about how she met Lord Krsna in the Port Authority.  But be that as it may.

What you want to know is who you are.  That you’ll find in necessity, not just in desire.  The answers aren’t nearly as interesting as the questions.  Being daunted doesn’t mean you can’t also be undaunted, it means you don’t have to go it alone.  Find good company, keep good company, you know already that you become the company you keep.  And go with this blessing: come back but don’t look back.  You will not solve the world’s problems but you will change the world by the way you answer to your own necessity.  I leave you with another saying from Sanskrit and a poetic translation,

shashvat purosuo vyuvaasa devyatho adyedam vyaavo maghonaa |
atho vyuchaad-uttaraananu dyuunajaraamrtaa carati svadhaabhih||:

“Look well, therefore, to this day. For today, well lived will make every yesterday a dream of happiness And every tomorrow a vision of hope.  Look well, therefore, to this day.” 

Good luck, good bye, come see us again when you have a moment.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

In the middle of things

Some might renounce, detach, or ignore worldliness because the realm of the spiritual is deemed something wholly other. There is often proposed an alternative to the entrammelled banalities of the political and social and that should lead the way to a greater awakening and contentment.  I demur from this view not only because I doubt there is such "awakening" but because it does little to advance the conversation about how we might create together the world in which we are living.

We may also evince little patience for such difficult conversations because they necessarily leave us fractured in a deeply factionalized world, even if that fracture provides a more honest form of self-disquiet.  It could be that our factions are more than tribal allegiances; they might present to us real disagreements about what it means to be human.  There is no promise in the history of spiritualities that our shared humanity means we will share what it means to be human.   A spiritual life without inviting self-disquiet renounces the vulnerabilities of being human and at a cost: it is our humanity that makes us spiritual and our vulnerability that invites our growth.  That we might disagree over these fundamentals is part of the human narrative.

I write today because I have been asked to comment on issues raised by the revelations of Edward Snowden.  When conscience demands and private convictions imply a further social and political participation, we are undoubtedly entering into controversy.  At least we might hope for as much: such a conversation needs to carry forward because the issues at stake will not evaporate into the mists of spiritual resolution.  What sort of spiritual life that exempts us from the demands of our public life?  

The Snowden situation warrants reflection and consideration, especially in light of the meaning of free speech and the powers of speech.  I am grateful to those who have prompted my comment since they have cajoled my own conscience into these uncomfortable places and because the current situation as I write this (29 June 2013) is still liminal in many respects.

We may never learn why Edward Snowden did what he did or even what he has done.  In an age of global communications it’s not without irony that truth is further victimized by the ways information is bought, sold, and manipulated for gain.  Perhaps this too will inspire our desire to keep the conversation open and, at the same time, grounded enough to take the evidence seriously.  Little stanches the pursuit of truth than arguments that cannot be revised or evolved and, just as perilous, some form of eagerness to deny the realities of fact pursued by reasoned efforts.  As desperately as many search for absolutes, finalities, and ultimate truths, we can instead choose to stand in the middle of things, in the evidence we have at hand, in the arguments we can create from the imperfect things we experience.

Political views, like religions, too often begin with theories rather than arrive at them as a means of an explanation of the evidence.  When we want something to be true, we are apt to carve our theory first and then use whatever we discover to fit into this architecture.  We take age-old views, particularly those we regard sacrosanct ---“all men are created equal,” “…because such is God’s word,” “…because the sages tell us so”----as providing the normative, the ought we should not emend, and then compel the evidence and ourselves to agree.  If we believe there is god or heaven or freedom or privacy, what have you, we will often do whatever we can to make sure that that belief is supported by whatever we discover.

Perhaps instead we can stay in the middle of things, working with the evidence, asking every question no matter how controversial or even offensive, and so remain willing to subject our most hard won conclusions to every further scrutiny.  We are not only imperiled by our desire to have our theories confirmed, we are disadvantaged by the fact that the evidence we uncover may not be the all we hope it is.  Even if we willfully refrain from conclusiveness we must learn to live in the middle of our best judgments.  The alternative that presumes we can transcend or exempt ourselves from any (or all) judgment is not only ironic--- it is an unwillingness to admit that our imperfection creates the foundation of our most laudable humanity.  Only nature refuses to judge or to imagine a future.  This means that our natural human condition presents no advantage to our creating a more humane world.  For that, we must invest in our abilities as cultural and political beings, as spiritual beings creating more than the imperatives of survival.

 No democracy more vigorously espouses protection of speech than America in the form of the First Amendment. In the majority of democracies speech is far more restricted than in the US: that is a fact apart from the issues surrounding the flagrant abuse of our claims to privacy.  How do we address too the realities of a dangerous world in which concerns for privacy and freedom are inseparable from those that point directly to individuals, groups, and governments who would inflict their own versions of nihilism, oppression, and violence? I don't mean to exempt America from that latter claim given a decade prosecuting wars of choice but America is certainly not the only perpetrator of these forms of abuse.

Snowden's father put the matter into some perspective when he said that his son had betrayed his country but not its people. Edward Snowden took a job that required his consent to secrecy and in conscience (apparently, we have no other evidence yet of other motives) he violated that oath. Without Edward Snowden we would not have the slightest inkling of the depths of intrusion and manipulation advanced by America's security apparatus. It's with no small irony that Senators like Feinstein find themselves in tacit agreement with the majority of Republicans who criticize these recent NSA revelations only because it suits their immediate political objectives, which have only one focus: to discredit, distract, nullify, and undermine anything that the President proposes or does. We can otherwise imagine the roar of approval if there were a Republican President.  More to the point, President Obama can assert with no political risk that his actions have been "within the law." Who is to blame for that?  We Americans: for creating a political culture in which we demand a risk-free world with no real costs.

There is social and psychological denial implied here that closely parallels our spiritual immaturities: we may be demanding what the world has never been offering  If we must look somehow beyond the world for such a spiritual experience then we may just as well ignore the world to pursue the realm beyond conditionality.  Of course, this too has costs.  Are we willing to abdicate the practical and imperfect imperatives of creating our world for a suspension of belief, a faith committed to some or another perfection, to claims that assert life’s purpose is ultimately unconditional?

Of course, it is deeply disappointing that the Obama Administration has perpetuated and in important respects furthered the intrusive and invasive policies of America's 9/11 hysterias.  The majority of Americans have little notion, in my opinion, how Bush policies in the aftermath of 9/11 have shaped world opinion as well as impacted our personal freedoms.  Some of this blithe disregard for world opinion is fostered by what is euphemistically called “American Exceptionalism,” a claim comparable to spiritual ultimacy because it presumes a destiny supported by assertions that set apart the privileged from the many.  One trip out of the country through any airport makes such issues disturbingly clear.  I cannot condone the Obama Administrations continuance of these surveillance policies but one can only imagine how much further things would go under the alternatives. Could it be worse? I can imagine that.

At the heart of the matter is this: what price are people willing to pay to advance their desires to be free and secure?

We Americans seem to believe we can have it both ways without costs. That we have created a political environment in which the security apparatus can collect and use anything we say as a tool of "freedom" is truly Orwellian: Americans have tacitly consented to the NSA situation by electing government that can legitimize such behaviors as within the law. The President has repeatedly stated that there are such mechanisms of legitimacy behind these decisions and actions, including a Court that has approved 99% of all requests for such intrusions into privacy.

We Americans are responsible for the NSA actions; we brought this on ourselves because we refuse to debate the issue of the costs of political freedom and our desires for personal security. Snowden has brought some of that debate into the public discourse. But his portrayal by government and media (N.B., David Gregory's questioning Glenn Greenwald’s journalism as criminal) will surely provide more heat than light: we are not mature enough as a society to have this honest discussion. That Snowden is foremost portrayed as a "traitor" charged with espionage, presumably camped for now in the Moscow airport, assures only that he will be vilified and just as certain to be railroaded into interminable prison if he returns. There will be no fair hearing of the issues, rather a deflection into Snowden's actions. That what he has done might also bring comfort or advantage to those who seek to do Americans harm is part of the price he will have to pay in conscience as well.  Americans, however, refuse to confront our conscience, so vividly displayed in our unwillingness to have the required conversations, at least among our elected leaders.  These political circumstances are in effect no different than our highest spiritual aspirations.  At stake will be how willing we are to be engage the uncomfortable and disquieting realities of a world that will only offer as much as we are willing to create.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Imagining the Rest

When we take our advantage, indulge our desires, or pursue our passions, the implication, like the fact, is that this always comes at some cost to others.  No matter how benign we may mean to be there is nothing benign about living and most of the world’s religions tell us we’re in for it.  It could be eternal damnation ---but in good Calvinist terms we can’t know that--- or bad karma in this or subsequent births.  We can’t really know that either.  All we do is assert such consequences as if they are true.  But one way or another, the threat provides more than incentive or admonishment: it’s a warning from The Beyond in the here and now.

I’m no believer in The Beyond of any ilk, at least not one we live to experience.  Others may have to cope beyond our lives but, gratefully speaking, I’m glad I won’t.  By this I mean we can ask how such claims provide something that empowers us without having to decide if they are true or not, or whether our answers aren’t more than just another empty platitude.  Empowering would mean something like we feel better doing the next thing that addresses our needs and that we really do have the option to care now about what carries on beyond our finite lives, not for ourselves but for those who survive us.

As if we don’t suffer enough the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we create for ourselves haunting conscience, guilt, ghosts, and karma-knows-what because we can.  I’m not given to dismissing those feelings or emotions just because they are “negative” but rather to wonder aloud how to address a life in which nature has no concern for the future whatsoever and so invites us to contemplate that fact.  If hope is for a future then it can’t be grounded on anything nature provides as the basis of life.  Mr. Darwin put it succinctly enough, “The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.”  We should refuse to live in fantasies or dreams of what could be without grounding ourselves in how nature does her business.  Nature is a “her” in the same way that hope is a reality: it’s something we say, even something we may feel, and so is real enough to make a difference in what we do no matter how little it tells us about our nature as natural beings.  I want to know how hope can be efficacious in some way that invests in happiness (whatever that might be) as we humans imagine it.  For how we live in our imaginations is what is vital to the reality of hope, if it is to contribute something of value to our lives.  I need neither faith nor charity to realize this need.  What I need is to learn is how to imagine more vividly.

Hope may only exist as a cultural peculiarity of we humans and it matters not to this argument if other living beings possess it. Whether it aids or betrays us requires us to consider it in light of the fact that it plays no part in nature’s actions.  I may need to believe this not only because it is true but also to create a more fecund imaginary life.  Whether I do or not will not come naturally.  However nature nurtures us, culture is learnt, willfully and, of course, despite our choices.

My teacher was both an empathetic historian and a revolutionary with little need to espouse dogmas much less romanticize religious beliefs.  He never begrudged people their beliefs and spent a lifetime learning and explaining ideas he did not himself maintain.  This is what good scholars, especially scholars of religions, do.  They imagine lives they have never led and aren’t likely to lead.  When I say he was a revolutionary, I mean he did far more than defy social conventions to trust that I would live in his home respectful of a culture he was determined to change.  I mean as well that he welcomed, nay, demanded that the conversation of his own understanding of yoga go far beyond the claims, assertions, ideals, and values of the past.  If something is true because we know more about the natural world now than at any time in the past and if something is wrong because culture has created mechanisms of oppression or false beliefs (including religious beliefs about nature), then the revolution must deliberately put in jeopardy any cherished belief, hope, or claim that prevents us from learning these greater possibilities.  If we can’t put our beliefs at risk then they aren’t worth having.

It’s important, I think, to note that we aren’t obliged to believe anything, much less support the advocacies of others.  Rather we invite the understanding that people will live with and act upon their beliefs no matter how they found them.  And that includes on groundless grounds.  My teacher also understood how orthodoxies provide the boundary of permission and prohibition that is the mark of “sacred.”  Sacred isn’t things or any thing; sacred is how we understand and act in relationships.

We all confer the values of sacred on beliefs: we assume a stance, knowingly or not, that asserts, sometimes with empirical evidence, honest skepticism, and experimental means and sometimes by mere conviction, what we believe we know.  We make our cow sacred when it is the position from which we cannot retreat no matter how deeply we engage the doubt that even that position could be mistaken.  Given that beliefs are best designed when we permit them to be revised, changed, abandoned, or refuted, the agency of knowledge isn’t so much slippery as it is subject to terms.

What I’m suggesting here is that we can’t rely on the past alone to tell us what we need to do unless we abandon the present or believe that the future somehow already knows.  No one, no thing, nothing knows the future: that is why we are free.  The consequence of that is that nature makes no promises even if we can imagine into being.  We need not give in to either fantasizing that those in the past knew it all or that the future knows what we cannot.  We can become more willing to imagine what more there is, what more we can create in culture given what nature is providing as her terms.

Can we hold beliefs that root us in unrealized hopes that aren’t mere fantasies, well-wishing when we know ---because experience tells us so--- that so far as we know our reality-based choices must prioritize evidence of actions?  What we may want or wish is one thing; what we do may require us to address more complicated choices, complicated not just because the variables are complex but also because they require us to be compromised rather than create compromise. 

I have in mind the recent public discussions of our American President’s decision to kill Americans living overseas, particularly or, as it is claimed, exclusively those plotting to kill other Americans.  We espouse in our most cherished documents both ideals and forms of accountability, we even hold public hearings and talk about how we are supposed to stand for better, that we are in fundamental violation of our principles, etc.  I think we actually do understand the dangers, the folly, the compromised values, and the immorality of the choice to act.  That we can talk about them, however couched in agendas, dramas, and dissimulations of partial facts, we know we are compromised.  We then ask and perhaps should in the very same breath: do we want to leave bad guys alone while they are happily planning to kill?  Where do ideals meet The Road?  Cormac McCarthy gets this.  Philosophers and politicians rarely address the discomforts of reality as well as the storytellers.  This is because the storytellers aren’t obliged to solve problems but rather help us understand them.  I think the storytellers know something else: we can’t solve these dilemmas because they are real.

Of course, it’s disappointing that reality-based choices invariably compromise cherished hopes and trample values.  Who would not love if we all loved our neighbor as ourselves or if we could relieve the suffering of all beings?  We hold these truths to be self-evident and then we realize that there is nothing self-evident about the choices we make in the world. Should we espouse ideals that we know don’t work well in a reality-based world of compromised choices?  Who would not wish for equality and justice with transparent accountability?  And yet short of being reduced to venality, we understand that the stakes dictate asymmetries, invite our bias, and cause incongruities of values.  Nothing about hope is going to make situations that compel compromised choices untrue, much less alleviate them.

When Machiavelli tells us that “"It needs to be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain," I can only disagree to the extent that it is sometimes the case that the inverse is just as true.  People can be grateful, altruistic, and self-sacrificing as they are naturally selfish.  Both realities may be demonstrated with more than anecdotal examples ---we humans seemingly have always been this way.  Sometimes when you need it, the exaggerations like the plaintive, sometimes sanguine claims of hope are welcome intrusions upon reality.

When my surgeon corrected my last waking words, “Good luck in there…” with “There is no luck.  Only skill,” I knew he was wrong but you gotta’ love the attitude.  He imagined more world than the one that exists, he imagined a world where skill alone would produce his results and he wasn’t about to act without clinging to resources of imagination just as fiercely as reality fiercely refuses to acknowledge them, and so kept himself on task.  Since there is no way to create flawless skill much less luck ---good, bad, or indifferent---if what we mean is really beyond our ability to control or to fathom, we can prioritize the powers of imagination, forego fantasy when it’s unhelpful (but not when it’s just too little fun) and get on with it.  That doesn’t mean the lucky doesn’t exist or that we can’t wish for it anymore than we are determined only by the facts of nature.  The reality we imagine determines as much the culture we hope to create when we give nature her due.

When does hope bring us an advantage if it can’t bring us an outcome?  Everything of value will come at some cost.  Perhaps when we realize that Machiavelli was only half right because he spoke with brutal candor of the natural state of our humanity.  What is the next half?  That’s up to us.