Saturday, April 14, 2018

Black and white fear in America

Brennan Walker, 14, was luckier than many black teenagers in white neighborhoods.  He escaped unhurt when a homeowner, full of the old white fear of the black male, shot at him.

The story is told in today's New York Times and elsewhere:  Walker missed his bus and so decided to walk to high school this week but got lost in a Detroit suburb.  When he knocked on a door to ask directions, the woman who answered the door yelled in panic, assuming the kid was breaking into her house.  (Do burglars knock, usually?)

Her husband picked up immediately on the hysteria and without thinking, grabbed his shotgun and fired at the fleeing youth. Luckily the police did the right thing and arrested the man with the gun.

Much will be written about this story in relation to guns, police, and the law. What hits me is the same type of racist terror that elected Donald Trump--if you accept the plausible theory that white Americans, angry at our two-term black president who was supposed to be followed in office by an equally progressive woman, took out their rage in the election, putting into office a corrupt, incompetent demagogue who appealed to their primitive (anti-immigrant, anti-minority) attitudes.

So it was fear that struck me as the lesson in this case: white fear of black power; and of course, the black fear of the ruling majority.

If only our racism could be eradicated, but that would mean the impossible task of wiping clean the sad history of racial hatred in America and, with it, fear of the "other."

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The scientist as mystic

The novelist David Foster Wallace is quoted as saying, in everyday life, "there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships."  Most of the things we worship, he continues, eat us alive.

He means our ego, our power, our possessions or beauty or intellect; if we put these at the center of our lives, we feel ultimately unsatisfied. We are not the center of the universe, after all, if we look at the Big Picture. People have often thought over the centuries that the natural world belonged to us; we are now beginning to see that we belong to it.

This insight is part of a revealing excerpt from Alan Lightman's book about the scientist as mystic: "Searching for Stars on the Island in Maine."
I am indebted to Maria Popova's recent Brain Pickings newsletter for the excerpt.

The supposed wall of separation between science and religion or spirituality has long been crumbling as more and more scientists embrace mystery and the infinite and actually say, as Lightman does, that "the infinite is not just a lot more of the finite."  He would agree with Carl Sagan, who long ago stated, "The notion that science and spirituality are somehow mutually exclusive does a disservice to both."

Lightman, without espousing religion and while remaining an experimental scientist, goes further by saying that nature "tempts us to believe in the supernatural," that we have a natural human longing for absolutes in a world of relative, changeable things.  For this MIT scientist, humanist and writer, the link between science and religion is embedded deep in human nature itself.

In a world of impermanence and imperfection, Lightman, while remaining committed to his work in natural science, also sees the power of the unchangeable, the eternal, the sacred.  He sees these Absolutes--immortality, the soul, even God--as enduring concepts that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives. He writes lyrically of his transcendent experience one night on the ocean.

Lightman is one of many thinkers who can be at home in both worlds: that of reason and experimentation and that of the unprovable, but nevertheless real, realm of the spirit. I think of the Jesuit scientist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is remembered today more as a mystic than as a paleontologist. And reading his dense (translated) prose is a challenge in a way that reading Lightman is not.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Supporting a Corrupt Charlatan

A friend recently asked me, "Why is it that so many people still support Donald Trump, knowing what they know?"

My friend, a progressive, widely read white male, was looking for a logical answer, and I struggled to provide a response that might make sense in a crazy world.

I began with the anti-Obama white working-class men, especially, and some in the financial field who overlook Trump's apparent association with Stormy Daniels and his loose association with the truth.  These voters seem to value, I suggested, Trump's spontaneity and lack of political correctness. As for evangelicals who should be turned off by the White House resident (I refuse to call him the President) and his corruption, his foul mouth, etc., I suggested that anyone for these right-wing voters is better than a progressive Democrat because of the right-wing agenda.

In the final analysis, though, I suggested that the reason is more emotional than rational: Trump appeals to those who feel threatened---fearful--of change, of immigration, of minority advances (gays, women, blacks, Hispanics).  This fear leads to anger and hatred, and no number of inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and outright lies, no amount of incompetence can shake their devotion to the GOP leader.

It's hard to explain to explain to my friend and others the various factors involved, especially the deep-seated resentment that built up, first during the Clinton years, then surged during the Obama years, blinding many on the right to the dangerous character who's now in charge,  a man recently called by former CIA director John Brennan "a disgraced demagogue [whose place is] in the dustbin of history."

In several studies by experts in the American presidency, Trump was ranked last, beating even Warren Harding and James Buchanan as the worst inhabitants of the White House.  They now look like saints compared to this crooked, lazy, ill-informed, impulsive, incoherent, inarticulate scum-bag, whose tenure so far has put the U.S. on a dangerous course.

Trump, as several foreign policy experts have said, keeps creating problems in the world rather than solving those we already have.  Why? He says he like conflict and chaos; he really likes attention and will do and say anything, however reckless, to put himself upfront in the media.   He alarms knowledgeable, sensible people like David Miliband, former British Foreign Secretary, who says we are now at a "most dangerous moment" in world affairs because of the Trump administration.  Trump has made the U.S. something of a rogue state, as unpredictable and dangerous as Russia,  sowing discord with friends with policies on trade that change as fast as you can tweet. Richard Haass calls it a government in disarray.

As Peter Baker of the NYTimes points out (3-18-18), full-time fact-checkers struggle to keep up with Trump's distorted claims. Polls indicate that most Americans see him as dishonest. "While most presidents lie at times, Mr. Trump’s speeches and Twitter posts are embedded with so many false, distorted, misleading or unsubstantiated claims that he has tested even the normally low standards of American politics."
As the media work overtime trying to keep up with the ongoing catastrophe being daily created by Donald Trump, people like my friend, looking for a rational explanation for what support he has, come up short. The answers, as much psychological as political, are rooted in the recent history of this country and in its worship of the entertainment media as a source of power. Where, after all, would Trump be without Fox News to beat the drum for mendacity and madness at the center of our government?

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Making Friends with Death

Today, on a beautiful spring day, when I visited my favorite lakeside park, where snowy egrets were nesting above flowering azalea bushes, where boats with happy passengers glided by on deep blue waters and people were picnicking, why was I thinking of death? 

The reason, as several friends know, is that I have, crazy as it may seem, committed myself to do a talk with discussion at my church in a few weeks in a Lenten program called Making Friends with Death. It is a topic I have long postponed exploring, much less sharing with others.

I begin with the usual fears we have about death even though we know that trees shed their leaves, and animals and people die every day. The people are the only ones who object, calling it an outrage, the ultimate horror and enemy that cancels all we have been.

In a recent article in Commonweal, the Irish literary theorist Terry Eagleton has some suggestive, although incomplete, things to say on the topic of how to think about death.  As soon as one reaches a certain age, it seems inevitable that death and dying should become not merely something that happens to other people but an ever-present reality for each of us.

A friend recently wrote to me: "Now that I am 65, death seems friendlier."
I wish I had that optimism, for I have long had a terror, mainly about the how and the when my life would end, and with it my memories, my voice, my personality, my consciousness, all that is my self.

What will remain?  We don't know. I quote the great mystic and poet John of the Cross: "What will take place on the other side, when everything for me will be changed into eternity, I do not know: I only know that a great love awaits me."

It's impossible to fathom what existing outside of space and time, in a bodiless dimension, might mean. Dante and other poets give us metaphoric interpretations of the afterlife, but it is ultimately a great mystery: believers trust that they will be with God while others see nothing but an endless sleep, a total annihilation of the individual.

So it is a great challenge for a person of faith to look at the New Testament, at Christian tradition, and at his or her own experience and feel confident that when we die we do not end anything, as the Trappist Thomas Keating says, but experience "the final completion of the process of surrender into God." 

Christians, as Eagleton says, believe in the power of the resurrected Christ, which means that death is redeemed; yet at the same time, we see the physical process of death and decay as an abomination, our enemy, since it involves such an irreparable loss.   Death may be natural, but we don't like it or want to be around when it happens to us.

So my presentation will be provocative, daring, and difficult but I hope illuminating, at least for me, as I complete my thoughts on the great mystery that awaits us all.

Monday, March 5, 2018

Food and contemplation

A chilly spring morning finds me trying to pray, to reflect on what Ron Rolheiser has to say about prayer, and finally to try to understand what he means by saying that living contemplatively means that our lives are not trivial, unimportant, or anonymous.

When I think of the ordinary tasks of the day, I turn to my love of food and the way I enjoy Lidia's Italian cooking show on TV because she is so natural and well grounded, just as food (even shopping) keeps us grounded. I think of her as I cook and I value the time I spend in the kitchen, with the ordinary, everyday details that make up a life, from chopping to cleaning up the sink.

To work with food, to read about it (no wonder there are so many cookbooks and magazines devoted to recipes, so many restaurant reviews) is so fundamentally human; somehow doing so connects us with the earth, with creation, and with others around the world who are also chopping, cooking, eating, savoring the flavors that nature so bountifully provides.

I used to think of cooking as a creative thing, and it is; now I see it mainly as a spiritual act that reminds us how earth-bound attention to the present really is.  The life of prayer and contemplation is not vague and abstract and other-worldly; it is rooted in the goodness of everyday, in the creation of which we are a part.

To cook and to eat what we prepare is in a sense to be in communion with Mother Earth and with God's creation. This realization is itself a prayer and a reminder of how the little, ordinary things of daily life are holy, are universal and timeless; and that our humble daily tasks, which may seem tiresome or boring, are important reminders of how important everything we do is and how important every moment is.

So our lives, even if spent doing ordinary things at home, are far from unimportant, trivial, or anonymous--if we see them mindfully.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Learning from suffering

What can I learn about suffering?  That has become the spiritual question for me in recent weeks while recovering from my first hospitalization for a serious, complicated illness.

I have reminded myself daily of the inescapable fact that life involves pain and suffering; that millions are suffering around the world; that many people I know have major health challenges; and yet I remain trapped in my own mental delusion that I am unique.

I forget that  my faith teaches that love redeems the horrors of life, and so I reach out to others and welcome their good wishes and prayers, their phone calls and visits. I feel less isolated, which is one of the key aspects of suffering.

What else have I learned? To take each day at a time, refusing to worry about the future.  To appreciate simplicity: the little things I do in my home each day (cooking, e.g.) are important somehow in the bigger picture of my life.  Every task, however humble, has some meaning. I am being tested in mindfulness: full attention to the present moment.

I value the sun, the trees, the flowering azaleas here in Florida, the light as it streams through the window, the music I can access and all the other entertainments that can distract me from my discomfort.

I try to cultivate humility (a tough one) and acceptance of my human frailty. I tell myself, quoting a line from Rilke, that no feeling is final. The present headache or feeling of panic will pass. I have, after all, the most loving and wonderful of caregivers in the presence of my wife Lynn.  If prayer fails, she is there, smiling, comforting, helping me laugh.

And so I remind myself to be grateful for so much, for that fact that I am home healing and not getting (I hope) worse, that I am surrounded by love, that I have faith in God that is being tested and generally found to be solid.

Gratitude--and my sense of being connected to many friends, and to others in pain--are probably the key lessons I am learning.  But the struggle goes on, as it must, day by day.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

peacocks on board: flying pets

The picture of Dexter the peacock pictured in the press recently, lined up at the airport in Newark and being denied admission by the airlines, struck me as incredibly wacky and hilarious--but because of the crazy way some people act.

The article, in the NYTimes (2-4-18) by David Leonhardt, examines the strange policies that have developed allowing patients claiming the need for emotional support animals to board planes.   He says that Delta alone flies about 250,000 animals a year, not counting the ones  in the cargo hold.
People insist that they have a right to their pet pig, snake, bird, dog or cat, irrespective of the wishes (and allergies) of other human passengers.

When United Air said "No" recently to the woman taking Dexter the peacock along, there was much criticism. Few seemed to wonder, as I did, why a large, noisy, dirty bird could possibly provide any emotional support the woman insisted she needed for her flight to L.A.

Isn't there a big element of selfishness involved here, as people know the airlines are looking for extra money and don't bother to verify that the ticket-holder really has a medical need for an animal on board?  That's Leonhardt's point.

My point is, what about getting caring attention from other people? Have we given up on our human connections in turning to animals for support? Some people seem to have forgotten to trust each other or ask for human help.  I am thinking of human charity, sympathy, counseling, etc. rather than the extreme of resorting to a fad like relying on emotional support animals. (Obviously, the truly disabled blind, et al. have legitimate needs for their trained companions.)

I hope Dexter the peacock and his owner will open the door for reform in the airlines' policies of such flying pets.