Monday, September 16, 2019

How We are Suffering Moral Injury from Failed Leadership

My rendition in Photoshop of "The 2000 Yard Stare"

Clinical psychiatrist Jonathan Shay, working at a VA outpatient clinic in Boston, first coined the term “moral injury” to make sense of the narratives he was told by returning Vietnam veterans. He viewed moral injury as different from PTSD, which primarily deals with the traumatic aspects of combat.

Moral Injury, to him, is neither a disorder or an illness, but an injury, manifesting itself as either moral guilt the individual feels about what he has done, or moral injury resulting from failed leadership. 

Since then, the validity of the notion of moral injury has come to be accepted as a risk to veterans of all wars, but especially our newer ones, from Vietnam until today. In this essay, I would like to enlarge the scope of this conversation to include not just the effects of the betrayal of failed leadership on individuals – but to how it now affects our society at large.

Jonathan Shay is highly respected by the military and a recipient of a MacArthur “Genius Grant.”  From the beginning, he was able to think outside the box. He saw that the moral injuries he was observing were not unique to the Vietnam war but a phenomenon that has been with us since the dawn of human history. 

In particular, he found a striking parallel between his patients’ war experiences and that of the warriors portrayed in The Iliad, Homer’s epic poem, fighting in the 10-year-long Trojan War,  in the 8th century BC.

 Shay quotes Homer scholar, Johannes Haubold, to buttress his claim that Greeks from that era would have interpreted the damage to their soldiers in the Iliad as moral injury resulting from a betrayal of leadership: When the commanders in the war – “the shepherd of the people” –fail to act honorably and ethically, it is said that the leaders have “destroyed the people.”⁠2

So it was, especially for soldiers in the Vietnam war. What mattered most was not honorable behavior, but achieving the highest enemy body count by any means possible, including instituting “free-fire zones” and extensive carpet bombing (3.5 times more tonnage of bombs were dropped on Vietnam than were used in all of WW II).  Our leaders lied to us and our country about progress in the war: “seeing light at the end of the tunnel” when there was none. Further down the chain of command, inexperienced and overwhelmed junior officers often condoned atrocity with the tacit support of the high command.

Shay observed how moral injuries suffered by returning Vietnam vets turned their inner world upside down, destroying their innate sense of what is right and wrong. It opened up a hole in the center of their being. eroding their ambitions, ideals, and social trust: “When social trust is destroyed, it is replaced by the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.“

As it was for us as returning veterans, so it now is to our whole country with the election of Trump. World affairs columnist, Frita Ghitis, recounts the symptoms we all recognize:

“One of the common features of the Trump era is exhaustion with the acrimony that has engulfed America. How many times have we heard people plead that they need a break -- from the shocking news, from the unceasing attacks, from the bitterness that has ended friendships, sparked social media ruthlessness and toxicity, and generally produced a permanent state of medium-grade national anxiety.”⁠3

Everyone recognizes the symptoms but, up to now, no one has been able to name it for what it is, not even me who knows first-hand of its ravages: Betrayal by failed leadership is causing us moral injury.

  If we go back to the 8th century BC, the Greeks would understand the nature of our moral injury because our leader, rather than being good shepherd working to unite us, has purposely divided us, one against another, since day one of his reign.  By failing to act honorably, he is “destroying the people."

The unsettled queasiness in our stomachs comes from our leader’s frontal assault on our social trust,  leaving us rudderless with only” the settled expectancy of harm, exploitation, and humiliation from others.”


2 Ibid.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

Was it a dream or a premonition?

A version of this essay published in the Concord Monitor, 9/12/19
Huge snapping turtle crossing Jenness Pond Rd 10/20/16.
Why was she out and about in the fall?
Perhaps she was confused by the abnormally hot fall,
Only a dream or a premonition?

I had a dream the other night I can’t shake:

 I am driving through a desolate land, over a maze of logging trails, trying to find the location of my new job, when suddenly a giant snapping turtle, almost as wide as my truck, steps into the path and refuses to move.

Finally, in desperation, not wanting to be late, I winch her into the back of my  truck and drive on. After several more wrong turns, I arrive at my job site: a nondescript building in the middle of nowhere, divided into a maze of warrens, where humorless bureaucrats, intent on saving the environment, crunch numbers and pore over charts. 

I enter the reception area, a sterile room with no windows, only a sliding glass door looking out on a green meadow. No one looks up to greet me or the turtle, whom I brought in with me. The turtle shuffles over to gaze longingly out the door. I start to open it to set her free but remember that turtles are very rooted to their home territory and probably couldn’t survive in a strange, new world.

Realizing what is at stake, I decide to return her to her home. As I nervously pace back and forth, trying to remember the way back, the turtle loses her patience and starts charging after me, snapping at my heels with her gaping, guillotine mouth.

I  awake in a cold sweat. 

I interpret this dream as an urgent message from earth  – speaking as Turtle –  warning us she will tolerate no more abuse.  Half measures  or experts thinking they can accomplish a technical fix just won’t cut it any more. 

Our only hope is a spiritual awakening to restore Earth to our center of our lives, the place from which all good things flow. Either we start treating her with the respect she deserves for being the very foundation of everything we are, or she will bite back – hard!

This interpretation may seem pretty far out, but bear with me while I present evidence for my case. In the end, you can make your own verdict: Either my dream is a premonition of the future from a power far greater than ourselves, or the ravings of a demented old man.

My first witness is Carl Jung: His method of dream interpretation is based on the theory that our unconscious mind is organized by certain common archetypes we all share.

 One archetype common to our collective unconscious is the turtle. That is why turtles and tortoises are major elements, central to mythologies around the world. They represent the subterranean ground of our unconscious which supports all  higher levels of life.  Examples abound:

An Iroquois creation myth tells how primordial water birds bring up bits of dirt and place it on the back of a giant tortoise, floating on the surface of the sea; over time, the earth grows and expands with the tortoise continuing to be the supporting force at its center. 

In Hindu mythology, the world is said to rest on the back of a giant turtle, the underworld embodiment of the diety, Vishnu, the creator and preserver.

My second witness is science:

In the 1970s, James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis theorized that the earth, of which we are a tiny component, is a living, breathing organism; they named her Gaia.  Scientists have been able to find empirical evidence to support the Gaia Hypothesis: 

Way back In 2001, the European Geophysical Union of scientists issued the following statement: “The Earth System (Gaia) behaves as a single, self-regulating system with physical, chemical, biological and human components.”⁠1

My third witness is Joanna Macy, a scholar of Buddhism, general systems theory, and deep ecology. Through her research, she confirms that we are all one,  part of a living Earth. 

She goes further to assert that, because we are an integral part of a living organism, we can’t help but feel despair about the harm we are causing our earth body. 

Most of us repress this despair, but it is the root cause of much of society’s rampant depression and anxiety. As the Earth is tortured ever more, Her pain appears more and more in our dreams. 

This concludes my evidence to justify my dream interpretation.  If you are still with me, here’s what Macy says we must do.

If we are going to confront climate change, we must first break through our denial. Words are empty and abstract. What is needed is artists to create  images of our ecological grief to facilitate processing our feelings and to create a strategy to fight back to save the Earth:

To acknowledge our pain for the world and tap its energy, we need symbols and images for its expression. Images, more than arguments, tap the springs of consciousness, the creative powers by which we make meaning of experience.⁠2

Without a doubt,, we are in desperate need of contemporary, sacred images to move us in profound ways, like turtle mythology affected earlier cultures.

2 1 “World as Love, World as Self” by Joanna Macy, page 24

Friday, August 9, 2019

With God on Our Side

A version of this piece was published in the Concord Monitor 8/19/19

That's me up the Mekong River in Vietnam, February 1967
With God on Our Side

The best argument for gun safety is not political but theological, according to James Atwood in his eye-opening book, America And Its Guns; he argues that the tens of thousands of gun deaths in American each year cannot be understood apart from our national myth that God has appointed America as “the trustee of the civilization of the world.”

I believe his argument provides the missing ingredient to understanding our gun violence problem. In part, Atwood is repeating the refrain from Bob Dylan’s song. “With God on Our Side,” as we see in this representative verse:

Oh, the history books tell it
They tell it so well…
The cavalries charged
The Indians died
Oh, the country was young
With God on its side

I would go one step further and contend that to those, who live by the gun, no longer insist that the gun is an agent of God’s will; they see the gun, in and of itself, as naked power to be used as they want. No longer is there any pretense about appealing to a higher power!

That’s the message of the perpetrator of the recent Gilroy Garlic Festival mass killing, who wrote a post before starting shooting, directing his audience toward an novel, glorified by white supremacists: “Might is Right.”

Laissez-faire capitalism has lead our country down the path toward extreme individualism to the point where morality and ethics no longer seem to count. We are becoming the nation of Trump where everything is a transactional exchange. The goal is to come out on top: to win by any means possible.

If our world is truly a dog-eat-dog world where we must fight those around us just to survive, then having a gun gives us the edge. If the philosopher Thomas Hobbs was correct that life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”, the gun would be his god.

Today, we are driving people into Hobbs’ arms, like the mother, who, after surviving the El Passo massacre, has given up hope of justice: she told reporters that she is buying a gun and and will take lessons to learn how to use it.⁠1

Fear walks  the land.

If you are on the road to Jerico, you might encounter a stranger who will rob you, beat you, and leave you as half dead. You might be walking home from the convenience store eating candy and meet George Zimmerman, who shots you dead because he is “standing his ground.” You might be a black teenager who is shot because he knocked on a neighbor’s door asking for help, after his car broke down.

Luckily, for the vast majority of us – especially white, straight Americans – none of these traumatic outcomes will ever happen to us. Instead, the chances are, in our time of need, we will meet a good samaritan who will help us, not the evil other of our over-active imaginations.

For sure, mass killings have increased, in part because of increased bigotry and resurgence of white nationalism. But we must resist shrill voices, seeking to stampede us even further into the cult of the gun.

Crying wolf creates fear which attracts eye balls to mass media and makes money for stockholders, and fear mongering can result in victory for unscrupulous politicians who promise to deport those who allegedly cause all our problems.

Yes, screaming that the sky is falling has been an effective tactic: Surveys consistently show that American voters believe crime is sky-rocketing. In reality, the polling of all reputable organizations, such as the Pew Research Center, show the opposite: Violent crime in the U.S. has plummeted  over the past quarter century.

It is heartbreaking to see that ideology has trumped reality in the country I love. We are not – and were not meant to be– isolated individuals thrown into a cage fight with each other. Our evolutionary history is a better guide to who we are.

Throughout our evolution, humans have been – and still are –  vulnerable and incomplete as individuals. On the savanna, predators were faster and stronger than we were. Only by trusting each other enough to band together and cooperate could we survive. The strong community we built became, in essence, a greater organism, allowing us to negotiate our way forward, prospering while building great civilizations.

This social consciousness, based on love, compassion, and trust, is the essence of who we are. It is what, I think, some call God. 

Or we could call it perennial wisdom, an ancient pedigree that philosophers, like David Bentley Hart, value above all else: “I tend to believe that goodness, love and moral beauty are substantial and eternal realities that attest to themselves quite immediately to any rational nature.”⁠2

James Atwood is 100% correct. The solution to America’s problems, including our gun problem, is spiritual, not political.


1 From Los Angeles Times, 8/6/19. “Gilroy shooter’s target list prompts domestic terrorism probe by FBI.” By Hannah Fry, Richard Winton

Friday, July 5, 2019

Jumping Free

Monhegan in the evening golden hour
CC Jean Stimmell  7/3/19

I haven’t written much lately, but it has been of no concern. I’ve been happy to tend the garden, build my waterfall, and take walks in the ever-shifting kaleidoscope of spring.

But spending a week on Monhegan Island, a magnificent little gem 12 miles off the coast of Maine without the distractions of modern life – without TV, Twitter or social media – was a revelation to me.

Without conscious awareness, I had become like the frog in the proverbial pot on the stove who didn’t notice the heat had slowly been ratcheted up until it was too late to jump, and he was cooked. 

Luckily, unlike the proverbial frog, I jumped out in time. And landed on Monhegan to join close friends.

Soon after arriving here, my mind cleared, like the sun breaking through morning fog: I felt viscerally alive – I guess like a groundhog waking up from a long winter’s hibernation.

It came to me how much our country is, indeed, a giant roiling pot, a cauldron rife with tribal culture wars and incessant fear mongering , all conspiring to boil away our essence.

On the island, without the restricting leash of conventional society, I found myself becoming disoriented and lost. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: Getting lost can be a liberating experience as Rebecca Solnit illustrated in her classic book, “Field Guide to Getting Lost.”

I identified with the Thoreau quote in her book about how only when we become lost “do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. Not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”⁠1 

As I became increasingly lost, I saw how in our culture, our left brain has been worshipped to such an extent, it has become our supreme idol, the new god of modernity. By privileging our left brain, we have become, cognitive, computer-like creatures who can calculate anything that can be commodified for pleasure and gratification – or to gain power over others.

 But, in the process, we have forsaken our right brains, the seat of our spiritual souls; we have forgotten, how to inhabit our bodies and be grounded with a sense of place, prerequisites to rest comfortably in the bosom of Mother Earth.

As I was musing, it struck me why my writing has tailed off.  It is because words in my life have become optional.

 Rebecca Solnit describes having the same epiphany during a desert meditation: she was enveloped in “a kind of humming silence in which solitude seems as natural to your species as to any other, words strange rocks you may or may not turn over.”⁠2 

Day after day, watching the sun rise out of the ocean, reconnected me to what is really real:  the mythic powers of the earth and the cosmos beyond:  It is the deep intelligence of Mother Earth that regulates the tide, wind, and climate which will determine our future– or if we will even have one.

It is that deep intelligence, beyond the power of any computer, which choreographs the movement of giant flocks of migrating birds, gyrating and whirling in ever-changing patterns, flying millimeters from each other, but never touching:

The same deep intelligence that guides a child’s joy as she leaps with abandon from one rock to another on an island paradise to celebrate the end of a perfect summer day.

1 Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (pp. 14-15). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
2 Solnit, Rebecca. A Field Guide to Getting Lost (p. 131). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

A Postmodern Crossing of the River

"Oh Oh, Who Got Wet", 2019, oil on canvas
by Janiva Ellis
I went to the Whitney Biennial in New York City last week. Rather than floors of paintings depicting the western history of white man art, I was bombarded by outsider art: constructions, animations, videos, sculptures, and lots of digital celebrating the diversity and dysfunction of the postmodern world that we really inhabit.

While paintings were in a minority, one was my favorite: A gigantic,  20-foot-wide panoramic, landscape by Janiva Ellis; it was surreal with psychedelic colors and menacing red sky.

An indigenous woman wades toward us through a river, dissolving as she comes closer; she is carrying, a shape-shifting cartoon-like character, perhaps her baby. Awaiting on the shore in front of her is a goddess-like figure, dead or wounded, lying motionless on the ground.

In religious circles, crossing a river represents a major transition. For instance, the Buddha taught that right living and meditation was like building a raft, which if successful, could ferry one across the river of life to enlightenment.

To my eye, this painting depicts the abortive nature of the type of transition that technology – our new god –  promotes today.  It is a betrayal of what is really real. Rather than an indigenous spiritual quest grounded in our own flesh and blood, sense of place, and Nature, this digital transition connects us only to empty pixels.

Technology is like a siren, luring us to cross the river to a digital heaven that dissolves before our eyes like the person in the painting.  Digital paradise turns out to be a chimera, an illusion, a world without substance.

In another vein, perhaps this figure represents a black American slave escaping to freedom; in that case, then today she represents all of us in our fruitless quest for transcendence in the illusionary age of technology. 

Technology is no longer a benign force but a frontal assault on Mother Nature who has taken all the abuse that She can stomach and is now ready to fight back. Perhaps that goddess-like figure laying dead or wounded in the foreground represents Mother Nature!

It’s not a pretty picture: I think the painting is telling us the future is as grim as the prophecy James Baldwin recreated from the Bible in a song of a slave:

“God gave Noah the rainbow sign,

No more water, the fire next time!”

Finding Sanity

A version of this essay was published in the Concord Monitor, May 30, 2019

A Work In Pogress: The Waterfall and Me

Finding myself increasingly lost in the wilderness during these dystopian times, dominated by clashing views on what is the truth, I’ve been urgently searching for familiar landmarks to help guide my way home.

One  landmark came into view from reading the Spanish philosopher, Jose Ortega y Gasset, who lived through the chaos of the first half of the 20th century: The whole world was in armed  turmoil and his government in transition –   as I fear ours might be now –  from  democracy to dictatorship.

His solution was to take time out to turn inward to find the truth:

Few are the people who in these latter days still enjoy that tranquility which permits one to choose the truth…. Almost all the world is in tumult, is beside itself, and when man is beside himself he loses his most essential attribute: the possibility of… withdrawing into himself to… define what it is that he believes… 

Without such respite, Ortega continues, a person becomes “beside himself,” a zombie, “forced to act mechanically in a frenetic somnambulism.” 

That describes my psychological state, especially since the advent of the present administration: somewhere between zombie and frenetic sleepwalker. 

How do I withdraw inward to regain my tranquility?  That became the question. As I looked back over my long life, I came across another landmark: One other time when I felt as I do now.

The first time was  during the 1960s. After a euphoric beginning when my generation idealistically – but naively –believed that we were the leading edge of a wave that was going to going to sweep in a new era of peace and justice, simplicity and sustainability.

Tragically, the wave stalled as the Vietnam war dragged on endlessly, killing tens of thousands of us and hundreds of thousands of peasants;  meanwhile  our heroes were assassinated, one after another, including JFK, MLK, and RFK; our out-of-control, imperial president then enlarged the war, invading Cambodia and students were gunned down by the national guard. 

Metastasizing polarization turned peaceful protest into armed mayhem.

The feeling I had then was what I feel today and what Ortega y Gasset was feeling in his time and place.  A breaking point comes when it all becomes too much and one must withdraw into oneself.

I dropped out of my sociology graduate program where I felt like a faceless cog in an academic machine and joined the back to the land movement, along with many of my compatriots. 

While still advocating for peace and justice, my personal peace came from being nurtured by nature and the land. We grew what we needed: vegetables, chickens, pigs, and children while I earned my living as a dried-laid stone mason.

That was my tranquility, away from the hustle and bustle of a world gone mad. 
Without forethought or planning, that is what I find myself slipping back into today. 

This realization has become the third landmark back to myself as I find  myself rededicated to my gardens and tree farm, even buying a new tractor. But the final element was a big surprise, even to me.

The germ of the idea materialized when Russet and I were put in an altered state by the patter of a waterfall at a Buddhist retreat two winter’s ago. 

The vision gained momentum  when an old friend recently gave me an eight foot long pane of frosted glass from the door of an old bank. Indestructible, almost one inch thick, it had the makings of a momentous waterfall.

To incorporate the majestic glass into a worthy water feature required some serious stonework. Lucky I have my new tractor.

A final gift came after starting my waterfall: how becoming reacquainted with the rhythm of working with stone in the web of nature erased time back to a blissful era long past.


Saturday, May 4, 2019

Friendly and tipsy, worn and hip

Walking along a mostly deserted P-town street,
we came across a faded, disheveled bar,
a flashback abode to my unruly youth

As we passed, the woman (pictured below),
appeared from the bar, crossed the street
to invite us in because, she said,
we looked like old hippies

The floor sagged, the tables tipped
at strange angles, the juke box blared
60’s music.The patrons fit right in:
friendly and tipsy, worn and hip –

just like us  

Provincetown 4/29/19