Tuesday, January 31, 2023

The Last Hurrah

 

Jean Stimmell ©2008



I wrote last week about why our national economy can’t endlessly grow – neither can individuals. That has viscerally hit home for me after soldiering through four cancers.


My unease intensified after reading an old article in Atlantic Magazine by an oncologist and bioethicist entitled “Why I Hope to Die at 75.” He argued, “that society and families – and you – will be better off if nature takes its course swiftly and  promptly.”⁠1  


He accuses Americans of seeking immortality  through our obsession with eternal growth: “exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death.” Unfortunately, this campaign has failed: Over the last 50 years, “health care hasn’t slowed the aging process so much as it has slowed the dying process.” 


Before the advent of modern medicine, people, as a rule, passed quickly, thus avoiding long, painful deaths. He quotes from a turn-of-the-century medical textbook: “Pneumonia may well be called the friend of the aged. Taken off by it in an acute, short, not often painful illness, the old man escapes those ‘cold gradations of decay’ so distressing to himself and to his friends.”


 I've already experienced some of these 'cold gradations of decay.' Hearing aids and an artificial knee are poor substitutes for the real thing. And my cancers, now thankfully in remission, have taken a lasting toll through surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. 


Don't get me wrong: I'm grateful to be still kicking and in relatively good shape – in no small part because of superior care from Concord Hospital. I still hike, garden, and cut my firewood, albeit at a slower pace. Nevertheless, I will be reluctant to submit to more heavy-duty medical treatment in the future because of the additional toll it will take on my compromised body, coupled with the hardship of enduring another lengthy and painful recovery process.


Nevertheless, I see a bright side: my journey has helped me make peace with my mortality. In 1988, Barbara Ehrenreich, now sadly deceased, wrote a searing book on this subject: "Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer."


“We may buy expensive anti-aging products or cosmetic surgery, get preventive screenings and eat more kale, or throw ourselves into meditation and spirituality. But all these things offer only the illusion of control. How to live well, even joyously, while accepting our mortality -- that is the vitally important philosophical challenge of this book.⁠2


 I wholeheartedly agree. Living out our lives as if death didn't exist is a tragedy. That's because, in the words of Sean Daney, the acclaimed movie critic, it is death that bestows our lives with "gravity and importance." He said that the filmmaker's role – and it is true for all of us – is to interpret "The weight of life through the certainty of  death.”⁠3


Unfortunately, as Ehrenreich points out about contemporary society, because we are in denial about death, we have made no preparation for leaving it: “We treat aging as an outrage or, worse, as a sin. In our addiction to betterment, we’ve replaced “health” — an absence of sickness — with the amorphous “wellness” and a flurry of overtesting, fad diets and pointless “alternative” treatments.”⁠4


Ehrenreich. makes the point that rather than investing the majority of our medical resources on the elderly, as our nation does now, we should invest instead in the health of our children and younger folks, who are in their productive years. 


It goes without saying: we would all like to live longer and healthier lives; “the question is how much of our lives should be devoted to this project, when we all, or at least most of us, have other, often more consequential things to do.”⁠5 She would rather take a walk in nature than take a trip to the hospital for a screening test.


I feel the same.


 I've lived a long life of striving: striving to get good grades in school, master a meaningful occupation, raise my family, and, hopefully, make a slight, positive difference in the world. At 77, I have no desire to continue striving to live as long as possible. Instead, I would rather kick back and feel the sun on my face, listen to the birds sing, and enjoy my friends while having a beer.


I’ve been made aware, however, if I do make it to one hundred, certain exceptions open up, as told in this anecdote by Nir Barzilai, the director of the Institute for Aging Research.


Barzilai once visited a centenarian; she was smoking a cigarette when she opened the door. "I said, 'Helen, nobody told you to stop smoking?'" 


 "And she said, 'You know, the four doctors who told me to stop smoking? They all died."⁠6


So it goes…

xxx


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1 https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/10/why-i-hope-to-die-at-75/379329/⁠1

2 https://www.amazon.com/Natural-Causes-Epidemic-Certainty-Ourselves/dp/1455535915

3 https://www.thenation.com/article/culture/serge-daney-cinema-house-world/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Daily%201.26.2023&utm_term=daily

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/10/books/review-natural-causes-barbara-ehrenreich.html

5 Ehrenreich, Barbara. Natural Causes . Grand Central Publishing. Kindle Edition.  Location 126

6 https://www.washingtonpost.com/wellness/2023/01/25/longevity-centenarians-healthy-living/?utm_campaign=wp_news_alert_revere_trending_now&utm_medium=email&utm_source=alert&location=alert

Monday, January 16, 2023

Do the Dark Ages Beckon?

Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0



Mass delusions were unheard of for those old enough to be around in 1978. We were flabbergasted when we heard Jim Jones had induced his fellow cult members to join him in a suicide pack by drinking cyanide-laced cool-aid. It claimed the lives of 909 commune members, 304 of them children.


But, over the years, mass delusions have proliferated like termites until they are rotting the foundations of our modern world, painstakingly built on reason and science. There is no way to sugarcoat this: We are in real danger of allowing superstition and urban myths to drag us back to the Dark Ages.


Just look at QAnon conspiracy theory’s central belief that “government, media, and financial worlds are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a sex-trafficking operation.”⁠1 This bizarre myth is no longer confined to the nutty fringe: According to several reputable surveys, one-in-five Americans are now QAnon believers.

As I have written previously,⁠2 the notion that our nation could regress is anathema to the American Dream, which holds that continuing progress is our birthright.


But what if this notion of perpetual advancement is only a myth? That’s what the 18th-century philosopher Giambattista Vico theorized. He said we fool ourselves by thinking our sense of reality is based on higher principles when, in fact, cultures are steered by the myths and metaphors of everyday people. Because of this limitation, societies can’t help but ebb and flow, facing inevitable periods of decline, which he summarized in this axiom:



“Men first felt necessity then look for utility, next attend to comfort, still later amuse themselves with pleasure, thence grow dissolute in luxury, and finally go mad and waste their substance.”⁠3

Carl Sagan, at first blush, would appear to be the complete opposite of Vico; he, of course, is fondly remembered today as America’s most public and revered scientist, a true believer in progress and rationality. Yet, like Vico, Sagan predicted bad times ahead due to the irrational prejudices of the average citizen.

In 1996, Sagan wrote a book, “The Demon-Haunted World,” as pessimistic as anything Vico wrote: 

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time…when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few; when the people have lost the ability to… question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes… unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.⁠4

Sagan wrote this despite his belief in progress and “timeless natural law, which he believed were discoverable with the tools of science. But the big danger that haunted him was that “the candle in the dark” of science would be snuffed out by “the dumbing down of America.”⁠5

Sagan died in 1996, shortly after writing this book, but not before strenuously arguing for a major overhaul of our educational system. He believed the best defense against superstition and prejudice was to teach children more science and critical thinking skills in school, starting at an early age.

Of course, that would be impossible in NH today because our legislature and our two-faced governor would reject the teaching of critical thinking just as it did with critical race theory.

Then again, perhaps Vico, not Sagan, was right about progress being a myth. Maybe societies rise and fall in cycles like the seasons take turns in the natural world. 

One might argue that nature moves forward in the sense that rivers always progress toward the sea. But that would not be the complete picture: At some point, the water evaporates back into the atmosphere and starts the cycle over again. It’s the same with us humans: We are merely another cycle destined to be born, procreate, grow old, and die.

Of course, our human musings are not the final word: An advanced civilization from outer space – or God, for that matter – would likely consider even our most advanced theory to be just another primitive myth.

xxx


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1 https://www.thedailybeast.com/23-percent-of-republicans-agree-satan-worshipping-pedophiles-run-government-poll-says

2 https://www.concordmonitor.com/A-return-to-the-Middle-Ages-35214142

3 https://www.openculture.com/2017/01/carl-sagan-predicts-the-decline-of-america.html

4 Ibid.

5 Ibid

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Why can’t we pay attention?

 

Stillness out my office window without electronic distraction


Most of us lament the increasing difficulty we have paying attention. Part of the problem is losing our ability to focus because of smart phone and social media distractions. Back in 1961, way before the World Wide Web was invented, Kurt Vonnegut examined the nature of this problem.


He wrote a dystopian story set in the future where the government enforces total equality with no exceptions. For example:  “There's one character who's deemed too intelligent, and the way they make him dumber is by forcing him to wear a radio in his ear so that they can constantly distract him with obnoxious content."⁠1


Now, thanks to modern technology, we all suffer from that ever-present buzz in our ears – not because it is forced upon us but out of our own free will. L. M. Sacasas points all this out in a recent podcast.⁠2  Certainly, losing our focus due to electronic distraction is a significant problem.


But Sacasas’ emphasis is on another kind of attention, one that thrives on stillness – something I explored in a recent column.  He called it  “a kind of openness to experience where I'm not looking for anything, but I'm ready to receive something. It's more of a contemplative stance towards my experience.⁠3


Sacasas makes clear that the stillness we need is not just an excuse to be alone with our thoughts. Rather, the purpose is to be open to what’s happening around us. That is what Buddhists and mystics like Eckhart Tolle call "living in the present moment." 


And what deserves our attention above all else?


For Sacasas, it is on our fellow human beings: He says, when he is with an individual, “whether that's a friend in conversation, the stranger that I meet in passing, I think it's good for me to be able to attend to them without distraction.” He considers this a spiritual orientation.


He quotes the philosopher and author Iris Murdoch, who equates this type of attention with love, a "kind of moral vision to see justly, to see truthfully:  'To be able to offer ourselves up in that way, in some sense, to get ourselves out of the way, getting out of the way of ourselves so that we're able to see people for who they are, to give them the gift of our attention, which honestly may be one of the most profound gifts that we can offer to somebody to be fully present before them.”⁠4


We all know how special it is when another person wholeheartedly and unconditionally attends to us. Sacasas considers giving such undivided attention to be a moral sensibility. Of course, our ability to provide such relational engagement, like our ability to focus, is being waylaid by our rush, like rats on an accelerating treadmill, to instantly respond to the onslaught of incoming emails, texts, and social media posts. 


This presents a clear and present danger. 


Sacasas warns we are coming to resemble what we pay the most attention to, that we are "starting to reflect the rhythms and the biases of those technologies." Increasingly, these machines influence how we think, molding our minds into a facsimile of the same damn electronic devices that are corrupting us.

 

It's the ultimate addiction, rewarding us with instant feedback that confirms all our biases. It's so tempting just to take another hit and be instantly transported into the soothing world of the electronic metaverse. 


What can we do?


The first step is to admit that our dazzling digital frontier has failed to live up to its utopian promise, predicted back in the early days of  the internet. As Hari Kunzru wrote in the current Harper’s Magazine: Instead of achieving global consciousness, we have created “a giant machine for selling ads.”⁠5


Worse yet, we now face an existential menace that is changing what it means to be a human being. On our own, we are powerless against this technological juggernaut that is arrayed against us. The key, like for AA, is to believe in a higher power because, in essence, this is a spiritual and  moral question. 


 Do we slide down the rabbit hole into becoming a machine like our electronic devices? Or do we use our attention to embrace our greatest gift, our human connection with each other?


xxx



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1 https://theconvivialsociety.substack.com/p/the-pathologies-of-the-attention

2 https://app.podscribe.ai/episode/84325211

3 ibid

4 ibid

5 Harper’s Magazine/January 2023. p. 7


Thursday, December 1, 2022

Radical Hope to Heal a Divided Nation

 

I took this photograph at Hampton Beach State Park in 2014


The Crow people were a proud and thriving Native American Nation until the U.S. defeated them in battle while killing off the Buffalo, the primary source of their subsistence. As their legendary chief, Plenty Coups, explained, “When the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground,” he said, “and they could not lift them up again.”⁠1


This example of human vulnerability– that of a people faced with the end of their way of life – prompted Jonathan Lear, philosopher and psychoanalyst, to write a book about the human suffering that comes about from societal collapse. 

To my perhaps warped way of thinking, I see a similarity between the psychological consequences of what happened to the American Indians and what is happening to a sizable segment of our fellow Americans today: those still imbued with that macho frontier spirit personified by John Wayne. (Please excuse the following exaggeration)

This segment of our fellow citizens, often followers of Trump, to one degree or another, still attempt to live by the creed of the Wild West: They sneer at regulations and community and worship their version of the Bible which declares nature is meant for them to possess. They march under a flag that says ‘don’t tell me what to do’ or prevent me from riding out of town on my trusty steed packing my trusty six-shooter to  patrol against dark-skinned immigrants, a constant threat like the 'Injuns’ were.

Writing this will probably get me run out of town on a rail. I'm only exaggerating this comparison to emphasize Lear's more significant point. Losing one's way of life –whether a Crow or a Trump believer – is excruciating, a psychological death. One's first inclination to fight on, as many Indian tribes did, or hold a lasting grudge, as the confederacy did after our civil war.

The Sioux and most other tribes viewed Plenty Coups as a coward for not battling the white man, but the chief understood that fighting back against the endless convoy of settlers moving west was futile. Instead, he chose to work with the newcomers by leading a delegation to Washington and negotiated a treaty with the U.S. that allowed the Crow to keep their ancestral land..“Today members of the tribe express pride that the Crow were able to keep their mountains.”⁠2

Plenty Coups' radical action flew in the face of the age-old warrior ethic never to concede, to fight to the end for your beliefs. That way of thinking was pervasive at the time, held by everyone from the cowboys to the Indians to the U.S. Army cavalry. Needless to say, this warrior ethic still flourishes, underlying U.S. Foreign policy today. 

Most thought Plenty Coups' approach of having "compassion, empathy, and the willingness to seek understanding" as weak and naive. Yet he persevered, creating a better future for his tribe through understanding and dialogue. Even today, he is remembered by his people for telling them:  "With what the white man knows he can oppress us. If we learn what he knows, he can never oppress us again."⁠3

Although it may appear that I am writing this column to infuriate both sides of our cultural divide, what I'm attempting to do is promote Plenty Coups' vision of radical hope. As Lear describes it:What makes this hope radical is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is. Radical hope anticipates a good for which those who have the hope as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it.”⁠4

It's impossible to summarize Lear's book in 700 words because it is dense and complex, relying on nuance. Let me close by defining radical hope in terms of how I think it could help mend our fractured nation.

 For liberals, it means not viewing Trump supporters as 'a basket of deplorables.’ If we resist our first impulse to make moral judgments, perhaps we can feel empathy for how psychologically devastating it is to lose a way of life – the ethic of the American wild frontier – whether it is factual or increasingly hyped up on social media.

Conversely, it’s equally important that my friends who support Trump foster radical hope: to hold out the possibility that supporting community and diversity will not spell the end of a way of life  but be the start of a more productive and meaningful one.

xxx


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1 Jonathan Lear. Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation (Kindle Locations 31-32). Kindle Edition.

2 Ibid. Kindle Locations 1393-1395)

3 Ibid. Kindle Locations 1393-1395).

4 https://www.themarginalian.org/2016/11/28/radical-hope-jonathan-lear/



Wednesday, November 23, 2022

Stillness Speaks

 

Calm Before the Storm along the Merrimack: 11/15/22

Stillness Speaks

Suffering from writer’s block, I’ve taken refuge in photography. The part of my brain that spawns words has been blown out of the water like what happens when dynamite is used to catch fish, the result of the blast of doomsday news we face each day.


Facing such a barrage of pending peril can feel like being trapped on a sheer cliff, according to Elizabeth Mattis in a Tricycle Magazine article. She says we must not panic but have the wherewithal to relax to find our way down. That’s because “when we can’t find a foothold, the mind falls into an open stillness – the same brief pause we encounter in any situation where we lose our familiar reference points.⁠1

I can see now, in a like manner, how photography became my foothold. Looking through my latest images, stillness is the common denominator, salve for my wounded brain. You can see my recent healing images on my blog: http://jeanstimmell.blogspot.com/2022/11/the-stillness-of-things.html.

Over the years, I have copied down quotes I find enlightening. Searching back through them now, I see some address the nature of stillness. Here’s one from Natalie Goldberg.s book, “The True Secret of Writing.” Despite her writer’s block, it dawned on her she was happy, feeling confident that her energy would rekindle, allowing her to return to writing with full passion.

“But as I lay in bed,” she wrote, “I realized passion was different from happiness. You don’t do happiness. You receive it. It’s like a water table under the earth. Available to everyone but we can only tap it, have it run up through us, with our stillness.⁠2” 


For me, I see now I tapped into stillness by photographing it.


 Joan Halifax, the Buddhist anthropologist, tells us that indigenous people live this truth every day of their lives; as such, they are a precious resource who could help us repair our rapidly disintegrating world. “This wisdom cannot be told, but it is to be found by each of us in the direct experience of silence, stillness, solitude, simplicity…and vision. [They understand] our interconnectedness with all of creation. They know as well as I do that these words are intellectual concepts until this self is directly experienced.⁠3


Echoing indigenous wisdom, the Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr considers silence to be “the very foundation of all reality. It is that out of which all being comes and to which all things return.” Unless we learn to live there, “the rest of things—words, events, relationships, identities—all become rather superficial, without depth or context.⁠4


Rohr goes on to say,”if you can see silence as the ground of all words and the birth of all words, then you will find that when you speak, your words will be more well-chosen and calm.”⁠5  That’s a truth I used to abide by when I practiced meditation regularly: Worthy words and fresh ideas flowed into me unbidden out of the void. Regrettably, not so much now after letting my meditation practice lapse.


According to all these sources, wisdom and creativity flow from that profound stillness that dwells below our thinking minds.  Eckhard Tolle agrees, adding this analogy:“The equivalent of external noise is the inner noise of thinking. The equivalent of external silence is inner stillness.⁠6


Eckhart clarifies that stillness is more than simply the absence of noise and content: “No, it is intelligence itself – the underlying consciousness out of which every form is born.”⁠7 He says the next step in human evolution is to transcend thought. That “doesn’t mean not to think anymore, but simply not to be completely identified with thought, possessed by thought.”⁠8


From my personal experience, that’s the truth of it. Whenever my whole being merges with words and thinking, I become deadened and barren, divorced from the larger reality of who I am.


Thankfully, I’ve discovered I can release myself from the straightjacket of my thinking mind simply by releasing the shutter on my camera.

xxx



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1 https://tricycle.org/magazine/open-stillness/?utm_source=Tricycle&utm_campaign=aaa03e0255-Daily_Dharma_10_05_2017&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_1641abe55e-aaa03e0255-307712649

2 “The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language: by Natalie Goldberg

3 Joan Halifax. The Fruitful Darkness: A Journey Through Buddhist Practice and Tribal Wisdom (Kindle Locations 1417-1421). Kindle Edition.

4 Rohr, Richard. Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation (pp. 1-2). Franciscan Media. Kindle Edition.

5 Ibid, p 8.

6 “Stillness Speaks” bu Eckhart Tolle. New World Library. Large Print Edition. 2003. P22

7 Ibid. p 26.

8 Ibid 41.


Monday, November 21, 2022

The Stillness of Things

Lately, losing the capacity to express myself in words. I have taken refuge in photography. The ever-present shrillness and hysteria of the news gushing from the media – pandemics, climate catastrophe, nuclear apocalypse, the unraveling of our democracy – have unraveled  my brain, short-circuiting any sense of peace and wholeness.  

Looking through my latest images, I discovered they have a common component:

Stillness, salve for my wounded brain.



















Wednesday, November 9, 2022

War: What's it good for?

 

The Scream, 1893 by Edvard Munch



In 2002, Vernon Klinkenborg, known for his odes to country living, wrote The Rural Life, assigning a chapter to each month of the year. In his November entry, he veers off subject, observing that World War I veterans“are impossibly old by now.” (he appears to be making reference to what we now call Veterans Day, celebrated on November 11 – but first observed in 1919 on the first anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.)


Rather than dismissing these old-timers, Klinkenborg argues, we should bring them front and center to remind us of "the intractable knowledge that comes from a place like the battlefields of WW I," where every faith "especially the faith in moral and technical advancement seems to totter.“⁠1


Now, twenty years later, it is us Vietnam veterans who have grown old. Like our WWI forebears, we fought another protracted, brutal conflict that achieved neither peace nor victory. Again, like the architects of the first World War, America has continued to be deluded, blundering ahead into more debacles rather than learning a lesson. Most egregious were our Iraq and Afghanistan wars, attempting to install democracy through the barrel of a gun, but leaving behind a legacy of chaos, charred bodies, and civil War.


Now we are fighting again in eastern Europe, the birthplace of WWI. While we haven’t sent troops, it’s still a proxy war between Russia and the United States. Suddenly the Cold War era has returned and gets hotter by the day. Pulverizing artillery and missile barrages shake Eastern Europe, triggering traumatic memories of WWI as described by Klinkenborg: 


“The clouds have the texture of steel wool. Winter could come the next minute or the next month. But what November has ever been like November in the embattled salience of the Great War, where the earth itself was dismembered, its flesh, confused with the flesh of soldiers, horses, and mules?”⁠2 


This November in Ukraine, history is repeating itself. The sheer inhumanity of it is too much to bear. The shriek of chainsaws, echoing over our NH hills, from folks cutting their firewood now brings to mind the plaintive cries of Ukrainian civilians, mourning the smoldering ruins of their lives.


Why has War been our constant companion throughout history despite its malevolent nature? According to the Jungian psychologist James Hillman, when we are in the throes of War's passion, we are aroused into a frenzy that's not rational. "It is a human accomplishment and an inhuman horror, and a love that no other love has been able to  overcome.”⁠3


However, because War may stir our passions doesn't make it acceptable. Just as cultures around the world reinforce rules against rape and incest, so it must do the same for War because it has no redeeming qualities.  As Chris Hedge states in his new book, War is the Greatest Evil: “War destroys all systems that sustain and nurture life–familial, economic, cultural, political, environmental, and social.”⁠4


No matter how obsessed we are with War, it is not normal. War is a cancer: A bad gene within us, a destructive force that must be excised before it kills us. The way to stop a war is not by upping the ante but by declaring a ceasefire followed by negotiations to de-escalate the situation.


Time is not on our side. 


Rather than prioritizing peaceful alternatives, Congress steams full speed ahead, doubling down on War: Each year, we significantly expand the military budget, continually granting more than the Pentagon requests. Who are we competing with?


We already have 750 bases worldwide and spend more money on War than the next nine countries combined (we spend 12 times what Russia spends). Yet, rather than more peace and safety, we become ever more embroiled in forever wars. 


Perhaps that’s the problem: because we have the world’s biggest military hammer, the whole rest of the world looks like a nail.


We have an immense war establishment, now deceptively called the US department of defense, seamlessly connected to major corporations that make money for its shareholders through War (the military-industrial complex). We have myriad think tanks, bought-off politicians, and lobbying outfits that thrive off this immense beast like pilot fish prosper by eating the parasites on a great white shark, feasting on leftovers the beast does not have room to eat.


It defies the imagination that we have no Department of Peace to offset the military's institutional juggernaut. Instead, we have only small grassroots organizations, like Veterans for Peace, to which I belong. We must support our local peace-seeking places of worship and dedicated nonprofits like NH Peace Action and AFSC. 


They may well be our saviors. War will never be.

xxx


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1 The Rural Life by Verlyn Klinkenborg. Little, Brown and Company: 2002. p. 183

2 Ibid p. 184

3 A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman.   P. 214

4 https://therealnews.com/chris-hedges-war-is-the-greatest-evil