Friday, July 29, 2016

Untethered from time and space

Looking east from Saco, ME:  7/28/16
CC Jean Stimmell
This boat seemingly untethered from time and space
evokes in me the memory of another boat
I sailed upon long ago
bound for Vietnam

How transfixed I was on midnight watch
by our phosphorescent wake
splitting the mirrored sea:

Our boat only a speck
in the ocean of eternity

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Modern nationalism increases mental illness, mass violence

The following essay was published in the Concord Monitor 7/27/16

Reflections in a Dover Store window: 7/17/16
CC Jean Stimmell

Reflections from back in time

Reflecting back on my youthful days as a card-carrying member of the 1960s counterculture, I remember being taken aback by a provocative statement by one of my professors: he declared that looking back through European history, people were happiest during the Middle Ages.

 He was referring to the ideas of Eric Fromm, psychoanalyst and social critic, who wrote that while people in that era lacked individual freedom, they had ultimate security as to who they were, what their place in society was, and what their purpose in life was, both while alive and in the hereafter. Out of that security came contentment.

Despite – or more likely because of  – the crazy era I came to age in, this idea stuck with me. While I certainly didn’t want to trade places with a peasant or stone mason from the Middle Ages, I was acutely aware of the immense weight of anxiety and stress bearing down on my frail shoulders, attempting to survive in ultra-individualistic America.

It fell upon me, and me alone, to design my own life, determine the purpose of my existence, and then endeavor to follow through on my goals in the effervescent flux of an ever-changing world.  There were no immutable standards to measure myself against: Any doubts I harbored over whether I was succeeding or happy could only be an indication of a personal failing. There was no fallback position: As a modern American, I could not blame fate or God or anybody else. I was the one solely responsible for my fate.

Fromm thought that such ultra-individualistic freedom lead not only to stress and anxiety but to alienation and serious mental illness. He did not think this was a private problem where individuals had become “unadjusted;” he thought it was a public issue, a “pathology of contemporary Western society.”1

I was reminded of these ideas recently while perusing a new book by Liah Greenfield, Mind, Modernity, Madness.  Like Fromm, Greenfeld claims that increasing mental illness is the price paid by the developed world for replacing communities knitted together by traditions with nation-states organized by the liberal values of equality, liberty, and declining religious authority.

If this is so, I wondered, what relevance does this have to the recent upsurge of unstable individuals committing mass violence. The pertinent question becomes: If democratic nationalism breeds mental illness, is there a causal connection between this rising psychopathology and the recent increase in mass violence?

The NYT recently made such a connection, in a piece entitled “In the Age of ISIS, Who’s a Terrorist, and Who’s Simply Deranged?” Terrorism experts agree that the Islamic State has “a broad appeal to the mentally unbalanced, the displaced and others on the fringes of society.”

One can certainly make the case that the causal factor in much of our recent violence is mental illness, not terrorism.  In many recent cases of mass killing, the deranged perpetrator converted to a terrorist ideology only in the last weeks of his life, or last days, or in one instance, the last minutes before he was killed.

From a mental health professional viewpoint, the sequence of events leading to violence likely is as follows: an unstable individual sits and stews, isolating  himself from others, ruminating about his perceived failings, churning with inchoate rage she don’t understand and can’t verbalize. Over time–if left untreated– his rumination can turn to delusions. Losing touch with reality, he projects his repressed rage and unacceptable feelings of aggression onto some outside entity–a person, group, or country, who he comes to identify as the devil incarnate.  Finally, after dehumanizing this “enemy,” he takes action, believing no type of brutality against such evil could be too extreme.

To Liah Greenfield, this does not bode well for our future. She believes that madness bred of nationalism will become a mobilizing force, “creating a politics of sheer ideology and shaping a destructive form of political action”,3 more tribal than productive.

So far, her dismal prediction appears to be coming true with the rise of increasingly aggressive and xenophobic strains of nationalism around the world – including, unfortunately, right here in the United States, as personalized by the rise of Donald Trump.

What can be done?

One thing is clear: It is counterproductive to arm every citizen to the teeth or mount military campaigns against other countries or whole religions as a response to such deranged, lone-wolf attacks. While less dramatic, and thus unappealing to politicians, it would be far more cost efficient and effective to provide quality and affordable mental health services to all our citizens, as well as to people around the world.

While that would be a significant improvement, it would still only be a band-aid treating the symptoms.

When it comes to treating the cause, it is Fromm, not Greenfield, who prescribes real medicine to treat this spreading “pathology” of contemporary life. His diagnosis extends beyond a critique of nationalism to blame unbridled capitalism for uprooting community, putting profits over people, and corrupting politicians, resulting in increasing disparity between rich and poor –all of which accelerate economic insecurity and psychological suffering.

Fromm knew we could never turn back the hands of time: Modern democratic nationalism is here to stay, but he believed the correct treatment could do much to ameliorate the human suffering it causes.

Eric Fromm’s medicine of choice was democratic socialism. Maybe it’s time to give it a try. Bernie Sanders certainly thinks so.
1 The Sane Society by Eric Fromm, page 6
2 New York Times, 7/18/16
3 American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 119, No. 5 (March 2014), pp. 1527-1528

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Passage to Middle Earth, Primal Labyrinth, Mythic Rhino

Today at Adams  Point, Durham, NH

Primal Labyrinth      CC  Jean Stimmell: 7/24/16

It is so important to keep the eye glued 
o the reality of the actual holiness! 
– from Alfred Kazin's Journals

Mythic Rhino     CC  Jean Stimmell: 7/24/16
Without worship, without respect, without wonder, 
without the great work  with which our wonder 
and awe plunge us, what is there — what?
But the “modern” epoch is precisely that in which 
each of us must discover our gods for ourselves
– from Alfred Kazin's Journals

Passage to Middle Earth    CC  Jean Stimmell: 7/24/16

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reflections on Time

Reflections in Storefront Window in Dover, NH
CC Jean Stimmell: July 17, 2016
This scene evokes in me nostalgia
for the slower world of yesterday,
bestowing on us a priceless gift:
Time for reverie and reflection

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Art and Silence

Hampton Beach?
CC Jean Stimmell: 1/22/15
After retreating to the Book and Bar Bookstore after a torrential downpour cut short our participation in last night’s Black Lives Matter Vigil in Portsmouth, I discovered and read – though soaked to the skin – a mind-expanding essay by Susan Sontag.

Though written 47 years ago, The Aesthetics of Silence is an amazingly current examination of how silence is a critical component of modern art: or in her own words, “how silence mediates the role of art as a form of spirituality in an increasingly secular culture.”[i]

According to Sontag “art usurps the role religion and mysticism previously held in human life — something to satisfy our “craving for the cloud of unknowing beyond knowledge and for the silence beyond speech.”

As such, Sontag connects the path of the modern artist with that of mystics from time immemorial.

Sontag uses a perfect example: The Cloud of Unknowing[[ii]originally written by an unknown mystic in the fourteenth century. It is a literary work of great beauty offering a practical guide to the path of contemplation. In order to access a higher spiritual reality, this ancient mystic explains how, first, all thoughts and concepts must be buried beneath a “cloud of forgetting.”

The holy grail for today’s artist, in my opinion, is to attain this “cloud of unknowing,” to forge a unity between art and anti-art in a higher dimension, to heal the split between verbal versus nonverbal, cognition versus emotion, right versus left brain, mind versus body.

Maria Popova says that, for Sontag, the way forward from the spiritual satiation that arises from this dialogue between art and anti-art, necessitates the pursuit of silence. For the serious artist, silence becomes “a zone of meditation, preparation for spiritual ripening, an ordeal that ends in gaining the right to speak.”

Pursuit of silence should not be just a goal for artists but us all. That is the message of modern day mystics, like Eckhart Tolle: If we connect to the stillness within, we move beyond our active minds and emotions and discover great depths of lasting peace, contentment, serenity­ – and, might I add, creativity.

When you become aware of silence, immediately there is that state of inner still alertness. You are present. You have stepped out of thousands of years of collective human conditioning.

1.The Aesthetics of Silence, pp. 3-34 from Styles of Radical Will by Susan Sontag
2. I am indebted to Maria Popova’s review of this piece in Brainpickings
3. The Cloud of Unknowing, edited by William Johnston, Doubleday, NY: 1973
5. Stillness Speaks, Eckhard Tolle. Gale, Detroit: 2003, page 23

Monday, July 4, 2016

The homeless like snails...

Bedroll behind train station in Dover: 7/3/16
CC Jean Stimmell
Like Snails,
the homeless
carry their homes 
with them