Thursday, December 14, 2017

Our Modern Tower of Babel

CC Jean Stimmell: photo taken 12/26/16

In 1900, American historian Henry Adams wrote his prediction for the year 2000: “At the rate of progress since 1800, every American who lived in the year 2000 would know how to control unlimited power. He would think in complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind. He would deal with problems altogether beyond the range of earlier society. The new American would need to think in contradictions. The new universe would know no law that could not be proved by its anti-law. It would require a new social mind.”1

In part, Adams was right. We now control unlimited power and have invented many wonderful things, catnip to our never-ending quest for novelty and diversion. But we continue to be stymied in developing a new social mind.

In fact, it is quite the opposite: Politically and culturally, best exemplified by Trump, we are regressing back to reciting simple truisms from the past to avoid dealing with the complexities of our new age.

Rather than dealing with contradictions by inclusion, embracing both/and, we have doubled down on the dichotomy of either/or. Abortion is either good or bad; the opposite political party is either good or bad. Immigration is either good or bad…the list goes on and on

I see a parallel between our situation today and the story of the Tower of Babel, as told in Genesis 11:1-9: After the Great Flood, a united humanity, speaking a single language, came together and began work on a city and tower tall enough to reach heaven.

God became angry and put a stop to the project by scrambled their speech so they could no longer understand each other, and scattered them around the world. According to scholars, God was not angry because they were building the tower but because they were becoming filthy rich, corrupt, and idolatrous. Therefore, he knew that if allowed to work together, they could do much evil.2

Thousands of years have passed until now, when for the first time, we have the scientific know-how and technology to actually reach the heavens. We have attained god-like powers that we could use to:

Protect our precious, little planet Earth by switching to renewable resources to end pollution; use our amazing medical advances to ensure all earth’s inhabitants have the opportunity to live a long life; distribute the plentitude of food, we already grow, so each of us has a fair share. In short, we have enough expertise and resources so that all of us could afford a life of dignity and comfort without degrading the environment.

Or, conversely, we could use our god-like powers to divide and destroy, as we are doing today, embroiled as we are in a succession or wars without end; made worse by the darkening cloud of an impending nuclear holocaust, as our leader and that of North Korea huff and puff, playing a childhood game of chicken, each threatening to annihilate the other’s country – and perhaps the world – in a blast of fire and fury.

Rather than moving forward together, united in speech and trusting in our common humanity, we fight among ourselves. We condemn the immigrant, whom all of us originally were, calling them “illegal aliens.” We condemn our neighbors who practice a different faith, belong to a different political party or come in a different color. Rather than cooperating with other countries, seeking common ground for our common good, our president insists on “America First.”

Why have we not been able to develop that new social mind that historian Adams foresaw, capable of thinking in “complexities unimaginable to an earlier mind?”

The sticking point, in my opinion, is that a tolerant, all-inclusive mind requires what we are lacking: a solid spiritual foundation.

We have taken on the powers of a god in terms of our material life but, in the process, lost touch with age-old sacred values, which form the cornerstone of religions around the world: Do Unto Others What You Would Have Them Do Unto You; Speak the Truth; It’s More Blessed to Give Than To Receive; Love Thy Neighbor; Blessed Are the Peacemakers...3

Instead, our new gods have become celebrity culture and unfettered capitalism, which has resulted in an amoral society presiding of an Amazon of Things. Translated that means, survival of the financially fittest: If you don’t measure up, “you’re fired!”

Looking for a parallel with the Tower of Babel, it would make sense that we have angered God for our transgressions: dividing and destroying rather than uniting. God has taken umbrage, not because we are reaching toward the heavens but because, like the citizens of Babel, we are attempting it before we are spiritually ready.

Of course, if someday we do reach that higher state where we all see humanity as a unity and have compassion and respect for everyone, we will not need God’s heaven up there past the pearly gates. We will have created heaven right here on earth.

And, perhaps, that is what God intended all along.

1 The New Social Mind, Psychotherapy Networker. Nov/Dec 2017

Saturday, November 25, 2017

A daemon whose egg is us

Found on the outermost beach of Cape Cod: 3/17/13
CC Jean Stimmell 
Walking the deserted, outer beaches of Cape Cod in winter, reconnects me to that deep place in my psyche before humans walked the earth, a mythic place resonating to primal rhythms still being played today: the thumping sound of an endless series of ocean waves crashing ashore, in varying intensities and pitch, colliding with shimmering sand as far as the eye can see, all under an infinite sky canopy, alive with scudding clouds and screeching gulls.

One day on the outermost such beach, pristine and lonely, without a single human footprint, a mythical creature magically appeared. Awakening from an eons-long slumber, she’s crawling up out of the depths through a widening crack in human consciousness, created by the earth-shaking tremors of catastrophic climate change. She symbolizes the disruption in the rhythms of ordinary evolution, not seen since that giant meteor explosion rocked the earth, wiping out most of Earth's inhabitants.

The evolutionary stew is, indeed, being stirred anew by this daemon of old: part bird, part marsupial, incubating her egg, unprotected on her back. No longer cuddled in the fluffy nest of Mother Nature's maternal care, her egg is us –humankind – cast out of Eden as a result of our dirty, industrialization deeds.

We are on our own now: bright and shiny, alien and alone.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Welcome to Trump’s Theater of the Absurd

Gigantic, mutant, swamp-dwelling Mosquito*
CC Jean Stimmell: 12/28/16

Welcome to Trump’s Theater of the Absurd

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic cockroach.” This, of course, is the famous opening line of Kafka’s short story, “Metamorphosis.”

Because Kafka was living through times in many ways similar to what we are facing, I fear that being transformed into a giant insect is something we should all worry about.

John Sutherland[i] writes that for Kafka, the cockroach might be an allegory for racism, foretelling the rise of Hitler, authoritarianism, and his attempted extermination of an alleged “verminous” race”?

Or is Kafka foreseeing the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire with its nightmarish results: fellow citizens like Kafka woke up one day to find their identities had vanished.

That’s the way I feel.

My sense of identity, if not vanished, has been seriously compromised. Before Trump, I felt securely grounded in what it meant to be an American; now I feel that ground has turned to quicksand.

Nevertheless, I hoped that as time went on, life under Trump would normalize, allowing me to regain a solid footing in reality. But that hasn’t happened.

But, on the first anniversary of the rise of Donald Trump, I awoke with the icy realization that my worst nightmares about Trump had become cold reality.

It was like I had dreamed that my beloved Statue of Liberty, benevolent greeter to the huddled masses of the world, had been turned into a gigantic, swamp-dwelling mosquito:

An avenging apparition hell-bent on sucking our identity out of us, those precious qualities we, as Americans have always held in common and cherished.

Yes, we have always had outliers but a huge majority of us have always believed in what the Statue of Liberty stood for: That we were the exceptional nation who believed in fair play, a beacon of light to other countries.

Being one-for-all was what it meant to be an American, each of us a unique ingredient in what had always been the great American melting pot.

Now Trump is attempting to reverse what it means to be an American. His cry of “America First” is a dog whistle meaning “white people first.” Not surprisingly, white nationalism and hatred of foreigners are on the rise.

Our situation is so beyond the pale, it’s not just tragic, it’s absurd. And that brings us back to Kafka.

Kafka’s surreal dream story was a forerunner to a type of theater that highlights the absurd to convey the playwright’s sense of bewilderment and anxiety in the face of the unexplainable. This genre, naturally enough, became known as the “Theater of the Absurd.”

And isn’t that exactly what we feel as a nation right now: a sense of bewilderment and anxiety in the face of the unexplainable.

We are living in Trump’s Theater of the Absurd, starting with his inaugural where the crowd was sparse but he said huge. Photographs proved him wrong, but his spokesperson touted his version as a perfectly acceptable “alternative fact.”

New examples crop up daily; here are a selected few:

Trump says Putin “means it” when he says he didn’t meddle in our elections despite the findings of all our intelligence chiefs, whom Trump dismisses as “political hacks.”

Man-made climate change is a hoax despite the unassailable scientific evidence, coupled with what we plainly see with our eyes. This week the Trump team was jeered at climate talks for promoting coal.

Christians, who support Trump even though he brags about grabbing women’s pussies, are now citing the bible to defend Roy Moore’s child molestation charges.

The U.S. has spent six trillion on wars of choice since 9/11, wars that have sunk into bottomless quagmires; meanwhile our infrastructure and standard of living are going to hell. Trump’s answer is to double down on the military.

The U.S. ranks near the bottom in indicators of mortality and life expectancy: Trump’s answer is to attempt to take health care away from millions more.

Is this the Theater of the Absurd or what!

Around the world, citizens take to the streets to protest grievances much less global than those I have listed. Yet, we sit immobilized as if in a stupor.

For us collectively as a people, it is like Trump has slipped a date rape drug in our drink. Or, in the words of conservative columnist, Bret Stephens[ii]: we inhabit a culture we despise but see no way of improving.

* The Mosquito is an inverted image of a photo I took of a tree in SF: 12/28/16
[i] A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
[ii]  Bret Stevens, NYT, 11/10/17

Monday, October 16, 2017

Back to the Future

Published in the Concord Monitor 10/18/17
Cape Cod sunset taken 4/1/13; reworked in Photoshop
CC Jean Stimmell

Back to the Future

Does our best hope lie in the past?

Although pundits warn that our wasteful, consumer civilization is unsustainable, we still revel in measuring our wellbeing by how quickly we can grow our Gross National Product.  We even have the gall to elect an avaricious, real estate developer as our president.

However, down deep, we know end times are coming: It’s almost come down to flipping a coin: nuclear incineration or climate annihilation.

Just as we, as individuals, avoid at all costs the unpleasant fact that we will die, we appear to have the same kind of denial about our nation’s fate and that of the world.

Like it or not, the handwriting is on the wall.

Nuclear weapons proliferate around the world at the service of a new crop of tinpot despots, spewing schoolyard macho rhetoric, egging each other on to light the fuse of nuclear war, resulting in the atomic doomsday clock ticking down to 2- 1/2 minutes from midnight. Meanwhile hurricanes of unheard of intensity and frequency batter our coasts while forest fires rage out of control in the west.

No wonder we are in denial: Getting bombed back to the Stone Age or thrown back there by Mother Nature is the stuff of our worst nightmares.

Recently, several books suggest a kinder, gentler transition: a back-to-the-future scenario where we voluntarily return to a simpler, sustainable way of life, using the lifestyle of the Bushmen of Africa as a role model.

What we call the Bushmen are more properly referred to as the Kloisan. They may be the first humans to inhabit the earth and have lived sustainably, at one with nature, for at least the last 150,000 years, a length of time unfathomable to us.

It turns out the Kloisan lifestyle is not such a bad way to live: they only have to work around fifteen-hour a week. They live complex lives with deep meaning, attuned to nature and highly skilled, a necessity in order to thrive in harsh desert conditions.

James Scott, professor of political science at Yale, suggests “the step-down in complexity between hunting and gathering and domesticated agriculture is as big as the step-down between domesticated agriculture and routine assembly work on a production line.”

Antropologist Marshall Sahlins has characterized hunter-gatherers as “the gurus of a ‘Zen road to affluence’ through which they were able to enjoy “unparalleled material plenty— with a low standard of living.” He reasoned that hunter-gatherers were content by the simple expedient of not desiring more than their environment could provide. 

Here, it seems are people – egalitarian, honest, peaceful, free – who are
living in harmony with their natural environment, unconcerned with material wealth. Another quality they possessed, we now yearn for, is mindfulness: They lived their lives in the present, trusting that providence would provide.

James Suzman, author of Affluence Without Abundance, seconds what Sahlin writes, hoping that we, like our hunter-gatherer forebears, might learn to be satisfied with having fewer needs more easily met, and in doing so break out of our destructive spiral of endless growth and development.

After all, “if so much of our species’ history was spent hunting and gathering, mustn’t there surely still be something of the hunter-gatherer in all of us.”

 Unfortunately, at present, it’s almost impossible to conceive of us consumer addicted Americans making even a token shift toward such a sustainable lifestyle.

Yet Suzman notes another fundamental aspect of Kloisan society that appears even more unattainable: “a fiercely egalitarian society where profitable exchange, hierarchy, and significant material inequality were not tolerated.”

Okay, I admit that we are not going to morph into sustainable folks overnight. But, as a first step, we could strive to reduce the extreme inequality in our country – not seen since the robber baron of the 19th century rode rough-shorn over we, the people, and our government.

One might argue that such a solution is impossible to achieve because of the increasing polarization in our country. Actually, that’s the best reason to make it happen because recent studies have shown that polarization rises in lockstep with income inequality.

Trump and his band of plutocrats, of course, are pushing a different solution. Big tax cuts to the wealthy to be paid for by further slashing our safety net, including deep cuts to Medicaid and Medicare – which, of course, will only increase the divide between rich and poor.

All of this is happening at terrible cost: while our would-be emperor tweets, Rome is burning. God have mercy on us all.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Homeless in SF

San Francisco near the Ferry Landing
CC Jean Stimmell: 1/5/17
Home is where I want to be
Pick me up and turn me around

I feel numb, born with a weak heart

I guess I must be having fun
The less we say about it the better

Make it up as we go along

Feet on the ground, head in the sky
It's okay, I know nothing's wrong, nothing*
*Lyrics from This Must Be the Place by the Talking Heads

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Vignettes from and about Vietnam

In conjunction with the premier of Ken Burns' documentary on Vietnam, the Concord Monitor asked me, along with other veterans, to share personal stories about our Vietnam experience. Below are my three vignettes.
My ship up a river in the Mekong Delta in 1966
CC Jean Stimmell

Fighting the War: Not finding the big answers to life, I dropped out of Columbia College in 1964. The Vietnam War had not yet winded up and was little talked about. I didn’t know what to do with my life but was infatuated with that Red Badge of courage sort of thing, thinking I needed to prove I was a man – and also to placate my father who was a combat veteran. But deep down in my heart, I knew this war was wrong and still feel deep guilt about going to this day.

While my tour, on the rivers and along the coast was extremely grueling, there was with little hostile action.  But my ship’s luck ran out the year I returned home when it was blown up by Viet Cong sappers, killing 17 shipmates. Meanwhile, the casualties among the circle of people I knew in the Pittsfield area continued to grow: by the end of the war, two had been killed, three seriously wounded and, and two, committed suicide, including a recon marine who had received a silver star for valor in combat. 

Resisting the War: A friend and I were crashing in NYC, coming back from an anti-war demonstration in Washington DC when we heard of a big protest being planned for Wall Street. Wandering around the area with our long hair and clinched fists stenciled on our tee shirts, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded by rampaging construction workers with clubs and crowbars, in what turned out to be the beginning of the “Hard Hat Riot of 1970.” We thought we were done for. Just then, a burly, red-faced NY cop arrived, snarling, “Okay, guys, I’m taking over. I’ll make sure these hippy scum get what they deserve,” and started pushing us through the suddenly subdued mob toward the entrance of a nearby subway station. At that point, he shoved us toward the stairs, yelling, “Hurry, boys, run for your lives.”

Working for VA: After getting my counseling degree at almost 50, I took a position at the Sanford Maine Vet Center where eventually I became team leader. At closing time, only a couple of weeks into the job, they decided to test me. The team leader said they had a Vietnam veteran on the phone who was threatening suicide. The vet, whom I will call Joe, had called previously in a suicidal state and the police had been called which resulted in an all night, armed standoff after Joe barricaded himself in his house. Joe agreed to talk to me so I drove to his remote house where I was immediately knocked down by his lunging German shepherd. Joe was a massive man with only one leg as result of a combat injury; he was very drunk and suffering severe pain from pancreatitis. I finally negotiated a deal where I would take him to Togus VA medical center for treatment, sweetening the deal by letting him bring a beer in the government vehicle which was against the rules. On the way to Togus, his dog came close to ripping off the Biddeford toll taker’s hand. After admitting the veteran, I had to deal with his dog. Because I had pledged to Joe that I would take care of his dog, I took him home, where he immediately tackled my girlfriend, pinning her to the ground. But this story has a good ending: after treatment and therapy, Joe went on his way, doing well. So did my girlfriend.