Saturday, June 16, 2018

Ecological Specter

 Deer #1, a drawing on yupo paper © Kathy Hanson

Kathy’s Deer

This same phantom visits both of us,
though we live in different towns.

I am haunted by her appearance,
her plaintive and anguished look.

To me, she is a living guilt trip 
for our rape of Mother Earth:

Like the Virgin Mary coming back
to remind us what we did to Jesus.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Surging suicide rates are more than a mental health issue

Published in the Concord Monitor 6/17/18
Worlds in Collision
Mural under construction in the Mission District, SF
CC Jean Stimmell: 12/19/16
While I’m a practicing psychotherapist, my hero is the late, great sociologist, C. Wright Mills who made a critical distinction between private troubles – which affect a single person – and public issues – which affect a group of people.

Mills would turn over in his grave if he saw the new Centers for Disease Control report[i], which concludes that the recent surge in suicides in our country is attributable only to an assortment of personal problems, listing things such as strained relationships; life stressors, often involving work or finances; substance use problems; physical health conditions; recent or impending crises…

Reuters confirms the individual emphasis of this report, noting the “spike in suicide rates in the United States has cast fresh light on the need for more effective treatments for major depression…”[ii]

Of course, assuming that everything revolves around the individual is an American tradition: we aspire to be the rugged individual who can triumph over anything, if only we work hard enough and long enough. Or else, be like John Wayne and take out the bad hombre who is holding you down in a blaze of gunfire.  

Our default position is that failure is an individual problem, a psychological maladjustment. Suicide is an admission of that failure. Despite this American obsession, sociologists have long known that suicide is not simply a psychological occurrence but a societal one. 

Suicide rates have long been shown to vary depending on the status of society: rapid changes to the social, economic, or political structures of society cause suicide rates to soar.

The 19th-century sociologist Emile Durkheim coined the term “anomie” to describe this phenomenon. It was his thesis that anomie occurred when the values and norms from one era were no longer valid, but new ones have not yet evolved to take their place.

That’s not to say that our mental health system isn’t in crisis, because it is! It needs to be re-imagined with greatly expanded funding to make help readily available to each and every one of us when we need it. That would certainly help. 

But suicide rates would still be high because the root cause of our surging suicide rate is anomie, a societal issue.  Most observers agree that anomie has been increasing since the sixties and has accelerated markedly under the unethical and normless Trump administration.

Anti-depressant medication won’t fix the problem.

From a sociological perspective, suicide rates will not significantly decrease until people can find meaning in their lives again; this will only happen when we can embrace a new societal vision that is morally and spiritually up-lifting, while restoring, in actual practice, the American Dream that everyone has an equal chance of succeeding.

Right now we in the situation Durkheim described where the values and norms from the old era are no longer valid, but the new ones have yet taken firm root.

We are now caught between eras, divided into separate camps. Here is my impression of the two camps and what I think should happen. Beware: I have a definite viewpoint.

The old camp wants to return to the way things were: where white men were privileged and we could dominate the whole world by force; where as a country we spend more of our discretionary money on the military than on our people; where we can spend a trillion dollars modernizing our nuclear weapons and extract fossil fuels like there is no tomorrow.

It goes without saying that for this camp – with its head stuck like an ostrich, deep in oil drenched-sand – climate change is a hoax and nuclear war is winnable.

In the new camp, we have folks with a fresh vision of our country becoming a diverse, multicultural society without racial or gender bias where we progressively reduce nuclear stockpiles by treaty and guarantee each citizen a livable wage, good health care, and a dignified retirement.

Understanding that the imminent threat of climate change is – in Jimmy Carter’s words, “the moral equivalent of war” – we will mobilize accordingly in a concerted, national push toward a sustainable economy by switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

By taking these positive, unifying steps, while empowering each and every one of us to be that best that we can be, will bring a sense of meaning back into our lives and a true sense of patriotism, working together for a cause bigger than ourselves, not only for us but for our children and grandchildren.

These are the structural questions we should be talking about in deciding which vision will best carry us into the future.

Either that or we can continue to re-arrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic by continuing to claim that our societal problems, like surging suicide rates, are only a result of individual troubles and psychological maladjustment.


Wednesday, June 6, 2018

We will not capitulate

A version of this piece published 6/6/18 in the Concord Monitor
One of Ionesco’s rhinos loose on the streets of Concord NH
Photoshop Collage     CC Jean Stimmell Ionesco 

We human beings are such pieces of work. 

Looking back on my life, I can say that I have developed an affinity for almost everyone that I have taken the time to get to know, regardless of their religion, race, ideology, political party, position in society.  I think most of us, as individuals, can say the same thing. 

The trouble comes when we get together in groups.

It is a well-known principle in social psychology that people define themselves in terms of their social group and are quick to criticize those that don’t fit their group criteria. Folks who share our particular qualities become “in-group;” those that don’t become “out-group.”

When things are going well in society and the citizens feel prosperous, we feel like we live under a big tent and tend to be more tolerant. However, when folks feel anxious and threatened as income inequality rises –like in the US and Europe over the last 30 years – the big tent shrinks and we feel more threatened by people who are different:  folks of other races, backgrounds, religions…whoever doesn’t fit in with how we define our in-group.

For millennia, these divisions have been fanned into sectarian flames by would-be authoritarian rulers, seeking to divide in order to conquer.  Today, this process is further enabled by social media outlets, allowing us to effortlessly hang out with only with those that agree with us, to the exclusion of everyone else.

Recently, we have found that this state of affairs is worse than we thought: the social media groups we love so much have been infiltrated by various nefarious organizations (and governments) to discredit groups they don’t like by propagating vile slurs and malignant lies.

The end result is that we are being winnowed effortlessly and often without our conscious knowledge into ever more claustrophobic corals, in the same manner Temple Grandin uses ever narrowing fences and curved single file chutes to herd cattle where she wants them to go, often to slaughter.

Whether the driving force in this disturbing trend is rising income inequality, social media, or fake news, there can be no doubt that totalitarianism is playing an increasingly leading role, both here and around the world. 

Seventy-one countries – more than a third of the world’s total  – saw declines in political rights and civil liberties in 2017.  At the end of the Cold War, Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, thought totalitarianism had finally been vanquished but “today, it is democracy that finds itself battered and weakened.”[A]

It may seem strange that there has been no political price to pay for this surge of authoritarian measures.  As Richard Haass, president of the Council of Foreign Relations has noted: “No one of statue is shaming, sanctioning, or standing up to illiberal behavior and political repression.”[B]

His observations, however, would not sound strange to Hannah Arendt, who wrote the definitive book on totalitarianism, back in1973:

“Totalitarian … leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that … one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism. Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”[C]

Does Arendt’s definition of a totalitarian leader sound like anyone we know?

All of this reminds me of Rhinoceros[D], a well-known play right after WWII, written by Eugene Ionesco, founder of the Theatre of the Absurd. It is best described as a political parable, portraying the struggle of an individual to maintain his integrity and identity in a group-think situation, resembling the rise of Nazism in Germany.

The play takes place in a small town in France. The characters, after seeing a rhinoceros charge through their peaceful streets, start falling ill and turning into rhinos. In short order, turning into a rhino becomes the new norm, which the townspeople justify as necessary in order to “move on with the times.”

Soon, Berenger, a mild-mannered man of some character, finds himself the last human in what is now a rhinoceros herd. Looking into the mirror, he questions what is happening, “After all, man is not as bad as all that, is he?

Although he wavers many times, coming close to joining the rhinos, and despite many personal weaknesses, he comes through in the end.

“I am not capitulating.”

These words by Berenger close the play and transform his character from being indifferent and alienated to committed and human.

In these troubling times when, once again, rhinos are stampeding through our streets, we must do the same.

[D]Ionesco, Eugene. Rhinoceros and Other Plays: Includes: The Leader; The Future Is in Eggs; It Takes All Kinds to Make a World (Evergreen Original, E-259) (p. 15). Grove/Atlantic, Inc.. Kindle Edition

Friday, June 1, 2018

A Mermaid's Comb

Salisbury State Park Reservation: 4/13/18
CC Jean Stimmell
Ancient and rusty
a mermaid’s comb
long abandoned now
as mermaids became extinct
like most of our natural treasures
all of them replaced by video games