Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The humbled poppies connect to life and death, war and peace.

"Remembrance Day" by belkin59 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

When I think of poppies, I think of wearing  the red crepe paper poppies distributed by the American Legion Auxiliary on Memorial Day to honor the sacrifice of our fellow Americans who served and died for our country. That is until I read a mind-blowing essay by Katrina Vandenberg in the current edition of Orion Magazine.  It made me think more deeply about our unconscious connections to the rhythms of nature – including war – and other mysteries beyond my feeble understanding.

Opium poppies  have been cultivated by humans, going back to our earliest civilizations in Neolithic times. The plant has been long-revered for relieving suffering at the most fraught passages in a person’s life: birth and death. But it’s not a one-sided story. The poppy is the door to many realms, good and bad, as the author notes: The door “swings open-closed, life-death, pleasure-pain, freedom-slavery, remember-forget, suffer-release and when not swinging, it lives on is threshold, ready.”

The threshold state for poppies is unique because unlike most plants, they don’t grow every year: They can lay dormant for up to 100 years, waiting for the ground to be disturbed. Thus, when the fields of Flanders were ripped open and shredded by artillery and trench digging during World War One, poppies sprang to life, transforming the barren land into fields of blood-red blossoms, growing around the bodies of the fallen soldiers. That’s the back story of how the poppy came to symbolize the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of soldiers  mowed down during that brutal war.

Poppies are remarkable in other ways: Out of the tens of thousands of plants on the earth, only one, the opium poppy, can produce morphine in measurable quantities. Morphine, distilled from the poppy’s opium, is also unique: it is the only molecule in nature that has “evolved to fit key-in-lock into the receptors we have in our brains and spines” to provide pain relief and, in other circumstances, pleasure.

Following Michael Pollan's thesis in "The Botany of Desire," Vandenberg asserts our relationship with the poppy is reciprocal: "that plants domesticate us at the same time we domesticate them, and that they evolve to respond to basic human yearnings." The mystery of the poppy, to her, is that this plant, unique from all others, has learned "what we most desire to feel.” 

This essay is not meant to be an ode to morphine which can be a hopelessly addicting and life-destroying drug, even more so now that science has invented synthetic morphine compounds, like oxycodone and fentanyl, which are hundreds of times more addicting. No, this essay is an ode to the reality that life is often a mystery beyond human understanding.

Poppies are a good example. The author's claim, backed by Michael Pollan, boggles the brain: that opium poppies have co-evolved with us, learning what we most desire to feel.  Also unnerving is the poppy's ability to awaken from hibernation when disturbed by war to bloom in profusion as red as a fallen soldier's blood.

Other mysteries: Can it be only happenstance that we have just lost a 20-year war to a small, third-world country festooned with opium poppies – which just happens to be our national symbol honoring our fallen heroes? And how can it be that after we spent $9 billion during this war to stamp out opium production,  poppy cultivation has not declined but skyrocketed?

The final mystery is the nature of war itself. We think of it as an abomination, an external enemy. But what if war is not outside of us but a part of who we are. That’s the viewpoint of James Hillman, the late, legendary Jungian psychologist.. He looks at war not through the lens of science or theology but from an understanding of mythology and archetypal psychology. What he asserts seems undeniable: “where else in human experience, except in the throes of ardor – that strange coupling of love with war – do we find ourselves transported’ to such a mythical place.⁠1

To resist our instinctual urge to rush to war, the first step is not denial but admitting we have a problem, that war is part of our DNA. Society already understands how to control unbridled sexual passion and lust by establishing norms, customs, and rituals, to restrain and redirect these urges in socially acceptable directions. We could do the same with war, but we don’t. 

Worse, we have done the opposite: loosening prohibitions, even becoming cheerleaders for war. Already, with our troops still taking their boots off from Afghanistan, pundits and politicians are talking up our next war.

That’s the terrible truth of war: the biggest mystery of all,



1 2 A Terrible Love of War by James Hillman, page 9

Thursday, September 9, 2021

Thoughts on 9/11 and what our wars since WW II have cost us


Courtesy of Vietnam Veterans Against the War: 1987

Rather than treating 9/11 like the criminal conspiracy it was, we got bogged down in another land war in Asia – as disastrous as Vietnam. The whole world would have helped us locate Bin Laden, capture him, and  put him on trial as Israelis did with Adolf Eichmann.  Then, after we invaded Afghanistan and pushed Bin Laden out, The Taliban – which didn’t exist until we started meddling in Afghanistan – petitioned to surrender. But we spurned their offer, wanting a complete victory in the manner of a patriarchal father who thinks he knows what’s best for his children. Finally, compounding our folly, we invaded Iraq, which had nothing to do with 9/11. 

History is clear: As Jeremi Suri recently wrote in the NYT,  “We have thrown away our wealth and reputation fighting bad wars  – costly, protracted conflicts with self-defeating consequences – in Vietnam, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places.⁠1 “ He goes on to say that military force is not a substitute for the hard work of building representative and effective governments in these countries we have invaded. 

How true! Our emphasis on the military has had the same destabilizing effect inside our country, fraying our democracy and paralyzing Congress. Working and middle-class folks feel vulnerable and insecure, financially worse off than their parents. They believe government isn’t working for them. And they are right!

Since the 1970s, the gap between the poorest and wealthiest Americans has gotten exponentially worse, the middle class has shrunk, and our roads and bridges have fallen apart. Compared to other developed countries, we have the lowest life expectancy, the  highest poverty rate, and the worst safety net. 

Just as General Westmoreland always saw light at the end  of the tunnel during the Vietnam War, we think we are winning because the stock market continues to climb –  pretending the have-nots do not exist, climate change is a hoax and that systematic racism is a liberal plot.

The more we become disillusioned, the more we turn on each other. As I wrote in my last column, our institutions can’t function unless we have a consensual agreement about who we are as a people. Without that, we become a dysfunctional family where individual members all seek control, like selfish children.

I fear our dysfunction has reached a tipping point: major civil unrest looms on the horizon, perhaps the opening salvo to civil war. If you think it can’t happen, look no further than what happened in Rwanda between two similar ethnic groups, who had lived together and intermarried for generations. But inflamed by ethnic tension and fake news, the Hutus attacked the Tutsis with clubs and machetes, killing 800,000 in the space of 100 days.

How do we hold enough common ground to move forward, avoiding the temptation to descend into backbiting and recrimination? The magnitude of the task ahead came into clearer focus for me after reading John Buttrick’s My Turn piece in the Sunday Concord Monitor. He wrote about his daughters’ “serious distrust” of Joe Biden because “he frequently openly touched women without their consent.” 

As a 75-year-old man, who grew up when patriarchy ruled supreme, my whole life has been a re-education project – still ongoing. From the perspective of a recovering white male, I understand why these young women distrust Biden. As a progressive, I, too, have long distrusted Biden for many of his shifting centralist views. 

But my outlook has changed since the Trump-inspired insurrection on January 6th,  along with his ongoing attempt to challenge the results of the last election and suppress voting in the next. If we imagined ourselves as a dysfunctional family under Trump, we now have another chance. We’ve elected a new president who wants to make government work again for the average citizen.

Joe Biden, warts and all, has had the political courage to get us out of Afghanistan, along with proposing the most sweeping legislation since the New Deal to lift up average Americans while, at the same time, protecting voter rights and women’s bodies. If democrats and forward-thinking republicans can pass this legislation, it will signal to disgruntled citizens that perhaps the government can work for them. But, to succeed, we will need all hands on deck!

Despite the significant distrust, harbored by so many of us on various issues, I believe it is time to suck it in and work together to hold the center to save our democracy. If we don't step forward now, the consequences will be dire,  expressed so well by Willian Butler Yates:

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold...

the best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.”⁠2




2 The Second Coming, William Butler Yates