Wednesday, March 23, 2022

One for All, All for One

Offloading my ship by helocopter due to enemy ground fire
CC Jean Stimmell cc 1967

I was mesmerized by a scene I saw on TV at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine: A group of neighbors with rifles guarding a suburban street leading into Kyiv against approaching tanks, their faces illuminated by fires they had lit in trashcans to keep warm, fearless and immovable, belting out in unison the Ukrainian National Anthem.

When everything is on the line, we forget our differences and come together as one.  Of course, we do: as social animals, it has been bred into us. That’s why we have survived as a species.

Although much less dire, I once was in a similar situation in the Navy during the Vietnam War. Our ship shuttled tanks, supplies, and sometimes troops along the coast and up the rivers of Vietnam. Occasionally, we had a significant crew turnover when guys rotated home; on one such occasion, almost a quarter of the crew was new. 

On our return trip from the Philippines, all hell broke loose in a crude kind of diversity training, representing as we did, a cross-section of the nation: East coast, highly educated, college dropouts and midwestern kids who hadn’t finished high school; hip city slickers and country folks right off the farm; We had Native American, Hispanic, and black sailors, along with staunch segregationists from the south.

It started with some pushing and shoving, harsh words, and a few fistfights, but, after day after day at sea, a certain equilibrium was achieved. We had other things on our minds. Sometimes, we had to be offloaded by helicopter because of enemy ground fire; once, shuttling around the Mekong Delta, the crew didn’t set foot on dry land for three months while garbage mounted up in the 120-degree heat, and we were reduced to saltwater showers.

We were a scruffy lot but did our jobs like well-oiled machines. If we got stuck on a sand bar in a river, we lowered landing boats to push us free. And it was up to us to defend our own perimeter when offloading cargo solo at desolate spots in the jungle. 

On November 1, 1968, shortly after I had returned to civilian life, Vietcong divers partially sunk our ship on the My Tho River. According to the official records, the 25 killed in action in the mining of Westchester County were “the U.S. Navy’s greatest single-incident combat loss of life during the entire Vietnam War.”⁠1 The death toll could have been much worse! But reacting quickly, amidst the screams of the injured in pitch-black darkness, crew rose to the occasion, turning valves to pump water into ballast tanks, preventing the ship from capsizing.

Staying alive in Vietnam was a mighty unifying force, putting on hold the cultural war raging back home in America. Today we are at war again – and I’m not talking about Russia, or our cultural polarization, which, while severe, is only a symptom of a deeper problem: the autocracy that rules our nation.  

Like Russia, we have our own super-rich oligarchs: At the top of the list, according to Forbes, are Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Bill Gates, who now own more wealth than half of our population.⁠2 Worse yet “ProPublica found [in most] recent years, Musk, Bezos, and many of their fellow billionaires paid zero federal income taxes even as their fortunes soared.”⁠3

Like oligarchs everywhere, their unlimited resources enable them to tip elections in their favor. Conversely, as confirmed by Pew research, the average citizen has virtually no influence. Dark money and the fossil fuel industry spare no expense in shifting the blame away from themselves for causing our nation’s massive inequality – and the existential dangers of climate change – by spreading propaganda, distrust, and polarization.

These corporate titans now pit populists against progressives in the same manner that plantation owners pitted poor whites against blacks – while the elite merrily made money off both groups. Today the war we must fight is against this rampant inequality and looming environmental disaster.

That's the new war we must fight. Like the Ukrainians are doing, we must stand shoulder to shoulder to stop it. Our families and loved ones are on the line, along with all our fellow inhabitants of Space Ship Earth.






Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Seeking New Prophets: Bob Dylan and Volodymyr Zelenskyy?

The Beginning or the End?

I believe in science and the scientific method, testing each hypothesis to see if it is true. And, most important, as more evidence accumulates, changing the theory to stay in synch. There is no doubt the phenomena science studies, it knows well. But for the rest, it knows not.

That's why I'm always open to a more intuitive and more inclusive source of knowledge, the kind written about by Michael Mead: He is a scholar of mythology who has an uncanny ability to tap into ancestral sources of wisdom and connect them to the stories we are living  today.⁠1

For the same reason, I've always had a soft spot for Carl Jung, one of the most renowned psychologists of the 20th century. He went beyond where traditional science was willing to go. He believed in synchronicity, that everything happens for a reason; and he thought that we have a collective unconscious, a more profound way of knowing that humanity holds in common. Furthermore, he thought this collective unconscious could manifest itself in certain individuals. 

It happened to Jung himself when he fell ill in 1913. He thought he was going insane because of his reoccurring, bloody visions of worldwide carnage and destruction. Soon after, World War I erupted out of nowhere with unimaginable bloodshed – over 22 million lost their lives. Jung no longer questioned his sanity, realizing his dreams and visions were a premonition of war.

Well, maybe, you say, that was just coincidence or the rambling of a deluded, old, pointy-headed intellectual. Okay. Then let's take another example: Bob Dylan, son of a furniture store owner from a gritty mining town of Hibbing, MN, a nomadic waif who hitchhiked to NYC at age 20 to become the voice of his generation, the oracle who could express what was blowing in the wind, something we all felt but tongue-tied to say. 

One could make the case that Dylan's words were another manifestation of Jung's collective unconscious. His powers defied science and logic. From the beginning, he played only what he wanted to, not necessarily what the audience called for. And he was superbly gifted: the magnificence of his lyrical prose earned him the Nobel prize in 2016 "for his unique ability to prove that lyrics can go deeper than simple rhymes: they can become works of literature."⁠2

His talent came from a source somewhere beyond himself. In an interview on 60 minutes, he said his songs flowed from a mysterious "wellspring of creativity." He took no credit for writing his lyrics, saying they magically came to him. To me, his songs appear to be a manifestation of our collective unconscious, the wisdom we hold in common, the wellspring of our humanity. 

His songs cut through the clutter of evening news body counts and talking head blather to look straight into the face of the existential crises we face. The perils of the past loom larger each day. One song, in particular, "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall," could not be more topical. Dylan wrote it during the Cuban Missile Crisis when we feared our world was coming to an end.

“And what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son?

And what'll you do now, my darling young one?

I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'

I'll walk to the depths of the deepest dark forest

Where the people are many and their hands are all empty

Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters

Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison

And the executioner's face is always well hidden

Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten

Where black is the color, where none is the number

And I'll tell and speak it and think it and breathe it

And reflect from the mountain so all souls can see it

And I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'

But I'll know my song well before I start singin'

And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard

It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall”⁠3

Scientific equations and high-tech algorithms can't solve the enormity of our problems. What is needed is access to the deeper knowledge as expressed by Dylan and mythology in general, described so well in a recent review of Michael Mead's latest book:

“As nature rattles and culture unravels, mythic imagination tries to return to the world, for endings and beginnings are particularly mythic. When "the End" seems near, how people imagine the world becomes more important; how people imagine humanity becomes of the utmost importance. Meade shows how "myth makes meaning" and helps a person find the meaningful path through life…

“When it appears that there's no time left, it isn't time that people need, but the touch of the eternal. While explaining how culture renews itself from the dreams of youth and the visions of elders, Meade introduces the concept of becoming ancient again by connecting to the eternal youth and the old soul within.”⁠4

Remember what Dylan predicted, “For the loser now will be later to win for the times they are a-changin’” We must honor the deep wisdom of our new prophets like the folksinger from Hibbing and the comedian from Ukraine. 







Tuesday, March 8, 2022

A Rant: Finding our Way Home


Salmon Returning Home
By Katmai NPS CC 2.0 license

I’ve written about how wonderful the Hope Lodge is, a compassionate and  revitalizing pitstop while enduring the barren desert of radiation and toxic chemicals. But still, it was not home. As a result, I’m beginning to feel like a plant marooned in a plastic pot, uprooted from my native soil. I felt that way in Vietnam, waiting my turn to come home. And I feel that way today. 

But this time around, I have a better idea of where this alienation is coming from, both in my own life and in the societal turmoil raging around us today. We are rapidly losing a foundational component of who we are as humans: our sense of place.


We have long been losing our sense of place, forced to move frequently, like nomads, to satisfy the demands of modern society; we are programmed to work hard all week so we can binge on the weekend. Then on Monday, we begin all over again, like Sisyphus repeatedly pushing that boulder up the mountain for eternity. 

Nevertheless, we have persevered: it’s the American way, and we are good at it. That is until the boom fell.

First Covid-19 erupted out of nowhere, throwing a hand grenade into the orderly routine of our lives, locking us claustrophobically in our homes, away from the comfort and camaraderie of friends. Like a giant experiment, it has unhinged us. While the rich cavorted in nature, we atrophied in the stale air of our rooms. Meanwhile, social media bombarded us with tales of doom and gloom from an endless barrage of fake news. 

Solitary confinement is how you break prisoners. And that’s what Covid did to us. Over time, we became delusional, incapable of trusting ourselves because the world has gotten too complex to figure out on our own. And we lost trust in experts because they talk in a thousand different tongues – which seem to change by the week. Meanwhile, we’re besieged by conspiracy theories – some even by our former president – that may sound at first glance as believable as anything else.

What a can of worms!

 We used to be empowered because we knew how to play this game of life. But now the rules have changed: we no longer are the exceptional people, the most favored of all nations, the king of the hill. Instead, we feel climate change’s hot breath burning our backsides while Covid mows us down. Polarization has caused our neighbors to become our enemy. And now, a significant war, erupting like a sulfurous volcano, threatens to engulf all of Europe, if not the world.

Explaining this malaise, naysayers have pronounced that the old game of democracy is dead. They complain that the Big Truths honoring morality and fair play are holding us back. In its place, these malcontents are busy devising new games with simple, easy-to-follow rules. I’m talking about folks like our neighbors who have fallen down the rabbit hole of alternative realities like QAnon.

My ravings are not just that of a patient, addled by too much radiation: it’s the conclusion of the philosopher and game theorist, C. Thi Nguyn, who in his recent book, “Games, Agency As Art,”⁠1 came up with this notion. He writes that the lure of conspiracy theories, like QAnon or the Flat-Earth Society, is about putting yourself in charge of your own little world, “in which you can manage everything, in which you can understand everything.” 

His research reveals that people hooked on conspiracy theories “say over and over again” how it has empowered them. And the reason, he says, “is the conspiracy theories fit inside your head. They’re the right size for you just like games are the right size for you to take some kind of action.”⁠2 

These conspiracies, which conjure up alternative realities where everything is relative, anything is permissible, and morality doesn’t exist, have had a hypnotic appeal to extremists. That is, until recently, when objective reality reasserted itself: Overnight, Putin’s barbaric and brutal invasion of Ukraine popped the bubble of all these pie-in-the-sky fantasies.

At last, old virtues, like human dignity and democracy, are back in vogue. Once again, we are witnessing how a sense of place is worth fighting for – and even dying for –  as Ukrainians stream back to their spiritual homeland from around the globe to take on Russian tanks with crowbars and Molotov cocktails. 

Regaining our sense of place is a vital component in rebuilding trust in each other, necessary to building a better world. Otherwise, we are like salmon swimming in circles biting each other in frustration because we have forgotten the way home




2 ibid.