Sunday, June 26, 2022

How Vietnam got under America’s callused cowboy skin


A convoy of cargo boats on the Mekong River in Vietnam
CC Jean Stimmell: June 1966

As a result of America’s war in Vietnam, Thich Nhat Hanh was exiled from his country and ended up a renowned spiritual teacher and peacemaker, instrumental in mellowing our macho culture.  

It was even more of a turnaround for Ocean Vuong, the acclaimed writer and poet: He tells us he literally wouldn’t exist without the Vietnam War. That’s because his grandfather, an American soldier fighting in Vietnam, met his grandmother, “a girl from the rice paddies”⁠1 and married her. 

And then, there was me: a  hapless 19-year-old who stumbled into Vietnam after dropping out of college. I enlisted before the big Vietnam protests but with major reservations about the war. Yet I had bigger qualms about disappointing my father, a combat veteran of WW II, and my Pittsfield peers, if I did not emulate that manly icon of my generation, John Wayne.

In different ways, all our lives were forged by war – and still are.

Sometimes it takes cultural outsiders to expose our societal blindspots – to show us how things really are. As Vuong reminds us in a podcast with the Native American writer, Tommy Orange, “America is literally a product of war, starting with the stolen land we are now standing on.”⁠2 

This became more evident to Vuong after he started writing: he couldn’t help noticing that even the building blocks of his craft, the words he was using, reflected a war mentality: “I owned that workshop. I killed it, right? I smashed him. I went into that novel guns blazing.” He tells Tommy Orange, "Here we are, our one moment to create something on our own terms, and the only tools we have–we are so deprived as a culture–that the only tools we have is the tools of death.”⁠3

It seems extreme to say that the instruments of death are all we’ve got. Yet, all we have to do is look around.

We’ve lost, to date, one million of our fellow Americans to Covid, yet congress refuses to approve the money to prepare for the next pandemic – which is sure to come. Climate Catastrophe is descending on us, the ultimate grim reaper, but no one seems to be worried, and Congress seems oblivious. Conversely, our tools of death are ever-ready, always on hair-trigger alert. 

We are witnessing a perfect example right now: when Russia invaded Ukraine, our government was able to rush billions of dollars in military equipment immediately, no questions asked. All of us support Ukraine but shouldn’t equal attention be spent on the tools of life, like massive diplomatic efforts to end the killing.

Sadly, though, war is all we know. 

George Lakoff tells us why in his now classic book, "Metaphors We Live By." He explains that metaphors are fundamental to how we think: we use metaphors to structure what we perceive, how we think, and what we do. In the case of America, he convincingly shows how "war" has become the dominant metaphor of our times.

“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground…It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture.”⁠⁠4

When we look into it, as Ocean Vuong has done, it is frightening how much of our language is based on the war metaphor and its evil twin: our free-market economy with its "survival of the fittest" mentality. 

Carol Pearson, in “Hero Within,” points out the tragic nature of living in an over-ripe warrior society, as we do today: extreme polarization, massive inequality, citizens armed to the teeth, and bodies of mass shootings piling up higher each day. She suggests a more humane approach:

“But what if we simply shift our expectations a bit? What if the goal of life is not to prevail, but simply to learn? Then the end of the story can seem very different; and so can what happens in between birth and death. Heroism is redefined as not only moving mountains but knowing mountains: being fully oneself and seeing without denial, what is, and being open to learning the lessons life offers us.”⁠5

That’s the life-giving lesson that refugees like Thich Nhat Hanh and Ocean Vuong have brought with them to our shores, and it’s a way of life that I have tried to live up to after my own baptism in war. 





3 Ibid.

4 Lakoff, George & Johnson Mark,Metaphors We Live By. The University  of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1980. P. 4

5 The Hero Within by Carol Pearson, pp. 9-10

Sunday, June 19, 2022

What If We Get It Right?


Ayana Elizabeth Johnson      

I’ve written before about how I’ve been trying to focus on positive alternatives to counteract today’s dominant “the sky is falling” commentary. Today I want to highlight one such encouraging voice: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. 

She is a marine biologist, policy expert, and author. In a podcast on Krista Tippet’s “On Being”, she points out how we have become demoralized  by doomsday tales about  our future, almost to the  point of surrender. To combat such defeatism, Johnson makes a creative and pragmatic inquiry: What if “we let ourselves be led by what we already know how to do, and by what we have it in us to save?”

In fact, that idea is going to be the title of her next book:“What if we get this right?”⁠1

Johnson believes our pervasive apprehension has prevented us “from rising to our highest human capacities, in every sphere of our life together.” She says each of us “feels the disarray of the natural world at a cellular level in our bodies.” It’s impossible to divorce ourselves from what is happening. “It’s not even so much that we are in it — we are of it.”

The solution is to stop running from the world we’ve created and turn to face it. Rather than getting emotional, Johnson prefers to put her head down and take concrete action. She reminds us about what we too often forget: we already know how to resolve our climate challenges. It’s just a matter of “figuring out how we can welcome more people into this work, get people excited, [and] help them find where they fit.”

We are already making more progress than we realize.

Just last week, David Brooks desribed in the Monitor the significant gains New England has made: we already have 4,000 MW of solar panels sitting on the region’s rooftops and back yards…more than three times the output of the Seabrook Station nuclear plant. That’s despite major foot-dragging by our retrograde governor and old fogey legislature who, at every turn, have refused to expand renewable energy options.

Wired Magazine has chimed in on the same theme: “The US Can Halve Its Emissions by 2030 – If It Wants To” by Matt Simon.⁠2 He quotes a new study in the journal Science stating we can eliminate half of the US’s greenhouse gas emissions in the next eight years by fast-tracking solar and wind energy while rolling out more electric vehicles. Success will be less costly because the cost of renewables is plummeting: The price of solar technology has dropped 99% in the past 40 years.

Another advantage will be massive health benefits. The fossil fuel lifecycle, from extraction to processing to burning, is highly harmful to the human body. The study has shown that transitioning to clean energy will avoid over 200,000 premature deaths and over $800 billion to a trillion dollars in health  [costs].⁠3 

Last, according to energy economist and coauthor Nikit Abhyankar, the cost will not be steep. “In fact, some studies found it might result in significant consumer savings.” For example, while putting solar panels on your roof may be costly, it will save you lots in the long run.

When it comes to combating climate change, Johnson says that we, as individuals, too often give up, overwhelmed by the immensity of the problem combined with guilt at not doing enough.  The answer is to think more collectively. Her favorite quote outlines how an exciting regenerative future is possible, “not when thousands of people do climate justice activism perfectly, but when millions of people do the best they can.”⁠4

The major stumble block is not inadequate technology or individual failure but foot-dragging by our government. Consequently, at the national level, Republicans have blocked Biden’s Build Back Better program, which would have ramped up the manufacture of renewables, among other climate benefits. 

At the state level, our NH legislature and governor have consistently been the neanderthals of New England, rejecting clean energy bills and regional efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sadly, we are the conspicuous outlier among New England states, otherwise quite proactive on climate change goals.

We need to be more like sports fans. When it dawned on Celtic fans that they had a chance to win the world championship this year, they became energized, rallying behind their team and passionately rooting them on. But in the case of climate change, where we have a clear path to victory, few people seem to give a damn.

Instead, we pay $5/gallon for gasoline instead of driving electric cars; we fight catastrophic forest fires when we shouldn’t have to; and it’s the same story with our unprecedented droughts, floods, and rising oceans. We all know the definition of doing the same old things over again, expecting a different result.

It’s called insanity.





3 Ibid.


Sunday, June 12, 2022

Kindling Extravagant Hope

“In times of change, learners inherit the earth,

 while the learned find themselves 

beautifully equipped to deal with

 a world that no longer exists. 

– Eric Hoffer

I became a fan of Eric Hoffer after reading his best-selling book "The True Believer." At the time, I was a young man recently back from Vietnam working union construction and going to college when I could afford it. I had a special attraction to Hoffer, a longshoreman from San Francisco because he was a union man like me. I relished how he destroyed the stereotype of an intellectual as some frail creature cloistered in an ivy tower. 

He was the exact opposite: Self-educated and down-to-earth: a blue-collar man of the people. College does an excellent job of training a person on how to color inside the lines, sometimes at the expense of being blind to exciting new worlds that dwell outside those lines. Look at those famous artists who were known for breaking new ground, maybe because they never went to art school: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Frida Kahlo, Vincent Van Gogh come to mind.

Another point of commonality: I do my research in the same unorthodox way as Hoffer did, although I now do it online and in Kindle. From notes I took last century, here's his take on the subject: "I go to the library, I pick up the things that interest me, I use whatever comes my way. And I believe that if you have a good theory, the things you need will come your way. You'll be lucky.”⁠1 

I'm revisiting "The True Believer" now, a book written over 70 years ago, because his analysis of mass movements is so spot-on: It's uncanny how precisely his thoughts about the nature of fascism, Nazism, and communism after WW II foretell the resurgence of authoritarianism today. To my way of thinking, the power of Hoffer's analysis comes from being a working man, understanding in his gut that at their roots, such movements are not ideological or political but personal and psychological.

Hoffer's book shows why folks are attracted to mass movements, whether it be Nazism or Trumpism: It is when their self-advancement is blocked and they feel devalued by society. For these true believers, Hoffer writes: "Their innermost craving is for a new life—a rebirth—or, failing this, a chance to acquire new elements of pride, confidence, hope, a sense of purpose and worth by an identification with a holy cause. An active mass movement offers them opportunities for both."⁠2 

Trump supporters complain that white Americans are being replaced by minorities and prevented from moving up in society by an educated elite who look down on them as “deplorables.” Hoffer shows how such grievances breed a “passionate hatred,” which, in a psychological sense, gives meaning to their lives.

“Passionate hatred can give meaning and purpose to an empty life. Thus people haunted by the purposelessness of their lives try to find a new content not only by dedicating themselves to a holy cause but also by nursing a fanatical grievance. A mass movement offers them unlimited opportunities for both.”⁠3

Hoffer makes a crucial point about how to move forward, whether we are on the right or the left. “Those who would transform a nation or the world cannot do so by breeding and captaining discontent or by demonstrating the reasonableness and desirability of the intended changes or by coercing people into a new way of life. They must know how to kindle and fan an extravagant hope.”⁠4

Trump, the ultimate reality show host, promised extravagant hope with his galvanizing rhetoric about Making America Great Again, promising to restore folks – in particular, white men – to a state of maximum potency in a fantasy world that never really existed. Perhaps it was no accident he reportedly kept a copy of Adolf Hitler's speeches by his bedside. Meanwhile, democrats drone on about brain-numbing policy proposals which put people to sleep or drive them to drink.

Liberals need to wake up: We need to proclaim our extravagant hopes for building a better world for us all because, as Hoffer understood “the differences between the conservative and the radical seem to spring mainly from their attitude toward the future. Fear of the future causes us to lean against and cling to the present, while faith in the future renders us receptive to change.”⁠5

Let’s listen to Eric Hoffer! It’s time to kindle and fan our extravagant hopes to create positive change– before it is too late!



1 “The Independent Scholar’s Handbook” by Ronald Gross. Addison Wesley: 1982

2 Hoffer, Eric. The True Believer (Perennial Classics) (pp. 12-13). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

3 Ibid. p. 98

4 Ibid. p. 9

5 Ibid. p.9

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Searching for the Meaning of Life

South Moat Mountain in Conway NH
CC Jean Stimmell: 10/13/16

Plato believed humans were like captives in a cave only able to see a reflection of the real world flickering on the cavern walls. Carl Jung believed that the accumulated wisdom of human history is stored in our collective unconscious, accessible to us only through dreams and myths.

These two soothsayers came to mind as I attempted to make sense of a strange dream I had, so vivid it felt more real than cold morning dew on bare feet.

In the dream, I am having a blissful lunch on top of a mountain, feeling alive and at one with this sparse landscape wrapped in an ethereal blue mist. At first, I think I am all alone, but then I spot three figures in the distance, sitting at a table made out of old, weathered boards. 

As I move closer, I note they are fixated on a stone with writing on it that I can’t quite read – yet suddenly desire with all my being. There is no talk. It feels like a scene out of an Ingmar Bergman movie, replete with taciturn, inscrutable characters. Moving yet closer, I notice an empty chair at the table. After things are rearranged to make room, they allow me to sit down.

A tall, gaunt, eagle-eyed man with wisps of white hair falling onto his face – like something out of the Old Testament – stares daggers at me like a hawk sizing up its prey. Perched in front of him is the sacred tome containing the inscrutable writing – the words that will reveal the secret of life. As I lean forward, straining to make out the words, he abruptly snatches the totem away. I wake up crushed, robbed of the big answers to life.

What is this dream trying to tell me? Is this a myth like that of Sisyphus, who was sentenced by Zeus to labor for eternity pushing a boulder up a mountain every day but, at the last moment, before reaching the top, slipping, and the builder falls back to where he started. Is this what my dream means: whatever we want is always just out of our grasp?

Luckily, the next day David Whyte, provided the answers I sought. He is, of course, the well-known poet and mystic whose way with words often puts me in a trance. The power of poetry, according to Whyte, is its ability to create an experience, not just talk about one. In his view, great poets give birth to immortal poems that speak to every generation⁠1; Jung would say they tap into our collective unconscious.

Listening to Whyte talk on an “On Being” podcast, I felt like he spoke directly to me: We humans are “the only part of creation that can actually refuse to be ourselves…The cloud is the cloud. The mountain is the mountain. The tree is the tree. The hawk is the hawk. And the kingfisher doesn’t wake up one day and say, you know, God; I’m absolutely fed up to the back teeth of this whole kingfisher trip. Can I have a day as a crow? No. The kingfisher is just the kingfisher.” That’s one of the healing gifts we can learn from the natural world that it is always just itself.⁠2 

We don’t have to pursue higher forms of life because we are already whole and sacred, just the way we are. It's clear to me now I began on the right path: feeling alive and vibrantly in the present, enjoying lunch in a beautiful setting; that is until I got distracted by uncompromising true believers, jealously guarding an absolute truth that only amounted to some scribbling on a rock.

John Welwood, a luminary in transpersonal psychology, gives us the proper perspective in this excerpt from his poem “Forget about Enlightenment:”

Sit down wherever you are

Open your heart to who you are, right now,

Not who you would like to be.

All of you is holy.

You’re already more and less

Than whatever you can know.