Saturday, July 6, 2013

The Tragedy of News Media

            Recently the community of Boston suffered an immense tragedy, before that, Newtown, CT and prior to that, Aurora, CO . Unfortunately after these events, the media has attempted to victimize the rest of the nation under the guise of the public’s right to know.

            I am glad that I live in a country with a free press. I believe it is truly a blessing for society in order to provide a system of checks and balances to protect the citizenry against potential abuses by government. Certainly, the founding fathers recognized this as a needed aspect necessary to ensure a democracy.

            The underbelly of this freedom however, is license to report anything and everything regardless of the relevancy and impact on the public. Why print, broadcast, and cyber media find it necessary to overwhelm the public and beat it relentlessly down with tales of tragedy so distant from home that it has little impact on our lives until the media makes it so, is an unanswered question. Or perhaps the answer is the bottom line. Media is, after all, a business attempting to make a profit.

            Not only was I stunned by the news of the Boston event, but even more so when a broadcast station announced that on their evening news that same night they would examine whether something like that could happen here. I did not expose myself to that particular evening display but I wonder..... even though many things are possible, is it probable or likely that such a tragedy would happen here. It would seem that the media is suggesting that it could happen anywhere. But is that true? On what basis is it true since at the time we had no idea of the structure and reason for the bombing. What are the criteria necessary for this kind of horror to occur? Certainly, you need more than simply disaffected youth with access to weaponry. In our society, that might apply to the majority of young people.

            I suspect we will have heard from the surviving victims, the families of the victims, the friends of the families of the victims, distant relatives, local political and educational spokespeople, and the surrounding professional experts who will proffer their speculations about reasons, all the while the media constantly keeping the story in our awareness. Why is it necessary to report so frequently, thoroughly, intimately, and constantly? I suppose defenders of the coverage will state that the public has a right to know and we need to learn lessons from the tragedy.

            I can’t help but think that this rationale for coverage arises from the bottom feeders who thrive on the genre of programming that gives us TMZ, Jerry Springer, Honey Boo Boo, Jersey Shore, and the like and the world’s most amazing car crashes, police busts, attacking animals, strange incidents, and catastrophes. Perhaps we’ve become a nation of voyeurs seeking our nourishment by vicariously feeding off the adversity of others.

            If it is true, as some suppose, that youngsters are so vulnerable and easily influenced by rock musicians, song lyrics, movies, radical religion, and just about anything that opposes and dis-poses the status quo, why would we allow the media to bring such tragic and perverse stories into our homes and schools? People can become traumatized not only by experiencing and witnessing traumatic events but also by hearing about trauma. Is it possible that the media has a responsibility not to report?

            I encourage readers to reduce their amount of exposure to the news media. If you must, browse newspapers, listen to friends and colleagues to find out what’s happening. It adds to our daily stresses to hear calamitous stories from around the world and be powerless to act upon them. We victimize ourselves when we do this. Press the OFF button. If a story has a direct effect on your life, trust me, you will hear about it. When we constantly place ourselves in victimized positions, we become impotent, disenchanted, tortured souls, vulnerable to numbing out and losing our passion and compassion for living. In an effort to reclaim power we often adopt the position that somehow we are owed relief from bad fortune, given all that we have had to take in through other’s misfortunes. I’m thinking here of the obscene advertising motto of a personal injury law firm which urges you to call them “when life is unfair.”

            Although we are guaranteed by our Declaration of Independence the right to pursue happiness, we are not guaranteed happiness. We seem to believe that we deserve happiness. I’m sorry but that “ain’t gonna happen.” Unfairness is part and parcel of the Great Round. Misfortune, error, bad luck, flaw, failure, etc., make up at least half of our lives. We receive enough of this in our own experience, there’s no need to let the media dump more and victimize us further. Our own circumstances and events contribute to the establishment of character, engender a respect for fate, and inspire humility. Honor your own suffering, embrace it, welcome it when it knocks on your door, and your life will grow to contain less yearning and more contentment. Don’t rob others of their sorrow. Don’t steal their pain for your own passion.

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What I Did in Prison

            I spent much of my time over the last thirty years in prison working with convicted felons, some of whom were seriously mentally ill. Every so often I’m asked, “What was I doing there?” The answer tends to be multifaceted, shifting its focus depending on what was occurring in my life. Occasionally I can say that I don’t know what I was doing there aside from earning a salary. It can be frustrating work.

            Prison is a real place not a Hollywood image. It is highly structured toward uniformity and intended to disempower its community members. It is a unique environment and its residents can be as foreign to me almost as if they were a separate species of their own kind and making. The rules of conduct that apply in civil life generally do not work well in prison. Kindness, civility, decency, and concern for others are considered weakness. Inmates and unwary staff who express these qualities are quickly consumed by this dark, predatory beast.

            The community that I served was comprised of approximately 2400 men of all ages, serving both short and lengthy sentences for crimes ranging from theft to kidnapping, rape, and murder. Some are leaving soon to return to civilian life, some are never leaving and will die within those walls.

            Some of these men were so broken and psychologically misshapen that they were beyond the reach of any human agency and yet those are the men with whom I worked. They functioned poorly, will likely always function poorly, and if released will continue to be a threat to person and property in their community. They tend to be lacking in education and are under-socialized. Many have numerous associates and relatives in prison. Their lives will be spent going in and out of various institutions. Many of them were comfortable with this kind of future. They need not worry about food, clothing, and shelter. There were no concerns about paying bills on time or working a forty hour week. Many didn’t miss women because even when they were on the outside they related poorly to others and viewed women more as objects to be sanctified or abused.

            Demographics between myself and my clients radically differed. I am not from a broken home, I was never severely abused, I am not uneducated, I do not have a serious history of substance abuse, and I do not engage in violence to solve my problems. I do not have a string of unsuccessful relationships, nor sporadic employment. I do not lack impulse control or the ability to delay gratification, and most importantly, I do not behave as a victim in this world.

            But behind these appearances, within a deeper perspective, is where these men and I touched, where common threads are woven into our lives. Each and every one of them, like myself, has sought pleasure while trying to avoid pain, has experienced a wide range of emotion, has faced a variety of challenges, and someday will move on to a great Unknown.

            The image of the prisoner provides an appropriate metaphor and a concise embodiment of what it means to be human. When we find ourselves locked in by our fears, restrained in unhealthy relationships, kept down by family obligations, stuck in meaningless occupations, or held captive by our own inadequacies, then we’re all doing time in prisons of our own making and it’s terribly hard to break out to freedom.

            These prisoners were both my clients and my therapists. There seemed something to learn in each encounter. Through them I saw my own darkness, I was forced to confront my own projections, becoming aware of my own craziness, my fears, my uncaringness, my own capacity for evil, and I was constantly humbled. In the same manner that playing with a child keeps us tethered to our own innocence, prison nourishes the dark intensity in our soul.

            I do not believe that it is possible for one person to heal another. That is something which occurs within each of us if we can open to it. There is a great resistance to healing due to ignorance, habit, and fear of change. When we are ready, healing arises in its own time. Healing  doesn’t of necessity mean that the client improves or makes progress, sometimes it means that clients are simply able to begin the process of learning to embrace and accept themselves, their marvelous quirks, eccentricities, and twisted deformities. Their lives are enriched and deepened though not necessarily better. Consequently, I viewed my task as coaxing into being an environment within which healing might occur, to catch that moment when the client was ripe for change. That at its best is what I was doing in prison.

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Humor and Spirituality

            I was recently pondering the meaning of spirituality and how we could understand the term differently. I do not write as an expert on the topic but simply as someone who believes that he has something to add to the mix. I have spent much of my life as a devotee of religions and have explored the many forms within monotheism (Christian, Jewish, Muslim) and without, such as Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, native and indigenous beliefs.

            Spirituality has been defined historically and culturally in a variety of ways and it remains quite slippery. Looking about, it seems that there are at least two kinds of spirituality. The one which I see quite frequently is a dry, floating, hold-your-breath kind of spirituality. This approach focuses upon ascent, an upward escape away from the mundane, boring, flawed, frustrating, ordinary qualities of existence. It is suited to those seekers who reflect T.S. Eliot’s opinion that “humankind cannot bear very much reality.” It is a spirituality directed toward fending off the vividness of life. Typically it is an ascetic, moralistic, methodical, discipled, detached style of spirituality severed from the juiciness of living. This type of spirituality stems from dissatisfaction with one’s life, the feeling that self and/or situation is not good enough. We hold the desire to be something other than we are in this moment. This, of course, is the fatal trap which keeps us stuck.

            The second kind of spirituality appears more closely related to the root of our word, spirit, in Latin, spirare, which means “to breathe.” This spirituality is characterized by breathing, breathing deeply of the world, being immersed in life. This kind of spirituality is a way of looking deeply, of seeing through appearances to the heart of the numinous or sacred which is behind, beneath, and within all things. This approach keeps us attached to the world in the sense of caring and honoring each thing fiercely because of its rarity and fragility. This erotic attachment to the depths of things invigorates and inspires us to continue to breathe life deeply until such time that we ourselves expire. It is the kind of spirituality which recognizes every breath of the wind as our own and every pulse of the tide as our heartbeat. 

            One additional aspect of this kind of spirituality is an exuberant, robust, spontaneous, sense of humor. Humor is a word etymologically rooted in a term meaning “to be wet.” Humor is fluid, flowing, quick to ‘break the ice’ (a phrase related to the same word stem). Humor quickly fills us with good feeling while deflating some of our self-importance, keeping us humble. Without humor, fear, defensiveness, rigidity, alienation, and isolation set in.

            Jungian counselor, Helen Luke notes that our sense of humor originates in our sense of proportion, the capacity to discriminate and respond to the relationship of the parts to the whole.  This knowing the ‘place’ of things in life keeps us in our place, away from hubris and toward humility. It allows us to laugh at ourselves, to feel our own folly, and also to recognize in T.S. Eliot’s words, “the laughter at the heart of things.”

            The philosopher, Goethe once wrote, “The man of understanding finds everything laughable, the man of reason almost nothing.” Meister Eckhart, 700 years ago, warned us to never trust a so called spiritual person for whom laughter did not lie at the center of his or her spirituality. Laughter is an act of letting go and letting be. It is a kenosis, a self-emptying which allows us to be filled with the spirit anew.

            Luke notes further that there is “in fact no real spirituality without the laughter that the sense of humor brings. It is not to be confused with frivolity and it cannot exist in anyone who is not a serious person able to explore the darkness and suffering in life.... It simply begets in men and women a true perception of all the suffering and the joy, the tears and the laughter, the seriousness and the fun, inherent in our experience.”

            Humor strikes suddenly and allows grace to enter when we least expect it. The 19th century Zen master, Sengai stated, “There are things that even the wise fail to do while the fool hits the point. Unexpectedly discovering the way to life in the midst of death, he bursts out in hearty laughter.” It would seem then that in our own journeys we would want to make a place for the power of humor, to express that hearty belly laugh in the face of this marvelous and terrifying existence.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

The Gift

            In the film “Patch Adams” there is a scene intentionally given to depict a communication from what we may call “the Other.” I like to think of it as the world speaking to the character Patch but it can just as easily be regarded as a divine message from God, or Life, or the spirit of his friend. I don’t want to disclose it specifically because some readers may intend to see the video and I wouldn’t want to give the scene away. It has no grand dramatic relevance to the film but there is power in its simplicity.

            As part of my own discourse with life, I engage the fantasy that the world is an ensouled, living being, that it speaks to us in odd moments and delicately nuanced whispers. It merely takes attentiveness to experience its wonder.

            I recall an evening some 43 years ago when I was in college and sharing a house with two friends. A dog was hit by a car out in front of the house and had somehow managed to hobble from the road into our backyard. A girl came to our door asking if we owned a large black dog and that while crossing the road had just been injured by a car and was in our backyard, the driver had never stopped. I didn’t recognize the dog. He was a black mutt, built like a solid Labrador. He was scraggly, dirty, wearing a collar worn with age. I was reluctant to help at first. There were other things I wanted to do that night. I had plans for the evening and didn’t like the disruption to my cozy world. The police had arrived and were going to shoot the dog, because there was nowhere they could take it. I find death a difficult matter so despite the intention of the police, I decided with some encouragement from the neighbor girl to seek a vet on a Sunday night.

            I tried to keep the dog warm with an old blanket. He didn’t seem to be in any pain but his breathing was labored. He attempted to get up several times but his back legs failed him. After locating a vet by phone and using the blanket as a stretcher, my friends and I placed the dog in the car. My friend drove and I sat with the dog keeping vigil. During the ride he never made a noise but simply lay quietly. Gradually, his breathing slowed and then stopped. I said, “I think he’s gone.” We continued to the vet for the final pronouncement and then took him back home to bury him in our own backyard where he had lain. He had died as quietly as he appeared.

            He had suffered in the company of strangers, had died in an unfamiliar place but he was embraced with great care. What kind of life had he had, I wonder. What sort of things had he done? Did he frolic with small children? Had he experienced the love of others? Did he lie in the sun and bounce through rain puddles? I placed him in the ground gently, with loving softness and tears as if we had been friends all of our lives, though we had been together only an hour or so. His passing was in no way without meaning. He helped me realize that we all share this one great life filled with terror and beauty and that each death takes something from us and also brings us closer to the preciousness of life. I thanked him for sharing his death with me because in those final moments he gave me my humanity, showed me my love and compassion. As is apparent, I’ve never forgotten that dog.

            There is an addendum to this story. About 25 years ago, late at night, I was driving home. It was dark and I was speeding down the road, singing some song or other. Just before I got to my turn, the memory of that dog came to me and I slowed as I contemplated that experience. As I made the turn at a slower speed than I would have only a few moments prior, a large black dog sprang out of the darkness in front of my vehicle. As I was driving more slowly I did not hit him. He moved across my path and bounded back into darkness. I like to imagine that somehow this is all connected in ways that I cannot fathom. I like to think that this moment was an instance of “the Other” speaking to me, protecting both the dog and me from undue harm. However strange sounding, these are the kinds of moments which strengthen my faith in the goodness of life.

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