The One Where I’m Pissed Off at the Entire Country

Listen to these lyrics:

It amazes me how relevant that song still is. So relevant, in fact, that every single line represents an aspect of the current state of our culture, be it the militant partisanship, gun control issues, the war between the generations, or the upswing of political activeness from all directions (without most of us actually being any better informed than in our pre-internet days, thanks to the media’s inability to report without an ulterior motive and most people’s desire to be told how to feel by their political leaders/heroes and to be “part of something” than figure it out for themselves).

Ultimately, it goes to show that generation studies experts and my undergraduate humanities professors are right — everything happens in a cycle. The ’90s-2001 can be likened to the ’50s — a veneer of success and relative peace, when many people were financially secure, business was booming, and status and conformity were everything. Then the Twin Towers were attacked, and we woke up from the dream. We went to war, got political, the housing market (and then the rest of the economy) crashed, we got more political, and now we’re in a veritable mud fight, where everyone is screaming and throwing mud but no one is actually listening.

This is simultaneously frustrating, depressing, and reassuring. Frustrating and depressing in that, in 50 years, nothing has really changed — some of the discussion points have, but not human nature. But it’s also oddly reassuring to know that all of this has happened before and we as a nation managed to get through it (on the whole) with our hearts and lives intact.

The funny thing is, I’m very conscious as I write this post that when people listen to the song and read my commentary — whether they listen to Rush Limbaugh and read the Dredge Report, or think President Obama is a godsend, or are somewhere in between — most will nod their heads and say, “Yep, that’s exactly what’s happening,” and blame the other side for it: the radical liberals who are immoral and hell-bent on destroying our nation’s most deeply held values, promoting abortion, secularism, gay rights, and inconvenient environmental consciousness; the radical conservatives who are bigoted, greedy, selfish, and warmongering; the “Peter Pan” youths who are entitled, immature, and overly idealistic; the older generations who are out of touch, jaded, and overly conformist; and, of course, the white majority and various minority groups (I’m not even going to write what I’ve heard in terms of race from people of all races). But we’re ALL a part of it, and until we admit that we’re culpable and are willing to change our attitudes and methods of communicating, it’s only going to continue. And this culture of screaming, cotton-in-the-ears mudslinging is not one I want my son growing up in.

Unless, of course, his generation is better than all of ours because of it and human nature improves. I’m not going to hold my breath, though. Even so, I’m going to raise him as best I can so that he, at least, will have the sense not to be part of it, that he’ll rise above it and make actual change in the world with whatever gifts he has to give.

I hope he realizes that we’re all just people, regardless of who we are and what we want for ourselves and the rest of the world. As I pointed out in my previous post, we have all experienced pain that has colored our views of the world and each other. We all, ultimately, want what’s best. It’s just that we don’t always agree about what’s best, and our fears have a knack of getting in the way of us doing the right thing, whatever that is. And sometimes our greatest fear is admitting that we might be wrong — at least a little bit.

Stephen Stills is as right now as he was in 1966 — it’s time for everyone to stop and look at what’s going down. Seriously, stop. Let all of your well-digested biases and indignation pass through your intestines, colon, and rectum and fall into the toilet where they belong, and — for the love of everything that is good and kind in the world — LOOK AROUND.

Compassion and a Stevens Poem

My husband and I recently had a discussion/debate with a friend of ours who, on the subject of legislating compassion (or, more specifically, legislating in the name of compassion), pretty much said that without all of our elevated, civilized, moral compassion, we’d be “nothing more than animals.” While I’m a big proponent of compassion, I don’t think our morals necessarily make us more compassionate, and I think that there’s often as much compassion in non-action as there is in action, which is to say that sometimes not doing something is more compassionate and beneficial than blindly forging ahead (although, really, the best route is to combine the two with careful discernment).

I also don’t think it’s a bad thing to try to be more like animals, to get in touch with our animal sides. After all, animals aren’t the ones destroying our environment and each other on a species-wide level; they aren’t the ones enslaving each other (except for the slavemaker ants, of course); they aren’t afflicted by the overwhelming greed and viciousness that plagues humanity. If animals are greedy, it’s on a limited, usually reasonable level; if they are violent, it’s for survival — not spite. Animals are the innocent ones. And, really, whether we want to admit it or not, we are animals — complex, astoundingly creative animals, but still animals. I’m not saying that humanity is the lowest of the low in terms of animal virtues, but I do think it’s pompous to assume we’re that much more morally elevated above the rest of the natural world just because we can build complex tools and think in terms of the imaginary and intangible. I think art, which is arguably a uniquely human construct (although it depends on how you define art and whether or not the female bowerbird’s appreciation of her male’s bower can be considered artistic appreciation), is great; I think technology can be great. But I also think that what makes (human) art great is that it expresses and seeks to explore our deepest animal impulses; the best art gets us in touch with our animal selves and analyzes it, rather than denying it. And technology is really just a complex result of our basic animal survival instincts.

I think compassion is the greatest and most necessary quality a person could have, but I don’t like “morals” because they’re prescribed. It’s cold legislation rather than natural compassion, which comes from an organic and personal impulse. Compassion is simple and small and daily — not some elevated, authorized virtue. In its purest form, as in the animal world, compassion is unconscious and exhibited on an animal-to-animal basis. And while not all animals are compassionate in the way we define it, they’re not uncompassionate, either. As I’ve said above, they don’t hate; they aren’t (with few possible exceptions) unnecessarily cruel.

Anyway, the discussion reminded me of a Wallace Stevens poem I love:

“Less and Less Human, O Savage Spirit”

If there must be a god in the house, must be,
Saying things in the rooms and on the stair,

Let him move as the sunlight moves on the floor,
Or moonlight, silently, as Plato’s ghost

Or Aristotle’s skeleton. Let him hang out
His stars on the wall. He must dwell quietly.

He must be incapable of speaking, closed,
As those are: as light, for all its motion, is;

As color, even the closest to us, is;
As shapes, though they portend us, are.

It is the human that is the alien,
The human that has no cousin in the moon.

It is the human that demands his speech
From beasts or from the incommunicable mass.

If there must be a god in the house, let him be one
That will not hear us when we speak: a coolness,

A vermillioned nothingness, any stick of the mass
Of which we are too distantly a part.

The only thing I would add to Stevens’ argument is that we aren’t naturally alien — we’ve made ourselves so — and that we can get back to that wholeness and freedom of being as long as we’re willing to loosen the noose of our morals, let wordlessness stand in for language (not forever and always, but more so than it does) and forget our pompous attitudes about our own superiority. If we can let ourselves be smaller, more quiet and basic, we’ll be closer to and more a part of that unlimited god that Stevens describes.

But I don’t harbor any illusions about doing away with law, society and technology and living like squirrels or bears. As our friend correctly said during our conversation, “The change has happened. We can’t go back.” I just think that we’d more benefit ourselves and the rest of the world if we tried to emulate the plant and animal life around us a little more, rather than trying (in vain) to conquer nature both beyond and within ourselves. I think we’d all be better-off without legislating and politicizing compassion — that is, deciding in black-and-white terms who is deserving of understanding and compassion and who isn’t and using that to justify political action. Because if we select an object for compassion, we’re necessarily denying compassion to something else. If we bring compassion down from the moral pedestal, stopped flinging it at other people like a weapon, and considered it on a personal, daily level (asking ourselves if we’re being indiscriminately compassionate enough and how we can be more compassionate, especially to the people whom we feel least deserve it), then the world really would be a better place. It’ll build on its own, but we have to build from the bottom, beginning with ourselves.

I think I should also say that my friend, if he were to read this, might not actually disagree with me. Sometimes when the three of us (myself, my husband and our friend) sit in a car together for too long, we start to disagree for the sake of disagreement — either because we’re playing the devil’s advocate and testing each others’ convictions or because we just want to get the other’s goat — which is how the whole compassion-and-animals discussion began in the first place. But it makes for a good blog post, I think.

Feel free to leave your comments below!

Do Closed Minds Protect Brains?

I remember when I was in middle school, during the 2000 elections, a friend of mine whose father was a political science teacher was arguing with another friend about who to vote for. I don’t remember exactly how the conversation went, but the first friend ended up saying, “Well, my dad says you shouldn’t have such an open mind that your brains fall out.” We’d thought it was clever and we laughed, and it seemed like good advice. And the dictum has stuck with me for the past ten years: Don’t open your mind too much or your brains will fall out.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, comparing it to the Chuang Tzu, which seems to advocate the opposite. It states:

Everything has its ‘that,’ everything has its ‘this.’ From the point of view of ‘that’ you cannot see it, but through understanding you can know it. So I say ‘that’ comes out of ‘this’ and ‘this’ depends on ‘that’ — which is to say that ‘this’ and ‘that’ give birth to each other. But where there is birth there must be death; where there is death there must be birth. Where there is acceptability there must be unacceptability… Where there is recognition of right there must be recognition of wrong… Therefore the sage does not proceed in such a way, but illuminates all in the light of Heaven. He too recognizes a ‘this,’ but a ‘this’  which is also ‘that,’ a ‘that’ which is also ‘this.’ His ‘that’ has both a right and a wrong in it; his ‘this’ too has both a right and a wrong in it. So, in fact, does he still have a ‘this’ and ‘that’? …A state in which ‘this’ and ‘that’ no longer find their opposites is called the hinge of the Way. When the hinge is fitted into the socket, it can respond endlessly. Its right then is a single endlessness and its wrong too is a single endlessness. (Burton Watson translation)

In essence, when one considers that everything has a positive and negative aspect, and that all opposites are drawn from and depend on each other, everything gets murky. The mind is opened to see social and political dichotomies as limited in scope, and one realizes that one knows nothing, can distinguish no dogma as being intrinsically better than another, even if one chooses a particular side over another. It’s like free-falling into a chasm: there’s nothing to grab onto to stabilize oneself. All those things that thrive on opposition — political parties, international disputes, religious debates and wars — lose their certainty, their concrete alignments. They become just themselves.

And while it can be a scary experience, it’s an experience of truth, I think. Where would the two major political parties be without each other? The Democratic Party is defined by the Republican Party through their differences, and vice versa. If you took away one, the other loses its meaning as well. They rely on one another for meaning — not only for defining, but creating each other through the discovery of new differences. It’s the same with all opposites, from laws and law-breaking to beauty and ugliness. And (if we’re honest with ourselves) when we look at issues and parties and ideals from a neutral perspective, we begin to see that what we might perceive as a total “good” contains an element of “bad” and, in the “bad,” one can usually find some good. And it’s hard to tell what the effect of any given decision will be because people are so unpredictable and complex. Sometimes choosing a side is nothing more than ignoring a portion of reality.

The Chuang Tzu has a famous parable:

When the monkey trainer was handing out acorns, he said, ‘You get three in the morning and four at night.’ This made all the monkeys furious. ‘Well, then,’ he said, ‘you get four in the morning and three at night.’ The monkeys were all delighted. There was no change in the reality behind the words and yet the monkeys responded with joy and anger. Let them, if they want to. So the sage harmonizes with both right and wrong and rests in Heaven the Equalizer. This is called walking two roads.

Another part in the same section states:

If a man follows the mind given him and makes it his teacher, then who can be without a teacher? …But to fail to abide by this mind and still insist upon your rights and wrongs — this is like saying that you set off for Yueh today and got there yesterday. This is to claim that what doesn’t exist exists.

It’s logical and useful to open one’s mind fully to consider a situation indiscriminately, seeing how the points in opposition relate, rather than relegating one to “good” and the other to “evil” along some moral paradigm. But it requires a detachment, a destabilization of self, which is hard to do, especially when the situation is much more dire than acorns. Still, I don’t think considering all possibilities, withholding judgment, and choosing not to staunchly pick a side is the equivalent of letting one’s brains “fall out.” It’s letting one’s mind breathe — not through a sliver, but through a wide, gaping hole. Because we don’t know everything, even when we consider seemingly simple, everyday things. We can’t always predict the best course of action and what might seem a terrible idea in the beginning might eventually prove to be beneficial in the end, at least in some way. And we can’t honestly say that we know a person’s motivations or usefulness, so how can we judge anyone but ourselves? And can we even judge ourselves?

Which isn’t to say that I’m always open-minded. But I really do try. I try most of all to understand people — all people, even the ones that others don’t want to understand — partly because I’m curious, but also because understanding breeds compassion, and compassion breeds peace. And peace is good. It feels better, healthier, to let go of the burden of picking a side, of sticking to one’s guns all the time, of always having something to say. It’s a relief to just be, isn’t it? And what of all the good that can be accomplished by not clinging to ideals or categories, by allowing other people to just be as well?