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Respectful Atheism


I am not a Christian.

I am not a Jew or a Muslim, either. I am not Buddhist, even though its philosophy is what I most agree with. I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of humans.

I am an atheist. I do not lightly identify myself as such, nor, I have found, do very many who says this about themselves. To claim that status, most atheists have studied religion passionately, but found it somehow lacking for us.

That is not to say I do not respect the beliefs of others, or their ability to have faith. One of the things I study when I study religion is the effortless ability other people have to believe in the existence of a deity. I do not understand it from an intellectual point of view, but from a spiritual point of view, I try to understand. I simply do not possess that faith and never have. I cannot create faith in myself, although I went through the motions for my husband and child, attending both Presbyterian and Episcopal services over the years. It has never been my intent to deny faith to my son or to anyone else. It is simply something foreign to me.

My mother is Presbyterian. She goes to church regularly, as does my sister, who is an Elder in their church. My brother and his wife attend the same church, but not with the regularity of Mom and Sis. They believe in God and teach their children about Jesus and his disciples.

My dad was raised Catholic, but as an adult never practiced. He joined the Presbyterian Church when my sister did, when she was about 12 years old. Both Mom and Dad were elders in the Presbyterian Church in my home town.

I married a man who at one time considered becoming a priest in the Episcopal Church. We were married in the Episcopal Church and our son was baptized there. We attended irregularly, mostly at Easter. I really loved the Easter service at that church – they had a fabulous pipe organ and would have a brass accompaniment on Easter Sunday that made the music absolutely gorgeous. The white lilies heaped on the altar and around the church were gorgeous, too. I can appreciate the beauty of such a service without belief in the Resurrection.

When our child started school we decided it was time to find a Sunday School for him. We had not been going to church regularly and we agreed that he should learn about the religion of his family and his culture. My sister and her boys were attending a small Presbyterian church about 10 minutes from our house. We started going there and taking our son. He began to learn the Bible stories all children learn.

His father and I joined the young adult Sunday School class ourselves. We made some great friends. I enjoyed discussing the Bible and its philosophy. I really enjoyed picking apart the writings of Paul and Peter in the face of current common religious practice. Yes, I was devilish. My deviltry prompted discussion, though, and when we read the Screwtape Letters I was the good-natured butt of many jokes. I was never disrespectful to my Sunday School classmates about their beliefs, and I doubt any of them, other than my sister and my husband, would have guessed that I not only didn’t accept Jesus as my personal lord and savior, but didn’t even believe in their god. I was on their turf, but even so I do not tend toward insult and disrespect. My atheism is not something I discuss much. I imagine most of my friends would be very surprised to learn of it.

So why did I go to church? I went for my son.

The way I see it, religion is something that a great many people not only value, but really need in their lives. If my child is one of these people, I want him to understand the religion of his family and the society in which he lives: Christianity. I want him to have the ability to believe. It sometimes seems to be a comfort to those who do.

Even as a young child I did not believe. My belief in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy was for one purpose only: loot. If I said I believed, I got cool stuff. I thought all three of them were silly and far-fetched, but if it made my parents happy, I would believe. For me, God fell into the same category as the Easter Bunny. His existence was illogical and fantastical.

Upon revealing my atheism, I am often asked, “If you do not believe in a divine creator, how do you think the world came to be?” Unlike many people, I have no trouble with the concept of infinity.

One of the co-founders of my brain borrowed a little of Thomas Aquinas’s notion of a “First Mover,” which he explained in the Summa Theologica. When I was about nine years old and rebelling for all I was worth against being forced to go to church, Dad explained to me that while it was conceivable that all things happened after the first part was moved, something had to create that first part and then set things in motion. Where he possibly differed from the good Saint was in the question of whether that “Mover of the First Part” was still around, or had ever interfered beyond creating and moving the first part. My response to him was predictable: “So, Dad, if a Mover was necessary, who made the Mover?” It’s not like the question hadn’t already been asked by smarter minds than mine. I’m not a deist because it only seems logical to me that someone or something would have had to create the Creator. Even at that tender age, I understood what “for ever and ever and ever” meant.

I have also been asked what I think happens when we die if there is no heaven or hell. I don’t have any idea. It’s possible we just rot and our consciousness ceases to be. I would truly like to think we have souls, and experiences people have with the supernatural and the uniformity of near-death reports are some proof, if not empirical proof, that something – something – happens.

In light of this, I find it plausible that every living thing has a soul. I also find it possible that if there is a soul for every living thing, that these souls take a form we humans would recognize again and again. When not in use by a living thing, the souls may coalesce into a single Universal Soul, which is the ongoing, possibly infinite, existence of consciousness, or even collective consciousness. This may be the “light” that we are familiar with from reports of near-death experiences. I don’t necessarily believe that the Universal Soul or the Light – or whatever we want to call it – is a higher power, or that any “higher” power exists that “takes care” of things or “creates” things.

My concept of the Universal Soul does not interfere with individuals or with free will, nor does it necessarily predestine anything to happen. More than anything, it is a repository. But the collection of souls within it, of creatures yet to exist and formerly existing, may have emotion to some extent.

In my conceptualization, the “comfort” or “satisfaction” of each soul lies within the control of the healthy creature housing it at the moment. When we take positive steps to improve our character and our long term contentment, as well as to improve the world around us, we feed our souls with nutritious food. That makes them happy, and a happy soul adds to the happiness of the Universal Soul. Perhaps the happier those souls, the brighter the light gets. It’s my conceptualization, so if I want that to be the way it is, I can wave my wand of creation and make it so.

Going against our nature, ruining the happiness of people and other creatures around us, and making the lives of others more difficult are things that feed our souls unhealthy food. Our souls are not made happy by these acts, and the light within ourselves dims when we do this. We are diminish the quality of our souls when we are petty, mean-spirited, or selfishly harm others. (Now, that having been said, I am not above killing aphids on my plants, ants in my cat food, rodents that make their unwelcome way into my home, or cockroaches wherever I find them. My theology only goes so far!)

I don’t come to any of my conclusions in a vacuum. I have read the entire Bible. I have read most of it many more times than once. I keep a copy of it on my desk. It is a reference book as much as a dictionary or a thesaurus. I look at religious writings the way I look at books that are classified as fiction, but since I come across Biblical references and allusions in my reading, I find it convenient to keep one handy. When I meet one of those hate-spewing zealots, I am glad to know the Bible because a good offense is indeed the best defense.

I often read the doctrine and dogma of major religions. (Yes, for fun.) I have read what I could of the Dead Sea Scrolls. I have read from the works of Plato, Aristotle, Marcus Aurelius, St. Thomas Aquinas, Flavius Josephus, Bede, Maimonides, Roger Bacon, Rene Descartes, David Hume, and John Locke. I have read books on Taoism and Confucianism. I have read treatises written by Baruch Spinoza, Immanuel Kant, Soren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Jean Paul Sartre and his cousin Albert Schweitzer. I have read Mein Kampf. I have read Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Henry David Thoreau, Jeremy Bentham, and Wittgenstein. I have read about the Kabbala and I have read the Koran in spurts (the English translation, of course). I have read Buddhist theology and discovered some of the ways in which it differs from Hinduism. I have read other writings on the philosophy of religion. I took every class I could on the subject when I was in college. I nearly had a minor in philosophy.

I often think I may have read too much philosophy, but I keep on reading it, even today. In additional to the ecumenical and mainstream philosophers and theologians, I read offbeat and popular living philosophers like Carlos Castaneda, Daniel Quinn, Paulo Coelho, and Don Miguel Ruiz.

Why do I make this public admission? Why would I say something like this about myself, when it is practically guaranteed to draw the spewing hatred of certain people who do have faith, and therefore believe me to be apostate, an infidel, a pagan, or even somehow evil?

I make this admission because recently a friend of mine, who shares my non-belief, was recently very publically attacked for his position. To be fair, some atheists shower their faithful acquaintances with derision, essentially saying that if they have these religious convictions then they are stupid or just want to enjoy having an imaginary friend. Believers making unbelievers feel like less is wrong. Unbelievers making believers feel like less is just as wrong. We live in a unique society here in the United States. Only a few other nations have the privilege we do of not only speaking and writing our minds, but not being persecuted – or prosecuted – for it.

Each of us, no matter how weird our beliefs are, should be respected: no matter how we come to our beliefs – whether by childhood indoctrination, custom, rational thought and choice, study, or visionary moment – we are all entitled to believe whatever we want about a higher power.

When we are confronted with someone whose beliefs are radically different from our own, we sometimes feel threatened. People get very defensive and judgmental when they feel their beliefs are being challenged. People don’t like to change their beliefs. It’s hard to do that, and usually it happens after something rocks their world, not always in a good way. Consider people who lose their faith after the sudden death of a child, or who suddenly gain it after a visionary dream. In both cases, the people around them are unlikely to accept the change in the person’s belief system, and may object to it strongly. Paradigm shifting, to use an overworked phrase, hurts.

No one’s status as an atheist, or even as a deist or an agnostic, is a personal attack on anyone else’s faith. I do not want anyone to try to convert me, to force faith on me, to call me names, or to otherwise denigrate me because I am unable intellectually or spiritually to come to the same theological conclusion as someone else. I do not denigrate the beliefs of others. I don’t pretend to understand fully why they hold them, but I will never belittle anyone for having faith.

I am one of about a billion people who do not believe in one or more divine beings that created the universe and natural laws, or that otherwise affect nature or the lives of my species. Among that number are atheists, agnostics, and deists.

To some believers, that means I am immoral or somehow defective.

For instance, I have been told that the only proper values are Christian values. I find that insulting to all who are not Christian, including me. The only real philosophical disagreement among religions is in the nature of the deity: the moral code of all the major religions is practically the same. Stealing, lying, cheating, defrauding, murdering, and being disrespectful are prohibited in each and every one. They are also prohibited by the moral code of every race, nationality, tribe, and community, no matter what its spiritual beliefs.

Venomous, malicious attacks on nonbelievers are wrong in any religion, including Christianity and Islam, the two most assertive religious institutions of our time. There have been times when Christianity and Islam have interpreted their prophets to allow them to attack nonbelievers. The Spanish Inquisition is a prime example. The violent jihad of people like Osama bin Laden and Khalid Sheikh Muhammad is another.

Every major religion is peaceful. Every major religion teaches its adherents how to get along with each other, with those not of their religion, and those who would be their enemies. The tenets of these religions are basic common sense. I do not believe that a structure of myth, fable, parable, or heroism is necessary to common sense. Common sense can exist without a god.

It is common sense to avoid creating conflict, and it is common sense to resolve conflict peaceably when it arises. It is common sense to punish those who break the peace by theft, assault, battery, murder, rape, fraud, and the like. It is common sense to act honorably so that trust is created with the people with whom we associate and do business. Common sense tells us that disrespect and dishonorable behavior creates mistrust among the ones dealing with that behavior. It is common sense to be truthful.

We all choose how to behave toward one another. When we behave badly, and make another person feel defensive or otherwise negative, it only reflects on ourselves.

I believe in a sort of karma. I’m not talking about the karma of traditional Hinduism or Buddhism, which is concept that the total effect of a person’s actions and conduct affects the nature of that person’s eventual reincarnation. My informal sort of karma happens on a much shorter time scale.

I believe that if we do bad things to other people, bad things will happen to us. What goes around, comes around. If we keep our karma on the positive side, if we are consistently good, respectful, honorable, and just, we will reap rewards. The rewards are not in the hereafter; the rewards are in the here and now. The rewards are accomplished not by a deity, but by those around us. Perhaps, if I am wrong and there is a hereafter, we will be rewarded there, as well, and come back as an elephant and not as, say, a banana slug. But for an example of the here and now kind of reward, consider Jimmy Stewart’s character in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Had he not been so good, gracious, generous, and honorable to the people of his community, they would not have been so helpful when he had his own stroke of ill luck. That’s karma in action.

I might also take a moment to address the concerns of those atheists who, for example, get bent out of shape when their children are expected to recite the Pledge of Allegiance at school with the words “under God” in it. Not only is this sweating the small stuff in my opinion, but these parents are drawing painfully embarrassing attention to their children, whom they have chosen to rear in a predominantly Judeo-Christian-Muslim society. As long as vast majority of the population is religious, parents cannot reasonably expect their children to be shielded from religion. Saying “under God” in the pledge is not ramming religion down anyone’s throat. If parents object to those two words, all they have to do is to instruct their own children not to say those two words along with the class, something the child can do discreetly without calling any attention to himself at all. Furthermore, the word “God” on our money is not establishment of any particular religion. The founders prohibited establishment of religion in the Constitution; they did not guarantee a nation free from any of its influences, whether malignant or benign.

I am one of about a billion people who does not believe in either a single deity or a group of gods that created the world or that control or otherwise interfere with nature and the lives of human beings. In some countries, as much as eighty percent of the population may be nonbelievers. I am not alone, and I have not come to my theological or philosophical conclusions lightly or for the sake of attention.

My studied opinion is that we would all benefit from taking the best of all religions and applying them to our daily lives. If we could all meditate like the Buddhists, reason like the Stoics, and celebrate like every day was Beltaine, we’d spend a lot less time at war, on both a personal and a global scale.

I am one of a billion people – one sixth of the population of our planet – who do not believe in either a single deity or a pantheon.

We are not organized. We have no agenda. We simply do not believe. No one should feel sorry for us or try to convert us. We should not be attacked or treated rudely simply because we cannot manufacture faith and refuse to pretend to do so.

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June 25, 2008 Posted by | Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Pondering the Soul of the World


It’s no secret that The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of my favorite books. I’m leading the discussion in my book club this month, and The Alchemist is the book we’re discussing. I feel fortunate, but overwhelmed at the same time.

I’ve re-read the book during the past week to get ready for the book club discussion. Reader’s Guides are readily available for The Alchemist. The tenth anniversary edition, which I have, contains one after the epilogue. Its discussion topics seem so obvious to me. There is so much more to this book than those canned study guide questions point out.

For instance, there are two different types of alchemy: scientific alchemy and spiritual alchemy. While the gold that scientific alchemy yields is tempting, Coelho’s beautiful fable teaches us that the spiritual aspect of alchemy is the important one. The tale of Santiago the shepherd boy underscores that without achieving the Master Work of spiritual alchemy, no one can attain the Magnum Opus of scientific alchemy.  The discussion of both types of alchemy is a discussion of the book itself, as well as a philosophical discussion that may never end.

Santiago’s quest for his Personal Legend is full of lessons. Santiago’s wisdom, and the wisdom of the people he meets in his travels, must have been sound bites that Coelho collected for years then wove seamlessly into this tale. All of Coelho’s books seem that way, though. But the wisdom and joy of The Alchemist makes it the only one of Coelho’s books that literally makes me cry.

Each time I’ve read this book I’ve cried, and each time I’ve cried at the same point. For me, (spoiler alert) the climax of the book comes twice. The first is not when Santiago finds the physical treasure of his dream, but when he first lays eyes on what fabulous wonders men can achieve.  Yes, this is when I cry, and I’m crying with the profound joy the book has given me.

At the moment when Santiago thinks he should find his treasure, he is attacked by several refugees from the tribal wars he has dodged all across the Sahara. One attacker announces that it is stupid to cross a desert to look for buried treasure  just because of a recurring dream. The attacker doesn’t know it, but Santiago has done exactly that, and is at the point of realizing that dream when he is beaten bloody and left nearly dead by these attackers. As outside observers we readers laugh, knowing that whether or not Santiago finds his material wealth in the desert, his journeys have resulted in a spiritual wealth beyond most people’s imagining. He has learned that if he wants to, he can become the wind.

Coelho uses phrases and terms of his own making, but they are philosophical terms necessary to understanding the spiritual alchemy he presents in his book. The Soul of the World, the hand that wrote all, the Language of the World, and one’s Personal Legend are concepts Coelho deftly teaches us with this story of a shepherd’s quest, undertaken because of a recurring dream. Without initially understanding those terms, though, we struggle along with Santiago to grasp the concepts of spiritual alchemy.

Fear hampers our quests for our Personal Legends. The fear presents itself in different ways. First, it is a fear of leaving the familiar comforts of what we know to go in pursuit of a dream. But when we take those first few tentative steps toward our dream, beginner’s luck encourages us to keep pursuing the dream. Eventually, though, our initial success creates another fear within us. We have achieved so much. No, it’s not what we set out to achieve, but it is enough. We can die happy because we got this far and we are comfortable. But, if we listen to our hearts, we know that this temptation to settle for less than our Personal Legend is really a fear: a fear that we have had so much success that we are bound to fail soon.

The fear of failure prevents many people from realizing their Personal Legends. Settling for “good enough,” these people stop listening to their hearts and listen instead to the comforts of having come this far and achieved this much. They feel blessed to have done so much; to try to do more tempts fate, does it not?

Yes, it does.

That’s part of the pursuit of the Personal Legend, though. We aren’t rewarded with the realization of that legend unless we show that we have truly learned the lessons along the way to achieving it. Proving that we’ve learned the lessons means we have to be challenged, and the challenges aren’t supposed to be easy. If we want something enough, if our goal is our dream, and our dream is our Personal Legend, the path gets harder, not easier, the closer we get. Nevertheless, if we step carefully and read the omens sent to us, we will achieve success. We will recognize and live our Personal Legends.

I’m making four presentations to make on this book this month. In each, I want to examine a portion of the story, and a portion of the philosophy of spiritual alchemy. I don’t know if I can limit myself to just four!

I’ve come up with a list of omens Santiago notices in his adventures. Some of them have layers of meaning. I want to talk about them.

Throughout the book, Coelho sprinkled concepts from the three religions springing from the loins of Abraham. I want to talk about each, yet I know that those in my audience who know me not to be a follower of this religious tradition will want time to challenge me on my interpretation, and will want to offer their own. There must be time for that.

There are mystical elements that defy being categorized with something else, so must be treated separately.

Each major character, plus a couple of minor ones, have wisdom to share. I want to examine their profound observations – ALL of them!

Then there are the literary aspects of the book. Coelho’s writing style, the format of the story, foreshadowing and other literary devices, character development . . . I’m babbling already and I haven’t even begun my presentation.

And then there is alchemy, both scientific and spiritual, to tackle. To be fair to each, they should be dealt with separately, then addressed together so as to underscore the similarities. There are specific alchemists mentioned in the book whose biographies might be interesting to my audience, yet I fear boring the masses with my enthusiasm.

But wait: Santiago’s strengths were his courage to do what he wanted, and his enthusiasm in the process. Is this an omen?

June 2, 2008 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | 2 Comments

Gun Control


In the last couple of years I’ve changed my stance on gun control.

I don’t like guns.  They scare the hell out of me, and I see nothing “sporting” about attacking unarmed animals with them in the woods. I don’t own one and I’ve never been comfortable with the notion of having one in my house, despite the fact that my ex-husband had a hunting rifle and a boyfriend had a pistol.

I’ve represented kids with criminal charges involving guns.  I’ve seen bullet holes in children’s bedroom walls from drive-by shootings. I’ve represented women who were threatened with guns by their husbands, boyfriends, and even their sons. I’ve been to funerals of people killed by guns.  I’ve held and hugged a weeping grandmother when a stray bullet in a gang shooting left her favorite grandson, a good boy with an “A” average and college-bound, dead on a dark street in a small town in southeast Arkansas.

I don’t like the attitude of the NRA. It comes across as arrogant, shrill, and combative – not the kind of attitude a responsible gun owner/handler should display, especially around guns.

This is going to sound stupid, probably, but one of the things that tipped the scales for me against gun control was a movie.  It wasn’t just any movie.  It was a movie based on a comic book. Bear with me.  I’ve watched V for Vendetta, a film by the incomparable Wachowski Brothers, multiple times, and I find no fault with its future history philosophy.

Perhaps the helium in my brain is showing, but the point that disarming a populace oppresses the citizens makes sense to me.

One of the very best quotes from the movie is, “People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.”  Why?  Because the power to change government, to oversee government, and to demand that government be accountable lies with the people.

There is a poignant scene in this movie in which thousands of unarmed citizens in Guy Fawkes masks confront the well-armed military. As they pour into the open areas on this auspicious night, the astonished military doesn’t open fire. Perhaps it is the sheer numbers of people; perhaps it is the eerie, surreal fact that they are costumed like that seditionist of the past, but for whatever reason, the armed forces of the government holds its fire and allows itself to be overrun. Perhaps it is because the members of the armed forces are citizens, too, and the whole point of the movie is that citizens must require and compel change in the government.

And then there’s this quote, the source of which I’m desperately seeking:

“An armed society is a polite society.
An unarmed society is a police state.
A disarmed society is a tyranny.”

April 14, 2008 Posted by | Children, Death, History, News, Philosophy, Politics | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Happy Birthday, Daddy


Today is my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 71. He died five years ago and I miss him more than ever.

My Dad was my champion. His confidence in me never flagged, even when I was an angry, incorrigible teenager bent on self-destruction. He always told me, without any qualifying adjectives, phrases, or conditions whatsoever, that I could be and do anything I wanted in life. I’m 45 years old and I still believe him.

Daddy wasn’t perfect. He drank too much. You know the kind of drunk I’m talking about. He was perfectly functional during the day – had a pretty high-profile position in the little community where he lived, in fact – but evenings were a different story. He was a melancholy drunk, the kind who wanted to sing “Danny Boy” and worry about the re-institution of the draft.

No kidding: when I was a teenager the draft was one of his favorite drunken topics. He was on the county draft board during Vietnam and the experience scarred him, I think. He objected strongly to the war and did all he could to keep kids from our area from going. He had a cousin who was on the ground in Vietnam, a brother who spent his tour with the Navy just off the coast of Vietnam, and a brother in law who was about to be shipped out when his luck changed and he was sent home instead. Wars that were nothing but someone’s political agenda pissed Dad off. You can imagine what he’d think about Iraq Redux.

Dad made Christmas magical. His birthday, coming on the Twelfth Day of Christmas, meant that the whole season was special. We had a tradition when I was young, that he and my sister continued after her divorce: Christmas Eve meant a trip to the closest Wal-Mart, 40 miles away in the town of Searcy. Dad wasn’t looking for significant gifts on that trip. If he saw something perfect for someone, he’d pick it up, of course, but the purpose of the trip was really to grab silly gifts, stocking stuffers, and prepare for Pre-Christmas, a tradition our family held dear.

My family inherited Pre-Christmas from Dad’s family. The legend goes that on Christmas Eve the kids were allowed to open one gift, and the adults, being who they were, didn’t want to get left out. They started exchanging gag gifts on Christmas Eve, accompanied by really bad poetry. There was a $10 limit on any Pre-Christmas gift when I was growing up. This encouraged creativity in gift giving. A rubber chicken was always the booby prize, and one lucky person a year got it. It was a badge of honor to receive the chicken, which was always dressed up a little differently and presented with new panache.

I cooked my first Thanksgiving turkey at the age of 22 and had to call my mother to find out, halfway through cooking, that the giblets were in a package in the turkey’s neck. That Pre-Christmas I got the chicken with feathers stuck in its butt, intended to resemble the turkey. The chicken’s head had been cut off and, um, things were inserted in it. I don’t remember the poem (who can remember those horrible poems?) but I assure you it was appropriately insulting. A new chicken was purchased the next year to replace the poor decapitated capon.

It is still a badge of honor to receive the chicken. Jack and his cousins would be devastated every year when they’d open their pre-Christmas gift and it wouldn’t be the chicken. We had to contrive chicken gifts for them three years in a row just to get it out of the way. It’s hard to come up with a rubber chicken idea and poem for a ten year old!

But this isn’t a blog about Pre-Christmas. Dad made Christmas special in several other ways, but I should have written about that at Christmas. At least I have blog fodder for next Christmas. No, this is a blog about my Daddy, whose birthday is today.

I was Daddy’s Girl. Dad had two daughters, but I was It. Every girl, even my sister, should be a Daddy’s Girl. Sis got double billing with me as an adult, but as children we were very definitely divided. She was Mama’s and I was Daddy’s. We sort of shared our little brother, who came along half a decade later and was the only boy.

As Daddy’s Girl I had the seat of honor. I considered it the seat of honor, anyway. I think I more or less took the seat, but I had it nonetheless. I sat on the floor at his feet when we had company. I sat to his right at the dinner table. On weekends I snuggled with him on the couch and watched John Wayne and Henry Fonda and James Stewart. If he went somewhere I was the child who accompanied him.

When I was about eleven years old I rebelled completely against going to church, which I thought was stupid and pointless. I just didn’t buy the whole “god” concept, which was no more believable than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny in my mind. The story of Jesus and the ultimate sacrifice he made seemed ridiculous, and I said so rather vehemently. Martyrdom was foolish, no matter whether it was Jesus or Galileo. The choice between burning at the stake and telling a bunch of threatening men that I lied would have been easy for me. I’d be Galileo’s twin.

But at the tender age of eleven, too young even for confirmation in the church, it was Dad who told me that before I declared myself an atheist (I had no idea there was a name for it) I needed to consider whether there was a “Mover of the First Part.” There may not be a benevolent intelligence watching us now, but at some point, something, or someone, set the thing in motion. This was my first real theology lesson. It intrigued me a lot more than any Bible story ever could.

Because of this conversation with my Dad I was agnostic for years. I had to come to intellectual grips with the concept of infinity before I could put agnosticism away completely. Thanks to my dad, I actually studied theology, philosophy and religion instead of just saying, “This whole ‘Jesus and God’ thing is nonsense, and I want no part of it.” I still study religions. Maybe I’m still agnostic in some ways. Nah….

I have my Dad’s sense of humor. All three of his children do. The three of us have all remarked on multiple occasions how glad we are that we have Dad’s quickness to laugh, that we inherited the song that was in his heart. We are all basically happy people. We are happy on the outside and we are happy inside. My brother and I both struggle with depression, a genetic problem that comes from Mom’s side of the family. Believe it or not, though, even when we are depressed and at our worst, we are still optimists with a sense of fun. We are quick-witted. We see the irony in situations that make us sad.

Like Dad, all three of his children often laugh inappropriately. At the funeral of a family friend not too long ago, my brother and I walked in together a little late. Mom and Sis sat on the other side of the church. Jay and I opened the hymnal and the book that had the funeral service in it. We read the paper program. Then I noticed what I thought was a theme to the funeral.

“Jay!” I whispered, nudging him. “Do you notice that all these hymns have something to do with being submissive to God?”

He looked. Sure enough, each hymn had something about bondage or submission. He nodded. “Do you think the deceased and his wife were into BDSM?” I asked.

He moved a step away from me and turned red, trying to keep the laughter in. The widow was and is a woman of a very strong, dominant nature, and we were on the receiving end of her dominance many times growing up. The notion of her dominating her kind, soft-spoken, wheelchair-bound husband wasn’t far-fetched at all, but the idea that she’d do it in leather and with a flogger was making us snort.

Then came the concordant reading. More submission stuff. More bondage. Both of us were trying hard to keep a straight face, and we were not doing a good job. The homily was just as bad. Accepting death as God’s will, submitting whether we want to or not…

Yes, we laugh inappropriately. We should not have read anything naughty into the chosen hymns and texts of the funeral service. We were very bad. We will now submit to be punished, but only by the widow dressed in leather. (giggle) Dad would have found that to be hilariously, and inappropriately, funny as well. Too bad he missed it.

I was Daddy’s Girl. I didn’t care one thing about disappointing my mother or doing what she wanted me to do. If I thought I had disappointed Daddy, though, it was worse than being spanked, grounded, or otherwise punished. I never wanted to let my Daddy down. When Dad got angry at me, I knew I had truly screwed up. I knew I had to fix it.

When I was in my early 20’s and living 1500 miles away from him, I had a decision to make. It was a major decision, and I wanted him to tell me I was doing the right thing. I laid out the paths I could possibly take and I asked his advice. He said, “Why are you asking me? You’re just going to do what you want to anyway.” He said it gently. I realized that he was pointing out a flaw in my nature. I wanted him to reassure me that a decision I had already made was the right one. I didn’t really want his input.

Years later, when my husband said essentially the same thing to me, I understood that even though I had tried to be more conscientious about heeding the advice I was given, I wasn’t asking for it in the right way. I still have this flaw. Thanks to my dad, I am aware of it and it gives me a really guilty feeling whenever I realize that I’ve done it again. Gee, thanks, Dad.

Dad died very suddenly, either because of an aneurysm in his aorta or more probably from a deep vein thrombosis – a blood clot. He had been having problems with numbness in his left foot for several years and no doctor had been able to determine what was wrong. It’s likely that he had a clot in that numb area that finally made it to his heart and stopped it for good. His death devastated all of us.

Jack was ten years old when Dad died. We were talking about Dad one day not long after the memorial service, and Jack put his finger on what really made my Dad special. “You know what was great about Papa? He listened.”

That was really and truly what was great about my Dad. He did listen, and he listened well. He didn’t interrupt with advice. He didn’t change the subject because he was uncomfortable. He listened, he asked relevant questions, and he led us to the answer. He wasn’t afraid of feelings. If we needed to vent, he understood that and he let us vent. He only tried to solve problems when we asked him to. He helped us see solutions and he did it with humor, diplomacy, and quiet support.

My Dad was a great man because he listened.

I hope that when I die someone can say something that good about me.

I went to college where I did, then went to law school because of my dad. I accomplished what I have because of my dad’s support and encouragement. I look at life the way I do because I am my father’s daughter. I am who I am because I was Daddy’s Girl.

I love you, Daddy. Thank you for making me me. And Happy Birthday, you old fart.

January 6, 2008 Posted by | Conversations With Children, Death, Health, Lawyer, Personal, Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Final Proof


Imagine that you discover a document that absolutely proves whether or not God exists. Upon reading the document and finding the truth, you must decide whether or not to share the proof with the world. Would you?

Would it make a difference if the document proved the opposite of what you believed until you discovered it?

(Assume, for purposes of this question, that the document itself is proof enough)

November 28, 2007 Posted by | Philosophy | , , | Leave a comment

What if Guilt Disappeared?


This is an essay question on your final in a philosophy class:

Imagine that scientists create a new drug. When swallowed as a pill, it will completely and permanently eliminate feelings of guilt for prior events. Testing reveals that there are no harmful medical side effects. How should this pill be distributed?

Discuss.

November 27, 2007 Posted by | Philosophy | , , | Leave a comment

The Laughing Sutra: A Book Report


laughing-sutra.jpg

 

Let me tell you about a story I just read. It is enlightening, and I am compelled to share it with you. The book is called The Laughing Sutra, by Mark Salzman.

This is a book report, not a book review. I am telling you about the entire book, not just a tantalizing bit to get you to read the story. Skip the bit between the spoiler warning and the end of spoiler indicators below if you want to read the book without knowing what happens.

Knowing how it happens won’t necessarily spoil the book. In fact, I knew all along how it would end. The path to the end was a joyful, fun experience, though. I am not going to tell you of all of the adventures experienced by Hsun-Ching and Sun Wu K’ung. That part you really will need to experience for yourself.

The Laughing Sutra is a story about loyalty and learning. It is a story about companionship and the clash of cultures. It covers the period from just before Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution to the mid-1970’s.

The book opens in the early 1960’s with a solitary monk who calls himself Wei-Ching, “Guardian of the Scriptures,” who is painstakingly copying ancient Buddhist scrolls. Wei-Ching seeks enlightenment, and therefore seeks more scrolls to add to his library. He hears of a mysterious scroll called “The Laughing Sutra.” He is told that “[t]he Laughing Sutra is a scroll so precious that whoever understood its message would instantly perceive his Buddha-nature and … achieve immortality” along with his enlightenment. Wei-Ching is determined to find this scroll. He prepares for a trip to America to recover it from the man who has it.

As he is leaving, a mysterious, hairy man in ancient armor appears at the temple with a shivering boy with the long earlobes of wise men. The boy is Kuo Sheng-hui, whose name means “Flourishing Knowledge,” but the old monk does not know that because the boy is mute due to the trauma of being thrown over a waterfall by an attacker. The boy cannot remember anything of his former life. Time goes by and the monk becomes attached to the boy. He has abandoned his plans to go to America to find The Laughing Sutra so that he can care for the child.

The old monk reads the sutras to the mute boy, who does not seem interested. However, when he reads the boy a story about a monk traveling from China to India to find valuable Buddhist scrolls, the boy finally listens. The traveler in the story, Hsuan-Tsang, was accompanied by Sun Wu K’ung, a Monkey King who protected him with supernatural powers and martial arts. The story is interrupted by a storm, and the boy finally speaks to ask what happens next to the Monkey King, who the monk learns is the boy’s favorite character.

Wei-Ching believes that because of his advanced age he will not be able to make the journey to America himself to locate the Laughing Sutra, so he sees the timing of the boy’s recovery as a good omen. Perhaps the boy will go to America and seek the scroll in his place. Wei-Ching renames the boy Hsun-Ching, “Seeker of the Sutras.”

The boy proves to have a remarkable mind, an almost photographic memory. He learns to read Chinese, then English. He reads the ancient Chinese scrolls but finds them boring. Wei-Ching decides that his pupil should have better books to learn English, so they make a journey to a city.

Once in the city the boy encounters food such he has never before experienced. He asks his master, “I thought Buddhist monks never eat meat or drink, but tonight we had fish, ham and liquor. What will happen to us now?”

Wise Wei-Ching, in typical Chinese fashion, justifies the excesses. Indicating the impious chef and owner of the restaurant where they have enjoyed their meal, Wei-Ching explains, “It is true that one should not eat meat or drink liquor. But it is even more true that a Buddhist monk should be compassionate. That man needed to prepare us a good meal, to redeem himself for ignoring religion during his life. If we had refused, we would have prevented him from carrying out a pious act and gaining merit. So you see, we soiled ourselves temporarily, that he might be cleansed.”

The boy and the man live comfortably together even as the boy ages slowly and the old man ages quickly. Then, one terrible day in 1966, teenage members of the Red Guard stumble upon the temple, burn the precious scrolls, and brutalize the old monk. They threaten the old man’s life unless the boy joins them. Reluctantly Hsun-Ching goes with the Red Guard, but when Mao’s army stops the marauding of the Red Guard, the boy is quick to surrender. He is misidentified as the leader of the group of Red Guards and is sent to a reeducation work camp so that he can learn the true meaning of Chairman Mao’s message.

When an emaciated friend dies of encephalitis at the age of twelve in the work camp, prayers are prohibited. Nevertheless, Hsun-Ching sits by the grave and ponders the meaning of each word of the prayers he and Wei-Ching used to recite. He comes to the conclusion, “If there were really a Buddha, or a Goddess of Mercy, this couldn’t have happened.”

After ten years, Hsun-Ching is finally released from the work camp. He returns to the temple to find that Wei-Ching is still alive, but very feeble. The temple is in terrible shape, never having been repaired since a decade before when the Red Guards burned parts of it. Hsun-Ching, who is now twenty years old, plants a garden and tends to his old master.

The subject of the Laughing Sutra is raised, and Hsun-Ching decides to retrieve the scroll from America for his foster father. He feels that because ten years were taken from him in the work camps, his education was interrupted and he lost his faith. If he attempts to obtain the scroll for Wei-Ching, his life won’t be so much of a waste.

Wei-Ching suggests that Hsun-Ching travel to America with the man in the ancient armor who saved him all those years ago. He tells the boy where to find the strange man, and Hsun-Ching goes to the waterfall and finds him living alone in a cave.

The man tells Hsun-Ching to call him “Colonel Sun,” which seems appropriate given his brilliant yellow eyes. Hsun-Ching has to explain the communist revolution to Colonel Sun, and explains that Chairman Mao is dead and the Gang of Four have been smashed, but that China is still communist, which is supposed to be better than capitalist America. The Colonel snorts derisively and remarks that it is good, then, that the scroll is in America, because “we can just buy it from the owner instead of having to steal it from some nut who doesn’t believe in money.”

:::SPOILER WARNING:::

On the journey to the border of China and Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns from Colonel Sun that he is at least two thousand years old, and that the ancient armor he wears belonged to Emperor Shih Huang Ti, the founder of the Ch’in Dynasty in 221 B.C., and creator of the famous army of terra cotta soldiers. Once inside Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching learns that the colonel is at least 700 years older than that when the colonel gives him a bar of ancient gold to sell to raise money to buy them appropriate food and clothing.

In Hong Kong, Colonel Sun tells a story about traveling with a monk across a desert to find scrolls, and the lie he told that saved their lives. Hsun-Ching recognizes the story, and realizes that Colonel Sun is Sun Wu k’ung, the Monkey King from the book that helped him to speak after his trauma.

Separated from Colonel Sun in Hong Kong, Hsun-Ching is attacked by thieves and stabbed. Colonel Sun arrives and chases the thieves away, but Hsun-Ching passes out from his injury. He awakes in a ready to go back to China. He does not want people to be hurt in his quest for the Laughing Sutra. Colonel Sun convinces him not to give up the quest, then reveals that they are on a ship headed for America. Colonel Sun has made a deal with the captain of the ship that he will teach him martial arts, then will fight in a bar fight in San Francisco to pay for their passage to America. The Laughing Sutra is supposed to be in a museum in San Francisco.

Arriving at the museum in San Francisco, Hsun-Ching learns that the scroll has been given to the Dharma Institute, a place where Buddhism is studied by wealthy people. The lovely assistant curator helps him get an appointment with the director of the institute, but it is Friday afternoon and he cannot see the man until Monday morning. They part, and Hsun-Ching goes to find Colonel Sun at the bar where he is supposed to fight.

Something is wrong when he arrives at the bar. Boxing night has been moved to Tuesday, and dwarf tossing is now the feat for Friday night entertainment. Disgusted with the idea of throwing such a small man, Colonel Sun suggests throwing a full-sized man, and when he throws the captain of the ship that brought them to America over twenty-five feet, a huge bar brawl breaks out. Naturally, the police are summoned. The pair also lose their way back to China, since the ship’s captain no longer wants to have anything to do with Colonel Sun.

Taking the winnings from the bets at the bar, the two find a hotel. Colonel Sun is nearly incapacitated with pain. Because he has lost his temper and fought so far from home, he explains, he is weakened. He believes he will get stronger, though, and the next day they explore San Francisco, meet the stoned proprietor of a soup kitchen, and attend a modern art exhibition, spending the next night in the bus the soup kitchen operator lives in.

The next day the lovely assistant curator, who has befriended Hsun-Ching, takes them to the aquarium where they see an orca show. Believing the animal trainer to be a mighty warrior to dominate a sea monster in such a way, Colonel Sun insisted upon meeting him, then sent his spirit to speak to the man warrior to warrior. The animal trainer, however, turns blue and begins choking. Colonel Sun is disgusted at the lack of foundation the man’s mind has.

That night they eat at the soup kitchen and Colonel Sun meets an elderly Chinese man who tells him a tale of prejudice and bureaucratic hell that prevented the man from being reunited with his wife, who had to remain in China. The man, who sent all of his earnings to his wife in China, is homeless and poor and his eyesight is failing. Colonel Sun sees a strength in him, though, and admires the man’s courage and perseverance in the face of the adversity he has endured.

The next morning Hsun-Ching and Colonel Sun return to the Dharma Institute to retrieve the Laughing Sutra. They are almost turned away, but the director of the institute, believing them to be Tibetan, finally welcomes them. However, the director tricks Hsun-Ching into admitting he is not Tibetan, and then evicts both the Chinese men without allowing them to see the Laughing Sutra.

Hsun-Ching despairs, and tells Colonel Sun that he has decided to stay in America and not return to China. Colonel Sun takes his leave of Hsun-Ching at that point, because he came on the journey to help the young man get the scroll. America has no soul, only appearance, he says, refusing Hsun-Ching’s pleas for him to stay in America, too.

Hsun-Ching sneaks back into the Dharma Institute and hides in the men’s room until he hears the front door being locked. He creeps out, but is dismayed to hear footsteps and the sound of heavy things being moved. Finally he goes to the storage room and sees that it is Colonel Sun who is making all the racket. They find the scroll of the Laughing Sutra.

As they are leaving they set off a burglar alarm, though. The police come, but see only one of the Chinese men. The colonel tells the younger man to stay hidden and to escape when he has the attention of the police. Terrified, Hsun-Ching sees Colonel Sun shot by the police and throw himself into the ocean, swimming until he disappears under the waves far from land.

Hsun-Ching barely reaches the ship before it leaves, and as he attempts to get back into China he is arrested and the scroll is taken from him. He is put through much interrogation and is told that in order for Wei-Ching to be allowed to read the Laughing Sutra, he must say publicly that he found the West to be a decadent place and that he wanted nothing more than to return to China when he attempted to run away. He agrees.

Granted permission to read the scroll himself, Hsun-Ching finds most of it incomprehensible, The monk with whom Colonel Sun had gone to India to obtain the scroll had added a colophon to the very end, summarizing it. Essentially, the Laughing Sutra explains that the desire for enlightenment is really no different from desire for more worldly things. Understanding this “unity of desire,” understanding that the desire for enlightenment is no different that desire for wealth or possessions, is what makes the person seeking enlightenment laugh, and what makes the achievement of true enlightenment possible. A person seeking enlightenment for the sake of achieving it, and not coming to enlightenment naturally, will not understand the Laughing Sutra.

Determined that Wei-Ching will not have the damning words of the ancient monk to disappoint him, Hsun-Ching cuts the colophon off the end of the scroll before giving it to his foster father. The dying old man reads the scroll in his hospital bed, but turns to the young man sadly. He explains that the scroll is full of superstitious nonsense. But then he begins to laugh. “It is as the Buddha said all along: Enlightenment cannot be found in books. It must be experienced directly! Foolish as I was, I did not take him at his word. But now I do! I am free!” Wei-Ching has understood the point of the Laughing Sutra.

Colonel Sun, who was saved from the policeman’s bullet by one of the gold bars he always carried, has also returned to China and has accompanies the young man as he spreads Wei-Ching’s ashes a few weeks later. The old man had only a couple of weeks left to enjoy his enlightenment. Within a few month, Hsun-Ching is offered a job because of his superior English-speaking skills and relations with America are normalized. He receives a letter from the lovely assistant curator at the American museum telling him that she is coming to visit. Perhaps Hsun-Ching’s life got better from this point.

:::END OF SPOILER:::

The book contains many pearls of wisdom. It is funny, sad, poignant, and wise. Here are a few gems from its pages:

Wei-Ching, to himself, before meeting the boy: “Buddhist literature often reminds us that true knowledge cannot be found in books. If that is so, why is there any Buddhist literature at all?….When asked this question, an enlightened master once said, ‘If I see the moon, but you do not, I will point at it. First you will watch my finger to see where it goes. Eventually, however, you must take your eyes off my finger and find the moon for yourself.’ So it is with the sutras. The point you toward truth but must not be confused with truth itself.”

“Bad action produces bad karma,” the boy Hsun-Ching remarks when he sees the body of the Red Guard leader who had attacked an old man lying in the street of a city.

When Hsun-Ching objects to Colonel Sun’s statement that they may have to kill border guards to get out of China, Colonel Sun declares, “I’m not saying we should kill innocent people! I’m telling you that, regardless of your intentions, you’re about to start something that may get you into trouble. You must be prepared to defend yourself if you’re threatened!…You want to leave China to do an old man a favor, to make his life’s dream come true, but those men are prepared to shoot you down if you try, and they think they have a right to do it! Well, I’m telling you they don’t! They have no more right to do that than a criminal does to stab you for your money.”

When Colonel Sun disarms and vanquishes attacking policemen by basically staring them down, Hsun-Ching is amazed. “I cannot explain why it works,” the colonel explains. “If you fear nothing, not even death itself, then you grow strong. You can look at a man with an intent to cut through him, and he will feel crushed by your gaze.

Colonel Sun to a disbelieving Hsun-Ching: “Be courteous and stop telling me who I can or cannot be.”

Colonel Sun: “War is a terrible fact of life, but if it is inescapable, then you must approach it as an art. Otherwise, defeat is certain.”

Colonel Sun: “You can’t live without suffering losses now and then, that’s just a fact. But you can’t lose spirit over it. It should strengthen your resolve!”

Colonel Sun: “Anything you do out of loyalty or friendship looks foolish when you add up the expenses. …[but] stick to it and don’t worry about the costs.”

Hsun-Ching: “Loyalty is something we do for other people.”

Colonel Sun: “When you make a promise, you carry it out, regardless of how foolish it may seem.”

The wisdom of The Laughing Sutra is more than just what we eventually learn the scroll itself has to say. The wisdom of the book by Mark Salzman teaches us that loyalty has its price as well as its reward. It also teaches us never to go to a foreign country without first getting the proper currency.

October 1, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Philosophy, Religion | , , , , , | 1 Comment

A Trick of the Tail


“Katie, you’re supposed to be drawing a picture of your friend!” Emily’s voice was a shrill, plaintive, tattle-tale whine that crawled under Miss Simpson’s skin and set up housekeeping.“Emily, let me handle any problems, please,” she said, moving quickly to Katie’s desk. Emily’s words had already cut poor Katie, though. The tiny redhead had quit drawing and her face was scrunched into a fierce scowl. Her thin arms crossed, then uncrossed stiffly, then crossed again tight against her little chest as she hunched protectively over her drawing. She didn’t look up when Miss Simpson reached for the paper.

“I told you!” Emily trumpeted as the teacher’s eyes fell on the drawing.

“This is a very good drawing, Katie,” said Miss Simpson. “Emily, keep your eyes on your own work, please.”

“Well, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to!” protested Emily.

“That’s really no concern of yours, now is it? And if you don’t mind your own business you’ll sit in the hallway for the rest of art period.”

Emily sniffed audibly and glared at Katie. What a perfect victim the brat makes, thought Miss Simpson.

At time for recess, Katie was slow to leave her desk and even slower to pull on her jacket. Miss Simpson bit her lip, then made a decision.“Katie, would you talk to me for a moment before you go outside?”

Katie turned slowly and walked woodenly over to Miss Simpson’s desk.

“That really was a good drawing,” Miss Simpson said with a smile. The child’s eyebrows knit together and her frown became, if anything, darker. She stood to the side of Miss Simpson’s desk glowering at a mote perhaps two feet off the ground and somewhere to the left.

“It really was okay for you to draw a picture of a friend other people can’t see.”

This time the little girl cut her eyes at Miss Simpson. “Other people see him,” she muttered.

Miss Simpson sighed.

“Katie, I’m going to ask Mr. Carson to spend some time with you, okay? And you can talk to him about problems you might be having with Emily or with the other students, or even at home. He’s a really nice man and he’s a good listener.”

Katie shrugged. The motion was exaggerated, defensive. The mote had moved another foot to the left, and the child took a half step toward it, still glowering.

“Go ahead to recess.” Miss Simpson watched the child slowly stomp out of the room.

***

“Miss Simpson showed me the picture you drew of your friend. Why don’t you tell me about him?”

Mr. Carson’s cajoling tone seemed not to penetrate Katie’s sullen mien. She sat tight-lipped in the molded plastic chair kicking her feet alternately toward the metal waste can. The school counselor’s cramped office could barely hold the two chairs, his desk, a file cabinet, and stacks of papers, files and books that littered every available surface. Mr. Carson allowed nearly two full minutes of silence before he spoke again.

“I’m going to talk to your parents,” he commented decisively. Katie shrugged her exaggerated shrug and swung her feet harder.

***

Mr. Carson rang the doorbell at the house on the edge of the small town. A baby cried somewhere behind the closed door. Footsteps pounded rapidly closer and a boy about ten years old and as red-haired and freckled as Katie threw open the door. “Mom!” he bawled over the staccato barks of a terrier when he saw who the visitor was. A man dressed in a sleeveless undershirt came from what appeared to be the kitchen.

“Mr. Holden? I’m Fred Carson.” The counselor held out his hand for a shake and Katie’s father led him to a sofa covered with unfolded laundry. Thrusting the clothes into a plastic basket sitting next to the sofa, Mr. Holden waved at the counselor to sit. A moment later they were joined by Mrs. Holden.

“It isn’t abnormal for a girl Katie’s age to have an imaginary friend,” began the counselor.

“Tishapus isn’t imaginary,” said Mrs. Holden.

Mr. Carson cleared his throat. “What I mean is that children often create playmates when they feel isolated among their peers.”

“He’s not her playmate,” said Mrs. Holden.

Mr. Carson shifted uncomfortably on the couch. “Perhaps you don’t understand. Katie insists that she has a friend who looks like a faun, or a satyr – like Mr. Tumnus in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. I assume that’s where she got the idea, anyway.”

The Holdens exchanged a look. Mrs. Holden nodded slightly to her husband, and Mr. Holden rose. “Please excuse me a moment,” he said. Mr. Carson gestured permissively.

As her husband left the room, Katie’s mother turned to face the school counselor directly. “Mr. Carson, we don’t expect you to believe Katie. We hope you will believe your own eyes, though.”

Before he could respond, Mr. Carson’s jaw dropped and his eyes widened. Accompanying Mr. Holden back into the living room was a creature about five feet tall which looked for all the world like it had the legs and haunches of a goat, the torso of a man, and wickedly curved horns on its head.

“Mr. Carson, meet Tishapus,” said Mr. Holden.

***

Detective Dennis P. O’Leary banged the empty coffee mug down so hard it should have broken. The sharp sound bounced off the bare walls of the interrogation room. The stranger on the other side of the table winced just slightly at the noise, then his expression smoothed out again.

“I told you, we don’t take to vagrants here in my town,” O’Leary barked. The stranger’s wide-eyed stare didn’t betray fear. Inexplicably, he only seemed curious, his head cocked slightly to one side.

“Why not?” asked the stranger in his odd, lilting accent.

“Why not? Why NOT?” blustered O’Leary. “Because we don’t!”

The stranger nodded thoughtfully. O’Leary had the notion the stranger was filing his response away to study later.

“What do you tolerate, then?” the stranger asked. His words were mild, not at all confrontational.

“What do you mean, ‘What do we tolerate’? We tolerate law-abiding citizens and visitors who know their place!”

“What place is that?”

O’Leary’s eyes narrowed as he leaned across the table, his out-thrust chin close to the stranger’s long goatee. “Are you getting smart with me, boy? Because if you’re getting smart with me you won’t be leaving my jail until a judge says you can.”

The stranger’s expression showed confusion for just a fleeting flash of a moment, then rearranged to display detached curiosity. “I am trying to become smarter, yes,” he answered. “Will you share your knowledge with me?” He held up his oddly deformed hand and reached toward O’Leary.

O’Leary slammed his big fist on the table so hard the empty ceramic mug jumped. The stranger jumped slightly, too.

“Boy, your mouth is getting you in deeper,” warned the burly policeman.

“Deeper?” This time the stranger’s confusion lingered in his expression for more than a split second. “I do not understand ‘deeper.’ Can you explain it to me in other words?”

O’Leary spun on his heel and banged on the locked door, which opened almost immediately to admit a smaller man who nodded to O’Leary as the policeman left the room. The new man took the seat O’Leary had vacated. He was silent for almost three full minutes, just studying the stranger through frankly appraising eyes. Then he cleared his throat.

“Do you remember me?” he asked.

“You are Doctor Will Handy. I remember you.”

“The police need your real name,” Handy said.

“I do not believe they will be able to pronounce my name. They may call me Tishapus, like the others do.”

“The police need your real name,” Handy repeated.

The stranger was quiet for a moment, then Handy’s head spun as a whisper of sound, emotion, and images assaulted his mind. Even seated solidly in his chair the psychologist nearly lost his balance.

“Tishapus is a good name,” the stranger explained.

“No, I need your name,” Handy objected. Again the feelings, images, and unrepeatable tones washed over him.

“Really, Tishapus will have to do, unless you prefer to use a different word for me.”

Handy’s head swam, but this time from understanding. “That’s your name?” he whispered. “How did you do that?”

The stranger peered intently into Will Handy’s eyes for several long moments. “My language works differently than yours,” he finally said. The statement was so obviously true, and so obviously impossible, that Dr. Handy’s mind reeled.

The psychologist rose shakily and paced the room. He returned to the chair, sat down, sat silently for a moment, then rose again and stood across the table from the stranger.

“Where are you from?” he asked Tishapus.

“The children call it Heaven, but it is not the heaven of your culture’s religious belief system.”

“The children are right,” Handy said it almost to himself, but the stranger heard and nodded.

“The young always accept notions foreign to them much easier than do fully grown creatures,” agreed the stranger. “In this case I believe they have imposed a familiar idea onto their new knowledge. It most likely makes the new knowledge easier for them to talk about among themselves and with others.”

Will Handy nodded thoughtfully.

“Where will you go if the police release you?” he asked after a few moments.

“Katie’s playhouse is comfortable for my present purposes,” the stranger said amiably.

“You understand that Mike and Beth Holden say you can stay in their home, don’t you?”

“Yes, but my studies will best be conducted if the local population has better access to me. Although it would probably be the best place for my research, Mike Holden said that I could probably not stay in the gazebo in the park.” The stranger hesitated. “Who could give me permission to station myself in the park gazebo?”

“You’re actually serious,” Handy said. It was a statement, not a question.

“Of course,” the stranger – Tishapus – said.

“And you have no money, so you can’t get a room at May’s boardinghouse.”

The stranger shrugged. “Money is a concept I had not planned upon when I came to study your species.”

“My species? Not my society or my culture, but my species?”

Tishapus nodded. “We must understand the basics of your species before we try to study your social structure in great detail.”

“You’re telling me there are more… people … like you?”

“You did not expect this to be true?” the stranger’s demeanor radiated cool amusement. “Interesting.”

Handy stepped back from the table. “Excuse me, please, Tishapus.”

“Of course.”

In the hallway outside the interrogation room Handy conferred with Detective O’Leary and Captain Mitchell. “I’ve not encountered anyone like him, that’s for sure,” he began.

O’Leary snorted. “Fellow’s crazy, ain’t he? We need to call the State Hospital and have him committed.”

“No, I don’t think so,” Handy disagreed.

“You don’t really think it’s okay to let him go back to that little girl’s playhouse and camp out, receiving guests like he’s visiting royalty, do you?” the big detective sneered.

“Come on, Detective. This is something different than a regular stranger in town. You have to recognize that. You recognize it, don’t you, Tom?” Handy asked the captain.

“He’s not in a costume, that’s for sure,” Mitchell replied.

O’Leary rolled his eyes. “The hell he’s not!”

“Dennis, for Pete’s sake. His knees bend the wrong way. That’s no costume.”

“Prosthetic legs. And he’s deformed. He’s as human as you or me. His mama was on drugs or something when she was pregnant is all,” O’Leary stated flatly.

“Detective, did you ask his name?” Handy inquired.

“Yeah. He wouldn’t say. He just kind of whistled at me.”

“Whistled at you,” Will Handy echoed.

“I’m saying we should take him up to the State Hospital and have him worked over by the docs there. Not that you aren’t a doctor, Doc Handy, but you know what I mean.” O Leary’s communication skills were better suited to interrogation than to diplomacy.

“No, Dennis, he’s done nothing wrong and the parents of those kids aren’t worried about him being a danger. The Holdens have even invited him to stay in their home. No one will say he’s a danger to himself or to anyone else, other than Dave Hernandez, that is, and you know he’s never happy about anything. We can’t have him committed unless we think there’s some problem.”

“Being delusional isn’t a problem?” O’Leary demanded incredulously.

“If the delusion isn’t harming him or someone else, then no, it’s not a problem. And to be honest, I’m not so certain he’s delusional.”

Captain Mitchell nodded at Dr. Handy’s words. “I’m going to release him, then. The Holdens are waiting and want to take him home with them.”

“Wait a minute,” objected O’Leary. “What if he’s a child molester? We can’t just let him go.”

“Detective, I have interviewed the fellow, and so has Dr. Jenner. Aside from possible eccentricity, we find no delusions that we can verify as delusions. The guy isn’t human. If he is, then he’s the next step on the evolutionary ladder and we can’t verify that there are similar mutations anywhere in the world. In short, he’s not from around here. We have nothing to indicate he is a threat.”

“Not only that, but if we lock him up then we’re going to have some angry citizens to deal with,” added Captain Mitchell. “Bill Costello has drafted a habeas corpus petition that he’s going to file with Judge Miller if we hold this fellow much longer. And Judge Miller’s kid is one of Katie Holden’s friends. She’s been playing with this … Tishapus. With her daddy’s permission, I might add.”

Detective O’Leary threw up his hands in disgust. “Fine,” he snapped. “But this won’t be the end of it. I can promise this fellow’s going to be trouble sooner or later.”

***

“The Bradford County Cantaloupe Festival is apparently getting off to a good start. We’ll check back with our weather team shortly and get a live update on weather conditions for the weekend. In other news, an event of a different sort seems to be going on in the small community of Pleasant Ridge. Candy Olsen is on the scene and will tell us more.”

The red light on the camera let Candy Olsen know she was being beamed live into the living rooms of television viewers across the region. She smiled directly at the red glow and began speaking.

“Thank you, Frankie. I am waiting at the home of the Holden family of Pleasant Ridge for an event that may be monumental indeed. The being that calls itself “Tishapus” has agreed to give Channel 8 an interview, and in a few moments I hope to be sitting with him at the picnic table you see behind me. There is a festival atmosphere here. It seems the entire town has turned out to observe the interview. We’ll be broadcasting the interview on the late news tonight.”

The red light blinked out as the anchor on the set, an hour’s drive away, resumed reading from the teleprompter.

The petite blonde television news reporter settled herself uncomfortably at the child-size picnic table in the Holden’s front yard. Despite her cheerful assertion, the little house on the edge of the middle class neighborhood on the edge of the small town didn’t really seem festive. Sure, people milled around everywhere, but their faces were solemn, guarded. No festival ever seems to be protectively distrustful of television cameras. When the lens would swing in their direction more often than not the people of Pleasant Ridge frowned and looked away. Candy Olsen was certain that people attending the Bradley County Cantaloupe Festival were grinning as they ate their melons and danced in the street. She was fairly certain people there would pose for the cameras and act silly. There was no foolishness or gaiety at the Holdens’ home, though.

A commotion by the small frame house drew the attention of the people milling about the yard. Indistinct voices hummed in a higher pitch of excitement and a knot of movement crossed the 30 or so feet toward the picnic table.

The creature had been described to her, but the reporter was not quite prepared for actually seeing it in reality. In one corner of her mind she was aware that she was staring stupidly and that her gaping mouth was being caught on film. She couldn’t pull her wide eyes away from the creature, though.

Its face was vaguely human, but the planes and angles were wrong. The face looked like one of those Photoshop images of the sheep-child that periodically appear on the cover of the sillier supermarket tabloids. The face was too narrow, too long; the cheekbones too high; the beard – no, there was no beard, except for the white tuft the grew in an elegantly thick corkscrew curl from the creature’s chin. Sleek silver-gray fur covered the creature’s torso and face, then became curly ginger brown at the crown of the creature’s head. At waist level, the ginger fur reappeared, longer, curlier and denser. What was it called when dogs had that kind of coat? Wire-hair. The mouth, almost a snout or a muzzle but not quite, curved upward at the corners. She wanted to reach out and touch the horns. Were they densely matted hair, like the horn of a rhinoceros? Were they light and woody, like the antlers of a deer, or bony like those of a ram?

Candy Olsen rose from her perch on the bench of the picnic table. Tishapus walked gracefully toward her. His knees bend backwards, went through her mind. Those aren’t hooves. I thought he had deer hooves, but those are pads, or paws. No, they are hooves, they just don’t look like any hooves I’ve ever seen. Her observations of the creature’s physical characteristics fled as she felt a nudge against her mind and the sensation of amusement, not her own amusement but someone else’s tickled the edges of her consciousness.

Tishapus stopped nearly three feet away from her and bowed slightly. She saw what she thought was a stubby tail tipped with a copy of his goatee. She started to say something, then wasn’t sure what to say.

“Hello.” That was inane, she thought. What a great first impression I’m making. She mentally shook herself. She wasn’t there to make a good impression. She was there for an interview.

The reported indicated the picnic table. “Shall we sit? I’m Candy Olsen.”

The creature bowed again and moved to one end of the table. Rather than sitting on the bench he sat on his haunches. He leaned forward and crossed his arms on the table.

“Please you will excuse me,” he said softly, “But it is not comfortable for me to sit on a bench or chair the way your kind does.”

“N-no, I suppose it wouldn’t be comfortable,” she replied, unable to take her eyes off the creature.

“You have questions you would like me to answer?” She heard his voice in her ears and in her mind at the same time. She wasn’t altogether certain that his spoken words were what she really understood.

“Yes,” she said, and nervously consulted her notes. The interview began.

***

“Candy, we can’t use any of this for the playback on the late news. You’ll have to summarize what he said.” The frustration in the editor’s voice dismayed the reporter.

“None of it? But he was eloquent and answered the questions beautifully! What do you mean you can’t use it?”

“Have you listened to the tapes?”

“No, why would I? You are the editor. I just do the interview.”

“Candy, the creature didn’t speak. He sang. Or, it sort of sounds like singing. And he didn’t use words. I don’t know how you talked with him.”

“What do you mean, he didn’t use words? He spoke plainly and clearly. Everyone there heard him!”

“Watch the playback, Candy. Just watch it.”

Sighing with exasperation, the reporter nodded to the cameraman. He began the playback.

Moments later, Candy Olsen stalked away to create a summary of her interview with the creature. No one had taken notes. It was all being captured on camera, so there had been no need for notes.

***

“I’m going to miss you. I wish you wouldn’t go.”

“I will miss you, too, little one.”

“Why can’t you stay?”

“When I left my home no one believed I could come here. I have learned about your race and now I need to go back home and tell my people about you.”

“Who’s going to tell other people here about you, though?”

“The ones here who saw me and knew me will tell. They will tell the people they encounter, and those people will tell others.”

“No one believed you were real until they saw you. Once you’re gone no one will believe in you, either.”

The creature looked at the human child with sadness. “Whether or not the people who hear of me believe, those who saw me do. They know. You know.”

The little girl sighed. “What if your family and friends don’t believe you about us?” She felt Tishapus’s wry amusement.

“They probably won’t. Creatures with no tails? And intelligent creatures without horns? And the odd way your bodies are constructed? They will laugh at me and call me crazy.”

“Then why tell them?”

Tishapus thought for a moment.

“I will tell them because knowledge is good, and if our races ever meet for trade my people should understand you people’s customs.”

Katie was quiet. Then she asked, “Is that why so many of the grown-ups are going with you?”

“Yes. They want to know how to get to my people. And I think some of them still don’t believe that my people exist or that my home exists.”

“I want to come with you, too.”

“I would like that. When you are older, perhaps you can be the ambassador from your race to mine.”

Katie smiled. She hopped down from her perch on the swing and hugged Tishapus. He hugged her back.

***

The vehicles had been left behind when the road ended. A group of eight men and women hiked the mountainous trail with the creature called Tishapus. Mike and Beth Holden, who had hosted him, Bill Costello, who had defended him, Candy Olsen, who had interviewed him, Dr. Willard Handy, who had examined his mind, and Dr. Emma Jenner, who had examined his body were the friendly people along for the trip. Dennis O’Leary, who had never stopped doubting him and Freddy Carson, who had reported him as a suspicious vagrant to the authorities, were there to represent those who refused to believe what was plainly in front of them.

They were above the tree line and the terrain had become more difficult. As the group crested a ridge, there was an area that was fairly flat before a cliff face rose again. Tishapus headed for a cave opening in the cliff.

“I thought we might camp here for the night,” he explained.

Detective O’Leary snorted. “You’ve brought us all the way up here to camp out. How nice.” He had grumbled and complained the entire trek.

Bill Costello shook his head. “Give it a rest, O’Leary,” he said in disgust. “You’ll get your proof in the morning.”

Talking quietly among themselves the group began making camp.

After eating their dinner, the Holdens, Costello, and the two doctors sat near the cave entrance and played cards. O’Leary and Carson sat off by themselves talking quietly. Tishapus had wandered away from the campsite to the open terrain. Candy Olsen fidgeted with her camcorder, then walked the short distance to the creature.

“I hope I can film the city better than I could film you,” she said as she seated herself next to him.

Tishapus glanced at her and again she felt his amusement wash over her. His melancholy mood dampened it somewhat, though. “That will be a difficult experience to explain to my people,” he said.

Candy snorted. “It was difficult to explain to mine,” she agreed.

They sat quietly for a time, gazing at the flood of stars that just couldn’t be seen from populated places. “Do they look the same where you live?” The reporter asked.

“The stars are the same,” nodded Tishapus. “And they are just as difficult to see from my city as they are to see from yours.”

“I suppose that is a price civilization must pay.”

“One of many prices,” agreed the creature.

“What do you believe is the steepest price we pay to live in a society?”

“Is this another interview?”

The reporter laughed softly. “I seem to have a habit of asking questions.”

“Yes. But they are good questions.” Tishapus fell silent and Candy contented herself with soaking in the sounds and ambience of the night. An hour passed, then two. She was content to sit silently beside this strange creature.

“Acceptance,” said Tishapus.

“Excuse me?”

“Acceptance.”

“What are you talking about?”

“The steepest price we pay to live in a society. We give up acceptance.”

Candy thought for a moment. “Acceptance of what? Acceptance by whom?”

“Giving up the acceptance of what our senses tell us.”

Candy looked at Tishapus quizzically. “Who rejects what they see and hear?”

Waves of sadness washed over Candy, and she knew it was a projection from Tishapus.

“How many of your people who saw me accepted me immediately?”

Candy hesitated. There were so many who had claimed Tishapus was wearing a costume or that he was a trained animal performing for his handlers. Twice Tishapus had been asked to travel with a carnival because his “costuming” was so good. Ripley’s Believe It Or Not™ offered him a lifetime billeting as a permanent attraction at its main museum, with travel benefits and luxury accommodations when he would travel to its locations worldwide. Tishapus was a freak, a sideshow attraction. Very few people believed he was a member of a real species. At worst they referred to him as a mutant. At best, they called him deformed.

“It’s hard to accept what is strange to us, what we’ve never before seen,” she said aloud.

Tishapus nodded. “When we live in a group the group’s opinion matters. If the group thinks something is odd, wrong, or somehow unacceptable, then the individual will adopt the same opinion. It makes learning new things very difficult.”

“Do your people act this way, too?”

“My people will not believe me when I tell of my visit here. They believe that creatures such as yourself are the creatures of myth.”

“I wonder if it has always been this way.”

“I believe it has not. I believe when both of our species were younger, we accepted strange and unusual things with curiosity, not disbelief. I believe that we once accepted things more easily.”

“It’s a shame our civilizations have advanced so far, then,” Candy remarked. “One voice cannot change minds.”

“The individual’s opinion matters for nothing unless he can convince the group to agree. I cannot imagine that this is anything new. Even in a primitive society, the individual needs the cooperation of the group in order to survive.”

“‘No man is an island,’” quoted the reporter.

“An apt description. No, no individual can really survive alone. Our species are both very social species. So despite the evidence the individual sees, he must sometimes reject what he knows to be true in order to be accepted, or he risks being ostracized from his society, shunned or ridiculed for his nonsensical beliefs. He rejects the proof and reality of his senses for the acceptance of the group, because that is how individuals survive.”

Candy didn’t respond immediately.

“You’re talking about acceptance on many levels,” she finally said.

“Yes,” agreed Tishapus quietly.

***

When she sun’s first rays flooded the floor of the high ledge, Tishapus leaped up with a glad cry. Candy Olsen, who had fallen asleep sometime during her vigil with the creature, opened her eyes to a flash of brightness that was gone almost as soon as she sensed it, but which left behind an impression of golden minarets against a turquoise sky.

“Do you see? Do you see?” Bill Costello’s excitement was met by a gasp of “oh!” from Beth Holden, who walked dreamlike toward the rising sun, and by exclamations of “yes!” from Will Handy and Emma Jenner. Mike Holder said nothing, but in three strides had caught up with his wife, grasped her hand, and joined her eastward movement.

Then Tishapus was gone.

“I didn’t see anything,” announced Dennis O’Leary.

“Me, either,” groused Freddy Carson. “Let’s have breakfast and head back down the mountain. I guess Tishapus ran off in the night.”

July 5, 2007 Posted by | Children, Creative Writing, Fiction, Philosophy, Science Fiction/Fantasy, Writing | Leave a comment

Pay It Forward


Am I conservative in my world views? Am I liberal? I am conservative when it comes to my money and what I think taxes ought to pay for. I also believe that society tends to take care of its own. That makes me more libertarian, I suppose.

I have a fairly liberal way of looking at the world in a lot of situations. I believe some of my attitudes could be considered progressive. I’m compassionate to the disadvantaged and I take social issues to heart. I value equality and appreciate diversity.

I believe each of us has a moral obligation to aid someone else who needs it. I subscribe to the “Pay it Forward” philosophy. Karma comes around for us all, and our “savings” of good deeds will make us more likely to benefit from someone else’s good act as well. Luck is a state of mind as much as it is effort. When I see someone who makes an effort but can’t quite get to her goal, I’m more inclined than not to give her a boost over that last hurdle if I can. And I will go out of my way to do it – especially if going out of my way isn’t a big deal.

Look at the couple who had no children, but with the help of a friend or even a stranger was able to adopt. If we could help the girl who, before she was 18, was kicked out of the house by her mother’s boyfriend, will we miss the money? Will we regret the hours spent on the telephone listening to a teenager cry as yet another foster mother tells her she has to leave?

The common thread here is family, and children. A teenage mother, thrust into the foster care system and astounded that anyone could buy groceries without food stamps; an abused and neglected child who only wants to be accepted for who she is; a loving couple with more love to give than they are allowed by nature to share. These are the people who make up our world. These are the people who shape the present and the future, and the present and future of every single person who comes into contact with them. And each one of them is worth the extra effort.

I wish more people would subscribe to the “pay it forward” mentality. The world would be a better place.

June 15, 2007 Posted by | Children, Philosophy, Politics | Leave a comment

Ishmael, Part II


Ishmael, Part II magnify

I appreciate the comments on the first installment of my blog on Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn. The second installment on this book is the more interesting, in my opinion. Why? Because it explains part of the mythology of our culture by retelling two important stories we all know. Both are stories from the Book of Genesis.

Although I may draw the ire of Bible literalists when I say this, I think the explanations Quinn gives of the Fall of Man (Adam’s banishment from Eden) and of the story of Cain and Abel make supreme allegorical sense. The explanations opened doors in my mind.

All of us are familiar with the story of the Fall. God tells Adam that he can eat from any tree in Eden except the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Adam eats from it so God banishes him from the Garden. (I am deliberately leaving out Eve and her role because the word “Adam” means “mankind, ” and mankind is what Ishmael is concerned with.) Most of us are taught that this act of disobedience was something God could not tolerate. When Adam ate the fruit of the tree he realized he was naked and was ashamed. Hello, instantaneous cultural mores!

Ishmael explains the story from a slightly different perspective: that of the gods. The fruit of the tree gave knowledge of good and evil, but it did not impart the wisdom of how to use that knowledge in the long term. Knowing that something is good in the moment does not mean that that same thing will be good in the future. Also, what is good for one may be evil for another. Mankind is too selfish to make that distinction: if something is good for Man now, then that is Man’s choice. If it results in later harm, well, Man will choose to deal with the consequences later. Just like someone commented on yesterday’s blog, humans want instant gratification.

The example Ishmael gives is of predator and prey. If the lion kills the gazelle, it is good for the lion and the lion lives to hunt another day but it is bad for the gazelle, which dies. If the lion misses the kill, it is bad for the lion because the lion starves to death, but it is good for the gazelle which lives for another day. By controlling his ecology and his world, Man has assumed the mantle of choosing which lives and which dies in this scenario. Although man has the gods’ knowledge of good and evil, Man does not have the gods’ wisdom to choose correctly every time. Man’s poor choices result in an ecological imbalance.

The knowledge of good and evil is therefore something entirely situational for Man. Man only chooses what is good for him at the time. Man does not choose what is good for the world at all times. He cannot. Man’s arrogance and his mistaken belief that he has both the power and the wisdom of the gods is his own undoing. It will cause his own destruction.

The second Genesis tale Ishmael relates is what we know as the First Murder. The sons of Adam, Cain, a farmer, and Abel, a herder, both make sacrifices to their god. Cain is jealous because the god prefers Abel’s sacrifice, and kills him. Cain is banished from society as a result and carries a mark that identifies him as evil.

Ishmael tells the man that although the Hebrews preserved the story of the brothers, it was a Semite story to begin with. The Semites were a culture that predated the Hebrews and the Arabs. The Semites lived on the Arabian peninsula and in the fertile crescent of the Tigris-Euphrates valley. As Leavers, they took only what they needed and left the rest alone. The were hunter-gatherers and later nomadic herders. In years of plenty, humans and other animal and plant species flourished. In years of famine, the numbers of all species diminished. They would flourish again when food became plentiful.

Agriculture is believed to have begun in the Fertile Crescent. When Man began farming, animals were no longer allowed to graze on farmland. The farmers produced much more food than they needed, and times of famine became less frequent. The species that had lived where the farmers were cultivating land moved elsewhere. As more land was put under cultivation, the farmers, now a Taker society reshaping the world to suit themselves, pushed the nomadic Leavers from their lands. The story of Cain murdering Abel is the story of the northern Taker Semitic tribes murdering the southern nomadic Semitic Leaver tribes to make room for more agriculture. It is a story of war.

The gods prefer Abel’s way of life, which allows all living things to flourish in good times and which means all living things suffer equally during lean times. Cain is banished from living in the hands of the gods because he has assumed the mantle of the gods by reforming the world to his own purposes. The mark that identifies him as evil is his arrogance and continuing destruction of the very planet he needs to maintain in order to survive.

Basically, Ishmael explains, Takers believe that the world belongs to Man, whereas Leavers believe that Man belongs to the world. Takers see themselves as running the world. Leavers allow the gods to run the world. The gods, of course, prefer Leavers, and Leavers are sustainable. Takers are not, and will eventually destroy themselves along with their world in contradiction to the gods’ intentions.

In his final lesson with Ishmael, the man asks for a program to save the world. Ishmael tells him,

“The story of Genesis must be undone. First, Cain must stop murdering Abel. This is essential if you’re to survive. The Leavers are the endangered species most critical to the world- not because they’re humans but because they alone can show the destroyers of the world that there is no one right way to live. And then, of course, you must spit out the fruit of the forbidden tree. You must absolutely and forever relinquish the idea that you know who should live and who should die on this planet.”

“Yes, I see all that, but that’s a program for mankind to follow, that’s not a program for me. What do I do?”

“What you do is to teach a hundred what I’ve taught you, and inspire each of them to teach a hundred. That’s how it’s always done.”

“Yes, but . . . is it enough?”

Ishmael frowned. “Of course it’s not enough. But if you begin anywhere else, there’s no hope at all. You can’t say, ‘We’re going to change the way people behave toward the world, but we’re not going to change the way they think about the world or the way they think about divine intentions in the world or the was they think about the destiny of man.’ As long as the people of your culture are convinced that the world belongs to them and that their divinely-appointed destiny is to conquer and rule it, then they are of course going to go on acting the way they’ve been acting for the past ten thousand years. They’re going to go on treating the world as if it were a piece of human property and they’re going to go on conquering it as if it were an adversary. You can’t change these things with laws. You must change people’s minds. And you can’t just root out a harmful complex of ideas and leave a void behind; you have to give people something that is as meaningful as what they’ve lost – something that makes better sense than the old horror of Man Supreme, wiping out everything on this planet that doesn’t serve his needs directly or indirectly.”

I shook my head. “What you’re saying is that someone has to stand up and become to the world today what Saint Paul was to the Roman Empire.”

“Yes, basically. Is that so daunting?”

I laughed. “Daunting isn’t nearly strong enough. To call it daunting is like calling the Atlantic damp.”

“Is it really so impossible in an age when a stand-up comic on television reaches more people than Paul did in his entire lifetime?”
The above quotation is taken from Daniel Quinn: Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit (Bantam, NY (1992)), pp 248-249.

April 24, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Environment, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science | 1 Comment

Ishmael – Part I


Ishmael - Part I magnify

Yesterday’s Earth Day post drew some interesting comments and left a burning question in my mind. If “going green” isn’t enough to slow the global climate change and stave off apocalypse, what can we do?

I want to tell you about a novel I read recently. Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, explains why human beings are such poor stewards of our planet. We have destroyed our world because we believe ourselves to be gods. We change our surroundings to suit us and we kill anything that gets in our way.

Quinn is a radical Neo-Tribalist, and he lays out the philosophy and the reasons for Neo-Tribalism in a Socratic dialogue between a telepathic gorilla and a man. Neo-Tribalism is a theory based on the writings of philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (the “Noble Savage” guy) and anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss (the god of structural anthropology), among others. The idea is that modern culture will result in annihilation of the human race. Overpopulation and abuse of resources, coupled with the idea that mankind has a right to use up the planet as it sees fit is what modern man does, and is it not sustainable. We will survive only if as a species we return to a hunter-gatherer existence, living in harmony with the planet and the other species on it.

Quinn’s novel Ishmael contains more than ecological philosophy, though. It is a dialogue between man and ape. It is social philosophy. It is religion. It is profound. It shifts paradigms. It moves the cheese. This book has changed lives.

The human protagonist in Ishmael responds to a newspaper ad: “Teacher Seeks Pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in Person.” When he applies for the pupil position, the man must grapple with the surreal discovery that the teacher is a telepathic silver-back gorilla who calls himself Ishmael.

Finally, in answer to Ishmael’s question of why he seeks a teacher, the man admits that he wants to understand “how things came to be this way.” The man feels that something is wrong with the world, that there is a Great Lie being told, but he can neither identify what is wrong nor identify the lie.

Ishmael begins teaching the man about his own species and his own cultural biases. First, the man must understand that many of the things he believes to be true are part of a mythology. The most important myth to recognize is the myth that the world was made for Man to do with as he pleases.

Ishmael divides mankind generally into two groups: Takers and Leavers. Takers are those who take from the world and from the other creatures around them. Takers take all they want, which is more than what they need. They believe the myth that the world exists for their kind, and they brook no argument otherwise. We are Takers.

Leavers are the people we call primitive. They do not farm, they do not take more from the world than they need to survive. They are hunters and gatherers. Very few Leavers continue to exist, because the Takers plant the Myth wherever they go and convert the Leavers to Takers.

Once the man understands that the notion that humans are the pinnacle of creation is a myth, he is better equipped to understand “how things came to be this way.”The great lie is that man can do as he pleases to change the earth. The lie is based on the myth.

Ishmael’s student comes to understand that Man, in his guise of Taker, is the only creature on the planet to believe the myth and the lie. Other species compete within the ecosystem; man changes the ecosystem to suit himself without regard to the consequences for other creatures or even, ultimately, for himself. Leavers and the rest of the species on the planet compete for survival, but they do not “wage war” against the planet or other species to do so. Takers wage constant war against the earth and against the species Takers perceive to be competition. The competition may be the way a river flows, the existence of an insect, or plants Takers consider to be weeds in their gardens.

To live sustainably, Quinn argues, “you may not hunt down competitors or destroy their food or deny them access to food.” By killing our competition (the pests that invade our crops, the wolves that hunt our sheep, the swamps where we want to build our cities, the Leavers whose way of life is alien to ours) we Takers wage war against the world.

Think about this. Tomorrow I’ll tell you more about this amazing book and its philosophy.

April 23, 2007 Posted by | Book Reviews, Environment, History, Philosophy, Politics, Religion | Leave a comment

Human Subspecies Identified: The Drive-By Critic


 

What prompts people to be ruder to one another online than they would ever be in person?

I pondered this question this week when, having suffered without a computer for most of the week, I noticed a bizarre pair of quick comments buried on my page. The first comment branded someone a “liar.” Since I haven’t had that particular experience with the person in question, that comment was easy enough to ignore, especially since it was left by someone I had never before encountered whose profile has now been deleted.

The second comment by that same person was a bit odd, even as far as odd comments go. It said: “Why dont you tell everyone how you said everyone on your list are loosers,unemployed bums and you are just having fun with them to see that they have no life and believe your bullshit stories,lies and how they are just a number. (Dont whisper ever a word to anyone Tom please I am just having fun with them but I dont care if they live or die as long as they keep me entertained).”

Since most of what I write isn’t personal and has nothing to do with real people, this was a strange statement to be directed at me. Obviously the person has no idea who I am or what my blog is all about. Even more obviously, it has never read my page. (I’ll settle on the pronoun “it” for this commenter, since assigning a “he” or “she” would humanize it beyond what it deserves.) I doubt that if it bothered to read my blog it would even understand it.

First of all, it should be aware that if there is drama on my page, it will be an outrageous fictional drama of my own making. Witness the recent Giant Cock/Baby Chick Paternity Scandal. Secondly, it should be aware that anyone on my friends list, or for that matter anyone on the friends list of one of my friends, who is suffering through a personal crisis will have my sympathy and support, never, ever my derision or insults.

Obviously the commenter was lost and thought it had found the page of someone who would get stirred up by its weird allegations. What’s so strange is that I cannot imagine anyone I don’t know coming up to me out of the blue and calling someone a liar. Nor can I imagine anyone spreading gratuitous untruths just for kicks in real life. Why does this happen here?

So I am led back to my original question, prompted by this commenter’s bizarre antisocial behavior: What prompts people to be ruder to one another online than they would ever be in person?

I read a column in the April issue of Discover, one of very few publications I’ll actually pay money for. The columnist, Jaron Lanier, suggested that online nastiness is the product of easy, “drive-by” anonymity. When the commenter can create a quick and disposable ID, more hostile comments are left. Where more information must be given, and the ID creation-process is a little more cumbersome, fewer hostile comments seem to be the rule.

For instance, on sites like Slashdot, where a new ID can be created for each comment without providing much information to the host site, people get indescribably nasty with one another. The same holds true for some of the edit wars hosted by Wikipedia. On the other hand, players on World of Warcraft rarely encounter such boorish behavior. One reason for the politeness of the WOW site might be that the penalties for such conduct result in the person being banned from the game.

Lanier proposed several different considerations as to why online behavior can be either good or bad. Demographics of the users and the times of day that the users in question tend to visit the site to leave their comments were two considerations he named. I would add something else to his list: topic. If the blog or article contains a personal topic, then personal comments are made and sometimes those comments are personally insulting.

You can see it right here on Yahoo 360, probably among people on your own friends lists. People who have the “diary” blogs, the ones who talk about their personal lives and their trials and tribulations, often seem to be the ones whose blogs attract insults and “drama” from perfect strangers. There are people who allow the public, or even friends of their own friends, to view their blogs even when highly personal matters are addressed. Mental illness, chronic physical illness, dealing with family members who have substance abuse issues, and the crises that necessarily go along with such things are fodder for judgmental people. And so many judgmental people love to cast those stones at the ones they see making decisions they wouldn’t make given their arm-chair quarterbacking of someone else’s life.

How can we truly claim that someone who is living with a dealing with a mentally ill family member, and coping the best they can, is making bad decisions? Even if we read their blog every day we don’t have the whole story. We don’t have the nuances of interpersonal interactions, or even a vivid description of what the caretaker is dealing with on a day-to-day basis. What about the person who is writing about her fibromyalgia? Who among us can really say to her, “Quit complaining. It can’t be that bad,” when we really don’t know what it feel like to be her? And what about the mother who is dealing with the drug-addicted son who is stealing from her, beating her, and otherwise abusing her? Can we really tell her she is stupid not to call the police when we don’t know how long the police will hold that abusive adult child or whether he has access to a gun and will use it against her?

I am aware of blogs whose authors write about extramarital affairs they have, or who write about overtly sexual matters. They provide gossip to others about themselves and even about other people. Their soap opera of life is right here for anyone to read and comment upon. Some of them claim to eschew “drama,” but they seem invite that drama in the same breath. Do we blame anyone for jumping on that melodramatic bandwagon? I don’t think too much of the people who either pass judgment on these writers or who attack them.

“Sexy” writers of a different sort post fun little contests and laugh about sexy things. They intend nothing but smiles and jokes, but what they say occasionally offends other people. I’m aware of a couple of women who have sexy pictures posted (not of themselves, but of models) and who intentionally keep things light in their blogs with those fun little quizzes and contests. They have been attacked by hyper-religious or judgmental people who threaten them personally and viciously. Do they deserve this kind of treatment? No.

Then there are the bloggers who are not who they seem to be. Whether one person has multiple IDs and different pages where they post different blogs, or whether they have just the one page but pretend to be someone they aren’t, they are masquerading. When they are unmasked, some among us feel righteous and triumphant. Others feel betrayed. Occasionally the “victims” of this duplicity feel a need to strike back. I have seen multiple blogs suddenly disappear because their owner(s) felt persecuted.

The bottom line is that no one deserves rudeness. No one, even if they seem to invite criticism, should be judged by anyone else. The evil pettiness in our human natures that tempts us to throw stones at someone else’s glass tower is our undoing. No one, ever, deserves our enmity. If we don’t like what someone says in his or her blog, the best way to handle it is not to clash with it head on, but to pointedly ignore it. It’s none of our business, anyway.

There are exceptions to the “ignore it if you disagree” rule. Debating issues is one of them. I like it when people disagree with me and explain why. The key word here is “debate” – labeling someone as “stupid” or lumping in them with an ill-defined “you all” isn’t debate. It’s insult. There should be no place for it here. Articulating an opposing point of view is not offensive. Assuming someone is “liberal” or “Republican” or “fundamentalist” because of their views is. Name-calling is not debate. If a commenter says they disagree with me because they “feel sorry for my shortsightedness” then they can go their merry way to hell, and please never darken the door of my page again. They have given me no reason to listen to them at all.

Yahoo 360 is a place where we should all feel free to create and recreate ourselves as we see fit. We can be anything we want to be. We might decide to be a pirate, a lion-tamer, a virgin, a debutante, a musician, a model, a Wench of Aramink. We can be anything we want to be. Where else is such a flight of fancy possible? Where else can we live out a dream and not hurt anyone?

By the way, in case anyone’s not sure, I probably don’t really qualify to be a wench. I’m too old. Who ever heard of a wench with gray hair at her temples? And my name isn’t Aramink. Aramink is a place. Gasp. Don’t hate me because I’m such a bald-faced liar. Embrace me, and admit that occasionally you decide not to post unflattering pics of yourself in your blog, too. I promise not to be critical as long as you’re polite. And I promise lively debate where it’s appropriate.

April 7, 2007 Posted by | Lawyer, Philosophy, Writing | 1 Comment

For Wolfio


I have a good friend on Yahoo 360.  Wolfio is musician with a heart and a brain and a soul that reaches around forever.  He rants and raves, but he also writes some of the funniest stuff I’ve seen here.

His life hasn’t been particularly great lately.  He’s going through a divorce from a woman who adores head games.  She even had her boyfriend call him up and invite him to Thanksgiving dinner with them.

His oldest son, from his first marriage, recently moved home and was seriously depressed.  The young man had suffered some blows that left him despondent almost beyond life. Wolfio despaired that this adult child would ever even get out of bed, much less get a job and lead a normal life.

Then, as parents are sometimes able to do, he reached within himself and found something to inspire that young man who had no direction in life, that young man who felt he had lost all hope.  What Wolfio said to his son was powerful.  I think what he said bears repeating.

I killed a guy.

It was not planned. Most killings are like that.

It was long ago, before I knew who I was or wanted in life.

Fern. The guy’s name was John Fern. You don’t forget a guy you kill. Most killings are like that.

I never spoke to him. I never met him until I killed him. It was his choice, the only one he may have believed he ever made, that he really wanted. Decisions are like that.

I didn’t want to kill him. I would rather have gone on, never running into him at all, but…. That’s how I killed him. John. By running into him. Over him, really. Crushing him. Huge trucks do that.

I was at work, on the job on a four lane highway, of course, in the fast lane. Driving is like that.

I saw him on the overpass. He disappeared behind the sign showing the next exit. I was thinking of something – I don’t remember now – it was not important I’m sure. It’s hard to remember what you were before you became something else. Hindsight is like that.

It did seem strange. Why would someone put a leg over an overpass railing? But, what are the chances? He didn’t drop something. “He’s right there, dead center. Why, if he was to…”

That part I remember: how I forced my vision not to look directly into his eyes just before he hit the windshield, rolled down and under the truck. I would imagine he was in a lot of pain. I dragged him maybe fifty yards. Somewhere in there he died. I wondered if he may have reconsidered while under there. Stupidity is like that.

After I pulled over I got out, walked to the back of the truck, lit a cigarette and sat on the bumper. His body was still. I could only make out the shape. I found his sweater had been pulled off. It was tangled on the drive axle under the truck. I wanted a drink. I asked the state trooper, “Look no cameras, I don’t want to be on the news…” Yep, I was an asshole, even then. Karma is like that.

I’ve wanted to off myself millions of times since then. It’s clear I will not.

It’s funny…

I told that story to my son while he was here, staying with me during this whole wife/whore fiasco. His mother died in a car crash 3 years ago. He was in the backseat. T-boned in a fucking Neon.  It took her head clean off. The kid wanted to end it. He was not kidding. Reality is like that.

I couldn’t fucking believe it. I was crying, not knowing what to say, but if I didn’t say something he was going to do it. I can’t kill again by accident.

And then there was John. John Fern. I never knew what I thought about it all before this moment. I never spent much time on it. Then I knew.

After the story I told him, “John Fern was his own man. I never knew him but he chose to do the one thing he could do without anyone’s OK. He offed himself. They told me he had been in years of therapy and he just gave up.

“Would you be able to just give up like that, and still have hope to see your mother again knowing the one thing she would have wanted for you was to grow up the be a fine young man? She would be proud of all the sacrifices she made for you. It will be all worth it, even her passing, if the most important work in her life was successful: raising a good son.

“John Fern did what he had to do. You have to live to the betterment of your mother’s memory, and if that fails then you’ll also be man enough to go like John.”

Two weeks later he had his old job back, got an apartment, and told me – me! – “Thanks, Dad.” Luck is like that.

Thank you, John. I’m sorry I killed you, but you saved my son, and at least I forgive you.


Dedicated to John        Wolfio182

November 29, 2006 Posted by | Children, Conversations With Children, Death, Philosophy | Leave a comment

‘Well! That wasn’t very Christian!’


 

Recently I have read blogs about topics that either called for religious responses or were about religion – which is perfectly fine, don’t get me wrong – but in a couple of cases I was left with the feeling that either the specific post or the comments in response to the post were sanctimoniously narrow-minded. This never fails to get under my skin.

No offense to its followers, but it really bugs the bejeezus out of me when someone appears to claim that Christianity has the corner on the market of good and charitable acts.

I’m not going to publicize what my religion is. There are exactly four people on my friends list who know what it is, and three of them are closely related to me. I don’t talk about religion a lot, but I do study it. I study it mainly because I tend to study anything controversial, and religion is one of the most controversial things out there. I don’t tend to talk about it much because I never know who’s going to get hacked off thinking that I’m blasting their precious dogma.

So, with the intent of blasting no one’s dogmata with nuclear weapons, here I go, talking about religion. (I know, I should prepare to get blasted myself.)

Fact: There are many different religions practiced on this planet.

According to Wikipedia, the dominant religions and the numbers of their adherents are:

1. Christianity 2.1 billion
2. Islam 1.3 billion
3. Secular/Atheist/Irreligious/Agnostic/Nontheist 1.1 billion
4. Hinduism 900 million
5. Buddhism 708 million
6. Chinese folk religion 394 million
7. Primal indigenous (“Pagan”) 300 million
8. African traditional and diasporic 100 million
9. Sikhism 23 million
10. Juche 19 million
11. Spiritism 15 million
12. Judaism 14 million
13. Bahá’í Faith 7 million
14. Jainism 4.2 million
15. Shinto 4 million (see below)
16. Cao Dai 4 million
17. Zoroastrianism 2.6 million
18. Tenrikyo 2 million
19. Neo-Paganism 1 million
20. Unitarian Universalism 800,000
21. Rastafari movement 600,000

Yes, Christianity has the largest following of any religion. However, more people in the world are non-Christian than Christian. This is something many Christians just don’t seem to appreciate when they blithely talk about something not being the “Christian” thing to do. Oh, the ignorant arrogance of that statement!

Think about this:

Fact: Every religion, without exception, provides a moral framework for its adherents.

Fact: That moral framework is virtually identical to that of every other religion.

Ergo: All religions are virtually identical in their morality.

When I hear the phrase, “That wasn’t very Christian!” it is usually with the sound of judgment ringing in my ears. The speaker has just measured someone else’s conduct or words and found them lacking. Likewise, when someone says, “I’m a Christian, so I wouldn’t _________” (fill in the blank with your own imagination), they are also normally passing judgment on someone they find to be behaving inappropriately.

If every religion teaches the same moral rules, how is it that Christianity has a corner on the morals market? The answer is, of course, that it doesn’t. What’s worse for Christianity is that those people passing judgment are doing one of the very things their religion teaches that they should not do: the are judging. I hear either of these two phrases and I assume, from that point forward, that the speaker is a hypocrite.

I have heard an argument that this country was established on Christian values and morals. I respectfully disagree with that assessment. Even a casual reading of what was recorded in The Federalist Papers on this subject will enlighten us. The framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights wrote the establishment clause to give Americans freedom of religion, as well as freedom from it. Not all of the founding fathers were religious men, and at least one was publically an atheist.

School prayer has been a big issue for many Christians. It is challenged only rarely, but always by parents who do not want to have religion thrust down the throats of their children.

As long as there are tests in school, there will be school prayer – just not necessarily praying out loud. We should remember, though, that unless our children go to a school connected with a specific religion, the children there are of many faiths, and not just the Judeo-Christian-Muslim traditions that worship the same god. Yes, that god is the one worshipped by the most people in this country. But there are Buddhist and Hindu children in our schools, too. Wiccans send their children to school. So do Unitarians. And there are plenty of children who are not being instructed in any form of religion.

What is the function of religion? Basically, religions exist to provide that moral framework I mentioned. It’s something all religions have in common. The tenets of each religion may be different, but the basics are the same. Religions instruct us how to get along with other people in a society.

Most of our morality is actually codified as law, but there are still issues of fairness that simply can’t be codified. Those uncodified morals are the ones we have to make choices about in daily life. Sometimes they can be condemned as situational ethics, which is another entire area of contention, and maybe the subject of another blog. But as for the morality that is not part of the law, we should remember that teaching morals is the province of parents, not the school system. If we want our children to have honor and integrity, we must teach them those things at home. If we want them to be compassionate and generous, we must teach them that at home. If we want them to be faithful to their spouses, nurturing to their children, and keep their flower beds tended as adults, we as parents must teach them that those things are important.

And we should also teach them that when the neighbor parks his boat on our petunias, the neighbor is not being un-Christian, he is being rude and troublesome. No religion would condone such behavior. For that matter, no society would.

November 3, 2006 Posted by | Philosophy, Religion | Leave a comment

Ambition


Ambition magnify

I love this old photo of my dad as a toddler. The expression on his face is so recognizable! His sense of humor and his devilishness beamed through his personality even when he was a little guy.

Because of my father, I make a great effort to be the best person I can be.

While this may not extend to wearing makeup every day, it does extend to the quality of the work I do and the interactions I have with other people.

I am ambitious. I am generally motivated by the need for achievement. I expect the people around me to be motivated by this need for achievement, too, and I am dumbfounded when it appears they are not. I have lost respect for people close to me who lose ambition or who claim to have it but just don’t work for it.

I desperately want my son to be ambitious enough to achieve the satisfaction of at least moderate success so that he can lead a productive, happy life. Being productive in society is vital to finding satisfaction and happiness, I believe. I don’t think we have to contribute to charity, volunteer at soup kitchens, or invent a new vaccine to be productive.

Parents are productive when they give their children values, structure, and education. When they teach a child how he or she may succeed, a parent is fulfilling his obligation to his child. Possibly one of the most productive things my dad ever did was to imbue each of his children with the confidence to surge forward, to try. He gave us the courage to fail and then to try again.

He loved to quote this poem to us:

It Couldn’t be Done
By Edgar Guest

Somebody said that it couldn’t be done,
But he with a chuckle replied
That “maybe it couldn’t,” but he would be one
Who wouldn’t say so till he’d tried.
So he buckled right in with the trace of a grin
On his face. If he worried he hid it.
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

Somebody scoffed: “Oh, you’ll never do that;
At least no one ever has done it”;
But he took off his coat and he took off his hat,
And the first thing we knew he’d begun it.
With a lift of his chin and a bit of a grin,
Without any doubting or quiddit,
He started to sing as he tackled the thing
That couldn’t be done, and he did it.

There are thousands to tell you it cannot be done,
There are thousands to prophesy failure;
There are thousands to point out to you, one by one,
The dangers that wait to assail you.
But just buckle in with a bit of a grin,
Just take off your coat and go to it;
Just start to sing as you tackle the thing
That “cannot be done,” and you’ll do it.


Sometimes, ambition counts more than actual success. Trying matters if the effort is an honest and assiduous.

I quote Yoda’s “Try? There is no ‘try.’ There is do, or do not.” But the truth is, Yoda’s maxim really only applies when “do” or “do not” is a choice. It applies to turning in homework. It applies to keeping the house clean. It applies to meeting reasonable deadlines. It applies to yard work. It does not apply to playing the guitar perfectly, to making A’s in math, or to mastering the nuances of the Force without a mentor to demonstrate how the force can be used.

I have to make sure my determination and my belief that others should share my ambition doesn’t cost me my close relationships.

I think it cost me my marriage, in part. I could not understand how my husband seemed to have so little interest in personal achievement, especially as bright as he seemed to be when I first knew him. This was not a failure of his personality, it was simply an aspect of it that I found unfathomable. I failed to recognize this characteristic of his for the destructive force it could be – not to me personally, and not to him because it simply WAS him, but destructive to our relationship.

I lost my respect for him because I perceived his lesser drive to achieve to be a shortcoming that he refused to address. For a long time I did not understand that he couldn’t change it, and why he really had no interest in changing that part of him. But just like my drive and ambition are an integral part of my personality, his are an integral part of his personality. He and I simply don’t manifest our desires for success in the same way, nor do we consider “success” to be of the same importance.

Even when I later came to understand that his level of ambition simply WAS, I could not regain the feelings I had for him before ambition became a defined problem for us. I just didn’t feel the same. I didn’t love him any less, but I recognized how mismatched we were and how frustrated I was by this one aspect of his personality. Recognizing that his level of ambition simply WAS didn’t help me to accept it, because I just didn’t approve of it for someone so close to me.

People with ambition take on projects and see them through to the end. We have ideas, we start planning and collecting information, we put the people and materials together, we oversee the work, we build the ideas up and take them to the next level, and we run the course of things. We don’t quit before we succeed. We are focused and determined. On the rare occasion when a project sputters out or doesn’t work the way we intended, we chalk the failure up to experience and move on to the next idea. We are Movers and Shakers.

Shakers, the people with the ideas, need the Movers to gather the committees of people who can actually make the dream a reality. The Shaker explains to the Mover what the goal is, and perhaps explains a couple of steps along the way. The Mover listens to the idea, considers how to implement it, and puts together a team of people and materials who can get the job done.

Movers direct the Managers and tell them what the Shakers’ ultimate goals are. The Managers are perfectly willing to carry out instructions, but Managers don’t have the innovative ideas. They can take a vision, though, and make it a reality.

Some people are the Craftsmen. They can take an aspect of an idea, hone it to perfection, beauty and grace, and incorporate it into the great scheme of things.

Some people are the Data Entry Operators. They are willing to help and work hard by organizing things or putting them in their places.

Others are the Drones, who are not interested in the work they do but can be counted on to perform adequately and then to put their energies into other aspects of the greater whole: the community or their families.

Each type of person is vital to the operation not just of a business, but of a government, of a society, of a community, of a family. Every person plays every role at one time or another, but the dominant roles they play often are a result of their personal ambitions.

Compatible relationships are those in which the level of ambition are complimentary or alike. A Mover and a Shaker can do well together, but a Shaker and a Data Entry Operator don’t necessarily communicate in the same language. I cannot and will not say where my ex-husband fell in these categories I’ve described. Most likely he fits into more than one depending on the task at hand, just like everyone else. but he and I did not communicate very well when it came to ambition and work, and thus we were frustrated together.

This isn’t the only reason we divorced. There were so many other reasons. This is only one contributing factor. We were very frustrated by each other. I am so glad we parted when we did rather than wait until our frustration levels with one another were so great that we could not remain civil. I treasure my relationship with my ex-husband. It is a sparkling emerald to me – not the hardest or most perfect stone by any means, but a beautiful one that can be clear and bright as well as shattered or murky.

July 9, 2006 Posted by | Philosophy | Leave a comment