The Ground of Goodness

Since April we have been looking at our times as the age in which the limitations on humanity’s ability to continue growing as Homo Colossus start to bite. I’ve said what I think needed to be said, time to move on. We have a lot more territory to cover. Our next investigations will be looking into how a lifestyle of low consumption and non-aggression is both ecologically responsible and can teach us how to live a meaningful, high quality life. But first, this is the 100th post. It seems a good time to state again what Mindful Ecology is all about.

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. We live in a molecular world that follows its own laws to create a spectrum of emergent phenomenon, a very tiny proportion of which we are able to become aware of through our senses and their technological extensions. The primary characteristic of our molecular world is its impermanence; it is everywhere in a state of flux due to the electrical forces that bind the atomic constituents of these molecules. It turns out that electricity, or more generally electromagnetism, is the great shaper of the world as we experience it at the human scale.

Physicists and chemists have taught about the electrical nature of the natural world in the tradition of materialism. Relativity teaches that energy and mass are not two different things and the conservation laws teach that energy and mass cannot be destroyed. The universe is functional across vast reaches of space and time and everywhere in space and time it exhibits, simultaneously, a wholeness that includes the tiniest quantum particles, the largest galaxies and everything in-between. Teachings like this are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter non-living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Eastern schools of yoga have taught about the electrical nature of our human nature in the tradition of contemplation using chakras, wheels of energy whirling around seed syllables. These chakras are said to be located at the primary ganglions of the body’s nervous system and at nexus points where the nervous system integrates the muscles, organs and bones. Teachings like this one about the body containing chakras are ways of reminding ourselves that what we encounter when we encounter another living being is much more than just what meets the eye.

Western schools of spirituality have placed great importance on contemplating the meeting point between God and man through time spent carefully considering Christ’s Sacred Heart, Crown of Thorns, Crucifixion and Ascension. Teachings like these remind us that our having a body cannot be separated from our spirituality and involves much more than just what meets the eye.

Complimentary teachings like these are ways of reminding ourselves that there is a basic goodness to existence in all its detail. The fundamental ground of our experience is that it all works so well together. Even when it doesn’t.

Recognizing the electrical nature of the world that is experienced at the human scale prepares us to better appreciate some of the implications of the modern world’s use of electricity. We all understand that it is the power plants that keep the lights on. Most people also know the majority of these power plants world wide use coal as their fuel, a dirty fuel that is the source of much of the excess carbon emissions driving climate change. What few seem to fully appreciate is the rate of growth these power plants are being asked to serve. Since 1980 the global demand for electricity has doubled. It is expected to double again by 2035. About thirty years for the first doubling, twenty for the second; how long should we expect for the next doubling of demand after that, ten years as per the trend? How long before even the most obstinate among us admits we are on an unsustainable trajectory?

We need to wake up to the reality of our situation. It is not a question of what new green techno-gadget we need to invent to keep the wealth pumps going but a question of what we can do to avoid being hit by the falling debris as the large life support systems of mankind’s built up, artificial environments come crashing down. We should be discussing triage techniques and battlefield tactics, not dreaming of self-driving cars and going to Mars. I ask all people of the beleaguered planet to consider the possibility that what ecology is teaching us today calls for a whole different point of view about what it is to be a human being and why we gather ourselves together in human societies and, perhaps most critically, how our species relates to the rest of the organic and inorganic environments which make up our one and only planetary home.

If one is convinced that the life we live now is unsustainable and has no future, what is a person going to do with such knowledge? It seems that there is so little an individual can do in the face of our collective choices driving our society to make a bad situation worse. If the only hope is for our society to wake up and start making sense, well, that I fear is not much of a hope at all. It looks all the world like our societies are hell-bent for leather on pressing this unsustainability just as far as it can go before crying uncle. Where then should we look for real work that just might be of real benefit to ourselves and, most importantly, might really benefit the next couple of generations that are going to have to live through environmental hell? What can we do? As it happens I believe it is only in the world of individual lives that the true balm for what ails us is to be found.

I am presenting the argument that the ecological crisis is a symptom. The disease is in how modern ideas about mankind’s role in the universe have poisoned our relationships with each other and the rest of the living and non-living world. My position is that we do not know our own minds well. We do not know what they are capable of in peak moments of bliss and cognitive clarity, nor do we comprehend how easily they can carry us away on delusional abstractions that have no basis in the reality of our molecular world. We are so in our heads we are at risk of losing touch with our body, the physical reality in which our lives unfold; so into our abstractions of economy and nationalism, status and hierarchy that we are losing touch with our need for clean air, water and soil. To be risking even the slightest chance of the kind of planetary chaos ecologists are warning us about, with the calm demeanor of our existing social discussions is, in my mind, a sure sign of collective psychosis.

Traditions of prayerful meditation and waking up are surrounded by a wall of Cosmic Foo Foo so high it is almost impossible to see the point. I am suggesting that most of that is just not relevant to what we are really trying to convey by these types of teachings. What we are trying to say has everything to do with waking up to the reality of your situation as it is in the here and now and as it will potentially become in the future. We have a funny habit of making ourselves slaves to our own ideas about ourselves and our world by forgetting that, as long as we draw breath, we are completely free to remake today. People walk away from lifetimes spent in bad marriages, fundamentalist religions and hateful ideologies all the time. One day some insight dawns and they see through some ignorance on their part which had lead them to believe in their own slavery. At that moment they are free and there is no going back because the truth of the insight is always right there in front of them, reflected in the ceaseless unfolding of reality as reality. There is no going back into the cocoon of make-believe.

I am convinced that the same one-way insight comes into the lives of everyone who plumbs the depths of what our ecologists are saying. This ecological insight is already pervasive, like a shadow running through our modern societies, and it is spreading. More and more people, young and old, will be caught and forced (or is that called?) to plumb these dark and depressing depths in their search for the truth. Mindful Ecology recognizes this process as a full blown hero’s descent into the underworld, the first step on the road to enlightenment. It offers both a like-minded community and an encouragement for a serious, daily practice of meditation. It is by developing the skills of meditation that we are able to begin to integrate our head’s knowledge with our heart’s responses to that knowledge. It is my position that we are in crisis due to a disease within our minds and bodies that cuts us off from our ongoing experience of the living earth. It is a disease with a long pedigree in the non-indigenous cultures of the East and West, but one that can be cured within the individual. Mindful Ecology seeks to live once again in a sacred world as our ancestors once did. That is what the world looks like to one who is awake.

Awake. Then we can trust to the wisdom of life itself to show each of us what individual way we must travel to remain on the path of beauty. Then we can trust the womb of emptiness from which all things come forth, instead of placing our trust in the fickle whims of social and religious totalitarianism. We do not need to wait for the fallen world to suddenly become less insane before stepping into the sacred world.

Our neighbors need to meet people serious about harmonizing their minds with their bodies and their lives with the land. Not many are happy; sharing joy has become a work of great virtue. Not many are fearless; daring to know and yet enjoying life anyway has become a great witness. Not many are free; showing the power to choose kindness in our rude, violence-soaked cultures has become a great liberation. Working to spread the enlightenment of our endarkenment is the great work, the most meaningful of all work, for we hold the elixir of sadness in the compassionate heart that establishes each person in their own place.

Grateful and content we can move among our time as unshakable peacemakers. Grateful because we have conquered our fear and strong emotional resistance to seeing the emptiness of our glitz and glitter. Content because we have pushed worldly desire to its end in the nuclear cremation ground and in tasting the ashes of our shame learned the true value of a breath. Unshakable because in our hearts we have let sadness take root in compassion and let it school us in charity, selfless equality. We are peacemakers for we have communed with the bones of our ancestors in the earth, buried the hatchet under the tree feeding on fields of blood, and now carry our ebony flint sharp and our powder dry, ever ready as protectors of the land and human dignity.

It is an extremely beautiful and fortunate thing to be alive. As human beings we have the opportunity to share the most profound depths of one another, including the awe and wonder of our clear light of being. It is my conviction that each of us embodies a cosmic seed of sorts, that we have cosmic roots, that in a way we have all been here a long, long time even as we are thoroughly and completely mortal. In the exquisite moment, quick as a finger snap, is all that we dream might some day come true for us in our heart of hearts. In Isaiah we read “your Builder shall marry you.” The very sinews of deep time and deep space run throughout who and what we are. To see it we need only set aside the veils of aggression that blind us to the powerful electrical and elemental magic of ordinary life. Hate and pain blind us to the love that loved us into being and sustains us in that same love, inviting us to freely participate in it moment by moment. Peace wakes us up and opens the eyes of our hearts, allowing us to take joy in the good of others, in the fundamental goodness that is the ground of being.

Terrorism and Selfishness

One of the defining characteristics of our times we have yet to take up are the acts of violence haunting our headlines. Terrorism is designed to increase the amount of terror within the target population, obviously, but what does that entail exactly and why is it considered, at least by some, an effective means of war? This week I would like to offer a speculative model dealing with the why and how and pointing to what effective counter measures individuals might take for dealing with the psychological ramifications.

Terrorists, despite our own propaganda, do not commit these crimes just to be evilly evil. They have a strategic goal in mind. Now that Western societies are being targeted more frequently by such attacks, we should ask ourselves what they are designed to accomplish and how we might thwart these goals.

Terrorism is the concerted effort to increase the level of stress and fear in the psychology of the target population. Terrorism achieves its aim both by increasing the role of the unknown and unknowable within people’s daily lives and by increasing the sense that they are living in a meaningless universe where precious human lives can be so easily and so unexpectedly mowed down. Many traditional treatments of terrorism mention it is designed to demoralize the population; nihilism as a weapon of war.

In an attempt to cut through these abstractions let’s ask ourselves what happens to an individual that is suddenly confronted with a stressful and frightening event. Cognitive neuroscience can show us exactly why the ability of an individual to reason and think clearly is obstructed when they are terrified. Blood flow to the neocortex is diminished as the mid-brain and brain stem prepare to react to the threat. Stressed and frightened individuals do not make the best life choices. Nor do stressed and frightened societies. Terrorists, then, are seeking to pressure their target societies into making political, economic, and military mistakes which they can then exploit.

This model does imply that the behavior of societies and individuals are similar, a contentious point. However, it has the advantage of showing how a demoralizing process might actually occur.

So how does an individual react to being hurt or frightened? We are profoundly social creatures, we need one another. The first thing we do when hurt or frightened is call out for others: “Help!” This is all about the mid-brain and its processing of emotions. When emotions overwhelm us it is as if they are too large for us to contain, they feel as big as the sky and we need to be open to allow them to flow through us. Our first need or desire is to share these moments with others. We cope best with shock, grief and loss when we receive a nurturing empathy from others. This is very primal, rooted in the bond of infant and mother. Recall the preference for the cloth covered wire mother substitutes in the monkey experiments we looked at earlier.

If others are not around or unable to provide succor, the second strategy is executed and the individual prepares for fight or flight. If we call out and there is no one to come to our aid, we prepare to kill or to run away. If the avenues for escape or effective combat are unavailable the third and final strategy takes place as the individual freezes, like a mouse feigning death in the jaws of a cat.

  • Reach out for someone
  • Fight or Flight
  • Freeze

Neuroscientists have observed this threefold strategy seems to be built into most all creatures with mammalian nervous systems. Combining these two pieces of evidence about how human beings react to terror, namely with weakened reasoning and the primal threefold strategy, we arrive at an interesting model.

I am going to suggest that if an individual finds succor among friends the shock of pain and terror is most readily absorbed and the overall rationality of the situation can remain high. This follows directly from the nature of the emotional subsystems in which the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems work together to maintain homeostasis. Correspondingly, a close knit society with large reserves of trust among its citizens would be most likely to weather terrorist attacks well. If fight or flight is invoked, on the other hand, all the irrational horrors of crimes of passion or acts of war can be unleashed. Finally, if the enemy cannot be fought because they cannot be caught, and cannot be run away from because they seem to be everywhere – just what terrorism is seeking to accomplish – the catatonic state is produced where the will to act is thwarted. It is not that a frozen society stops moving but that it’s movements resemble circular thrashing. It finds itself incapable of taking effective action in dealing with the real causes of its pressures and contradictions.

We live in a time frighteningly dominated by a very lopsided, one-sided view of mankind. It excludes any possibility that acts of human kindness can take place without ulterior motives. Capitalism’s justifications for selfish behavior have now run through all our modern ideas: psychoanalysts insisting we are all at base narcissists seeking only and always our own pleasure; invisible hand economists assuring us that any thought of societies engaging in the exchange of goods and services on a principal other than pure, unadulterated selfishness is hopelessly utopian; biologists insisting that our bodies are nothing more than the vehicles by which selfish genes ruthlessly pursue their quasi-immortal life in some strangely mechanical Valhalla; theologians teach us we are all damnably selfish little beasts desperately in need of grace while their secular equivalents, the ad men, continue endlessly insisting we are all damnably unhappy and unsatisfied and desperately in need of, and selfishly deserving of, the latest widget; etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Well folks, congratulations. All this has left us uniquely vulnerable. In creating a metaphysic to justify not helping the poor of our planet, we managed to destroy every scrap of dignity and nobility inherent in the lives of human beings. Our hyper-capitalism has cut us off from the first means by which we might have absorbed the shocks of terrifying events. Ruthlessly selfish, when we in the modern world cry out for help we fear that only con men and thieves will respond.

Western pundits and academics serve as the moat for this Castle of Metaphysically Pure Selfishness. They continue doing everything they can to protect it yet we find the normality they claim to represent is hard pressed by the current attack.

This metaphysical castle in the air has been built on a foundation that denies the reality of interdependence; our complete and total dependence on others for our very sense of self, for the clothing we wear and every bite of food we eat, and by denying our complete and total dependence as a species on the planet’s intricately inter-meshed organic and inorganic environments from the poles to the tropics. Interdependence puts the hallucination of the self-made superman of our Faustian fantasies out to pasture.

Good riddance. Now is not the time for hubris, now is the time to admit we need one another. If the model I have suggested here has any merit, this is the most direct route to a robust and healthy response to terrifying events.

Pied Pipers

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”
Aldo Leopold, The Land Ethic


We have been looking at our times through the lens of the Limits to Growth study and asking how these trends might unfold in the reality of our molecular world. To strengthen ourselves for the battering of history’s bitter headwinds we took some time to review the core values that inspired many of those involved in the founding of the U.S. as a democratic republic. We found our Deist forefathers were dedicated to creating a political space in which reason and debate might play a larger role than bullying force and conflicting claims to divine revelation. It was my contention that this governing apparatus had been so thoroughly taken over by business interests it no longer reflects any of the other values we still find in the will of the people. What is in the will of the people? Items like protecting our children from rampant gonzo pornography, violence worshiping video games, schools overrun with guns, and news of world events loaded with psychologically manipulative “spin.”

To run the risk of gross oversimplification to achieve a good summary statement we can hang our hat on as we think about these things, how’s this: the United States government, from the lowest bureaucrat to the highest office in the land, has put the needs of its businesses and financiers before the needs of its families and specifically its children.

There have always been competing interests between workers and owners, the highborn and the lowborn, but our time is characterized by an unprecedented inequality bearing witness that the balance of these competing interests has been lost. It is within this context that the malignancy of the politically dogmatic true believer grew cancerous on the body politic. Uncompromising, this new breed of American politician has no need for dialog or debate since they have no intention of compromising at any point. The most common outcome has been a stalemate that is keeping our country from effectively addressing or even discussing it’s ever increasing bundle of serious issues that are leading us to social and economic breakdown. Stalemate, by definition, ends the ability to bring intelligent adaptation to changing circumstances. It perpetuates the status quo, the current arrangement of power that places the needs of a rich CEO before the needs of a poor child every time.

It should go without saying that there are more than a few things we really should be working hard to adapt to just now. A few come to mind worth calling out just to remind us what the 3D reality of our molecular world is looking like these days out beyond our bewitching 2D screens. Changing weather patterns threaten the global food supply; if both the Russian and American breadbaskets have off years at the same time there are no contingency plans. The pressures leading to real bullets now being used in the race/class war are not being relieved nor is the desperation born of the decay of our inner cities. Any substantial disruption to the oil markets would send the global trade system into a tailspin and with that, who knows how many vital services would be found to no longer function? Perhaps most serious of all for our long term prospects is that with each passing day most people feel just a bit more cheated, taken advantage of and used by the powers that be. I won’t add to the list the many, many specifically ecological issues around depleted resource sources i.e. the over fished ocean, or the overwhelmed pollution sinks i.e. the tens of thousands of gallons of fresh water being poisoned every few minutes in the fracking fields and left to slowly seep into our aquifers.

It is not hard to understand why the Donald Trump campaign has been so popular in our time. Against this atmosphere of stalemate he comes presenting himself as the great deal maker. Against the political system dominated by wealth he comes claiming to be unbeholden to any special interests. It is not hard to understand how his campaign can be seen as a last ditch effort to save these democratic institutions of our forefathers by allowing him to execute a sort of radical reform from within. Who doesn’t hope for such a thing?

Bernie Sanders’ ‘socialist’ campaign was also offering the idea that a radical reformation from within the system is still viable. The criticism of Hillary Clinton is that while she claims to have absorbed Bernie Sanders’ message, she is a known entity with a long track record of fighting for her causes well within the confines of the status quo.

Donald Trump of course is just the opposite; a completely unknown political entity with little or no political record by which we might judge what his presidency might actually be like. He is an ink blot on which we are projecting our hopes and fears. Because the needs of our time are so great and the viable options so few, there is a very real danger that we might elect him for what we think he represents and find it has little or no relation to what a Trump presidency factually delivers.

Talk about being between a rock and a hard place. A vote for the status quo is a vote to allow the socially debilitating inequality to continue growing. A vote for the ‘change agent’ is a huge, unknowable wager on a person who at least seems to be a violent misogynist racist but also bears some of that coarse but honest manner we prize in the ideal of the American character; his refusal to kowtow to the scions of political correctness has struck many citizens as a breath of fresh air.

Which brings me to the point I want to make about our time for those of us who have struggled to obtain some grasp of the most probable outcomes of our current trends in light of self-evident truths. Our past choices have limited our present options. Eventually such a process leaves you with no good options, just a choice between lesser evils and sometimes it leaves you with no real choice at all. One of the most important points I have been trying to make is that the ecological crisis is the largest context – the one in which the crisis of civilization, of politics, economics and war will all play out. Here is the thing. The ecological crisis is a predicament we need to learn to live with, not a problem with a solution.

Far as I can tell this election year is just the same dynamic. Within the framework of acceptable political discourse there is, as yet, no way to discuss relevant adaptations to our most fundamental challenges. As long as we insist “the American lifestyle is non-negotiable” we will be unable to have any serious discussions about the most critical features of the changing reality we find ourselves in.

The alternative of course would be to begin to have a serious world-wide conversation about energy use, similar to what Jimmy Carter once tried to start. We would discuss what quality of life and a just distribution of goods might look like in an age of diminishing material throughput. We would discuss contingency plans for cases when natural disasters or acts of war cause large life supporting infrastructures to fail. Perhaps the biggest subject of all we really should be discussing this election year is the one James Kunstler tried to get us to start when he published The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape in 1993; how will our nation of suburbs function once the cars run out of gas?

There is nothing we can do to get our single earth to supply the resources the industrial world wants to use to maintain its economic growth and technological progress. Whine, cry, stomp our feet, and pound our fists as we might, nothing is going to supply us with a second earth to use up. That is what it means that the unsustainable will not be sustained. As long as we are foolish enough to think this is a problem that can be fixed we will remain, personally and socially, susceptible to Pied Pipers promising us what we want to hear.

The good news is that the future will not fit in a box; not the economist’s or the ecologist’s, not yours, not mine. It will be fresh and full of surprises. Bleak as things might look at times, that is never the final word. The other good news is that leading a happily meaningful life is usually available to each of us the moment we choose to make it so. As contemplatives we do not wait for the world to be fixed before allowing ourselves to find peace within it. As contemplatives we do not shy away from the hard truths but use them to feed our compassion. What then is there to fear?

This is the Age of Ecology. To walk the path of beauty today necessarily entails embracing some form of Leopold’s land ethic. Serving the land aligns an individual with substantial alternative forces alive in the present moment, including the living heart of indigenous cultures everywhere, those we dismiss as “the poor.” Serving the land roots one in a value system that reaches far deeper than anything the ephemeral electronic culture can offer. Serving the land teaches one to think like a mountain.

A Changing America

Not that long ago American society was known the world over for its open trust and the coarse but solid manners of its simple folks who held to an ideal of the helpful neighbor. It was just not that long ago that very few people locked their doors all across rural America’s small towns. When asked in a poll if “most people can be trusted” in 1960 still 58% of those asked thought so, by 1998 only 33%. Today I expect it would be even lower. Trust is the fabric of society, sadly, ours has been tattered and torn. Once that has happened trust can only be rebuilt by being re-earned and that is a slow process. The people and their governments in our time are much like a couple tentatively willing to make another go of it after an episode of infidelity.

In my experience there remains in the American people a strong tradition of honesty and a rustic simplicity as a type of ideal sketch of our national character. Quick to help a neighbor in need, there was a time when the rest of the world was quite sure a citizen of North America would give you the shirt off their back if you needed it more than they did. These rugged people from a rugged land were, it used to be said, the salt of the earth.

This might seem like naïve nostalgia for a time long past, romantic beyond all recognition but it is just reporting what I experienced in my childhood a mere forty years ago or so. It is interesting to consider that this characteristic of widespread trust survived the corruptions of the robber barons and the hardships of the world wars and the Great Depression. It did not however survive the onslaught of modern neoliberalism and what is often known as the Washington consensus.

The constitutional republic sketched out in America’s founding documents is presenting the world with a theory of power. It claims there is no power humanity’s highborn masters can claim legitimately through either force or revelation. Power, this radical philosophy claims, is born from human understanding alone. Power therefore must be held accountable and able to explain itself. The “safety and happiness” of the people is the one valid aim of government once human understanding is accorded more power than the (always only temporarily effective) fearful threats and manipulation by tyrants or tyrannical ideologies. Of the people, by the people, for the people recognizes that sovereignty is in fact to be found legitimately here, in serving the needs of everyday life and no where else. All the citizens of a country are not born to be cannon fodder for a divinely appointed strong man or spiritual slaves to an army wielding holy man. If wars are to be fought they will be to protect this sovereignty, the sanctity of the people’s daily life, and not to rid the world of evil on holy crusades.

History taught the founding fathers that at times the people become swept up in harmful delusions and require their government to keep an eye on the long term safety and happiness of the culture and to distance itself from the popular fever. All the institutions of our representative republic, as opposed to direct democracy, were architected with this in mind. On the other hand history is also rife with examples of governments being swept up in harmful delusions when they are coupled with absolutist claims and projects. Here is where uniquely western institutions and norms such as a free press and the legitimacy of questioning authority come from.

It is all about leadership and authority. The radical philosophy claims that the self evident truths about human life structure the only legitimate ends society can pursue, namely the “safety and happiness” of the people. The means by which these ends can be pursued are those things by which human understanding can be made to increase, namely rational discourse concerning evident things. What the republic had to remain vigilant against were the mind manipulators pedaling utopias and doomsdays, true believers in the non-evident of whatever stripe.

An example of power that must explain itself is the difference between worker and CEO compensation the people within a society find proper. In the pre-Walmart days when mom and pop shops and small businesses carried the bulk of our economic dealings, the owners and executives made a fine living, though nothing like what is expected today. Part of the crisis of legitimacy that is consuming the liberal democracies in our time is just such corruptions of the transparency of authority. Since such wide economic disparities as we experience today cannot be justified reasonably alternative mythologies are needed; in this case neoliberalism’ gospel of Ayn Rand’s CEO as both Nietzschean superman and long suffering Christ-like savior. The people, though befuddled for a few decades by the massive misdirection provided by the modern media onslaught, are not buying it. Power, in this case, cannot explain itself.

That is the basic idea applied to the economic life we share. Economics is an important aspect of the interdependent globalization of our time. In the global order the United States has arguably been the most important stabilizing factor providing both the reserve currency and the largest military. When circumstance lead to it being the sole superpower, economically it was no longer the world’s largest creditor nation but the world’s largest debtor nation. International inertia has kept the stability of the US dollar through the continued special agreements that keep the cycling of petrodollars throughout our spheres of influence. The rest of the world has not been idle all this time while America went on a fire sale and became the largest debtor. Forces are in play now to remove the dollar from its role as the reserve currency and de facto currency for oil trades.

However important these economic considerations are they are hardly the only ones worth contemplating. The ideas and ideals of the radical philosophy our founding fathers managed to incorporate cut straight to the bone. They touch on the very ground of our human experience by declaring our equality.

That our government’s representatives would ever torture another human being in our name is an acidic truth of dark deeds performed in dark times. In the past, decency required denial and honest disgust trimmed the sails of the overly zealous. No one can read a work like Cry of the People by Penny Lernoux and believe the representatives of the U.S. government were always acting as agents of goodness and light long before the country so lost its way it started talking about legalizing torture. Still, the constraints I mentioned were in place and American’s image of themselves could still hold to the ideals of the helpful, if often misguided, neighbor.

Legalizing torture was a betrayal of all I love about what this country has stood for. Make no mistake. This sent a very, very clear signal to the rest of the world that America’s moral bankruptcy was complete. Vultures have been circling ever since. My hope is that after we have extracted ourselves from being the world’s sole superpower and source of its reserve currency and we collapse down to our real size, once the rubble stops bouncing, we will remember our ideals.

We want to be able to have meaningful lives by being free to pursue happiness that is rooted in the self-evident truth of our human nature. Our founding father’s conviction was that with basic reasonableness we can come together as a society to agree about how the real needs of human lives can be met, as opposed to all those fundamentalisms which would sacrifice meeting the real needs of human lives on economic, political or religious altars. America’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness have been bowdlerized by corporations pretending to be politicians hired to sell consumerism as the be-all and end-all of our national identity. I don’t believe them. I think what they are selling is a lie. I think the American experiment has never been only about business and even now contains great potential for building strong, nurturing communities.

The hard times are upon us and in such times it is easy to get confused and wonder what the right things to do might be that would bring about actual benefit to ourselves and others. Following the trail of empathy acts as our Ariadne’s thread. To find the path of beauty through our times we need only ask ourselves will this or that increase or decrease the amount of trust and empathy in our daily lives and act accordingly.