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.

Freedom of Mind

“The crucial premise of radical, original liberalism is that we often do not know ourselves very well at all, and that the ideas that constitute our desires are often unworthy even of ourselves. We do however have a power of understanding that will seek reasons and evidence just as surely as rocks fall and planets rotate, and to the extent that we make way for this power we realize ourselves. ”
Matthew Stewart, Nature’s God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic


Our time is perhaps best characterized by a growing lack of faith in our liberal institutions. Everywhere the calm, evidence based voice of reason as the proper means of guiding our societies is giving way to arbitrary shows of force and power. On one side there is the growing set of true believes in religious fundamentalism ranging from ISIS to evangelicals, all of which are sure they are interpreting the “signs of the times” correctly due to some supernatural revelation or another. On the other side the growing set of true believers in economic fundamentalism continue to insist to the rest of the world that the ‘American lifestyle is non-negotiable’, as Ronald Reagan once stated. These people insist that the needs of globalized capital must come before the needs of nations, peoples or the earth itself due to fundamentalist faith in some neoliberal economic theory or another.

Liberalism wants to protect the freedom of the mind to pursue reasoning. This involves critical questioning of anything and everything as needed to follow the trail of evidence in the pursuit of what is real and true. This is in stark contrast to the positions and premises of the true believers who replace reason with a sacred authority above reason and wall off areas of discourse from criticism, insisting instead on their version of faith and unquestioning obedience.

Why has the trust in liberal institutions waned?

By the common view reason is on one side of the human experience and the passions on the other. Reason should be able to whip those passions into shape and order them to pursue rational, if rather soulless, aims and goals. The problem, in this view, is that reason is a rather weak taskmaster which is easily overcome in the face of temptation or co-opted to provide little more than rationalizations. By this view our minds and moral life are all easily understood, in fact, they are what we know best. For the self in the center of the head running the show, mind and morality are transparent and the only problem we have is a lack of will power for doing good, one that is capable of stoically resisting any and all temptations.

Basically this is a picture of a world of milk-toast virtue. Billy Joel once captured the common understanding really well when he sang;
“I’d rather laugh with the sinners
Than cry with the saints,
The sinners are much more fun.”

This picture of mankind as embodying a fundamental split between reason and passion is just the same old dualism of mind and body presented now in a psychological guise. As we saw when we reviewed the work of Damasio, Pinker and neuroscience generally, there is no such fundamental distinction between reasoning and emotions. What we find instead is that passions can be set one against the other. Some passions are much more likely to lead us to real happiness than others and we have the capacity to understand this for ourselves. As our understanding grows we become more skilled at choosing which passions we will give priority to and which ones we will learn to be wary of.

This is why we are not all heroin addicts. We recognize happiness involves more than just an absence of pain. The benefit involved in such means is far outweighed by the costs in ruined relationships, self-esteem and the future health of the body. At the end of the day the heroin addict shows us that the pursuit of happiness in that fashion leads to a lack of liberty; the un-freedom of addiction.

Freedom of the mind is the ability to pursue its understanding, to not believe in arbitrary ideas. What about freedom of the body?

Freedom is not the ability to have your every arbitrary desire immediately fulfilled, even though this is the common conception of freedom held up as consumerism’s ideal. Isn’t this what the charmed circle of the really rich supposedly enjoy which separates them from all the rest of us? We assume that since they can travel to any country at the drop of a hat, buy anything (and anyone) they desire, and generally live the life of the gods, that they are the happiest beings on earth. Yet when we look closer we see that such a life would be defined less by the actions such individuals actively choose and more by their passive reactions to each and every whim that comes to them from their bodies or the messages of their culture.

As a bit of a caricature here’s a quick word sketch of such lives, these pinnacles of globalized capital. The brands of clothes they wear are as determined as which brand of yacht they will purchase. Where they will be seen on said yacht at any given time of year is already determined by the habits of the jet-setting beautiful people, “one simply must be in Monte Carlo for the spring dear…” Schools attended and subjects studied are fixed, often from kindergarten, regardless of individual inclination or talent. That little guy in the center of our heads knows exactly what he or she wants and goes directly for it. The super rich just have fewer obstacles to contend with in their pursuit of happiness.

Against all this there is the idea of freedom as it was understood by the men who penned famously that each of us equally share the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. By this view we do not know our minds very well, not very well at all. Often what turns out to have been best for us are not events we would have chose. Often we are not at all sure what we should be pursuing, particularly as times of crisis visit our lives. Our minds are driven by hopes and fears around all those aspects of life each of us inevitably encounter yet cannot control. In attempting to control that which is larger than ourselves we are prone to superstitions.

The nihilism haunting our scientific view sees the universe as an unthinking machine and our feelings as nothing more than a meaningless side effect of cold calculations of classical and quantum mechanics. Those who subscribe to this belief hope that by learning how the machine works we can make the universe deliver Bon Bons more often than cancer and plague.

The eternalist rejects the arbitrariness by which cause and effect play out with seemingly no regard for our sense of morality and fairness and insists there must be someone behind it all. The nihilist concluded that there is some ‘thing’ at the root of existence – an unfeeling machine fooling us with suffering. In contrast the eternalist insists feelings reflect something real and important baked into the very structure of the cosmos but then is stuck with explaining why the cosmos seems to give so little consideration to them. Postulating not a ‘something’ but a ‘someone’ opens an avenue to controlling the uncontrollable. Life and death might fail to answer to our desires but surely, this thinking goes, they answer to their creator. By groveling and sacrifice, piety and propitiation such supernatural power(s) can be made to deliver Bon Bons more often than it delivers cancer and plagues.

Unless, of course, there is a someone behind it all and that someone suffers when we do. This is the Christian answer to pain and suffering, the one and only God who suffers. It does not open an avenue to controlling the uncontrollable but offers a way of accepting it. Magic and superstition are not used to grovel but are replaced by religion and doing so matures us. In this view religion allows one to rise above the need to get Bon Bons instead of cancer and plagues, to come to what St. Ignatius called a holy indifference, to trust “thy will be done.” Of course this only makes sense if the someone behind it all has your individual best interests at heart. This is exactly what has become so difficult to believe in our times: that there might be a good for us that transcends the world’s offerings of wealth, status, pleasure and honor, that might even be worth dying for. Note I’m saying dying for, not killing for as a suicide bomber might. I see that as just another magical act attempting to force the Bon Bons maker into forking over the goods. Not having that transcendent value in your life, this real religion as opposed to magic and superstition, is what our Christian ancestors would have called being enslaved to the world.

The middle Way between the nihilist and the eternalist insists we are organic sentient beings capable of pursuing rational self-determination while we are alive. In this view the universe is not a cold calculation machine demonically providing a simulacrum of feelings in sentient beings, nor is it sentient beings’ destiny to be little more than puppets in a supernatural morality play where death is not really real and all the important issues are hidden behind a curtain of predestination or other arbitrariness. In this view our freedom is real and what it deals with, the choices between virtue and vice, are also real. In this view death is also real, even if it does not have the last word ultimately, it does in space and time.

It is in our rational self interest to pursue the most enlightened society we are capable of. This in turn depends on the degree of wisdom we are able to bring to bear as we reflect on the lessons of yesterday, the practical potentials of today, and the most probable events of tomorrow. How the liberal institutions we have come to take for granted, even as we lose faith in them, were designed to support this work is what we will be taking up next week.

Equally Pursing Happiness

“I am humbled before the earth
I am humbled before the sky
I am humbled before the dawn
I am humbled before the evening twilight
I am humbled before the blue sky
I am humbled before the darkness
I am humbled before the sun
I am humbled before that standing within me which speaks with me
Some of these things are always looking at me
I am never out of sight
Therefore I must tell the truth
That is why I always tell the truth
I hold my word tight to my breast”

Tom Torlino, Navajo, c. 1890, quoted in Peter Gold’s Navajo & Tibetan Sacred Wisdom

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
United States Declaration of Independence


What does every mother hope for their child? That they will be happy. What does every father hope for their child? That they will be happy. What does every living thing want for its own life? That they will be happy: that their lives will be meaningful, that they be able to enjoy food, safety and shelter. One could say this basic observation about the goal that keeps motivating life is self-evident. It is true life is also a fight for survival in an arena of natural selection but the life itself, the great bulk of time not directly involving birth, sex and death, this life itself is full of the pursuit of happiness.

The same aspiration seems to run through most, if not all, the animal kingdom as well to various degrees. Mess with a bear cub and momma bear will set you straight right away in a clear and simple, yet profound, display of loving protection. I cannot believe the robin caring for her chicks, or the rabbit family eyeing my garden are not sharing in the same basic experience of care and concern we people know so well. There seem to be differences of degree, not differences in kind between us and much the rest of the living fabric of the ecosphere.

This makes us fundamentally equal with all living things. The infinite expanse of space casts forth its web of cause and effect, churning in a vastness inconceivable. It is churning in just such a way that a complex congregation of molecules takes place on our planet as an almost immortal pulse of life, full of awareness in every direction but clothed exclusively in mortality. The countless sentient beings are like an eye blinking open, tasting a very specific set of experiences and then shutting quietly to rest as bones among the bones of innumerable individuals spanning countless species and time immemorial.

I’m not sure there has ever been a being born from a source that wished it ill; as if the deepest wish of an egg laying Sea Turtle or a laboring Alpaca was ‘oh I hope you have a life full of pain and difficulty, hardships and great suffering.’ That just is not the case. Given that life itself includes this deep aspiration, that those born might be accompanied by happiness, we should ask ourselves some pointed questions.

Have we been working to create an environment in which it is easy to live well and be good or are we populating our environment with every type of allure and temptation towards our lower nature we can think of?

How is that working out, can you be happy just being alone with yourself, basically can you rest joyfully? Content? Or does your mind run on a treadmill of concerns and worry punctuated by moments of spacing out and long spans of rewriting the past and guessing the future? A parent’s aspiration for the happiness of their child is perhaps the most defining characteristic of our species. How is it that this radically fundamental characteristic of the human experience, this break-you-open-it’s-so-wholehearted wish for another’s happiness, how is it that it is nowhere to be found in our society at large? It is so taken for granted it is barely mentioned, yet isn’t it rather obvious, both from our own experience and looking around, that it is not easy to lead a happy life, that we could use a bit more skill in this department?

We don’t talk about it because it doesn’t jive with our images of ourselves as Faustian world conquers slaying all our competition in the ‘marketplace’ – the place we spend the most of our human time and energy. We don’t talk about it in our movies, books or theater; it is not discussed in government or classrooms; it is not highlighted from the pulpit. Compassion, kindness, cooperation; these things embarrass us to talk about, as though that which is soft and gentle and promoting peace could not also be strong.

I’m going to tell you the secret about human life. It is easy to kill. It is hard to provide succor to the grieving survivors. Cheap foolishness can destroy, only patient wisdom can build up.

I think most people will find it an interesting exercise to try and set aside all your preoccupations and see yourself with eyes that only want what is really best for you. Normally our minds seem host to a set of hyper-critical eyes always noticing our flaws and shortcomings. It is as if we had internalized the sociological mores as an ongoing justification dialog between ourselves and our accusers. We spend an inordinate amount of time explaining to our ‘selves’ (and often anyone else who will listen) just how right we were or are to have done or be doing whatever it is, and how cursed the whole damn universe is because it is unfairly unfair to us. Those eyes seem to frighten us half out of our wits and keep us from ever really deeply relaxing. We may sing, “Don’t worry, be happy” but rarely can we take our own advice.

Against all those who would dictate how you should walk, talk and dress; what you should feel, believe and say; against all these internalized law givers, all you have is the strength by which you are able to walk your own path as an individual. The first step on this path takes place when you see the deep equality shared by all living things. Those with the critical eyes and ready formulae for how you should live your life are bluffing. Though often with the best of intentions our friends, teachers, preachers, philosophers, and theologians endlessly full of advice, at the end of the day know no more about the great mystery of being than what your own heart teaches you. The final truth comes from the inside. Hospital workers often understand this directly as they are not as removed from the real living and dying going on all around us every day.

The mother’s eyes that wanted only what would be best for you are willing to forgive your missteps along the way as little more than learning episodes. Those eyes want to see you enjoy a long, healthy, meaningful, love-filled life. We become adults when we are able to look after ourselves. We will do that well to the degree we learn to look on ourselves in the same loving way. If this is your most fundamental relationship with your life experience, that experience will be one of deep contentment at the blessed opportunity to have even a few moments in this sacred world. This is in sharp contrast to the hyper-critical eyes which insist on driving you to try to get and be ever more and more and more.

Looking on our own lives this way is a very immediate and potent invocation of the nurturing emotional system we looked at earlier. What if you could learn to look on yourself with those eyes? It is hard to even imagine, let alone fully feel. Which is sad because there is healing in the glance, the kind of healing that could have cooled the troubled hearts of our rampage killers.

We are basically a gentle species; witness the care with which we make love. Lovers know a sweetness in giving freely with consent a rapist will never, ever know. This too is common knowledge, self-evident really, though this too has mostly gone missing from our culture thoroughly pornified by those who would sell us stuff. The eye most of us have watching us is not the enthusiastic, warm eyes of young love or the accepting eyes of our mothers but it is this one, the eye of money. It is the hexing eye of the Jones, full of status and hierarchy.

Dollarnote_siegel_hqI would like to remind us that we are actually under the gaze of our ancestors. We inherit from them the lifestyle and institutions by which we organize our life support systems. Both are flawed and are in need of reform. This is the task that falls to our times.

We are just like our ancestors, carrying on the same legacy. Now it is our turn to know and feel the bonds of gentle love and the brokenness of jagged grief. Like them, we too will know terrors and fears of very real possibilities that threaten to disrupt the delicate interdependence we have come to rely on. Like them we will need to draw on reserves of courage and determination to protect what is precious.

tv_barsThis is the eye that dazzles us with status, bewitches us with shame, distracts us from the conversations we could be having about the world outside the box. It is a world messy with poverty and weaponry, with corruption running from the deepest hells of shadow banking up through the commanding heights of the glittering board rooms running our oil based economy. We would be fools to think all the institutions built up through the previous generation’s education in the school of hard knocks should be replaced wholesale but it would be equally foolish to think they are still serving our needs and not in need of radical reform.

With every passing day we are burning up the planet just that much more. We already have exceeded our planetary carrying capacity, with every passing day another tick of growth just increases that excess that much further. This path will not allow us to enjoy a long, healthy, meaningful, love-filled life. It is time to wake up. It is time to open our eyes.