Archive for August, 2011

Controlling from both perspectives

August 31, 2011

Here’s my sense of where people are coming from when they oppose government involvement (especially at the federal level) and advocate for more autonomy in the private sector:  I think it’s about control, fear of being controlled by others (the government) and a desire to control others (through an advantageous position in the private sector) themselves.  Control issues are rooted, I think, in fear (of other people, perhaps because of damage from needs not having been met previously) and a lack of faith (that they are deserving and that the universe in not punishing).  Of course, trying to have the upper hand and protect oneself from having the lower hand (?) just shifts the problem around, doesn’t deactivate the fear.  But, I think, the whole megillah is rooted in having very little self-awareness.  And being too afraid to look inside.

Appealing messes

August 31, 2011

Not that’s it’s a contest, but I think I prefer cleaning up storm damage to cleaning up bureaucratic messes, maybe because I don’t expect weather to be rational.  Being billed for health insurance coverage we were notified (in four separate letters) we didn’t have (and hence didn’t use) seems worth the hassle of an appeal, and yes, it was because they “couldn’t see, over on the other computer system,” the other case file.  And the rep consulted her supervisor and agreed we had never been notified of the coverage (which actually does end Sept. 30th); but nobody had authority to void the bills over the phone, so here we go with the paperwork for an appeal, which I hope won’t require a lengthy road trip in addition.

New frames for an old experiences

August 30, 2011

This is a not so much an expansion on my comment to David Brooks’s column in the NYTimes as it is a further reflection on my reaction to the column.

Because it was very nice to read something positive about the characterization of “haimish” all these years later after being so characterized by my grandmother-in-law, and she did not seem to mean it as a compliment.  (On the other hand, she called my husband “Evan-David-Michael-Billy,” running through all her other grandsons’ names, even Willy’s younger brother, before she got to the earlier incarnation of his name, so it wasn’t clear how to take any of this anyway.)

But I think it was reading about a 12-year-old boy going on “spontaneous mock hunts” with his dad that got to me.  It got me thinking about how vulnerable boys are at that age, at least how mine were.  Jordan was 11 when Willy died, Jonas was going into 10th grade, and, to put it all too clinically, watching them struggle with their emotions without having the cognitive development to handle them well gave me new appreciation for figures in religions whose hearts break over their children’s suffering.

Reading this in a David Brooks column also reminded me of what I went through to see to it that my sons stayed in school and got their high school diplomas nonetheless (David Brooks’s book The Social Animal is said to have received its impetus from trying to figure out why so many kids don’t graduate from high school); but I gotta say, it may have been a worthy goal and preferable to the alternative, to obtain those high school diplomas, but it certainly didn’t stanch the cascade of losses.

Incommunicative computers

August 29, 2011

I wish we had some way of improving the chances that bureaucracies that use multiple computer systems make sure the systems communicate with each other.  I am tired of one computer system not having the same information as another, within the same private company or government agency, and all the inconsistent paperwork this state of affairs produces.  It can’t be very efficient or cost-effective.

Maybe we could require licenses for using computers, and have minimum standards for software and hardware systems.

I do understand that computers allow all kinds of good things to happen, including the handling of a large volume of transactions, but they are not a panacea, and I wish more attention would be paid to quality control — the systems are only as good as their design.

Conglomerations in religious thought

August 29, 2011

This is an expansion on the comment I wrote in response to Ross Douthat’s column in the NYTimes today.

When I read books about other people’s religions, or when I talk to other people about them, I am reminded of grading undergraduate papers years ago for a classical civilization class for which I was a teaching assistant.  The students were bright, the writing was fine, but an occasional paper would be what I have stored in my memory as “ingeniously wrong.” It was as if the student had gotten a couple of digits in a telephone number transposed, or something, and hence dialed a wrong number — something was off, and significantly so, but how it had happened was less than initially obvious, and I would spend a lot of time on those papers trying to disentangle what was correct from what was error (of fact, of logic, due to ignorance about something else, of how pieces fit together) so I could explain it to the student in my notes.

A lot of religious writing strikes me similarly.  It looks to me like a tangled mass of reports of other people’s spiritual understandings, misinterpretations of other people’s spiritual understandings (and misunderstandings), intellectual thoughts based on these understandings and misinterpretations, psychological coping mechanisms for dealing with uncomfortable emotional reactions to life events, psychological coping mechanisms for dealing with emotional reactions to damaged people and their behavior, creative writing, and other forms of art.

I touched on one of these in passing in my thoughts on people who think they are the messiah.  We, I think, usually criticize such people for thinking they have special understandings, but I think actually the nub of their problem is thinking that they are unique — which seems to me to be due to a confluence of the teachings of some major religion (or religions) that there is a unique messiah, with the ego of the person and its quest for uniqueness in how it sees itself in relation to others and to the whole.

I could probably try to get myself to list a bunch of what I consider misunderstandings in religions, as well as a list of understandings that I share, but I really don’t feel called to do either — and it would be a little like trying to establish peace through war, a little oxymoronic.  But I would like to report on a finding I discovered while helping a few people who were spiritually stuck.

The mind with which we think our thoughts in our languages is not our only equipment for perception.  I remember reading how some Catholic theologians and clerics were negatively disposed to having their congregants meditate, and I think something about “centering prayer” was developed eventually out of that controversy.  My reason for bringing this up is that the theologians and clerics were right, I think, in their sense that meditation will open us up in ways that can let in all kinds of things; the issue is, I think, one of separating baby from bathwater — meditation makes use of that other equipment we have, and that’s important, and, I would say, necessary.  How to use that equipment safely is a separate issue.

What I discovered with these people who were spiritually stuck whom I was helping was that they didn’t realize they were using their intellectual equipment to try to perceive in the spiritual realm — they thought an idea that they thought was a spiritual understanding.  It reminded me of trying myself as a child to overcome what people told me was a speech impediment: I really didn’t understand for a long time that a “k” sound or a hard “c” sound or a hard “g” sound were being generated in the back of the throat — I was expressing them in the front of my mouth and they were coming out as “t” sounds and “d” sounds.  Once I got that there was a difference, another way of making a sound that I was unfamiliar with, that part of my speech impediment (I also had trouble with initial “r” sounds) was gone.

So, that’s the first step, as I see it: recognizing our different kinds of equipment for perception, distinguishing between understandings such as we get through meditation and thoughts we develop through our intellectual activity.  What I think lead to such trouble in the realm of religion are other people’s intellectual ideas taught as spiritual understandings, because (1) they are idiosyncratic (even if shared by others) human ideas, (2) adoption of them is had through emotions and the intellect, not through spiritual perception of our own, and (3) they are difficult to amend or abandon because they are adhered to in a rigid and uncritical way, as a doctrine of human construction. And our intellects are involved with our egos, our hopes, desires, fears, and dislikes — so, our intellectual ideas are colored and distorted by these extraneous concerns, concerns that are not present in the information we perceive through understandings through other equipment we use for perception, such as when people meditate.  (Let me just note here that I distinguish meditation here from prayer only in order to try to communicate this other mode of perception — because I actually see prayer in its pure form as the same thing as meditation, I just think that by now and especially in our culture prayer is often engaged in by (only) the intellectual mind.  I see using pure prayer or meditation to hear the universe and then using our intellectual minds to translate what we’ve heard into our languages and with reference to consensus reality.)

The universe, I think, is pretty oblivious to our human misunderstandings of its workings — we need to separate the wheat from the chaff, the universe will not change the way it works in order to be congruent with our (mis)understanding of it.  So, I wish we would talk more about how we perceive — prayer, creative arts, philosophizing, scientific thinking, etc. — and how they fit together.  Maybe that way we would be more likely to use the apt mode for the kind of perceptual endeavor being undertaken in a given situation.

“Big” children

August 28, 2011

I mentioned in my previous post that my younger son is kind of big.  My older son isn’t, he was tiny when we picked him up (the size Jordan was at six months, only Jonas was probably two years old at the time), then wiry, now about five foot nine or so, I think (he self-reports five foot ten), more filled out than before, but not “big.”

But once Jonas got to be about middle-school age, I would hear from teachers and vice principals and the like how their behavior towards him was justifiable because “he is so big.”  They said it in a friendly way, as if confiding something between us that I would of course understand.  Only Jonas wasn’t big.  I know, I checked, because his birth year is unknown, he has a legal date of birth a court made up,* and his pediatricians estimated his age differently after he had done some catching up.  The school system, to their credit, went with the pediatricians’ estimate (about a year older than his legal DOB), and I would observe from time to time how he looked when he was walking with his friends (who were in his school class) — and he was average.

But Jonas does have dark skin, darker than Jordan’s, and he does have African features, whereas Jordan turned out to look mostly Caucasian and with what others characterized as an “olive complexion.”  Jordan never got accused of being big until, in high school, he actually was.  Jonas got labeled that as a child, regardless of his actual size.

*The court based its estimate on a comparison of the development of his wrist bones with some kind of standard reference for (healthy) children, and they didn’t take into account, apparently, the fact of his malnutrition (for which he had been hospitalized).  The age they gave him at the time (about 1 year old) was inconsistent with the length of time he had spent with his first mother, in the hospital, and in the orphanage.

It’s just a phase

August 28, 2011

I was reading in a NYTimes article about mental health patients, at least one of whom had the thought or belief that he is the Messiah.  And then this morning I was reading about how we grapple with our immortality and how it affects our behavior.  So, I thought I’d try out a few of my own thoughts on these issues.

First, I’m really happy to see them addressed at all in the media.

As to people thinking they are the Messiah, without addressing whether the same person is able to function adequately without support or is a danger to self or others, this belief in and of itself strikes me as an artefact of a “spiritual” difficulty.  I think the person needs to pass through it, not disown it.  I think it may arise when the person is open to spiritual information, so to speak, without adequate preparation — some kind of enlightenment is getting stuck on ego.  With less emphasis on the self and its wonderfulness, there would only be the attributes of a messiah, not the idea of being one.  Someone with those attributes, who even was aware of having them, would not be so distressed themselves, or so distressing to others, as someone who has them entangled in a need for confirmation of their self’s worth.  I think.  What, I am guessing, would move the person through the belief in being the Messiah would be a sense that it is a phase, that it is a distortion of perception of an otherwise very usual step on a path to spiritual understanding, and that we are all messiahs, if you will, we all are capable of receiving spiritual understanding, and it comes out a whole lot easier when we can recognize that we are doing something lots of people are doing — we are not unique.  The “I am unique” part is part of the underlying issues that are producing this distortion and artefact.

Second: immortality.  Physical mortality and spiritual immortality seem very compatible to me.  If prayer can be thought of as the original cell phone connection, I think our fear of death arises when we lose our “phone connection” to the universe, when it  goes dead.  When we are connected, we perceive (at least, I do) that the part of me that is connected is not my (limited) intellectual mind.  And that part seems to know all kinds of stuff that clearly did not enter into me through reading, listening to other people, or even observation of the physical world.  And those understandings turn out to be quite consonant with those of others who have active spiritual lives.  Group psychosis or group gnosis.  I certainly grieve my loved ones’ deaths, but I have also felt that they became “safe” when they died.  With some of their deaths, I could perceive, sort of vicariously, how they were freed of all our frustrating limitations on our perception of what’s important and how we should live our lives, when they were about to die.  I do think that our fear fuels a cycle of alienation from understanding the universe more accurately — paradoxically, we need to be more open to understand it and our fears make us more closed — like tensing up when trying to float.

It’s kind of funny to me, a little:  I have much less trouble at this point in my life trusting the universe, throwing myself towards it the way my younger son would launch himself off the landing on the stairs into my arms, than I have trusting other people to follow through on what they repeatedly explicitly promise me, even when they really mean it in the moment.  I think that’s why I identify so much with the nun in Richard Shindell’s song “Transit.”  To end on a lighter note:  I’m five feet tall, this younger son of mine is now six feet tall and weighs more than twice as much as I do.  Jordan was always somewhat big for his age, so this launching of himself into my arms I always felt was an act of great trust that I would be able to catch him.

Of soap operas and science fiction, “Dallas” and Klingons

August 27, 2011

I was thinking earlier about how encouraged or not I feel about where we are heading.  (This had something to do with Charles Blow’s column today and a comment I received in response to my comment on the column.)

I realized that I can see things in terms of a mash-up between a “Dallas” conceit and a Star Trek episode.  I’m thinking about that “it was all a dream” conceit on “Dallas” and the Star Trek (original series) episode in which the Federation folk on the Enterprise and one of their usual adversaries (maybe the Klingons, I can’t remember) have to band together and laugh together in order to dispel some other (negative) force being brought to bear on them (I’m remembering that the force, if  not disrupted, will result in the Federation and the Klingons’ complete destruction one another, or something like that).

I think we have wandered down an unfortunate and mistaken path (both at a national level and on the global level) but that there’s plenty of hope that we can and will reroute ourselves.  I think this will take the equivalent of holding hands with whomever we see as the Klingons in our lives and laughing together with them, whether at unseen negative forces or not, I don’t think it much matters.  But this conceptualization indicates that it is actually within our power to do it, to put ourselves on a more sustainable path and one that includes everyone in a more dignified manner, and I think the universe is rooting for us in the sense that we have enormous good will being made available for our support throughout this process.

We talk about American exceptionalism, and as human beings we seem to have a sense we are exceptional as well, and I don’t know that we really are exceptional in either sense, but I do think regardless of all that that we are worthy of decent lives in a decent world nonetheless.

Storm patterns

August 27, 2011

This past winter, my younger son wanted to head out west of where we live, on a commuter rail train, to visit a friend or go to a party — right before we were supposed to get a blizzard.  I told him it wasn’t okay with me and why, he didn’t go, he walked to a more local friend’s home instead, and walked home from there in hoodie and sneakers during said blizzard.

So, we are supposed to get Hurricane Irene some time tonight, I think, and this time there’s a birthday party today for twin girls he’s friends with, two or so towns away.  Last night I found myself offering to drive him there, and this morning wondering about that — not just the wisdom of the particular decision but the pattern of his wanting to go off to socialize right before a major storm.

I have other recurrent patterns in my life, and I suspect they recur because I haven’t yet figured out a better response than my usual reaction.  I’m wondering whether the endorsement of my son’s plan could be a better response than my usual.  Of course, this time it feels to me like an easier pitch for me to hit.  And, of course, I have no idea how this will turn out — especially the part about him getting home on public transportation or some other way that doesn’t involve me (he was originally going to try to take buses both ways, but I said I wouldn’t mind taking him there).

Different sides of the same issue

August 25, 2011

When a politician who has, for example, pursued prosecution of prostitution becomes involved personally in something similar, we sometimes see a disconnect or irony, but it seems to me that both behaviors can actually be seen as pointing in the same direction: grappling with the issue and experiencing it from many perspectives in the course of trying to come to terms with it.  So, too, with people preaching to others about their intimate lives whose own lives differ from the standards they espouse, or with firefighters who commit arson, or with other pairs of opposing behaviors that taken together are often seen as evidence of hypocrisy or irony.  It looks to me instead kind of like people taking turns with now the bare-chested team, now the team wearing the shirts, or like people dancing first the leading role and then the role of the dancer who follows the dancer who leads, in order to experience the transaction in all different ways and to experience the flip side of what they experienced earlier and to experience themselves what they put the other person through (what it was like to be the recipient of their earlier behavior).