Archive for July, 2012


July 31, 2012

I stumbled onto the news about Jonah Lehrer’s resignation from The New Yorker magazine and that got me looking into what he has written.  I came across an online post of his about Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow in which Lehrer claims to undermine the notion that self-knowledge is so helpful.

I know I’ve had this thought, or series of thoughts, before: social scientists and journalists are trying replicate within their own disciplines ideas that can be more fully understood in the spiritual realm and through using different parts of our mental apparatus to do so.  If a designer handbag is a material imitation of its Platonic form, these social science incarnations of the forms look to me kind of like knock-offs of designer bags.

Earlier today I wrote a comment to a post by John McQuaid on the Forbes website about what I think happens when the messenger starts to focus too much on the messenger and not on the message, so to speak —  which is that their connection to their source becomes corrupted and they fall in some way.

I try to view attempts by social scientists and journalists to explain the world and our place in it and how to fulfill our potential as neutrally as possible, and sometimes, as I’ve written here before, I can see them as merely speaking the same ideas in a different language, a language that will reach people who are not reached by the language of people who think of these ideas in spiritual terms.

In the end, though, I don’t need to figure out this sort of situation (what happened to Jonah Lehrer and why) myself — to evaluate them or their work or their brands or their personal gain or how helpful any of it actually is.  (I suspect it’s one of those “three steps forward, one step back” sort of thing — what they do helps get across some information but also contains aspects that later must be unlearned or corrected.)  Things will play out according to the dynamics of the universe.  All I need to do is what I am called upon to do, to do my part as well as I can.  Although a part of me is watching what happens, kind of like the way as a child I used to watch out the bedroom window the older kids playing kickball in the street in front of my house after I had already gone to bed.

Comforting the bereaved

July 27, 2012

I had mentioned to my dad that I was going to the cemetery where Willy is buried, so I thought I’d tell him about the Auschwitz ashes buried there, too, when I spoke to him today.  He and his immediate family fled Germany in November of 1938.  Not all of his relatives got out, including a grandmother he was particularly close to.

He told me he had read about that practice, and he wondered how it made sense given that the ashes were unlikely to be those of a relative’s.  I tried to explain how maybe focusing on part as a substitute for the whole was effective not just as a literary device.  I talked about how the living express their caring, remembrance, and respect for the dead, and not just the dead whose ashes they are burying, in the process of interring the ashes in a cemetery, and how that might be efficacious in helping both the living and the dead.  I mentioned a concept of grace, how when we do all we can, sometimes God and the universe fill in what we can’t.  I pointed out that the issue was not just about physically burying ashes but about emotions, about other aspects of our lives.

Those ideas didn’t speak to him.  He’s caught in needing it to be the remains of the particular people for it to be an effective rite.  That’s, I guess, where what he went through left him, those are his needs, and this sort of interment doesn’t meet them.

That’s another layer of sadness in the legacy.

“Cosmic therapy”

July 27, 2012

I came across the term “cosmic therapist,” as a characterization of God, in a Ross Douthat blog post called, “Is Liberal Christianity Actually the Future?” (July 25, 2012).  In the context, this characterization was being criticized as part of a shallow and ineffective version of religion, I think.

My reaction was, “Oh, Ross, does this mean you’ve never experienced cosmic therapy?  It not only is so wonderful at resolving issues but it also gives insight into what human therapists are trying, less successfully, to do.”

I conceive of the universe as having (permeable) layers in between us and God, so I am not here to insist that it is “God” who provides cosmic therapy directly, but delivering up a knotty emotional stumbling block to the universe can get a person just the right feedback that dissolves the knot.

This is not to say that such an experience constitutes all of a spiritual practice or a religion, but let’s not deride an aspect of spiritual life that is very helpful.

Singular or plural

July 26, 2012

This is a gloss on my previous post, a bit of a further explication of “We are at peace.  You have redeemed us,” and to whom that “you” was addressed.

In modern English, the pronoun “you” is ambiguous as to its number: it’s second person, but it can be singular or plural, whether used as subject or object.

Yesterday’s “you” that I heard was plural.  It was spoken by a plurality to a plurality.  I knew it wasn’t addressed to me because of its sounding like an echo, but I probably should have clarified here that I also heard it as a plural, that it seemed to me, when I was trying to put it into language and figure out what I was “hearing” (it was internal hearing), that it was spoken to a group — it had that broader focus.  But as I indicated yesterday, I don’t know who that group was or how big.

At the cemetery

July 25, 2012

I suspect from the dedication marker they’ve been there for some time (it says 2007, I think) but I noticed this morning that some ashes from Auschwitz are buried at the cemetery where Willy is buried.  (What actually caught my attention, in this cemetery with only flat markers, was the sight of some stone benches — I went over to take a look and saw the marker at the curve in their parabola when I did.)

The ashes are apparently buried near the tree growing seemingly out of a large rock protruding from the earth, just in front of a marker to war veterans, I think.  Both are on the other side of that rock from the tree; on that side, the rock is partly covered with earth and grass.

I heard, as I stood there, repeated a couple of times, “We are at peace.  You have redeemed us.”  The “you” may have been the people who brought the ashes over from Auschwitz, or the “you” may have been the congregation and its members who helped with their interment and the marker and benches — it may even have encompassed all of the living.  The “you” certainly wasn’t addressed to me — I felt I was hearing an echo of something that already had been said.

It wasn’t just the words, though, that I noticed, it was a wonderful feeling of serenity that came up through me.  It was a terrific feeling, and while I knew it would fade for me, I was so grateful to share it all the way home.

Doves and lilies

July 23, 2012

As I went to cross a busy intersection today, made even more complicated by utility work being done in the midst of it, I noticed a religious card or pamphlet in the large flower planter at the corner.  It was a little dirty, but I picked it up and took it home.

My hands were pretty full from having run errands, so I didn’t really read it until I got home and put everything down.  It turns out to be a card with prayers, information, and a key chain for St. Anthony of Padua.  I read the material and looked at the picture on the key chain.  The picture turns from a white dove in flight to St. Anthony holding Jesus, depending on the angle at which you hold it.

I take care of some business — calls, faxes, emails, etc. — and then I look out the windows at my big garden and notice some cardinals flying into my garden.  Then I look to see if the white lily I don’t remember planting is finally opening.  I put on my distance glasses to see, and it is.

It’s been a good year for lilies in the yard.  Lots of Willy’s Tiger Lilies are blooming wonderfully and I’ve seen very few of the lily beetles he spent so much time going after — so the lily plant leaves are healthy, too.  I’m glad I didn’t give up on them all those summers they barely made it through.

Then I notice a dove.  It’s a Mourning Dove walking in a strip of scorched grass between the walk and the garden.   Its mate is probably somewhere nearby, but I only saw the one.

I like the collage of elements and the touch of synchronicity.


High school diploma as proxy

July 22, 2012

I was mowing my lawn and wondering if one is supposed to mow it in a drought.  I’ve got patches of scorched grass, but I think there are other factors involved, such as the absence of the pear tree, of the kids’ old clubhouse (which Jordan took down this summer), and of some limbs and branches of a neighbor’s tree that came down during last October’s snow storm.  I understand that we are supposed to raise the blades of the mower, but I’m not sure either Jordan or I know how to do that on the mower we have.

But then I got to thinking about a topic more amenable to my talents: the significance of having to fight for one’s high school diploma.

The problem of students dropping out of school and not earning a diploma often seems to be treated as if getting that diploma is somehow the goal itself; while staying in school and learning enough to receive a diploma are important, I think the inclusion they reflect is also important.  Students who struggle to stay in school and earn a high school diploma are generally marginalized by mainstream society in broader ways.  The award of a diploma does indicate learning and the acquisition of knowledge, and maybe study habits and socialization, but I think it also just reflects the student’s acceptance by society: people accepted them enough to teach them and listen to their answers and not find an excuse to show them the door.

This is important, because winning a diploma against a backdrop of hostility I don’t think will guarantee future success in the job market or in further education.  I think bound up with a diploma needs to be social acceptance in order for the achievement to bear fruit.  So I think the contributing factors of teachers’, administrators’, and the community’s attitude towards the student are important, and not just the attitude of the student, in terms of predicting long-term success.  Ostracism is a problem, and I think the obtainment of a high school diploma is to some extent a proxy for whether the student has been accepted as an insider or excluded as an outsider.

Football as reflection of our culture

July 22, 2012

I wrote a comment this morning in reaction to the report on the removal of the Paterno statue that maybe now we could work on removing football from its pedestal, too, and return it to the status of just a sport.  Later I added a reply to someone (a Woodman from Upstate, NY) else’s comment that maybe we could also remove the “‘win at all costs'” mentality from other parts of our culture (not just from football or Penn State’s football program).

I think we can actually learn something from exchanging roles within an adversarial game with winners and losers — like good sportsmanship, compassion, we’re all really the same regardless of what team jersey we wear, the significance of a win is limited, “there but for the grace of Something go I,” it’s no fun if the contest is too lopsided, it’s no fun if your opponent can’t get back up …

But I think we get stuck instead.  I wonder if that’s because we don’t use losing as an opportunity for exploration of what the whole game means, but instead just react to the disappointment and negative feedback with a plan to try better to win next time.  (We could, in theory, use winning as an opportunity for learning, too, but that seems to be even less likely a sequence in practice — at least losing sometimes invites us to put in a pause for self-reflection.)

In my own explorations in other contexts, progress comes not from obtaining a glorious or fairytale ending to the activity in question, but from finally seeing the activity for what it is — seeing through it — and becoming less attached to the whole enterprise.  (For example, instead of seeing our lives as dramas with a particular narrative purpose, I tend to see them now as expressions of things we need to work on, as independent scenes each with a lesson, as the playing out of forces that don’t originate with our particular lives.)

I think we don’t learn as much as is possible to learn from losing unless we are open to learning itself and unless we also already have some sort of robust connection to our inner selves and to the supporting forces of the universe.


So much for the no-copay physical

July 20, 2012

My younger son went for his annual physical in May and I checked with our health plan at that time to confirm that no co-pay is billed for such a visit.

Today I got a call from the billing department that we owe a copay for that visit.  I talked to a great many lovely people about why this comes to be and have left messages that maybe people want to rethink how all these systems intersect, because apparently the net result is that this “benefit” we were told we have, in practice we really don’t.

What happened is that the doctor discussed and wrote a prescription for a medical problem during the visit.  That resulted in his billing the visit as both a physical and a sick visit.  It didn’t matter that the visit had been scheduled as a physical and it was the doctor who brought up the medical issue, I think from results from blood work done long before in connection with a different visit about a different issue.  (We might also wonder why the doctor didn’t get back to us about the blood test results by phone at some earlier point between the testing and the independently scheduled physical.  At least in this case, no fatal disease is involved; in Willy’s case, I’m pretty sure the same pattern of tests and visits occurred, but the disease involved was a fatal one.)

I suppose if we count it as two separate visits temporally combined, one with a copay and one without, it wouldn’t rankle, but from my point of view, this basically eviscerates the no-copay physical insurance benefit.  If it’s the case that if doctor and patient actually discuss a medical issue during the visit it turns into a sick visit with a co-pay, what is the no-copay physical benefit really?  It’s saying that if you have no medical issue and are healthy, you get a bonus, in a sense, it doesn’t actually encourage people with medical issues to go for early treatment.

Oh, capitalism — it finds a way to make a buck and redistribute money (here, the co-payment amount) despite other people’s best efforts at implementing a different policy and trying to produce different behavior (encouraging people to get physicals to reach medical conditions earlier).

Sister Maria and detours and phases

July 19, 2012

The Sister Maria I have in mind is the main character in Richard Shindell’s song “Transit,” which I know I’ve mentioned here before.  This nun is on her way to her calling, and she ends up having to change a tire on her van before she can get to the main event.  The song starts off with the very clever and moves into the extremely fantastical and finally ends up in the very moving.

Richard Rohr writes about two halves of our lives, and in my own I’ve noticed phases.  (I maybe should note that while I finished The Naked Now, I’ve only read a small part of his Falling Upward,about the different halves of our lives.)

For me, the image of Sister Maria changing that tire resonates with a phase in my life that corresponds roughly with my involvement with legal history.  That “phase” includes over ten years during which I didn’t work in the field at all but was home with kids.  It felt, in retrospect, like two forays (it took two tries) into some old unfinished business, like I went back twice to beard an old lion in his den and resolve an old karmic problem.  The unresolved problem had made progress impossible, as if, when people tried, they slipped into an unseen sink hole.  In my own life, I think it meant that what I might have done in my twenties as Plan A didn’t come together.

The good news is that I resolved the problem.  It was complicated and complex.  During it I experienced a spiritual life that in retrospect was probably pretty adventuresome.  It also blew a pretty large crater in my life.

Having done all that, I think I sort of got back into the van, like Sister Maria in Richard Shindell’s song, and proceeded on to the main event.  I think I’ve been in some sort of transitional phase, doing that proceeding, for a while.  It feels like when you realize you’re done doing the research for a paper because you now find yourself reading the same stuff over and over again in new sources.

I don’t know exactly what this new phase entails.

My marriage to Willy was wrapped up in the resolving-the-old-karmic-problem phase of my life.  That second go-round within that phase came after his death and, I think, needed to be done alone.

As I said, I don’t know exactly what this new phase entails.  Gita suggested that I have more leeway at this time of my life.  That certainly feels like that’s the case in some ways, although in other ways I feel constrained.  We’ll see.