Archive for the 'community' Category

Teaching Spanish

December 18, 2012

I studied Spanish in school, from seventh grade through twelfth.  It was a pretty good program, I think, and part of that was because the foreign language department hired native speakers.  Some of the native-speaking Spanish teachers for the upper levels of instruction didn’t speak English all that well, but for those levels, it didn’t much matter since within the class, only Spanish was spoken anyway.  (The only problem I remember was when we learned something like the subjunctive and were trying to understand its equivalent in English — we would have to suggest possible equivalents and the teacher would agree or not.)

I was thinking about this in light of the shootings in Newtown, CT and participating in on-line discussions about our reaction to them.  I have come to wonder how my perspective is of immediate help.  I feel a little like someone who doesn’t speak the language in which the discussion is occurring.

On the one hand, I can take the position that others will help guide the discussion and our national reaction, others who speak the language of the discussion and especially others who structurally have positions of influence.  They can reach people.  But when I hear much of what they say, I am concerned.  So much of it sounds short-sighted to me — understandable but short-sighted.  I start thinking that to navigate the world in this language, people cultivate certain ways of seeing, of interacting, of getting along, and that they don’t develop ways of seeing a bigger picture.  I am not sure how to bridge the gap directly, between what they see and what I see.

Maybe it’s not helpful to try.  Maybe just speaking my perspective on the topic, and in general advocating things that foster developing self-awareness and listening, are what’s helpful — in the long run.  Maybe the most I can expect are tiny shifts now and then from small changes at a different level, not sea changes at the surface.  I know I’m only part of a whole, that everybody has a role to play, that all I should be doing is playing my own.


Who reaches out

December 17, 2012

I was going to write a post about “Fear, pain, and damage” and what seems to me to be going on when people perceive “evil.” I would have talked about how it’s all perfectly fine energy, it’s just that some of it is difficult to process if a person has not sanded down enough of their “flaws,” enough of their humanness.  I would have tried to show how we can get rid of the dualism of “good” and “evil” by realizing that evil is in the eye of the beholder and by subsuming both under “energy.”  I might have talked about destruction being part of the cycle of creation, and that we are better off seeing destruction as just that, and shy away from distinctions like accident, tort, and crime.  I was going to talk about including everybody in our community, and finding a way to mourn for Nancy Lanza and Adam Lanza, too.  (I think, almost paradoxically, that until we maintain a compassionate connection to everybody, we will not resolve the problem of our safety.)  I was going to talk about attachments getting in the way of our clearer perception, about my reaction to watching President Obama reflect his strong attachment to his children in his remarks in Newtown last night.  I was thinking of making the case for celibacy in leadership positions.

And then, as I was crossing the street, I was reminded (because I suspect I’ve had this understanding before) that we need to reach out to God affirmatively because that is the posture in which we are open to receiving God.  Without our having that posture, nothing terribly helpful will happen even if God reaches out to us.  And I thought, trying to communicate that message is probably a more constructive thing to do, rather than trying to get people to see what I see.

Because part of what I see is that we’re not going to reduce the problem of gun massacres by the “mentally ill” by demonizing them, their caretakers, the people who love them (who are able to love them because they connect with something not diseased within them).  We’re not going to resolve the problem by doubling down on our attachment to our children.  I think we need, rather, to spread out more evenly our love and caring to all.  Gun control is fine with me, but I think if we improve our mental hygiene, people’s desire for guns may decrease, so I would include coaching people in general to improved mental hygiene (through teaching coping skills and how to become more self-aware, for example), so I would include that in a broad effort to reduce the presence of guns in our society.

I think I see myself a little like a bleating sheep, or maybe like that cow in the Richard Shindell song “Stray Cow Blues”  — I keep repeating what I perceive and hope it helps.  If people don’t want to hear, I accept that, even if I’m disappointed or frustrated.  I can see my reaction as a form of impatience, maybe even with a little fear mixed in (fear that not enough people will ever perceive clearly), and those are things I can work on.  I think I’ve developed enough detachment to keep doing what I do regardless of its reception.

Connections and disconnections

December 15, 2012

I was interested to read an explanation of sort for why a person might shoot small children at a school:

Often in a haze of illness, the schoolhouse gunmen are usually aware of the taboo they are breaking by targeting children, said Dewey G. Cornell, a clinical psychologist at the University of Virginia and director of the Virginia Youth Violence Project. “They know it’s a tremendous statement that shocks people,” Dr. Cornell said, “and that is a reflection of their tremendous pain and their drive to communicate that pain.”

That’s quoted from

Nation’s Pain Is Renewed, and Difficult Questions Are Asked Once More

Published: December 14, 2012

in the NYTimes.

I had written a comment (to Gail Collins’ op-ed column; I wrote it before I read what Cornell said in the article, but after I had heard him on the PBS NewsHour), about how I have been taken aback by the crossing of a line in the shooting of small children.  I compared it to a similar reaction I had to the slamming of planes into sky scrapers.  I want to say, “We [humans] don’t do that.”  The apparent coldness, the disconnectedness from fellow feelings for others are what strike me.

So, being the person I am, I have the urge to harmonize in some way Cornell’s explanation with my own reaction.

When I myself have felt what I want to describe as unbearable pain, the kind when you can’t stand being in your own skin, in your own body, my response has been to try to escape up into the spiritual realm until I have enough distance to process the event.  (Watching my child being beaten is an example.)  It’s hard to do in the moment, at least for me it is, because the pain seems to close the heart and my heart needs to be open to receive the help.  I suspect that this is why prudent people pursue training, usually through religious practice, to keep the heart sufficiently open even in these situations.

I wonder if people who cross bright lines in their pain lack even more on-going connection to what I call the spiritual realm, but which can also be thought of in other terms, like Plato’s forms or forces in the universe or the collective unconscious or Source.  I wonder if they are, first, cut off from themselves, and then, cut off from others and from a sense of community probably most of us have without being fully aware of it.  And if a person is cut off from themselves, I think their awareness of the universe at large and of other people is not mediated through a conduit that includes compassion — I suspect they are using a mental process that includes information but lacks other components for understanding the world.  So when pain is overwhelming for them, I’m thinking that they don’t have a safe harbor to escape to and that they don’t have in place the internal equivalent of Jersey barriers on a highway — a strong (internalized) connection to identifying with others and with community —  to keep them from crossing bright lines.

For me, then, the issue turns into how to foster people’s feeling connected and how to coach them or encourage them to locate in themselves that part of our mental apparatus through which we connect.

Bread and wine

June 16, 2012

I bought a challah at Trader Joe’s last night and I even had some Manischewitz wine with a piece of it when I got home.

I did not recite the appropriate blessings or light candles, although I thought about doing both.  (I didn’t have a roasted chicken on hand, either.)

I thought about what challah and ceremonial wine mean to me on a Friday night.  My first thought is tradition.  I think about Friday nights with Willy and the children, I think about other Jewish households celebrating the sabbath (Shabbat).

Then I tried to go deeper.  And that made me think about being offered a meal and feeling contented (here I thought, “Add a piece of cheese and you’ve got a (light) meal”), fellowship, and sharing.

Then I started doing my thought-association thing, and I came up with communion wafers, matzoh, no drinking in Islam and Mormonism, alcoholism, and psychosis-inducing bread mold.  What I pulled out of this mix was an idea about taking something that can be used in dangerous ways and trying to put it in a context in which it is used in a positive way: a measured amount of wine, a bread stuff that stays fresh, community, and religious thoughts.

But I think that’s only half the battle, keeping people safe from depression, spiritual experiences they’re not ready for, pseudo-spiritual experiences, isolation, and even turning them to thoughts about religious beliefs.  There’s also a need for people to make their own spiritual journeys, which eventually include a stage of going beyond the mundane and the usual routine.  How do we encourage and facilitate that?

Social ills

February 10, 2012

In reading all the attention being paid to income inequality, unemployment, and moral decay, I start to wonder why no one talks about the role of anxiety and depression in the interplay of forces.  However depression and anxiety get started, they exacerbate a downward spiral, whether through self-medication or producing a child in the hopes the child will provide love that is missing in the parent’s life or through other maladaptive coping skills.  I suspect at this point that depression and anxiety are larger factors in struggling populations than we are giving these factors credit for, and while I strongly agree that medication can make a huge difference in some people once depression and anxiety become large and otherwise intractable, I don’t think medication is the solution, I think instead we need to treat why there is a net outflow of “energy” in the social group, because I think it is some seemingly innocuous small imbalance that begins it, that then gets amplified and begins a complicated chain of events or process, and whose symptoms we then observe in increased poverty, crime, and fractured families.  I remember reading a case study, while I was in college, about how rehousing poor people into housing projects in or near London unintentionally shredded family and other social networks,* and that this then had far-reaching negative subsequent consequences — the population did much work after the rehousing, much to the surprise of the people who thought they were just proving improved places to live.  That’s the kind of innocuous event I would look for in trying to redress the economic and social ills in the U.S. discussed in Charles Murray’s recent book and all the reactions to it.

*I thought I should add that, as I recall it, the (new) housing projects were high-rise apartment houses, rather than the lower-slung sorts of housing that the people were currently living in, and that the rehousing broke up the physical distribution of the family members, disrupting arrangements, for example, of having an aunt or grandmother around the corner who could pitch in to help with childcare or cooking or emergency help — the rehousing paid no attention to reassembling the physical proximity of the extended family members that was the scaffolding to the social safety net, it scrambled the population by rehousing them according to other criteria, I think.

And I certainly don’t think that the housing should not have been improved, only that the housing planners clearly, in retrospect, needed to take into account additional factors in order to realize the improvements without imposing new costs, however unintentionally.

The opposite of orthodoxy

January 10, 2012

I do actually understand the pairing as opposites of “liberal” and “conservative,” but what I personally find more helpful is the contrast between people with airtight belief systems and those who are more open and porous.  It’s sort of related to the contrast between ideologues and non-conformists, between the orthodox and iconoclasts.

So, I’m not sure what is really gained when people jump ship from conservatism to liberalism, or vice versa.  The trouble I tend to have is with people’s being doctrinaire and imposing their beliefs on others — that sort of dynamic is quite possible regardless of whether one is for big government or little government, EPA regulations or industry independence.

I think I’ve noted before that someone once said to me that he thought the orthodox of different religions had more in common with each other than with the less observant members of their own religions.  I suspect that’s true of politics, too.  And when people change party affiliations, I’m not sure they change personalities or emotional make-ups, and I’m not sure they don’t use the same attitudes and techniques in their new context.

What I enjoy more is taking off all the labels and disaggregating all the ideas that are usually tied up together and looking for the ideas that work, that make sense of a sort, that hold up to rigorous analysis, that serve the greater good.  I probably have the dubious advantage (or bias in favor of this approach) of being somewhat ignorant of what one is supposed to think — of which ideas are supposed to go together.  Of course, being too much of a free-thinker can leave a person with fewer sure allies and without the kind of community that people who seek group affiliation and are comfortable with it enjoy.  Willy and I would notice this when we would periodically look into private schools for our kids — we fit in nowhere, both because of family composition and our beliefs (or lack of a recognizable package of them).  We would laugh about how we were a party of two.  And we didn’t get that way on purpose, it’s just where our thinking took us, and by chance we seemed to think alike — at least about anything major (not so about things like whether dishes that will eventually need scrubbing by hand should go first through the dishwasher — him, yes, me no — or whether it makes a difference whether you soak a pan in hot or cold water — he claimed cold worked just as well, but I was never convinced, his scientific explanations notwithstanding).

Anyway, I guess I maintain that free-thinking on my own, not so much out of conviction or habit but because that seems to be the way my mind works.

Conservative support

December 31, 2011

I didn’t understand David Brooks’s column today.  I started reading some of the later comments just now, and got some sense of what it meant to some people.

If it’s about how conservatives can be supportive, not just liberals, or moreso than liberals, well, I’m not buying that it’s a particularly helpful way of analyzing who helps who and why.  And if that is the point of the column, we are, as my deceased spouse would have put it, in violent agreement.

But I am tired of help based on a set of emotional motives involving attachments being paraded as altruism.  Especially because it is unreliable and selective.  I guess I think that focus on particular cases in this way keeps us from reforming our ways so we actually include everybody in our help.  In addition to being based on motives that don’t support sufficient generalization of the behavior, our usual approach also allows us to congratulate ourselves on doing only an imitation of what we should be doing, as if we were doing the real thing.


Communal silent prayer

December 1, 2011

Well, now at least I have an explanation for my encounter with Friday night services last week.

In a discussion about Blake and mysticism, someone pointed out that it has been observed that mystics of different religions have more in common with one another than with fellow members of their religion.  Someone else had already advised me that silent prayer was more usual in cloistered communities, not in Jewish services (actually, I think he said silent prayer worked better in cloistered communities than at Jewish services).

So, I’m feeling a little better about looking for communal silent prayer and having trouble locating it, but I’m also feeling not so encouraged that I’ll find something that I’m comfortable with.