Neil and the Soul of an Artist

(About a 5 minute read)

Neil was raised in a tiny settlement in the San Luis Valley by artists.  The San Luis — over a mile above sea level, and the largest alpine valley in the world — is Colorado’s poorest region.

Because it’s so poor, the cost of living is moderate, and maybe it’s the cost of living that attracts the artists.  More than 500 working artists make their homes in the Valley.

Yet, because artists are quirky people, it might be more than the cost of living that attracts so many of them to the San Luis.  It could be the miles of open space, for instance.  Or the huge elk herd, the bald eagles and the sandhill cranes.  Or perhaps even the stars — for at night, the sky above the San Luis explodes with the music of light.

Neil’s parents were not religious people but they sent their son to church each Sunday.  When he was 13 or 14, he rebelled.  He told his parents he hated church, didn’t believe a word of anything he heard there, and was a confirmed agnostic.  “Good”, said his mother and father, “You’ve learned everything a church can teach you about life: Nothing.  We could have told you that ourselves about churches, but we wanted you to figure it out.  You can stop going now.”

When Neil turned old enough for high school, his parents decided he needed a better school than the one in the settlement.  So they packed Neil off to live with his grandmother in Colorado Springs and to attend Palmer High.  There, in his first art class, he met Sarah and Beth.  The three shared an intense interest in art and quickly became best friends.

It was Sarah who introduced me to Neil.  Sarah was regular at the Coffee Shop, and the two of us now and then shared each other’s company.  At 16, she was poised, sophisticated, and self-confident.  She liked to flirt with older men, even though she knew, as she put it, that she “couldn’t let it go anywhere”, and she once told me how much I disappointed her because I wouldn’t flirt.  I felt like a killjoy, and wrote a poem about her to make amends.

Sarah, Beth, and Neil spent hours together each day.  They seemed more mature than many kids their age.  For one thing, both Neil and Sarah held themselves much like adults, and all three of them would look you right in the eye when listening or speaking to you.  For another thing, there were seldom conflicts between them, and the three friends were remarkably free from adolescent dramas.

Back in those days, I heard enough adolescent dramas to fill a social calendar.  I had somehow stumbled into the role of confident for many of the kids who hung out at the Coffee Shop.  Sometimes, up to a half-dozen kids a day would confess their woes to me — pretty much one kid after the other.  Yet, I understood their need to talk and never rejected them.

Most of their stories were about sex and relationships, and some of the stories were painful to hear, because there were kids who kept repeating the same mistakes over and over again.  Yet, even the kids who didn’t repeat their mistakes — kids like Sarah, for instance — still seemed determined to make an allotted number of foolish mistakes, for how else do people learn?  I quickly discovered the role of confident was often more depressing than rewarding.

Through-out high school, Sarah, Beth and Neil remained as best friends, but when it was time for college, they parted ways.  Each went to a different university, and while Sarah and Beth stayed in contact with each other, Neil dropped out of the group.

I recall Neil was 22 and back from college when I ran across him one evening at the Coffee Shop.  We chatted for a while and I suggested we go to a restaurant for something to eat.

We ordered beer with our food, and were soon rambling along from one topic to the next.  A few beers into the evening, Neil decided to tell me how he lost his virginity.  “Was it Sarah?”, I asked.  I knew she’d been sexually active from the age of 16, and given their close friendship, it seemed logical to suspect her of having been his first partner.

“Not at all”, Neil said, “I wasn’t ready for sex back then, and I knew it.”

“I’m curious how you knew that about yourself.”

“I don’t make really important decisions up here”, he said, pointing to his forehead, “Instead, I go with what my soul tells me.”  He looked at me quizzically.  “Do you believe we have a soul, Paul?”

I didn’t want to sidetrack us into metaphysics, so I said, “I believe I can understand what you’re getting at.  Do you mean something like your sense of yourself…of who you are…of what’s right for you?”

“Yes!  That’s close!  I knew I wasn’t ready for sex because the opportunities never felt right to me.  None of them passed the soul test.  I didn’t want my first time to feel wrong in any way.”

“Was it ever hard waiting?”

“Sometimes.  Everyone else was having sex, and I wanted to have sex.  I was always horny.  It’s not like I wasn’t.”

“So what happened?” At that point, I wanted him to cut to the chase.

“Last year, I finally met the person I knew was right for me.  We met in a bar, but we weren’t drunk, and everything just clicked.  I knew she was the one.”

“Did you have sex that night?”

“No.  I called her on Thursday, a few days later, and we got together that Saturday.  I wasn’t in a hurry.  I knew it was going to happen.  I took her to dinner, and we went to her place afterwards.  That’s when I lost my virginity.  And I was right to wait. I was vindicated.  It was beautiful, Paul.  It felt perfect and it was beautiful.”

“Was it her first time too?”

“Oh no!  She was 26 last year — an older woman, and experienced.”

“Are you two still together?”

“No”, he said, “We never got together as a couple.  That wasn’t something she wanted or I wanted, and we understood that about each other from the start.  We’re friends now, but we’ve only had sex that one time.”

“I’m very proud,” he went on, “that I waited until everything felt right…until I knew it was right.”

“Not many people do that, Neil.”, I remarked, “Did your parents raise you to consult your soul?”  I had a strong suspicion at this point that Neil’s parents, both artists, raised him to pay careful attention to his “soul”.  It seemed like something artists would do naturally — perhaps even do necessarily.

“Very much so.”, Neil said, and he went on about that for a while.  But I wasn’t really following him at that point.

I’d begun to feel the beer and my mind was wandering back to the days when Neil was in high school and I was something of the neighborhood confident for a third of the kids at the Coffee Shop.  Neil had made the decision that was right for him and come out shining.  All in all, his story was one of the best I’d heard then or now, and I felt grateful to him for sharing it with me.


This post was originally published July 7, 2008, and was last updated April 23, 2017 for clarity.

Suzanne and the Nature of Abuse

(About a 7 minute read)

I’ve heard models described as vacuous airheads, but that doesn’t describe Suzanne unless someone can be both a vacuous airhead and an intelligent, creative, buoyant, and artistic woman.

I believe she was all of 14 years old when she first modeled lingerie for Victoria’s Secrets, the catalog and store company. She couldn’t have been much older because I met her when she was 16 and she was no longer modeling by then.

Over the years, Suzanne has revealed a persistent talent for getting fired from employments, so I strongly suspect she was no longer modeling by the time we met because Secrets had refused anything more to do with her. She’s not a vacuous airhead, but she is dysfunctional.

The story I’m prepared to tell you today concerns Suzanne, Victoria’s Secrets, and her abusive boyfriend. I’ve already introduced Suzanne and Victoria’s Secrets, so I’ll turn now to the boyfriend.

Meet Jeff*.

He’s one of those males who prey on women much younger than themselves. Jeff is 20 years older than Suzanne, and very few women his own age have ever sustained an interest in him. Jeff can be charming. He can be witty. He can be exciting. He can sweep a naive and inexperienced girl off her feet. Yet, most women see the looser in him. So Jeff has learned to specialize in the young, naive and inexperienced women he has some chance of getting.

Once he gets them, he doesn’t know what to do with them. He turns the affair into a drama, the drama into a tragedy, the tragedy into a nightmare. When you take some fish out of the water, their colors at first fascinate, then fade. Latter, the fish begin to stink. Any girl who lands Jeff sooner or later learns that in a relationship, he’s a fish out of water.

Young people almost invariably overestimate the odds in their favor of significantly changing someone, and especially they overestimate their odds of changing a lover. Maybe that’s because they are always being told by their parents, preachers, and teachers to change themselves, and so they assume it actually works when you tell people to change themselves.

In truth, the only person likely to change someone is the person themselves. And even then, seldom, if ever, is a person capable of a fundamental change: It’s not in the nature of water to become stone, nor of stone to become air.

In the few years Jeff and Suzanne were together, Suzanne wanted two things, both absurd. She wanted to change Jeff against his nature. And she wanted her own nature to bloom. The latter was absurd because Jeff had her under his thumb and was abusing her emotionally, psychologically, and physically. No one blooms under those conditions. At best, they merely endure.

If you yourself have seen a few abusive relationships, you know they are all alike, except for the details. The only detail of the relationship between Jeff and Suzanne that surprised me was that Jeff apparently never tried to keep Suzanne from seeing me.

I’m clueless why he didn’t. It’s a classic pattern of abuse that the abuser tries to prevent his victim from having any friends who are outside of his influence or control. But through much of the time she was with Jeff, Suzanne saw me almost daily. It’s true she seldom associated with me in Jeff’s presence, but we spent hours together while he was at work or off somewhere else. That sort of thing normally doesn’t happen in an abusive relationship.

Suzanne would look me up almost every day. We’d then go to a coffee shop, a movie, the mall, “The Well” — which was her favorite nudist resort — or we’d go hiking, or drive around Colorado for a few hours. Whatever amused us.

Once, we even went to Victoria’s Secrets. That was three or so years into Suzanne’s relationship with Jeff. That day, we’d gone to the mall.

When we were passing the Victoria’s Secrets store, Suzanne wanted to go in. The racks, of course, were full of lingerie, and Suzanne excitedly asked me to choose three sets for her to try on. She then took me back to a dressing room where she stripped and modeled the sets for me.

Christmas was a month off, so I asked her a lot of questions about each of the three sets, including which one felt the most comfortable — if I’m going to give lingerie to a woman, it damn well better be comfortable, especially at Victoria’s prices.

Looking at a young nude woman is at least as fascinating to me as watching a beautiful sunrise. Yet, I’m not usually more than moderately attracted to most young women’s sexuality. Their sexuality is more likely to depress me than to stimulate me, although I’m not quite sure why. At any rate, I certainly do not make a point of telling young women they aren’t all that sexy to me — I have my life to protect! So that day I told Suzanne, “This is a lot of fun for me — watching you model that sexy lingerie. If I’m having so much fun, think of how much fun it would be for Jeff! Why don’t you bring him out here?”

Suzanne didn’t answer immediately. When she did answer, her voice had gone strange. There was a tone in it I’d never heard before. In a way, it was a little girl’s voice. But perhaps it only sounded like a little girl’s voice because she was having difficulty controlling it. She said, “Jeff wouldn’t like it. If I did this with him, he’d call me a slut.”

We fell into silence. Then she began taking off the last set of lingerie in order to get back into her own clothes, but she was trembling.

When you abuse a woman, you prevent her from being true to herself. At it’s core, that’s what abuse really is — it’s unnecessarily preventing someone from being true to themselves.

Sometimes it comes out in ways that are large enough and important enough to easily describe. Like the woman whose husband prevents her from developing her musical genius so that the world looses a classical pianist. But much more often, abuse comes out in ways that are harder to see, such as when a woman trembles in a dressing room because her lover will not, or cannot, accept her sexuality whole and complete, just as it is, without condemning it.

Those harder to see ways are as criminal as the other. You don’t need to beat a woman to abuse her. You can just as well kill a person’s sense of themselves, their self-esteem, their self direction — by a thousand tiny cuts.

By the time I met Suzanne I was too old and had seen too much wickedness to harbor any fantasy that I could reason with her into leaving Jeff. I knew she was confused beyond reason, frightened into uncertainty, blinded by her feelings, and emotionally dependent on him. So, I did the only things I thought I could do, which were never that great nor enough.

For the most part, that amounted to just accepting her for herself.


*The Jeff in this story should not be confused with the Jeff in 50 Shades of Jeff: Profile of a Promiscuous Man.  The two “Jeffs” were very different people in almost every way imaginable, although they knew each other.

Note: This story was last updated on April 20, 2017 for clarity.

Late Night Thoughts: Poetry-Readings, Weltanschauung, Love, Abuse, and More

(About a 10 minute read)

Silence

You’ve spent the day into the night alone
When the moon suddenly rings
Like china dropped on a tablecloth,
Startling you.

◊◊◊

Lori decided to organize a poetry reading.  She persuaded the owner of a downtown restaurant to lend her his back patio.  Then she designed some fliers and printed them up.  Meanwhile she was going about lining up people and their poems.  When the night came, she strung up some tiny colored lights, lit the candles she’d bought for all the table tops, and turned out the patio’s main lights: A good flashlight would do to spotlight the poets.

A fair number of people showed up, but not much went well after that.  Several of the poets had weak voices that didn’t carry to the back tables, or even much beyond the front row.  Some of the others had written abominations.  Lengthy, long poems, for the most part, that lectured you on their author’s feelings, but failed to produce any feelings in you.

The most common problem, however, was that so many of the poets had shown up fully prepared to read their poems.

You can do a lot when sounding a poem.  You can dramatize it, you can chant it, you can swing it, you can sing it, you can cry it out in pain.  You can even sometimes drone it  when that adds to its meaning — but however you perform it, you shouldn’t just read it.  It’s not the newspaper.

Fortunately, the whole night was saved by a single poet.  A young woman rose up and tore something about love and the abuse of intimacy from her chest that she flung across the patio like sheets of windblown rain.  You almost cried for her, a stranger, even as you stood and pounded your hands together.

◊◊◊

Weltanschauung, or “worldview”, is such a grim, heavy, ponderous term that I am fairly convinced Immanuel Kant invented it around 1790 at approximately three o’clock on some cold morning — typically our weakest hour — while sleeplessly suffering from a near fatal case of indigestion brought on by an all-too-heavy Prussian Winter’s meal of greasy sausages and sauerkraut the evening before.

The concept, in my opinion, is pretentious and incorporates only the thinnest shred of psychological insight — the insight that most of us think we have a more or less coherent view of the world.

Do we really have a single coherent worldview, as Kant thought, or do we, as Whitman suggested, “contain [contradictory] multitudes”?

I’ll go with Whitman.

◊◊◊

My first wife was stunning.  To be sure, she couldn’t drop jaws, not quite.  But she could audibly hush a room just by entering it.   And that’s how I first noticed her.

One day, two weeks after classes had started, Jana walked into the dorm cafeteria for the first time.  She’d transferred into our university a couple weeks late from the University of London, and when she entered the cafeteria that day it was the first time anyone had seen her.

Of course, it wasn’t as if the whole, huge room of a few hundred people went silent.  But the noise level did sink so much that day that you could suddenly pick up clear snatches of conversations from all the way across the room.  And heads turned.

When the group I was eating with — males from my dorm floor — had recovered their voices, the speculations naturally began in earnest.  Who was she?  Had anyone seen her before now?  What floor did she live on?  And, most importantly: Was she the first, second, or third most beautiful woman in the dorm?

Why does our noble species of super-sized spear-chucking apes always rank things?  Isn’t it enough to say, “She’s gorgeous”, without having to say, “She’s the most gorgeous”, “The second most gorgeous”?  Why?

I opted for third most gorgeous.

As it turned out, Jana’s new home was on a women’s floor that we’d scheduled a party with for the following month.  I showed up around eight that night, and started making my way through the women folk.  That is, I start circulating with the objective of systematically saying “Hi” to every woman at the party, one after the other, and regardless of whether we’d met before or not, until I’d said “Hi” (or more than “Hi”) to every woman who was not too preoccupied with an alarmingly glowering boyfriend.

Naturally, my aim at that age was to get laid, and I was perceptive enough to know that could often enough be accomplished simply by “working the numbers” in order to find the women who had also come to the party with an aim of getting laid  — a perception that by the end of the second semester would result in my being voted in a meeting my floor’s “Whore of the Year”, a title of unquestionable distinction and honor.

The alleged distinction and honor, in my case, was marred only by the fact that my competition consisted almost entirely of engineering students. Almost to a man, they were good, decent people.  But surely to a man, they were socially awkward.  As socially awkward as they were smart.  And, as just about the lone male on the floor in possession of at least a single social skill, I would have won that title even had I never picked up a single woman all year — just for being willing to talk with women!

Towards midnight, all I could show for my efforts were some platonic conversations with a few women I was genuine friends with. They were generally long conversations because I’d lost focus on my objective (beer will do that), and I doubt now that I made it through all the women at the party.  It was about then, however, that I noticed Jana sitting off by herself.

After our introduction that night, we started dating.   Yet, for all my alleged worldliness, I felt insecure and intimidated by her beauty.   She was, after all, the most gorgeous woman I’d dated up to that time in my life, and I was quite unsure of the extent or depth of her attraction to me.  Add to that, I was nowhere near her class of physical beauty.

Of course, by thinking of her as a class or two above me in beauty, I was comparing myself to her, ranking her and me, and I didn’t have the wit or insight at that time in my life to grasp that my comparison was one of the roots of my insecurities.  For had I not compared myself to her, ranked us, and then taken that ranking seriously, I would not have thought of myself as inferior to her in looks, and felt insecure because of it.

It all came to a head on one of our dates when Jana and I were sitting in a late night deli that was packed because the bars had just let out.  Jana was wearing a cheerful T-shirt with a cartoon frog on it.  Beneath the frog were the words, “You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your Prince Charming”.

My consciousness kept returning again and again to those words, wondering if they had anything to do with me — which, of course, is routine for consciousness.  That is, it’s always trying to figure out what something has got to do with one’s self.

Finally, my simmering insecurities boiled over, “What’s with the shirt?”

“The shirt? This shirt?  What do you mean, Paul?”

“Umm…I’ve got to know.  Does that shirt have anything to do with me?  Am I one of your frogs?”

Jana burst out laughing.  It was the biggest laugh I’d gotten from her yet.  Fortunately, she wasn’t laughing at me.  She was laughing at the idea I might be a frog to her.  “No”, she said at last, “I wasn’t thinking of that at all when I put it on tonight.  I just grabbed the first thing in my closet.”  After a thoughtful pause, she added, “Besides, I’ve been thinking recently that you might be my Prince.”

◊◊◊

Have you ever had a friend who contacts you only when he or she is down and troubled?  A friend who perhaps never seems to want your advice so much as they want someone to dump their feelings on?  I think most of us have had such a friend at one time or another in our lives.

Here’s another question:  Have you ever read a poem — an excellent poem — about such a friend?  It seems to be a rare topic in poetry, doesn’t it?  Yet it’s such a common experience in life.

Davy D’s recent work, An Hour With Jake, is a masterful treatment of the topic.  The craftsmanship alone is excellent: I couldn’t find a word that I thought needed to be removed, nor a word that I thought needed to be added.   And the words are true, on occasion almost clinical in their accuracy.  But there is nothing brutal, nothing ugly in Davy’s poem. There are even touches of humor.

Davy not only looks at his friend Jake’s behavior, but at his own responses to Jake.  The result is greater richness and depth.  Here’s an excerpt:

scripts roll.

his, a tale of how
his wife,
his dog,
his work colleague,
don’t understand him.

mine, a crafted questionnaire
designed for glibness,
adding to the
self-help deception.

Poets ought to be experimental, in my opinion, willing to take a risk, and never expecting themselves to produce one masterpiece after the next.  That makes it all the more rewarding when one composes an excellent capture, as Davy appears to have done here.  An Hour With Jake.

◊◊◊

In my experience, there are at least four kinds of love.  More, if you subdivide the four.  But one thing they all have in common is that they are affirmations of something.

Sometimes they affirm something as narrow as sex, and sometimes something as broad as life itself.  But each way of loving is a way of affirming, and each way of affirming has the potential to — to one extent or another  — renew us.  I would suggest, if you are weary, seeking some kind of rebirth, great or small, then find something or someone to love.

◊◊◊

Do all forms of abuse have any one thing in common?  I think if they do, it may very well be this:  They are all behaviors that risk unnecessarily alienating us from ourselves.  That is, they tend to derail us from being true to ourselves, from being authentic.

◊◊◊

The most often way I write a poem is to sound it out loud, again and again again, as I go through the process of composing it.  I think a lot of poets must do that.  It has its advantages too.

When you’re stuck, blocked, and can’t think of how to get the creativity going again, it sometimes is sufficient to simply start sounding words and phrases in new voices.  That is, pick a persona — perhaps the way a friend talks — then sound out whatever words come to mind in her tone and rhythm of voice.

I once met a woman who was traveling the country.  For reasons I’ll never know, I imagined she was some kind of hero wandering ancient lands who’d brought tales from afar to my pathetically small village of thatched huts.  She had a way of speaking, that woman, and I tried to capture her voice in a poem.

Who Comes by Far

The horizon from the highest hill is the useless
Edge Of The World when you don’t travel.

You meet people who come by far,
So they must be heroes; so I believe you’re a Rider
Passing to the Sun’s Door…though you tell me,
You once knew so cold a land the clouds froze
And fell from the sky, and the People
Wore heavy skins.

Still, I look at your hands
Warm and dark with the candle,
And can barely imagine
What I’d think their color by Dragon’s Fire,
Leave alone the morning sun.

Then you turn in our shadows as if to say,
You’ve begun your liking of me,
So tonight you’ll stay.

Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.

Be Yourself! A Guide From Why to How

(About a 30 minute read)

Once, the Hassidic rabbi Zusya came to his followers with tears in his eyes. They asked him:  “Zusya, what’s the matter?”

And he told them about his vision; “I learned the question that the angels will one day ask me about my life.”

The followers were puzzled. “Zusya, you are pious. You are scholarly and humble. You have helped so many of us. What question about your life could be so terrifying that you would be frightened to answer it?”

Zusya replied; “I have learned that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Moses, leading your people out of slavery?’ and that the angels will not ask me, ‘Why weren’t you a Joshua, leading your people into the promised land?'”

Zusya sighed; “They will say to me, ‘Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?'”

— Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

If a wily pirate could hide his gold anywhere — even somewhere fanciful — he’d be wise to hide it beneath a cliché, because almost no one digs very deep beneath a cliché.  They are the nearly perfect mask for whatever truths they might express.  I believe it was Hegel who somewhere said, “Precisely because something is obvious, it is not at all well known”.

It is also easy to ridicule clichés.  I think that might be because, over time, they accumulate so many different interpretations of them that you’re sure to find a few that are ridiculous.  “Be true to yourself” is no exception.  “Hi! I’m Ronnie, the successful author and self-help guru who is here to help revolutionize your life!  If you’re like me, you have wondered at times:  Is the feeling I have of something moving deep down inside me calling me to a new life, or is it just intestinal gas, and is there a difference?  Well, you’re in luck!  Now you, too, can be true to yourself, discover your inner purpose in life, and improve your bowl movements, all for the low low price of $29.95!  Simply call…”.   Yet, the notion that one should be true to him- or herself is unlikely to go away.

For one thing, it seems even those who make the most fun of the notion feel just as much disappointment as nearly everyone else when they fail to be true to themselves.  Simply apply for a job you don’t want, but need: it’s only human to feel “this isn’t right for me”.  Marry the wrong person, same feeling multiplied.  Just sucking up to someone is likely to induce such feelings to some extent.  For many of us, something as slight as wearing the “wrong” clothing can trip our sense of self — and regardless of what we think of the cliché itself.

It runs deeper than that, though.  Infants are born incapable of self awareness, but then, generally between the ages of 18 and 24 months, they develop a sense of self.  For the rest of their childhood, they are defining and re-defining that sense of self.   “Mommie,  I’m not like that!”

During adolescence and young adulthood, the search for self intensifies.  The “13 to 30 group” is in some ways even more experimental than children in defining and re-defining their sense of self.  At times they seem to test everything — fashions, music, literature, hobbies, jobs, even friends and lovers — against the standard of “is it me or not me”.

Midlife seems to be a time when most of us deepen our commitments to things that match our self-images — or feel trapped in lives that seem not our own.  It is often during midlife that many people, perhaps for the first time, see with some clarity just how powerfully their upbringing influenced or determined their sense of self, and how much their sense of self has had to do with their choices in life.

During our elder years [Author’s note to loyal reader Teresums: I’m not there yet, Teresums.  So shuddup!], we tend to become increasingly reflective, and our reflections so often turn to whether we lived true to ourselves.  These reflections can become especially poignant as we lay dying.  Bronnie Ware is an Australian author who for many years worked as a caregiver with people who were dying.  Typically, she was with a patient for the last three to twelve weeks of their lives.

When she asked her patients whether they had any regrets about how they had lived their lives, she discovered the single most common regret dying people have is that they have not been true to themselves:

“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

This was the most common regret of all.  When people realize that their life is almost over and look back clearly on it, it is easy to see how many dreams have gone unfulfilled. Most people have not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made, or not made.

“Be true to yourself” is a cliché, but it seems to be one cliché that’s well worth digging into.

Why be true to oneself?

But why should one try to be true to oneself — apart from merely trying to avoid being disappointed in old age?  As it turns out, being true to oneself, or authenticity, correlates well with life satisfaction and a sense of well-being.  That’s not only psychological well-being, but physical well-being, too.

In addition, it fulfills the human desire to stand out a bit from others.  And it also correlates with greater realism, mindfulness, vitality, self-esteem, goal pursuits, and coping skills.  In contrast, those who score relatively low on psychological tests of authenticity “…are likely to be defensive, suspicious, confused, and easily overwhelmed.”

Beyond those points, authenticity seems to be an absolute requirement for a genuinely intimate relationship.  It is very difficult, perhaps impossible, to be loved for who you are when you are, in fact, hiding who you are.

Last, there is a subtle, but still observable beauty to authentic people.  I don’t know whether this is evident to everyone — aesthetic things tend not to be — but I myself at least have noticed that people who are mostly true to themselves tend not only to radiate a sort of beauty (and charisma), but they also tend to be inspiring, even at times liberating, to be around.  And these qualities do not seem to depend on their physical appearance per se.  I’ve noticed these things in conventionally plain or ordinary, and in conventionally pretty or handsome, people both.

Living as authentically as ethically possible can have it’s downsides — for instance, it might alienate us from folks who fail to approve of our real selves — but it certainly has its upsides too.

What are the obstacles to being true to oneself?

Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation. –Oscar Wilde

As it happens, there are more obstacles to being true to oneself than there are reasons to be so.  One of the biggest of those obstacles is the fact that so many of us have quite rigid and inflexible notions of ourselves.  Notions that at the very least hamper our understanding of who really are.  I have written extensively on that issue here.  A second, and I think, equally important obstacle can be broadly summed up as “society and/or culture”.

“Society and culture” cover quite a number of things.  Obviously, social pressure to conform is among those things.  Also among those things are the various ideas and expectations of who we should or should not be.

It seems human nature to want to live up to the expectations of others.  Apparently, most of us do it every day in ways both great and small.  A friend of mine — someone I very much admire — is a middle-aged woman who is now discovering that she has spent her life living for others. She was raised to put the wants and needs of everyone else before her own.  And that message was both reinforced and justified by her family’s fundamentalist religion.

For instance: The notion she was morally obligated to subvert herself in order to please others was so deeply instilled in her during her upbringing that she felt shock the first time someone stated to her that a woman is not required to have sex with her husband if she does not feel like it.

Today she is discovering — one step at a time — her own wants and needs. For the fact is, when you have been thoroughly taught to put the wants and needs of everyone else before your own, you most often suppress your own wants and needs to the point that you no longer clearly know what they are.  It is easy to tell such a person, “Be true to yourself”.  But that person might have a long ways to go before she knows her real wants and needs, let alone is confident of her right to them.

Yet, we do not need to be first abused — as she was — before we cast ourselves aside in order to live up the expectations of others. Abuse certainly helps us do that — the very essence of abuse is that it unnecessarily alienates us from our true selves — but abuse is not required for us to fail to be true to ourselves.  We are social animals.  Profoundly social animals.  Almost anyone of us, if he or she really thought about it, could list dozens of ways in which our noble species of poo-flinging apes manifests its social nature.

It is deeply ingrained in us to desire companionship, to want the acceptance of others, to value love and friendship.  When scientists ask us what it takes to make us happy, we quite often tell them the single most important factor in our happiness is the quality of our relationships with our friends and family. Most of us at one time or another bargain for friendship by trading who we are for what someone expects of us.

Yet, our social nature can be turned on us to alienate us from ourselves.  If nearly anyone of us could list dozens ways in which our species manifests its social nature, anyone of us could list hundreds of ways in which we are encouraged, cajoled, wheedled, browbeat, bullied, or forced to subvert ourselves in order to live up to someone’s expectations.

The most loving parents and relatives commit murder with smiles on their faces. They force us to destroy the person we really are: a subtle kind of murder.  ― Jim Morrison

Closely related to the sometimes alienating influence other people’s expectations can have on us is the fact that authenticity can bring on the judgement and condemnation of others.  I have found that the people most likely to object to someone behaving authentically are those nearest the person who, under certain circumstances, might perceive such behavior as a threat to their relationship with the person.  Suppose, for instance, that you had gone years without really being very true to yourself.  Then you start changing.  That can cause quite a bit of consternation among the people who have up until then relied on your false front.  In my experience, though, if you’ve always been down to earth with someone, they are more likely to be attracted to your authenticity than concerned by it.

Authenticity crucially depends on accurate self-knowledge.  Yet, self-knowledge is something many of us would prefer not to have too much of.  We like the “good parts”, the fact we can be kind, intelligent, industrious, creative, witty, honest, and so forth.  But we wish to ignore or deny the rest of it, the fact that we can also be cruel, petty, malicious, cunning, lying, cheating, and so forth.  If we are very good at denial, then we’ve never done any of those latter things at all!

Yet, authenticity not only requires us to be honest with ourselves, it also tends to eventually require of us to do something far more difficult than be honest.  There can come a day when it requires us to accept ourselves as we are, without condemnation or praise. For any kind of judgement, in the end, distorts what we see.  Ultimately, the surest knowledge of ourselves comes from seeing ourselves as dispassionately and non-judgmentally as we might look at the tree in our neighbor’s yard, with the eyes not of a moralist, but of a sage.  This, however, is extraordinarily difficult.

The ability to observe without evaluating is the highest form of intelligence. ― Jiddu Krishnamurti

There are other obstacles to being true to oneself, but those seem to me the most mentionable.  (Consequently, I have mentioned them.  You can trust me to do things like that.)   I think becoming aware of the obstacles is a step towards surmounting them.

What is the self?

It is one thing to say, “Be true to yourself”, but what is the self that one should be true to?   “Who am I?”, is perhaps the second oldest question on earth, next only to, “Why the hell did we elect that guy?”

Perhaps the most popular Western notion of the self — the notion most of us in the West would subscribe to today were we asked about it — is that we have some essential core, some single, stable core self, that makes us, us, and that is more or less constant through-out our lives.  In some profound sense, we are born, live, and die the same person.  In Western philosophy, for instance, that notion dates at least all the way back to Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, roughly 2,400 years ago.  The Christian and Muslim concepts of the soul reflect it.  It is not, however, an ubiquitous notion.

In Japan, for instance, there are many people who believe the self is like an onion.  You can delve deeper and deeper into it, layer after layer, until you reach — not a core, for an onion has no proper core — but nothingness.  The peoples of at least several Native American nations were accustomed to change their names more or less periodically through-out their lives to reflect the changes they had undergone in themselves (as were some Japanese).  And not even every ancient Greek believed in a permanent core self.  As Heraclitus famously said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Near as I can see, Walt Whitman was getting at the truth when, in Song of Myself, he proclaimed, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then, I contradict myself; I am large — I contain multitudes”.  And I think Anaïs Nin must have been seeing much the same thing as Whitman when she said, “I take pleasure in my transformations. I look quiet and consistent, but few know how many women there are in me.”

The self,  simply observed, and without analyzing it further than to observe it, seems to resemble nothing so much as a mess: Layer upon layer of often conflicting memories, sensations, impressions, ideas, desires, fears, emotions, sentiments, and behaviors unified only by a constant current of horniness running though-out all of it.

But a messy self fails to satisfy most of us, who seem to think of ourselves in the old way when it comes to being true to ourselves.  Ask a person who he or she is, authentically is, and they do not usually respond, “a contradictory, incoherent  multitude”, unless of course, they’re either drunk or are for the first time in their lives asking someone out on a date.

Is it possible to discern in all that mess a core or true self?

I think so.  What is necessary is to look for factors — such as behaviors, emotions, etc. — that can be considered “traits” in the sense of being sustained across situations and at least somewhat over time.

A good example of a trait might be a talent or aptitude for something, such as music, athletics, mathematics, and so forth.  Generally, talents seem to endure through-out life.  The skills built on them can fade with disuse, but the talent itself — the predisposition or aptitude for something — seems to last.

Another example might be how consciousness basically works.  Here, I do not mean one’s fleeting awarenesses, which come, shift, and go moment to moment, but rather the fundamental workings of consciousness.  For instance, consciousness quite often ranks things according to some measure of superiority or inferiority.  It can be barely noticeable that it does this, but it does it rather frequently.  On my way to the store today, a homeless man introduced himself to me with the words, “You look like Arlo Guthrie!”

The first thing my consciousness did was pat itself on the back for being compared to such a distinguished gentleman, but some part of it also noted that the homeless man didn’t mention an even more distinguished gentleman than Mr. Guthrie.  What?  I don’t rank a Brad Pitt?  There are fundamental, predictable ways in which consciousness works.  Just as I consider consciousness itself a trait of my core self, I also consider its basic workings traits of my core self.

A third example of our core traits might be any reasonably enduring desires and fears we have, such as a desire for fame, health, money, or to be favorably compared to Brad Pitt.  Such desires need not last a lifetime for us to consider them part of our true selves during at least some phase of our lives.  They are, however, more likely to change over time than, say, our talents.

To say that our core or true selves are comprised of traits is to imply that more fleeting or limited behaviors, emotions, sensations, ideas, etc. are not actually our core or true selves.  That only seems to make sense to me.  We all have moments, days, and even longer periods when we are “not ourselves”, meaning we are feeling, thinking, or acting in ways that are uncharacteristic of us.  That are not traits of us.

What does it mean to be true to ourselves?

Do exactly what you would do if you felt most secure. — Meister Eckhart

When I recall the appearance of various people in my life,  I seem to remember some for their smiles, some for their laughter, others for their bodies, still others for the voices, and so on.   But Paul Mundschenk I remember for his shrug.

It was a shrug that I once described as “hinting of nature’s perfect indifference, but without any coldness”, and I still think that’s a pretty good description of it.  As I recall, Mundschenk, who was a professor of Comparative Religious Studies, was especially apt to shrug when anyone said something to him about himself.  “Thank you, Dr. Mundschenk, that was very kind of you!”  Shrug.  His words would say, “You’re welcome”, but his shrug would say, “I’m more or less indifferent to myself”.

Most of us, when we’re in our teens, can detect a fake from across a room.  We might not know how we ourselves can be authentic (largely, I think, because we don’t yet know ourselves well enough) but we can sure tell when someone is faking it.   As teens, we tend to have little sympathy for fakes.  Especially adult fakes.

We still think that, the older you get, the truer to yourself you are able to become, as if being true to yourself were as easy as growing into new privileges, such as staying up late, or getting to borrow Dad’s car.  It hasn’t occurred to us yet that most adults are under tremendous, sustained pressure to be false to themselves.  Nor has it usually occurred to us that we will soon enough feel those pressures too.

If that’s the case, then I think there might be a sense in which Paul Mundschenk never grew up.  That is, he just gave you the impression of a man who has never accepted the common wisdom that he must put on a front to get on in the world. He had an air of innocence about him, as if it had somehow simply escaped his notice that he ought to conform to the expectations of others, and that any of us who refuses to do so is asking for all sorts of trouble.

Now, to be as precise as a dentist when untangling the inexplicably tangled braces of a couple of kids the morning after prom night, Mundschenk did not seem a defiant man.  He was anything but confrontational.  Anything but contrary.

There are people who are naturally contrary, or naturally defiant, and they are often mistaken for being authentic, even exceptionally authentic.  But their “authenticity” is more of a reaction to others, an opposition to them.  True authenticity comes not in reaction to others, but comes from oneself, and comes irregardless of others.

Rather than being some sort of defiance, Mundschenk’s notably open and honest individualism seemed deeply rooted in a remarkable indifference to putting on any masks or airs.  He simply couldn’t be bothered to conform, if that wasn’t what he already wanted to do.

What then, was at the heart of Mundschenk’s authenticity?  For our purposes here, we may define being true to oneself,  or authenticity, as “the unobstructed operation of one’s true- or core-self in one’s daily enterprise”.

The definition is not my own, but comes from the work of Micheal Kernis and Brian Goldman, two of the most notable pioneers in the psychology of authenticity.    Kernis and Goldman believe that authenticity is comprised of four components:

  1. Awareness: Accurate and comprehensive self-knowledge along with a willingness to learn more.
  2. Unbiased processing:  Objectively evaluating any self-relevant information, be the source internal or external.
  3. Behavior: Acting on the basis of one’s internal values, needs, and preferences, and not as a consequence of any external goals.
  4. Relational Orientation: Revealing one’s true self in close relationships.

There can be no such thing as a step-by-step guide to how to become more authentic.  The process is too variable, too much dependent on the individual involved. Yet, I believe Kernis’ and Goldman’s “four components” offer a generalized point of departure for us.

First, authenticity is virtually impossible without we know ourselves. Unless we have accurate, up to date knowledge of who we are, very little else can be accomplished.

That’s not to say we will ever completely know ourselves.  I don’t think that’s even possible. But we can we can usually get a fair understanding of ourselves, an understanding sufficient to guide us in being true to ourselves.  A key thing is to keep it up to date, stay open to changing our self-image as we ourselves change.

Some people prefer to introspect in order to discover themselves, but I have found introspection to be unreliable.  For every genuine fact about myself that I’ve discovered through introspection, I’ve discovered a dozen things that merely had the misleading appearance of fact.  Better than introspection for me has been to as dispassionately as possible watch how my consciousness responds in relationship to the things in my environment, very much including the people.

If that is difficult for you to do, it can be made easier by keeping a daily journal for a month or so in which you write down your thoughts, feelings, and behavior towards the things in your environment whenever you have an opportunity to do so.  Be as comprehensive and as honest as you can be.  Then review the journal each evening.  You will soon enough see patterns emerge, insights you’ve never had before, and your understanding of yourself will most likely be multiplied (unless your attention is divided.  Division, as everyone knows, is the opposite of multiplication).

Second, as much as decency and your circumstances will permit, act according to your own needs, wants, desires, preferences, and values. Avoid, if possible, acting according to the expectations, preferences, etc of others. Again, this can require a great deal of self-knowledge to accomplish.

Last, if you do not already have friends with whom you can be yourself, find and cultivate such friendships.  This is more important than it might sound at first.  For one thing, it can be difficult getting to know yourself if you do not have in your life anyone you can be open and revealing with.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  I discuss some aspects of this matter more fully here.

If you are unfortunate enough to be in a “close” relationship with someone who you do not feel comfortable being yourself with, seriously consider distancing yourself, or even ending the relationship.  Do not be afraid of being lonely for awhile.  In my experience, there is no greater loneliness than that felt when in a relationship with someone who fundamentally rejects you.  You are most likely already feeling as lonely as you’ll ever feel being by yourself.

Self-knowledge, self-directed behavior, and appropriate relationships are all key to being true to ourselves.

  The Limits of Being True to Yourself and the Nature of Abuse

The ideal adult human in my view is an authentic, functional individual who is socially and environmentally responsible.  Social and environmental responsibility potentially place restraints or limits on his or her authenticity.  I see those limits as necessary, even though they might amount to alienations of oneself.  Otherwise, a serial killer, say, might justify their crimes as “being true to themselves”.  But I have  written more about that here.

Also in my alarming opinion, the very heart and core nature of all manner of abuse — physical abuse, mental abuse, verbal abuse, even sexual abuse — is to unnecessarily alienate us, or tend to unnecessarily alienate us, from our true selves.  I haven’t written much on that elsewhere, so I can’t link you to anything.  At least not yet.  You are so lucky!

Fancy Summary

Authenticity or being true to oneself is not for the faint hearted. It can be a taxing and difficult road to travel requiring sacrifices, the least of which might be estrangement from folks who disapprove of you, the real you.  However, I have found that such things are far easier to take and cope with when you are being true to yourself than when you are being false and they reject you anyway.

That seems to me to tie into something else I’ve noticed:  When we do our best — which varies from time to time — we regret failures so much less than when we fail while “slacking off”.  This seems true to me not only in accomplishing tasks, but in such things as far afield as romantic love.  And I suspect something of the same principle is at work with authenticity.  When we are being authentic, we are inevitably doing our best.

In this single blog post I have tried to offer up my ideas about the reasons why we try to be authentic, the major obstacles to our being authentic, the nature of our core self,  the meaning of authenticity, and a hint of the limits to being authentic.

Naturally, there is so much more to it — all of it — than can be covered in a mere blog post, even a long one.   Anyone interested in more of my own writings on the subject can find some of them linked to here.  I would suggest Danielle Goes to an Erotic Dance Club as a good place to start because it provides a relatively unique, out-of-the-box perspective on authenticity.

Thank you for reading!  Please feel warmly invited to comment on this post!  I would love to hear your own thoughts and feelings about authenticity!

The Social Brain

(A 9 minute read)

“The trouble with practical jokes is that very often they get elected.”  ― Will Rogers

Politicians are not the only practical jokes that get elected.  A lot of bad ideas also “get elected”.  Get elected in the sense that they become as popular as cheap hamburgers, and more popular than much better ideas.

Social Darwinism is surely one of the worse ideas that humans have ever invented.   Humans are quite talented at inventing bad ideas, but talent alone lacks the necessary brilliance to have invented Social Darwinism.  No, Social Darwinism took genius.

There were actually several geniuses involved in the invention of Social Darwinism, a whole intellectual clusterfuck of them.  But perhaps William Graham Sumner was the most brilliant clusterfucker of that whole group.

In 1883, Sumner published a highly influential pamphlet entitled “What Social Classes Owe to Each Other”, in which he insisted that the social classes owe each other nothing, synthesizing Darwin’s findings with free enterprise Capitalism for his justification.  According to Sumner, those who feel an obligation to provide assistance to those unequipped or under-equipped to compete for resources, will lead to a country in which the weak and inferior are encouraged to breed more like them, eventually dragging the country down. Sumner also believed that the best equipped to win the struggle for existence was the American businessman, and concluded that taxes and regulations serve as dangers to his survival.  [Source]

To be able to take an idea as brilliant as Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and turn it into an idea as hard-packed with stupidity as Social Darwin is absolute genius.  Sumner might have been one of the people George Orwell had in mind when he said, “There are some ideas so absurd that only an intellectual could believe them”.

Anti-intellectualism is just as American as apple pie or selling diabetic horse urine as beer.  That does not mean, however, that Americans skeptically refuse to  embrace the ideas of intellectuals.  No, in practice, it has meant only that Americans are so unfamiliar with intellectuals and their ideas that they can’t tell the good from the bad.  They are like those poor, sad folks who are so anti-sex they never develop whatever raw talent they might have for sex into becoming moderately decent lovers, let alone dynamos between the bed sheets.  There is no other way to explain the continuing popularity in America of Sumner’s ideas.

Social Darwinism is many things but so often at the core of it is the notion that human evolution has been predominantly driven by intraspecies competition.  As it turns out, however, to say that intraspecies competition predominantly drove human evolution is just as absurd as saying that a dozen minutes of start-to-finish jackhammering is mainly all there is to sex.  There is so much more!

For a long time, scientists have known that the human brain is exceptionally large relative to body size.

Early attempts to explain the fact tended to focus on environmental factors and  activities.  Thus, humans were thought to have evolved large brains to facilitate banging rocks together in order to make tools, hunt animals, avoid predators,  think abstractly, and outsmart competitors for vital resources like food, territory, mates, and rocks.  This was known as the “ecological brain theory”.

Then, in 1992, the British anthropologist Robin Dunbar published an article showing that, in primates, the ratio of the size of the neo-cortex to that of the rest of the brain consistently increases with increasing social group size.

This strongly suggested that primate brains — very much including human brains — grew big in order to allow them to cope with living in social groups.  As a consequence of that and other research, the new “social brain theory” started replacing the old “ecological brain theory” in the hearts and minds of scientists.

We don’t have the biggest teeth, the sharpest claws, the fleetest feet, the strongest muscles in nature.  But, as it happens, we are in most ways the single most cooperative species of all mammals, and in unity there is strength.  One human is usually no match for a lion even if he’s the most competitive human within a hundred miles. But through cooperation we are able to achieve more together than we can achieve through competition.

I once saw a film in which a band of two dozen or so men and women chased a huge male lion into a thicket and killed it in just a few seconds with nothing more than pointed sticks.   That is the bare minimal kind of cooperation that no doubt helped us to become the extraordinarily successful species we are today.

Even the fact we are able to (to some extent) reason abstractly might have much to do with our evolving as a social species.

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber have come up with the fascinating theory that reasoning evolved — not to nobly discern truths — but to persuade our fellow apes to cooperate with us, and to help us figure out when someone is telling us the truth.

Thus Mercier and Sperber begin with an argument against the notion that reasoning evolved to deliver rational beliefs and rational decisions:

The evidence reviewed here shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

In other words, those of us who wish in at least some cases to arrive at rational beliefs and rational decisions are somewhat in the position of a person who must drive screws with a hammer — the tool we have available to us (reason) did not evolve for the purpose to which we wish to employ it, and only by taking the greatest care can we arrive safely at our goal.  But I digress.

Mercier and Sperber go on to ask, “Why does reasoning exist at all, given that it is a relatively high-cost mental activity with a relatively high failure rate?”

They answer that reasoning evolved to assess the reliability and quality of what someone is telling you (“Is Joe telling me the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth about his beer cellar?”), and also to enable you to persuade someone to do (or not do) something (“How do I talk Joe into giving me all his beer?”).   That is, reasoning involved in a group context.  The implication is that we reason best and most reliably when we argue or debate with each other.

I have long thought that one of the reasons the sciences have demonstrated themselves to be all but the most reliable means of inquiry that we have ever invented — second only to getting baked on Colorado’s finest weed in order to ponder the “Big Questions” of life — is because the sciences rest on the principle of intersubjective verifiability.  Basically, you check my work, I’ll check yours, and together we might be able to get closer to the truth than either of us could get working alone.

When Thomas Hobbes was writing out his political philosophy in the 1600s, he embraced the sensible notion that any political system should be based on human nature, as opposed, say, to based on what we might think some god or king wants us to have.   Hobbes, who often cooked up brilliant ideas, now proceeded to burn his meal, for he envisioned that human nature is essentially solitary.  He thought if you go back far enough in human history you will come to a time when people did not live in social groups, but alone.  There was no cooperation between people and it was instead “a war of all against all”.

Hobbes was not only wrong about that, he was very wrong about that.  What evidence we have suggests our species always lived in groups, our ancestors always lived in groups, and their ancestors always lived in groups.  In fact you must go back at least 20 million years in evolutionary history before you find a likely ancestor of ours that might have been a loner.  Our brains have been evolving as specialized organs for dealing with we each other for at least 20 million years, which is almost long enough to listen to every last complaint my two ex wives have about me.  And hell, we’re only talking about their legitimate complaints!

Of course, the fact we are social animals does not mean we are hive animals.  We are very much individuals, so far as I can see.  But that means, among much else, that there is and always will be a tension or conflict between our social and our individual natures.

Before we started living in the first city-states about 6,500 years ago, we lived in relatively small hunting/gathering bands of 200 or so people at the most.  So far as we know today, the bands were mostly egalitarian.  Just about anyway you can measure it, there wasn’t much social, political, or economic difference between people.  And the individual and society were probably in a fairly well balanced relationship with each other. Then some killjoy invented the complex, hierarchical society of the city-states.   And the people of the time, instead of doing the rational thing, and hanging him on the spot, let him get away with it.

From that infamous day forward, there’s been very few times in history when the balance between the individual and society has favored the individual.  Most societies have been oppressive.  That needs to end.   Yet end in a way that restores a sane balance, not in a way that destroys societies through extreme individualism.

She was Once a Friend of Mine

I recall tonight how I once would sit in the dark, early hours of the morning outside on the patio of my old apartment, and compose in soft whispers poems to encourage a woman I’d recently met over the internet.

Only a few months before she’d reached out to me with an email introducing herself.  Besides her introduction, the email also contained an account of her troubles, her apologies for possibly bothering me, and the explanation that she had no one else she could talk with.

She’d been raised by an physically abusive father and a facilitating mother, but she had long ago forgiven both her father for his beatings, and her mother for condoning his beatings.  Her troubles weren’t with her past, but with her present.

In her late teens, she had married the first man with whom she’d had sex.  It wasn’t that she loved him, nor that he loved her.  It was just that, the way they’d been raised, they both assumed for religious reasons that they must marry because they’d had sex.  After all, they now were no longer pure enough to marry anyone else.  Fortunately, they could atone for their impurity by marrying.

They decided to become African missionaries, but those plans collapsed when they discovered she was pregnant.  He got a job then as one of the pastors of an Evangelical megachurch.  Eleven years later, when she first emailed me, he had risen to become the senior pastor, second in the church’s hierarchy only to the founder himself.

“If we divorce”, she wrote, “He will lose his job.  He’s not an abusive man, nothing like my father, and he’s good with our children.  But he doesn’t really care for me.  He wants me to be an ideal pastor’s wife, and I am not sure he either knows or cares that I’m not that; that I’m not that person he wants.

“I’m just now discovering who I am.  Is it strange that it’s taken me so long to do that, Paul?

“I have lots of friends, but I’m not close enough with any of them to discuss these things.  They are all members of his congregation and they want me to be the same person that he wants me to be. The person I’m not.”

There was a lot more to her troubles than just those things, of course, but what I appreciated most about her was that she refused to hate her husband, refused to disrespect him, and she still gave him his due — even while recognizing that she was miserable in their marriage, that she felt trapped and oppressed, that her hopes and dreams were bleeding out of her.

For a while, she was uncertain about divorcing him.  In the end, though, she decided it was for the best.  As it happened, I knew someone quite a lot like her, only male and single.  Eventually, I introduced them.  A few years later, the last I knew, they were still together.

The Stolen Star Child.

Once a man took his daughter’s dreams —
You know, the visions she had for herself —

Took them, even before she knew she had them,
And gave to her his cheap, second-hand fists instead.

So she grew up not fully knowing who she was:
A Stolen Star Child, knocked off-course in the universe.

I found her a few years later on, married by then
To a preaching man and his congregation

Who wanted to make her the wife she was not,
But wanted not the wife that she was.

There was even some part of the Stolen Star Child
Who wanted for herself what they wanted for her,

And who would have turned her gold into lead for them,
Before cheerfully taking the next rocket ship down to hell.

Despite it all, I felt her enter into my heart that first midnight
To settle there among my dry twigs with a great flutter of wings.

Still, there was nothing I could really give her
So I went looking for her dreams instead.

And now I spend my hours fueling colored patio lamps;
Hoping they’ll someday light her way back to the stars.