American Psychologist, Author, Professor and Philosopher
American Psychologist, Author, Professor and Philosopher
One of the primary stories we tell about ourselves is, about the meaning of death?? Every culture has a mythology, a repertoire of stories about why people die. In some cultures people are thought to die because they?ve offended the gods. Many primitive mythologies assume that death comes as a result of breaking a taboo. It is not natural, doesn?t just happen. You?ve offended a god, or you have done something you ought not to have done. To understand the meaning of life you have to ask about the meanings that are assigned to death. What are the stories that govern death?? What kind of death is focal in a given culture?
Plato?s parable shows us it has always been difficult to separate shadow from substance, propaganda from reasoned conviction, data from meaning, opinion from wisdom. Every culture has had its image smiths, propagandists, myth makers, and newsmen. The first storytellers sitting around ancient fires fascinated their audiences and convinced them without evidence that floods were a sign of the wrath of god and rainbows a symbol of divine favor. In Medieval times the perils of sin and the pleasures of the good life were advertised for all to see in the stained glass windows of cathedrals. Crusades and holy wars were promoted by song and sermon long before the printing press invented yellow journalism or television helped politicians convert a struggle between haves and have-nots into a battle between heroes and evil empires. The manipulation of public opinion is as old as civilization and as inevitable as the lust for power.
Playboy and Cosmopolitan promoted casual sex and Erica Jong insisted that women had the right to the ?zipless fuck?. The sexual revolution promoted the impossible idea that sex was something any two consenting adults did without too much emotional involvement, that was, nevertheless, supposed to free us. We had the Reichian full body orgasm.( Probably, many of you didn?t have one. It?s colder up here in Canada. ) Salvation by orgasm. When even that proved inadequate we discovered that women could have more orgasms than men? four of hers for one of yours. . In due time we discovered the ?G? spot and the ?O? spot and the long repressed news that there were only clitoral orgasms. Thus, the vibrator replaced that part of the male anatomy of which we men are so fond and raised a question as to whether women should bother with men.
Religion is not speculating about the existence or non-existence of otherworldly entities, but is living with a sense of wonder and struggling to keep our one and only earth a sacred dwelling place.
Sacred community requires far more than mere civility or fairness. Although the great religions have very different theologies, they share a common vision of the kind of action that characterizes the life of the sincere believer. The summary of this consensus: ?Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.? The golden rule places a maximum demand on all who would be guided by it. When we unpack the implications of this simple, universal commandment we find it involves the recognition of the preciousness of all persons and the intention to respond to all members of the global village with empathy and compassion .
In Search of an Environmental Policy: Some Radical Propositions: I. Prelude: Diagnosis of the Dis-ease - 1. Nothing fails like yesterday?s solutions. 2. Most social, psychological, and spiritual dilemmas are solved, or dissolved, by expanding the context within which they are viewed. 3. Change your questions and you will alter your vision. 4. What is ?practical? depends on your ideology, myth or vision. 5. Policy is always the application of someone?s vision. 6. Mistaking a symptom for the dis-ease worsens the illness. 7. It is only by considering a chaotic diversity of symptoms that we can make a good diagnosis. 8. Hope for significant change emerges precisely within the condition of disintegration that seems to invite us to despair. 9. The present dark night of social anarchy offers a greater opportunity for systemic change than the superficial optimism of the l950?s, the psychedelic utopianism of the l960?s, the neo-realism of the l970?s or the unbounded greed of the l980?s. 10. A good environmental policy can only emerge from considering the context of the entire post-modern political agenda?the population explosion, the cancerous growth of megalopolis, urban blight, structural unemployment, the growth of a perpetual underclass, the disintegration of family and community bonds, crime, the climate of violence, the eclipse of a sense of meaning, value and the sacredness of life, and (most importantly for the policy suggestions I want to make), the abandonment of rural and village life. II. In Search of a Vision of Environmental Health 11. Changing our vision of our place in nature, our relationship to the environment, our way of organizing our economic life to insure the hope of a sustainable future for our children is the central spiritual and political challenge of our age. 12. As presently conceptualized, a healthy (perpetually expanding) economy is dependent on perpetuating an environmentally sickening style of consumption. 13. Current efforts to save the environment are formulated under the supposedly realistic mandate that they must not have a negative effect on the economy, lead to the loss of jobs, imperil our competitive advantage. 14. No policy formulated from within the perspectives of the economic myth, the myth of progress, the myth of the free market, or the ideology of urban life, will be adequate to the central spiritual and political challenge of our age. 15. The syllogism that points toward a new vision and policy is: We can only heal what we love. We can only love what we touch. We can only touch what is proximate. 16. Formulating a policy that will implement a healing relationship to the environment requires us to visualize ways in which a majority of citizens can love, touch and remain proximate to the natural world. That 3% of our population produces the food for the remaining 97% is a symptom of our alienation from the environment, an index of our exile from the elemental truth of air, earth, fire, water, plant, and animal life which is the abiding context of human life. III. Medicines and Means of Healing: Policy Implications. 17. A major aim of environmental policy should be to slow, halt and reverse the worldwide pattern of population migration from rural areas, villages and towns to megalopolis. (This will require us to challenge the ideology that unconsciously assumes that the trend toward urbanization is inevitable and desirable) 18. We need to re-conceptualize and create innovative approaches to the economies of village, small town and rural life. To date, government agencies have been of little help in revitalizing the culture and economics of ?depressed? rural areas that are losing their traditional mainstays of farming and logging. With the revolution in telecommunications, rural areas are no longer remote and removed. 19. We need to promote homesteading programs that will make it possible for a generation of young pioneers to create a new type of modern family farm based on the practice of sustainable agriculture. 20. We need programs that will aid retired people on fixed incomes living in cities to relocate in, and revitalize, small towns and villages. 21. We need a department of Urban Agriculture to promote the greening of the cities. (During World War ll a majority of Americans, and Germans grew victory gardens) 22. Federal, state and local departments of education need to be encouraged to experiment with ways of giving children some direct, hands-on, experience of growing, tending and harvesting. In the same measure that it would be irresponsible to neglect to teach the young to deal with the emerging information technology, it is irresponsible to ignore their environmental education.
It has been said that philosophers are perverts! And it?s true! That was the charge made against Socrates. Everybody in Athens pretty well understood the cultural norms until Socrates came on the scene. Euthyphro, for instance, was on his way to turn his father in for impiety when he met Socrates who started asking him questions. By the end of the dialogue Euthyphro has no idea what piety is. For this disturbing habit of questioning, Socrates was charged with perverting the youth of Athens and given a hemlock milk shake. And that is the job of philosophy, to turn things over, switch appearance and reality.
It is only with the events of 9/11 that the specter of death by terror has imprinted itself on the American mind. Even though American forces are involved in the business of killing and being killed in two or three wars (depending on who is counting) we seldom see pictures of the causalities we have inflicted or suffered. Mid-East media shows the mangled bodies that result from ?collateral damage? but American are not allowed to see the blood of the victims of violence. (Except on entertainment programs on prime time television.)
Ivan Illich has argued in Medical Nemesis that modern medicine has disempowered us to deal with our own suffering and dying. As experts take over the management of our bodies in every crisis from borning to dying, and redefine moral conducts such as addiction or greed as diseases, we are reduced to being passive consumers of professional body tenders. Increasingly our medical system infantilizes patients. How obediently we tolerate the authoritarian atmosphere of doctors? offices and hospitals! We wait patiently and submit to procedures we do not understand because the experts assure us they are necessary. And we die in hospitals because that is where we can get professional care. Only the lucky among us get help from hospice providers and are allowed to die in he comfort of our homes.
Map for an Endless Journey: These reflections on sacred and profane power leave many of my questions unanswered. Like anyone who has experienced an epiphany of the sacred in any form, I am caught up in the perennial struggle between sacred and profane views of the world. Like it or not, I am a citizen of both realms and must find some way to live in a creative tension between the two. I am under no illusion that I will ever live in a commonwealth governed equally by love, power and justice. But a map showing the topography of these competing kingdoms of human consciousness helps me to understand the direction in which I must travel to fulfill the sacred promise of my life, to become a wholesome person.
If that entity I call my ?self ? is not an autonomous center of action, but is (pardon the language) radically dependent on, ontologically bonded to, intersubjectively connected with, erotically inseparable from God (the Ground of all Being and Becoming, the Self-transcending-Transcender-of all, the Alpha and Omega) how should I think about my personal power? Paradoxically! I am no-thing and Everything, an impotent part of an omnipotent whole, a sinner (sundered) and a saint (whole), ?At its best, religion reveals both truths about man: his worm likeness as well as his godlikeness. Religious heroism involves living in primary awe at the miracle of the created object?including oneself in one?s own godlikeness.? (Becker) How do I experience my godlikeness? My sacred power? Not by proclaiming myself ?the master of my fate, the captain of my soul,? a weary but unyielding Atlas,? Not by courses in self-esteem that assure me that I create my own reality. It begins with a quiet moment when my normal identity disappears and I am wonderstruck, terrified and fascinated to realize that my existence, like that of the cosmos, is mysterious beyond anything I can comprehend or control. When I consider my life existentially I realize that I am not a standardized human unit that can be replaced by another standardized unit. To myself I am not a specimen, or a member of a species that evolved from a chance collision of particles in the cosmic soup. The state may consider me a citizen to be numbered, taxed, conscripted, fitted into the demands of a five year plan. My employer may consider me a resource to be used or discarded as needed. But to myself I fits into no pigeon hole. I am a bud beginning to unfold, a story waiting to be told.
If we want to explore the significance of religion we need to reject both religious literalism and dogmatic atheism and return to the root meaning of religion??to bind, connect, or reconnect.? In its original sense, religion bears nearly the opposite meaning it has been assigned in modern times. It is not about cult, creed, ceremony, miracle, mystery or authority. Nor is it about occult knowledge of a transcendent God revealed by scriptures or religious institutions. Religious belief springs from an awareness that all creatures belong to a single commonwealth of sentient beings. This leads to a passionate commitment to venerate the miracle of ordinary life and dwell in the presence of the sacred. The religious psyche is animated by elemental emotions that stand in stark contrast to the emotions such as shame, guilt, envy, pride, greed, ambition and acquisitiveness that make up the palette of responses we learn from secular culture. The elemental emotions do not come from our social indoctrination but from the raw human encounter with the incomprehensible universe into which we have been thrown.
If you doubt that asking a new question is a royal road to revolution, transformation, and renewal, consider what happened when Descartes asked, ?Of what may I be certain?? or when Newton asked, ?How is a falling apple like a rising moon?? or when Marx asked, ?Why were men born free but are everywhere in chains?? or when Freud asked, ?What is the meaning of dreams?? Your question is the quest you?re on. No questions ? no journey. Timid questions ? timid trips. Radical questions ? an expedition to the root of your being. Bon voyage.
In our imagination death is an enemy. Physicians are taught that they must defeat it at all costs even though it eventually destroys us all. Death confronts us with our helplessness. ?very unAmerican. We?re not used to being out of control or surrendering. All of the emotions that are an embarrassment to our self -image as autonomous and independent beings are put in the waste basket of death.
I am unique. No one like me has ever existed before. I have fingerprints, a name and a story unlike any others. No one can play my part in the drama of history. I am an important piece of the puzzle without which the picture of life would be incomplete. My vocation is to become a gnarled, original, exceptional individual. I am common. Like all humans I have a hungry stomach and a divided heart. I need food and love. I was born small and helpless, grew into the fullness of my being, and must make the return voyage into decrepitude and death. I struggle to create intimacy and muster daily courage to deal with the anxiety of the unknown. I believe, I doubt, I celebrate and I grow weary. I am both greedy and generous. It is not easy to be me. Often I allow myself to be what you want me to be rather than expressing what I feel and value. Yet, again and again, a small voice?call it conscience, spirit or consciousness?calls me back to myself.
I live within abstract structures?government, nation, law, economy. I am a single cell within a social body that both nourishes and threatens to inundate me. My country gives me work, security and ideology but extracts a heavy toll on my time and conscience and I struggle to balance public demands and private needs. In modern times I have grown accustomed to urban ways and the convenience of machines. Computers have multiplied my calculations and media have extended my senses. But my feet are still in the soil. I am rooted in the humus. From dust to dust. My eco-self is a member of a commonwealth whose citizens include whales and starlings. I flourish only so long as I respect the communion that links me to all living beings.
I notice that as I think about various death-myths I hold my death at arms length. I can keep my anxiety under control when I deal with theories of death but when it comes to my mortality I resist, postpone, deny.
I offer my reflections on death from the point of view of an amateur. There is an enormous difference between dealing with death and grief as an objective occurrence and as the primal, existential fact of my death and my grief. I am dedicated to trying to understand human existence through the mirror of the life of Sam Keen, and I am convinced that I can best understand what?s going on in my culture by reading my own psyche and my own soul. As a philosopher, it is my hope to be a physician of the spirit and the soul. And, that means that I must first be a physician to my own spirit and my own soul. Philosophy is about the healing ? or if you want ? the salvation of the soul, not particularly or necessarily in a religious sense of the word.
I suggest our best metaphor for peace is an ancient one?the wrestling match. The Greeks visualized peace as a form of loving combat, a contest, or ?agon? between well matched and respectful opponents. They applied the word ?agon? equally to a wrestling match, a verbal dialogue, and the contests in the Olympic games. Their highest vision was of a world in which the impulse to war might be gentled in an arena where men and women competed for glory. They thought of conflict as creative and strengthening so long as it was rule governed. When I visualize peace I think of nations wrestling together. Politics as a playing field. I see enemies facing each other not as evil empires but as worthy opponents who struggle honestly to further their legitimate interests and value systems. I see the US and the USSR trying to learn from eachothers? strengths and weaknesses, Capitalism and Socialism locked, not in a Holy War, but in a dialogue about the priority of the individual or the community. And let there be rules, world law, and world courts, honored by all,and referees powerful enough to enforce the will of the commonwealth of nations. I haven?t quite gotten my faith down to a formula yet. But when I do my bumper sticker will say something like: Learn from your Enemy. Or, Grapple For Peace.
I want to call your attention to a small difference in the way we think about death that makes all the difference. If I ask, ?What did Socrates die from?? a medical pathologist might say, ?Hemlock? and give me a clinical description of death by poison. If I ask, ?What did Jesus die from? The answer might be: Blood loss. In both cases it is the wrong question. The right question is, ?What did Socrates die for??,?What did Jesus die for??
If death is the result of a purely biological event, it makes sense to medicalize the problem of dealing with illness and disease. We turn it over to a physician. We take our bodies to doctors and say ?Here,? ?I?m dropping this off. Fix it.? There are alternative movements where we?re beginning to understand our responsibility, but, by and large, we think and deal with disease and death as victims.
I am always transcending myself. I am a child of my time, blessed and bound by the values and prejudices of my family, clan and culture. And yet I can dispel my most cherished illusions. I can be a truthful witness of my own lies. I can sacrifice my immediate pleasure for a greater good. I can wonder, wait and work for a future I will not live to see. I can rise above my greed and cruelty and aspire to love.
By 1500 BCE the Zoroastrians, developed an elaborate eschatology that prophesied a cosmic battle between the righteous and the wicked ending with a last judgment in which sinners were punished before the world was purified and suffering and death eliminated. Buddhist eschatology features an automatic final judgment that establishes cosmic justice. Each individual?s karma determines the realm into which he or she will be reborn. The consequences of our deeds are visited on us through many incarnations until we, finally become wise and compassionate. What goes round, comes round. The cosmos at large also passes through endless cycles of creation and destruction and each age is graced with a new Buddha who shows the way to reach enlightenment and escape from the endless wheel of death, rebirth and suffering. The historical Buddha Shakyamuni is only the latest in an endues line of Buddhas stretching into the past and future. Jewish eschatology is linear rather than cyclical, focusing on a historical vision ?the return of exiles to the Holy Land, the defeat of enemies and the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem. At some point in the end time, the Messiah will appear and become the king of Israel. Following the battle of Armageddon when God will intervene to save the Jews from the forces of Magog, there will be a millennium in which holiness and worldwide peace will reign. Islamic eschatology centers on the appearance of the Mahdi, a messianic figure, who Shi?i Muslims identify as the Hidden Iman, who will put an end to the suffering of Muslims, brings justice to the world. Surprisingly, Jesus also makes an appearance in the end time. According to the Qur?an, Jesus will return, destroy the antichrist (sometimes identified as George W. Bush) The Mahdi, who may be alive at this moment, will complete the spread of Islam and the establish the Calaphite. None of these eschatological visions are overly strange to anyone acquainted with the history of mainstream Christianity. The Western world has been coming to an end since its birthday in `1 AD, the date that marks the beginning of the life, death, resurrection and expected second coming of Jesus. Most biblical scholars believe Jesus expected some apocalyptic event to usher in the Kingdom of God. In Mark 13, he warns his disciples of a coming time of tribulation, wars and rumors of war, a time when the sun will be darkened and the moon will not give her light. Only then will the Son of Man come on a cloud of glory and angels gather the elect from the four corners of the earth. Although Jesus refused to give an exact date he tells his disciples: ?This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.? Throughout Christian history apocalyptic expectations of an imminent end of the world have waxed and waned. The millennial years, 1000 and 2000 were widely favored dates for the beginning of the apocalypse. Joachim de Fiore, whose theory influenced Hegel and Marx, argued that history was divided into three ages, the age of the father, the age of the son, and the age of the spirit. He predicted this final stage of history would begin between 1200 and 1260. Catastrophic events, such as the black death in 1348 or the Cuban missile crisis, regularly trigger panic and the expectation that doomsday is dawning.
Compassion follows from the feeling of kinship. It is the bridge joining the lone individual to the community. The maxim that guides the religious psyche is not Descartes? ?I think; therefore I am.? but ?We are; therefore, I am.? The elemental emotion of hope, which has nothing to do with optimism, is inseparable from the life force that drives me toward an unknown future for which I long but cannot imagine. I am a borning self within a borning universe. My DNA has been in the making from the beginning of time. Therefore, I hope. Trust is the final emotion, or disposition, we gain only by wrestling with doubt and the temptation to despair in the face of tragedy, disease and the desecration of the earth. At no time does the decision to trust or not trust become more agonizing than when we are facing death. In the end, when there is no thing to hold to, no known destination, I must lie me down and trust myself to the everlasting arms of an unknown G-D.
Death is the rock upon which all systems shipwreck, the question for which there is no answer, and yet, strangely, the most seasoned philosophers and realistic mystics have always advised us to practice daily awareness of our own death. Philosophy, according to Plato, is the practice of dying. I think it may be more like learning to penetrate the many disguises in which death wraps itself to remain unrecognized and undetected.