It’s the anniversary of my birth again. So many times…
I’ve told y’all before that, as much as I try not to, I still have a childish sense of /hope for heightened spiritual sensitivity on certain otherwise arbitrary occasions: birthdays, new years, etc. Whether anything below is meaningful or not is unknown to me, and really unimportant. Here’s what I’ve gathered today, while we desperately try to claw our way out of this season; hit instead with a pretty huge snowstorm at the end/start of the month.
Winter in April Boulevards heart-heavy with Broken little trees
I was close to tears as I drove past all the young trees along Hiawatha that had been broken in half by the wind, the weight of the snow, the endless, if not exceptional, cold. Meanwhile, I’ve barely reacted to the most recent school shooting. Teared up a little as their names were read on the radio, but not enough. Not nearly enough.
I think it’s more a matter of proximity in space than any desensitization to my own species. If the children were nearby, they’d be ripping me apart. Proximity and attention, which I have not granted the 6 people murdered in Nashville. Is it possible to love all our fellow earthlings more or less equally? Is it Right?
Opening the heart to anything creates more space for every thing.
Peter Gabriel is touring. I won’t go, because the venues are large stadiums – not my thing; and because it seems like an “all the hits” tour, and even though I do love some songs on So, etc. My favorite Peter Gabriels are the unnamed albums he crafted after he left Genesis (mostly #3 & #4 – I’m not that alternative). They were an essential part of my late teen years – driving freeways endlessly, towards San Jacinto, listening to San Jacinto; drinking alone in my apartment, blasting No Self Control. His early work (in particular) has such a deep understanding of isolation, craving, and the desperate need for connection and empathy. Through the Wire is a great song for the social media world of today, even if “wire” is dated. Today I rediscovered an all-time favorite, I Have the Touch, as a perfect post-pandemic and Buddhist anthem. Drove around screaming it, in joy and love and pain. Enjoy, friends.
So many people are so freaked out about the elections this week. If I allow myself to indulge in the lists of potential consequences of a Republican Congressional takeover, I am one of them. But the wider view has, weirdly, mitigated my fears quite a bit.
Our government has never been truly representative. In fact, outside of White men, most adults in the US have not been represented for most of our country’s existence. We passed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts in the sixties, then spent the next two decades dismantling the path to democracy those laws laid out. Slashing the highest tax rates, union busting, the defeat of the ERA, the abolishing of the Fairness Doctrine, redlining, starting a war on drugs to incarcerate young Black men then denying them the right to vote once they’d been released. Let’s not forget AIDS and the stigmatization and abuse of LGBT folks and the legal right to deny them jobs and services. Just look at the 80s clothes and hairstyles and you can surmise the shittiness of the politics. There were no Good Old Days of American Democracy. There were better days than today, perhaps, and better days than what we fear is coming, but marginalized groups are much more visible now than they were in my childhood, and their voices are much easier to hear (sometimes even coming from positions of power), so is representation really diminished? Or just different?
And are we as a country so much worse now than we were 20 years ago? Or are our failures just more obvious? Trump didn’t create racism or xenophobia or conspiracy theories, he just welcomed them to the surface, and in doing so gave those people a sense of community. He made them feel loved. Twitter and Facebook loved them, too. And love makes you feel strong, and bold, and chosen, and driven. I don’t deny that there are people who would not have been raiding the Capital on January 6th if Trump and other liars hadn’t egged them on, but that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t have been vulnerable to someone else, to another narcissist trying to profit off their vulnerability. Loneliness and fear make you easy pickings.
I agree that things are not great. I agree that every election seems more consequential than the one before. However, the threat is not as new as people pretend it is. There has been a war on Black and Native people going on pretty much ever since White people arrived here. Often on women and immigrants and Queer people as well. I’m not saying that BIPOC and LGBTQ folks aren’t concerned about this election, I’m saying that the unique terror of our times is really only unique if you come from a place of historical privilege. Is it the apocalypse?
The Jews had their apocalypse.
Native Americans had their apocalypse
The Irish had their apocalypse
The people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Dresden
Gay men had their apocalypse
Our friends and our enemies, the extremists and the mainstream press, are all feeding our fears. Can we absorb the information without the stench that goes with it? Can we be motivated to vote without terror and hatred? I’m trying, and sometimes failing. Whatever happens with the numbers this week, I know what I have to do: say hi to folks I pass on the street, chat with the community at Peace House, meditate, spread joy, donate, participate, try really fucking hard to see god in everyone. Fear walls us off, and what we need now is connection to our people, and they are all our people. We can build communities of love the way Trump has built communities of hate, but not with hate as the foundation. Monsters come to life when we believe in monsters.
I want a good government more than I can express. I want housing and healthy food for everyone, and restorative justice and sustainable business practices and universal rights and healthcare and reparations and loving, honest education and disability justice and ALL OF IT. I vote for whatever will bring us closest to that whenever I can. But the government won’t heal us. We heal us. Disenfranchised communities have been caring for themselves forever. The more the powerful marginalize us, the more we can recognize our affinity and interdependence, and learn to lean on and support each other. I don’t want the US to become less democratic, but if it opens people’s eyes I’ll be there waving hello.
Get out and vote. Smile at the folks in line. Eat well. Be good to each other. Love,
I wasn’t ready to propose solutions last week, and I still hesitate, because, after all, what hasn’t been said, and attempted, and written off and what can we possibly do about it anyway? I post this only as an attempt as a Buddhish perspective on this ongoing nightmare of violence and pain.
I haven’t delved too deeply into the current wave of ideas, because most of it is the same old story: lots of people centering gun regulation, other people focusing on mental health (though not doing anything to improve it). I did read Malcolm Gladwell’s 2015 article on the interesting theory of the slow motion mob, which aligns with the increase in fame-motivated and bigotry-motivated incidents (hate seems far too broad a term for attacks on specific identity groups), and I listened to an interview with Drs. Jillian Peterson and James Densley, (Minnesota!) Professors of Criminology who have written what seems to be THE book on mass shooters. Their research supports my (upcoming!) proposal, but like every human I know my brain is choosing which information it wants to hear, so I won’t claim objectivity. With that caveat, here are their key findings, based on extensive data and interviews. A few that stood out to me:
80% of shooters were in a noticeable crisis prior to shooting, 40% had been for years
Psychosis was not a factor for 70% of mass shooters, and was minor in another 10%
70% of mass shooters were suicidal prior to and/or during their attacks
Other than shootings at houses of worship (typically motivated by religious or ethnic hatred), shooters were part of the targeted community nearly 90% of the time
Dr. Peterson has summarized:
There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.
What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.
I feel like there are two real questions here, that either get conflated or shrunken down to one.
How do we stop mass shootings?
How do we stop people from wanting to commit mass shootings?
If you’re just interested in #1, then gun regulations make the most sense, especially those that restrict the number of bullets and the speed at which bullets can be fired. Obviously, background checks and red flag laws make sense. Putting age minimums on most gun purchases makes a fuck of a lot of sense, since the brain isn’t fully developed until our mid-20s. (Do I have to say it? We don’t think people are mature enough to drink, smoke pot, or, in some places, buy cigarettes until age 21; but they can buy an AR-15 as young as 18, are “adult” in the eyes of the justice system at 18, and can be tried as an adult when as young as 12, depending on the crime and the state.)
Maybe #2 seems too hard, but you want to reduce gun violence overall? Gun culture is one of the defining characteristics of the US, and the obsession with gun “rights” in some communities seems to prevail over almost everything else. Gang violence is dominated by shootings. It seems pretty clear that people are more likely to grab a gun in the face of internal or external conflict here than in other countries. Just look at the data on gun purchases during the pandemic. I doubt you read this blog for the research, but it’s worth noting that I could not find a single article on the increase in gun sales in other countries during the pandemic, while in the US nearly 20% of households bought a gun when COVID showed up, and 5% of those bought a gun for the first time. We view crisis as conflict and conflict as threat and threat as something that can only be fought with deadly weapons. Maybe there’s another way to think? Maybe we could see crisis as an opportunity for outreach and connection? Despite the emphasis on self-defense, people who purchased firearms during the pandemic were more likely to be suicidal. Suicides make up 2/3 of our gun deaths and the majority of mass shooters are suicidal.
Although folks like to put them in non-adjacent boxes, the culture that encompasses fearful self-defense and gun ownership and aggression goes to the source of #2. Why do people want to commit mass shootings? Whether they are glorified suicides or not? The illusion of separateness. Whether you believe it’s an illusion or not, the feeling of separateness seems to me pretty clearly the source of every act of aggression, ever. Sometimes the illusion is made unbearably realistic through abuse and neglect. As Dr. Peterson said above, early childhood trauma is the foundation of this behavior. Bullying is an act of separation, and creates feelings of separation. Inflicting abuse in general is impossible without the belief that you are harming a distinct, separate entity, even though the consequences inevitably impact both the one performing the action and the one it’s performed upon. Othering particular races or religions or other groups is creating separation, but young men like the Buffalo shooter are likely to join White Supremacist groups for the feeling of belonging and purpose they offer. If we want to stop people from committing mass shootings, we need them to feel connected to nonviolent, caring people.
Okay, great, Z. So what if we agree with you? What can we do about it? Can we force people to see the world in a different way? Can we compel compassion?
Last weekend we watched Everything Everywhere All At Once. It’s delightfully weird and fun, and, being the kind of nerd I am, I was particularly excited about both the fairly casual acceptance that there is no given purpose to life, and the transformation of the unimpressive husband from a nice, nerdy simpleton into a hero with one line: “this is how I fight.” That he is not supportive and loving out of weakness or fear or blindness or shallowness, but as a philosophical stand in the face of meaninglessness. His kindness is his weapon. I’ve said it before and I’ll surely quote it again: “If nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.”
Big problems set us searching for big solutions. Perhaps that’s right, but the big solution to suicidal/homicidal acts may be comprised of millions of actions perceptible only to the actor and, sometimes, the recipient. What does it cost us to show a little extra kindness – a bit of embarrassment? A twinge of awkwardness? A minor inconvenience? And what is the payout – a potentially life-changing impact on another human and their community. I assume that every one of us has had a bad day in which a few words from another person completely turned us around. Kindness, just regular everyday kindness, has stopped people from attempting suicide that day. No one person can be held responsible for another person’s horrific act, but as a society we are not guiltless. We are our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers, because we are fundamentally interdependent and a connection to others is an essential part of every person’s wellbeing. I’m not a gamer, but I do appreciate the practice some video games offer – an alternative lifestyle, even. If you run across another character in a game (provided your goal isn’t to kill everyone you see), it’s generally a good idea to talk to them – you don’t know what you could discover. If we could play life with the same curiosity and fearlessness, I think we’d be a lot better off.
Yes, some people make it hard to be kind. Those are usually the ones who need it most. And yes, you should listen to your own warning bells and no, you can’t save everyone, and often you won’t even see the rewards of your work, and not everyone with a gun can be helped with simple kindness. But the return on investment is enormous.
Yes, vote to make it harder to shoot people, and support free mental health services, but I truly can’t think of anything that would make more of a difference than a concerted effort to be kind to people we interact with, to look at people as though they were something more than extras in our lives.
Upon completion, this all seems so obvious that it’s hardly worth posting. I hope it was worth reading. As by kickboxing instructor says, at least I showed up!
I have neglected the blog lately not because I have nothing to write about, but because there is too much. And writing feels so petty. And what does it accomplish. What does anything accomplish?
So here we are.
I have so many thoughts about the recent killings, and I have my opinions on solutions like everyone else, but for now, a heartbreaking moment of connection.
About a week ago, there was a clip of Amerie Jo Garza’s stepfather talking to a reporter on NPR, crying as he spoke, grasping at narrative.
She was the sweetest little girl who did nothing wrong. She listened to her mom and dad. She always brushed her teeth. She was creative. She made things for us. She never got in trouble in school. Like, I just want to know what she did to be a victim.
She always brushed her teeth.
That gutted me, and I spent the next several minutes sobbing harder than I had during this entire ordeal.
A few days later, our little Socially Engaged Buddhist group met online, and our facilitator referenced the exact same line.
What is it about that sentence?
In a different context, it might even be funny. Some joke about a guy being dragged down from the locked gates of heaven, yelling, “I always brushed my teeth!”
Is it the clash of the mundane with the profound?
Is it the conflation of obedience with the Goodness? Practicality with morality?
Is it that we all can relate to it, down to the feel of the brushes on our living gums? That we ourselves avoided it, whined about it, that we were worse kids than Amerie? That we could, if we chose to, be reminded of this little girl every morning, every night?
Is it the amorphous agony of hearing this man try to understand the incomprehensible? He wasn’t trying to paint a picture of his daughter for the reporter; he was searching for meaning, for an explanation. Here are the facts – how can it come to this conclusion? How could this happen to her?
It’s such a simple question, such a standard accessory to any crime against an innocent victim that we barely notice when people ask it. She always brushed her teeth forces us to consider it again, puts us face to face with the horror of loss and injustice, makes it real and specific in its universality.
It’s a piece of instrumental music that leaves you in tears without knowing why. It draws us together like a manifestation of our interconnectedness. We bear witness to all of it – the love, the pain, and the confusion.
You can leave it there, with that man, with all of the people who loved all of those children, with all of the people who loved the victims in Buffalo, in Tulsa, in Ukraine and Syria and Yemen and anyone who has ever lost anyone. You can sit with it and let it break your heart open.
I still have my birth date listed on Facebook, so I got a smattering of Birthday wishes this week. Most were from people I have never known well, one or two from good friends (most text instead), some from once-friends. No doubt I would have dived into some good old self-pity if I hadn’t had at least that, but despite the appreciation some sadness rose to the surface anyway. Not on the day: my birthday was lovely, with decent weather, a nice little hike with my guy & my dog, a delicious dinner, and all that. But when I went on Facebook the next day to address (“like”) the various acknowledgements of my birth, I felt sad. I started to write a post about social media and the pitfalls of not engaging with it – that the algorithms render me invisible and methodically shrink my reach, so that very few people see anything I post – but that wasn’t quite it. Then I logged into a webinar with Tara Brach and Frank Ostaseski today, and through the talk of loss and grief and death and living, one word connected with my current state.
Yes, I miss socializing. During the most locked down days of the pandemic I think I most missed just going places – coffee shops, bookstores – and having casual, brief, human interactions with the workers or other shoppers. I value those almost meaningless interchanges far more than I realized. But that’s not the problem these days. I miss being known, being seen. And this is from someone with a partner who does know and see me. So greedy. I want more. I want to be seen in different ways by different people. I want what they see reflected back at me so I can remember who I am.
Even within intimacy there is so much variation. When a friend from college moved into town – someone who wasn’t part of my inner circle back in the day, but who I liked and knew and saw 5 days a week, 9 months a year for 4 years for fuck’s sake – I was thrilled, because we shared an intimacy. I was able to have a deep conversation with him right off the bat because I wasn’t trying to prove anything, or to perform my personality (whatever that is) or anything like that. He knew me, I knew him. We trusted each other. Even though almost all the details of each other’s adult journeys were mostly unknown, there was something there that I don’t feel with most people I know in my city now, people I’ve seen with some regularity for nearly two decades.
I also feel an intimacy with my Socially Engaged Buddhist group – 5-20 people who met online monthly, more or less, while studying a variety of topics under a variety of teachers for a year through a Zen center. I feel a deep connection to them, due largely, I’m sure, to our mutual commitment to open ourselves up to self-awareness and empathy and honesty and change. Certainly ego and etc. pop up sometimes, but there too I feel known and free to just be. I think it’s almost the opposite of what I have with my college friend. Whereas I think he knows me at my core, with my Buddhist group there is no core. Whether we can practice it consistently or not, we are all more or less committed to the idea that The Self isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We share our spiritual and mundane struggles and strivings and return again and again to acceptance, love, and not knowing.
I have long-lived, deep friendships for which I am forever grateful, but they are mostly with people hours away by car or plane, and that distance is wearing on me. Since I can’t forge lifelong friendships overnight, I am attempting to make that other intimacy happen – the connection of spiritual commitment. As much as I love my online sangha, they are not HERE NOW, and I need an intimacy that is present and tangible, not just electronic. The weather is finally, way too slowly, changing, opening the world up again to my carless, afraid-of-the-frigid-cold self. I’ve enrolled in a 3-week, semi-intensive mindfulness course and plan to get to the nearby Meditation Center for talks and sits as much as possible. I’m hoping it will set me on the patch of feeling connected to a local sangha, but I won’t be disappointed in a better understanding of myself and the paths available to me right now.
None of that is bad. It just is. Wishing you all peace and moments of intimacy.
In my too-recent somatic experience of really feeling like a part of a mutualistic, interdependent world of plants, animals, and the constant exchange of electrons, anthropomorphism has come to mean something quite different than it used to. I don’t know if it’s the wider acceptance of Buddhist and Indigenous philosophies or the climate crisis or something else, but I’m also seeing more blurred lines in recent non-fiction books, including pieces about how the brain works, ecology, health, and others.
Here’s my supersimple explanation, based on nothing but my own education, of the evolution of anthropomorphism in Western culture. In the Romantic era across Europe and elsewhere, there was a shift in the intellectual classes towards an appreciation of nature and the other living things in it (some of them, anyway). You see this all over the English and European poetry of that era (late 18th-early 19th century), and the influence on American, especially Transcendentalist, literature as well. In a culture of hierarchies and human supremacy, granting human thoughts and feelings to “lesser” animals seemed a conciliatory and respectful practice. More recently, the ascription of human characteristics to non-humans has been considered childish and aspirational – something fanciful that we do to pretend that animals are more like us and force affinity where there is none. It is this position that is showing some much needed deterioration.
Unfortunately, some of the most habitual line-drawers between humans and others have been scientists. Much of the non-Right in this country is very rah-rah about science these days, and with good reason. But we’re deluding ourselves if we think that the purported objectivity of science precludes the field from prejudicial framing and, thus, prejudicial conclusions (see Braiding Sweetgrass for more on all of this). Naturalists, biologists, and other scientists of the living world have often been the first to dismiss talk of plant intelligence or the attribution of “human” emotions to non-human things. I understand how highlighting shared traits could be perceived as anthropocentric, that we should let animals just be animals. However, we can only understand the world in a context we recognize, and we are not just observers of the natural world, but participants in it. In order to participate we have to connect. In order to connect, just as with humans, we find things in common. If every emotional or motivational or intellectual connection we discover is dismissed as projection, it makes it very difficult to feel an affinity with other life forms. We are a part of this world. And other things in this world think and feel and act in ways similar to us. Trees have elders who help out younger trees, elephants perform ritual goodbyes for dead community members. Many animals hug each other with affection, or for consolation or conflict resolution.
Scientists employ […] technical language to distance ourselves from the rest of the animals. They call ‘kissing’ in chimps ‘mouth-to-mouth contact’; they call ‘friends’ between primates ‘favorite affiliation partners’ [….] if an animal can beat us at a cognitive task […] they write it off as instinct, not intelligence. Primatologist Frans de Waal terms this ‘linguistic castration.‘
Why Fish Don’t Exist. Lulu Miller. pp 181-2
We’ve hung onto this hard line between human and non-human life as if Darwin and his ilk never existed, as if we still didn’t know that humans are just animals that evolved in a distinctive way. We have been so enamored of our “superior” intelligence that we couldn’t even acknowledge that intelligence is a characteristic shared with other living things, let alone that others might be moreintelligent than us in any area. But we are finally starting to give non-human life the credit it deserves, finally starting to talk about the way trees send messages through forests to protect each other, the way octopuses and grouper work together to hunt, or a crow manipulates tools, as intelligence.
When we have acknowledged non-human intelligence, we have judged animals based on how well they can do what we have classified as “human” talents – recognizing themselves in a mirror, performing tricks, remembering where items are placed, etc. Anything that is not an area wherein humans excel is classified as instinct. This overused quotation is still sound:
If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.
Or we will believe it is stupid. It’s even harder to get people to recognize the intelligence of non-animal life.How can something without eyes or what we call a brain think? Calling trees or fungi smart is almost embarrassing.
We have also held our species up as emotionally superior, capable of a wider range of feelings and sympathies than other animals, despite the at-least-equal amount of evidence that we are less compassionate, more cruel, and indubitably more destructive than any creature that ever lived. We see ourselves as more individually distinctive as well, less of a type and more of a solo creature, even though we are perhaps less able to independently care for ourselves than any other plant or animal, less able every year, it seems. Plus, anyone who’s had more than one dog knows that there is no such thing as a “dog personality”. Every dog I’ve had has been at least as distinct as each of my friends.
Indigenous cultures have had little trouble recognizing and respecting our species’ essential and interconnected place in the natural world, because to do otherwise would be to put your life and the health of your community at risk. The only way to live off the land is to live with the land, to recognize what was required of us and what could be expected of and negotiated with other species. The religions that emerged out of this life reflected that mutualism, just as European religions, placing the idle and intellectual above and apart from farmers and hunters and those who worked with the earth, created religions of hierarchy and separation. We have long dismissed indigenous knowledge as mythical and unscientific, because the science used was not recognized as legitimate. But it is science, based on generations of observation and experimentation, and with conclusions rationally drawn therein, just as with non-indigenous science.
Early “big e” Environmentalism believed that the best thing for humans to do with nature was leave it alone, as if we are not a product, part, and partaker of nature; as if we’ve become so far removed from the source of our very being that we cannot possibly be anything but a scourge to the living world. I’m not mocking. I get it. Certainly, keeping drilling out of the arctic and development off coastlines is understandable. This was a motivation behind our National Parks. Protecting nature from us is perhaps not as self-promoting as some other practices, but it’s just as isolating and unnatural. Seeing ourselves exclusively as a threat to the rest of the world is just as insane as seeing the world exclusively as a threat to us. It’s like labeling your liver as a threat – sure, it can do damage when things go wrong, but it’s also an essential part of the package, one the body can’t live without and one that cannot live without the body.
Why do we insist on drawing these lines? Does it make us feel special? Do we refuse to acknowledge our kinship with other living things for the same reason we refused to acknowledge that the earth was not the center of the universe? Is it some quieter but still extant idea that in order to have our Special Relationship With God, we must be different from everything else? Do we cling to the favoritism of a distant, immortal, esoteric being at the expense of forming meaningful relationships with our mortal kin all around us?
If we do tend this direction as a capitalist, Euro-centric culture, what good does it do us? Does separating ourselves from everything in the natural world improve our wellbeing in any way? If so, how? Because it allows us to destroy entire ecosystems, species, dramatically reduce the livability for most things on the planet, without compunction? Maybe the ease, comfort, and continual newness for which we sacrifice our world does make us happier, in a way. I certainly like central heat and Youtube Alan Watts lectures on demand, but they don’t make me any less lonely. The loneliness that emerged from deciding we were the only intelligent species on the planet may have created our obsession with the things and conveniences for which we sacrifice our only home in order to fill the lonely maw inside us. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle that doesn’t seem very smart.
In the new edition to her gorgeous book, World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy writes that our dependence on and concern for our othered neighbors may not be as alien as we are led to think, and the refusal to recognize our compassion for the world does not serve us.
Many therapists have difficulty crediting the notion that concerns for the general welfare of our planet might be acute enough to cause distress. Trained to assume that all our drives are ego-centered, they tend to treat expressions of this distress as manifestations of personal neurosis. […] “What might this concern represent that you are avoiding in your own life?” In such a way is our anguish for our world delegitimized,
and even mocked, especially when expressed by indigenous groups who have historically and spiritually cultivated and respected a connection to the world they interact with, and thus have felt the pain of detachment more deeply than most of the rest of us.
We are told that we could not possibly feel a true emotional connection to things that are not human, that the only legitimate loss is human loss (the loss of a pet is only considered significant if compared to a human, e.g. it’s a member of the family, it’s like a child). What does this denial cost us? How much less lonely would we be if we recognized our kinship with trees and squirrels and forests? It would likely place us more thoroughly in the world, which would benefit the rest of the planet as well as ourselves.
Going on a hike doesn’t just make us feel better because it “clears our head”. Nature itself makes us better in ways we do and don’t understand. MRIs have shown that
When participants viewed nature scenes, the parts of the brain associated with empathy and love lit up, but when they viewed urban scenes, the parts of the brain associated with fear and anxiety were activated. It appears as though nature inspires feelings that connect us to each other and our environment.
Depression, anxiety, and drug overdoses are higher than ever recorded in the US. Where can we go for comfort? What if we could turn to a river or flock of geese for a sense of connection, endurance, shared struggle, and rest? We can, but we rarely view immersion in the world beyond the one humans have created as a real place of sanctuary, even though it is our collective ancestral home. Is the drama of the human condition the result of us putting our intellect above and apart from everything else?
Could the recognition of non-human cognition make our lives better? Could it make us better neighbors, better tenants? Could changing the language of anthropomorphism tear down the wall between us and the rest of the planet? I truly fail to see the harm in recognizing the humanity, for lack of a better word, in the vibrant & varied lives with which we share the Earth. Unless we are deliberately separating ourselves in order to keep guiltlessly extracting and destroying? Recognizing our kinship on a global scale would force a shift in worldview, one that might put a stop to our extractive and exploitative economy. I dunno. I think it would be worth it, for all of us earthlings.
The number itself is beyond my capacity for imagining. I assume others have the same problem. Reporters and folks in the public eye sometimes do a good job of contextualizing it- how many deaths per day, per second; what cities have comparable living populations; how COVID mortality compares to cancer, heart disease, car accidents; or, as the President did, how the number compares to war dead: more than American deaths in WWI, WWII, and Vietnam combined – in less than one year. He listed American war dead because that 1/2 million, remember, is just American deaths. The worldwide total is now nearly 5x that.
Compassion is a special interest of mine and how we avoid or draw out compassion/empathy is fascinating to me. I found Biden’s speech quite moving when he talked about the pain of loss, something we know he knows intimately.
For the loved ones left behind, I know all too well — I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there, holding their hands. There’s a look in your eye, and they slip away. That black hole in your chest, you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivor’s remorse. The anger. The questions of faith in your soul.
For some of you, it’s been a year, a month, a week, a day, even an hour. And I know that when you stare at that empty chair around the kitchen table, it brings it all back, no matter how long ago it happened, as if it just happened that moment you looked at that empty chair. The birthdays, the anniversaries, the holidays without them. And the everyday things — the small things, the tiny things — that you miss the most. That scent when you open the closet. That park you go by that you used to stroll in. That movie theater where you met. The morning coffee you shared together. The bend in his smile. The perfect pitch to her laugh.
Beautiful. Truly. What it did was artfully done, in the best sense of the word. Even those of us who haven’t had a loved one die could connect with the specificity of the images of love lost, and effortlessly intuit the pain of eternal loss, if just for a moment. Nonetheless, it connected us with the pain of the people left behind, not with the people themselves lost to COVID. “There is nothing ordinary about them” didn’t sit right with me. It may be more true that we all are ordinary, and perhaps thereby even more worthy of love and compassion. Poor, messy, fascinating, trudging little humans. I came out of that tribute with great feeling for those left behind, but only a generalized sorrow for the dead, nothing specific or tangible.
Of course, that wasn’t the goal of that address and of course, the answer to the question of how to humanize the dead is easy – listen to the people who loved them as the specific, ordinary humans they were. There’s no shortage of that if you’re willing to look for it. And there is something special about the series that NPR’s morning edition is doing. Songs of Remembrance gives one person a chance to choose a song that reminds them of their beloved and then talk about whatever they want – sometimes the song was what she always sang at karaoke, or what they danced to at their wedding, or what he taught to his choir students, or just a song that recalls that human for that particular individual.
I think the song idea is so brilliant and effective because it’s again connecting the specific to the universal, as Biden did for loss. You get funny or admirable or romantic details about the person themselves and what they meant to the speaker, but you also get to hear a song through their story. If it’s a song you know, you can see it from a different perspective or connect to the shared familiarity. Some of the songs I don’t know, but I know they are known and shared across countries and cultures and political beliefs. The contributors and their friends and family members all took the universal – a song, heard millions of times – and crafted it into something unique. We can accept the offer of that inimitable experience and make it universal again.
That is what compassion is, after all, right? That’s why Metta meditation starts with wishing yourself well, happy, safe, enlightened – starting with someone you know well, even when you pretend you don’t – and expanding out a bit more – a good friend, an antagonist; followed by someone you don’t know well, but interact with. From them you expand your good wishes out to your neighborhood, city, country, world, picking up animals and plants and such along the way. And the next time you sit, you start the same way. We don’t pretend that we can easily access a genuine concern for the great abstraction of “everyone’s” wellbeing. It takes time and work. Eventually my hope is that it will be easy, because the distinction between the specific and the general will fade away; the arbitrary, imaginary line between myself and the rest of life will blur and love for anything will be love for everything.
Until then, I am grateful to read and listen to these tributes and cry for the beauty and loss of the achingly human connection to another human, and recognize in their words and music that the love doesn’t die when the body does, and hope that they hear it too.
I have so much to say about this book that I haven’t been able to write anything at all (well, that and the cast (#2!) on my wrist have been complementary barriers).
I loved this book and needed it. In the same way that A Field Guide to Getting Lost found me when I had left all my friends, gotten divorced, moved to a new city, and was underemployed; How to Do Nothing was kind enough to come out in paperback after I signed up for a year-long Socially Engaged Buddhism course, and had kicked off an effort to reframe my life through a lens of conscious, compassionate behavior, rather than the political chaos, urgency, and lonely echo-chambering of 2020.
Jenny Odell’s work isn’t long, but it’s quite expansive – a feature that some readers have found wacky, incoherent, or exhausting (good old Goodreads), while also hitting many of 2020’s best of lists. I won’t malign its detractors, I understand where they’re coming from, but I would also posit that her wide-ranging topics are cohesive under the banners of anti-capitalism and mindfulness.
I’m sure many of you like Capitalism, or parts of it. I see some benefits, too, but Capitalism is built on competition, production, and growth, which are generally weakened by communal support, contentment, and “doing nothing”. Advertising appeals to jealousy, self-loathing, and unhappiness; social media appeals to all those plus loneliness and binary thinking. I feel those brief moments of satisfaction when I jump in to endorse a fiery political opinion on Facebook, quickly followed by a physical grossness, much the same spike and dip I feel when eating refined sugar, which I’m also minimizing these days. For me, it’s essentially an excess of reaction – my critical mind is overwhelmed with judgement of every post I scroll past. Right or wrong? Genuine or performative? Good person or bad? I could give you a long list of Buddhish explanations of why this is generally unhelpful to our and humanity’s development and happiness, but the clearest deterrent for me is the feeling in my gut. I don’t know if I’d be aware of it if I hadn’t been meditating for over a decade, and maybe that’s why so many of us remained hooked on not only social media, but self-righteousness, anger, and judgment. The addictive nature of those behaviors in turn make it difficult to step away from them, stop, and center ourselves in the world, so the spiral into anxiety, conformity, and misery continues unabated.
If I had to sum Jenny Odell’s book into two words (and since I’ve just set that standard, I now do), I’d go with Mindfulness and Curiosity, in that order, though it’s more simultaneous in practice. All conscious change starts with awareness – whether that’s of a habit we don’t like, or a goal we want to reach. The greater the awareness, the more likely the change will stick. This is why people put reminders of diet motivations on the fridge, or download apps that check in on them. Our brains will always revert to the easiest, more immediately satisfying, most habitual thing if we don’t pay attention to what we’re doing and why. It’s the simplest and hardest thing in the world, because we’re modern humans wired for a short, constantly life-threatening existence that simply doesn’t apply to the vast majority of us anymore, and the imbalance makes us miserable. I do like the idea of Attention over what many perceive as the more ethereal mindfulness. It implies something more active. Odell’s subtitle is Resisting the Attention Economy, but it’s more an act of engagement than resistance, and a real, volitional something instead of nothing. By choosing to direct our attention to things that are outside of the economy, that do not generate wealth or power, we engage in an act of revolution.
I honestly found the whole idea ridiculously exciting.
She doesn’t end with attention, though. Attention is also a starting point for a better world (my squishy words, not hers). If we paid attention, would we know our neighbors? Would we change our jobs? Would we check our email every ten minutes? Would we keep stumbling through our lives, zombie-like, if we recognized how many other options were out there? Odell has a background in visual art, which I definitively do not, and her examples of disruptive art in the world were excellent windows into something I’ve been thinking about a lot – the life-sucking power of habit and conformity. Two examples: in the Twin Cities a few years back, some entity placed giant picture frames in strategic locations in the State & National Parks. It was framed (ha) as a photo opportunity – a way to get Instagram-obsessed youngsters to notice the great outdoors, I suppose, but in a more general sense it was marking out these non-productive spaces as worthy of notice. The beauty of nature which a lot of us seek to create in our own home with giant posters or representative paintings are actually all around us for free whenever we direct our attention towards it, but we are such creatures of goal-oriented habit, that we don’t notice them unless we recreate the style of the recreation and bring the picture frame to the source of the picture. Humans are hilarious.
Example two: B & I stopped at a coffee shop in an outlet mall on our way out of town last year, and as I was walking back to the car, sun bright and delicious blended matcha in hand, I had an impulse to pirouette. I didn’t, and subjected Ben to a philosophical theory on conformity and oppression when I closed the door. I was focused on racism at the time (as I often am), and interpreted in part as the dominance of a repressed White European culture (particularly the Scandinavian influence here) that sees any act that might call attention to yourself or disrupt norms as morally questionable. I still believe that, and believe it manifests in a racist way, since many cultures would embrace physical outbursts of joy, etc. But Odell calls attention to another aspect of nonconforming behaviors: they wake people up. We can make an hour’s drive from work everyday and remember none of it, but if we narrowly avoid an accident, those moments are emblazoned on our memories, and our actions at the time are present and fully conscious. Trauma certainly wakes us up, but a simple act of nonconformity, of creativity, of whimsy can do the same. Acts of disruption become acts of love, an invitation to stop and be in the world at that moment. As much as we shun this behavior in others (even being the only person in the movie theatre laughing at the dark comedy can be isolating), we also crave it. I would also argue that we need it, that unless we shake up the quotidian we don’t even see the maze we’re trapped in, and without recognizing it, we’ll never break out. Let me call back to White Supremacy for a moment and point out that pretty much everything that is considered “normal” in the US is a White cultural norm, so allowing these standards to remain unchallenged is itself a racist act. Who knows what other options are out there? I can feel my muscles relax just thinking about it.
So, less of a book review than a mulling over mainstream society, but I have to credit Odell for helping me explore and articulate it. If you’re looking for a how to get off social media, this isn’t what you want. If you want some ideas on how to consciously craft a better life for yourself and your people, I think you’ll get a lot out of it.
The whole country is in emergency response mode now. But there were plenty of people in emergency response mode before coronavirus reared is crowned head. So many great ideas are being thrown around – tuition forgiveness, free health care, rent forgiveness, money simply sent to people who need it – all of this because people are in economic distress “through no fault of their own.”
When is the fault their own?
When they are mentally ill and can’t maintain a job? When they didn’t have access to enough education to secure a job that pays their expenses? When their spouse dies and they can’t afford childcare during work? When their employer won’t give them enough hours to support themselves? When they were forced to flee their country to avoid rape or murder or starvation?
We (in the US, and many other places) act as though care is a zero-sum negotiation, that if we give to others, that mean less for us. While this may seem reasonable when we’re talking cold, hard cash, the logic breaks down pretty quickly. Money isn’t real. It’s a symbol to be exchanged for things we need and want – ostensibly, if we have enough, for things that make us happy. Even some of the richest folks in this country are starting to support a redistribution of wealth, because fucking the poor ultimately fucks everyone.
We could exemplify this with education or housing too, but given the PANDEMIC, let’s start with healthcare.
What happens when we deny people health care?
they don’t go to doctors, which means
they don’t get preventative care, which can have long-term effects that lead to exponentially more expensive care in the future
they are less productive
if mentally ill, they can negatively impact the people around them with their depression, anxiety, anger, etc.
when they are infected with viruses, they infect others
they go to emergency rooms, either because they don’t have doctors or because their illness is so severe they can’t wait anymore, which crowds ERs, increasing the wait for people with non-preventable medical emergencies
they do go to doctors, which means
they have to sacrifice something else to afford it, perhaps
nutritious food, increasing their chance of illness
rent, perhaps leading to eviction, increasing their health risk, stress, and potential burden to the system
child care, forcing them to stay home and lose income or their jobs entirely
they are given a prescription which they may not be able to afford, leading to
not filling the prescription, and remaining ill
rationing of pills, maybe taking half the antibiotics they were prescribed, contributing to antibiotic resistance which truly could kill us all
and so on. Factor in our lack of paid sick leave and the risk is magnified.
If we hadn’t made testing and treatment for the coronavirus free, these people might simply die a horrible death. It’s still possible, even likely, that undocumented immigrants are too afraid of ICE and deportation to seek treatment.
How does this help us?
I’m no big advocate for selfish decision making, but when empathy fails, it’s a good backup. Helping others helps us all. We are all interconnected, whether we like it or not (we like it, whether we know it or not: no one reading this wants to produce all their own food and create all their own entertainment, even. Good god, if I was my only source of entertainment, I would snap like a twig.). Contagion is just one, obvious example of that. If everyone is healthy-ish, people are happier, more productive, more creative, more compassionate, smarter, better people. How do we not all benefit from that?
We can embrace our mutualism, or we can destroy ourselves in an attempt to destroy the other, while the thieves in power feed off our corpses.
Sorry, got a little apocalyptic there. I’m losing my patience, and it seems a lot of our human and non-human friends are, too.
Followup question: Do I have a future in clickbait?
I had a lovely day today. Nothing special. I had planned to spend most of the day writing and reading, but instead wiled away the hours interacting with folks and art. My journey began at a too-popular bread n breakfast place. Tables freed up one at a time as I anxiously waited for a place to plant my incipient biscuit sandwich. A 4-top opened up when I reached the front of the line, and I took it a little guiltily, checking to see if a nearby twosome was getting up anytime soon so I could swap out my spot. Continue reading “Does Anti-Racism Work Make You Sexy?”→
I’ve been thinking a lot about justice lately. (Pick your reason.) I’m particularly interested in our default definition of justice and how the tight circumscription of that definition keeps us from exploring ideas and actual practices that might benefit victims, society, and (heavens!) the perpetrators themselves. Continue reading “The Failings of Retributive Justice”→
There’s a tasteful sign in the most liberal of liberal coffee shops in my city that “asks that you use gender-neutral language when addressing its employees. Thank you.” Great. I have no problems with the sign. But I’ve whined to a couple of friends about not yet having the huevos to ask the business to clarify what they mean. Yes, I know what they mean, and most of their liberal patrons in their liberal neighborhood in one of the most gender-spectrum-friendly cities in the country know what they mean, but what about the ones who don’t? Continue reading “To Explain or Exclude?”→
The sky was fucking gorgeous this morning – ice blue with a smattering of fluffy white clouds, stained golden yellow where the light of the rising sun illuminated them from below. Sub-zero, though. The coldest Minnesota winter in decades, they say, and I had forgotten V’s coat, with the sudden 20 degree drop, so we weren’t out long.
This year is forcing me out of my Christmas rituals. For a decade now, I have made the longish trek to one of the handful of restaurants in the Twin Cities open during the day, luckily one of my favorites, and indulged in a long breakfast with lots of coffee and a good book. But the Jewish owner has betrayed the chosen people and the ritualistic weirdos (I’m somewhere in there), and is no longer honoring his sacred responsibility. Even if it were open, it would border on dangerous to walk there in this weather, especially since I recently moved several miles further away than I had been for the duration of this ritual.
Why, anyway? I have no religion, no contiguous family songs or habits or food passed down from generation to generation. I am almost a cartoon of the American Individualist, if not by choice. And Xmas has never meant much to me, for those reasons and others. I decided to stop coming home for the holidays my Sophomore year of college, in which I spent my first Xmas on the cold beach in Southern California. I liked it. It was crisp and quiet and empty, and what life there was was friendly and respectful. I tried to make that into a ritual, but it didn’t always work out. When I was married, we decided that we were not going to either family’s houses during the latter-year holidays, and we announced as much to both, so there wouldn’t be any expectations. We spent Xmas in a very Jewishy manner, except for the presents and, typically, a tree, with a slow morning, dinner out, and a movie. It was a ritual of sorts, a nice one, and one I wanted to wipe clean once we divorced.
Once alone, I spent a few years traveling to see friends during the holidays, then settled into what seemed an important pattern: spending the opening scene of the day alone, and part in the company of unknown others. I can explain the meaning, though I’m sure it’s fairly obvious. I wanted to reinforce to myself that I didn’t need a partner to make the day special, to be content, or to feel at home in the world. I don’t doubt this often, but nonetheless it seemed important to act it out on this day, every year.
And the sun is shining! You can’t bask in it for fear of frostbite, but you can see it and maybe feel it melt some of the icy winter depression, even through the storm windows. It is breathtakingly beautiful.
Zoe and I were sitting around a bonfire at an open prairie campsite when a chipmunk cautiously ventured from the tall grass onto the mowed trail next to us, grazing for crumbs. The little guy was easily spooked, darting undercover at any sudden movement, but who could blame him? Birds of prey hovered constantly overhead, scanning. Our chipmunk lived under relentless threat of death from above. Continue reading “Separation Anxiety: Is Feeling Separate the Enemy of Happiness?”→
Just kidding! I wouldn’t blog about the weather. Seriously, how shallow do you think I am?
I will blog about talking about the weather. It’s stupid, right? It’s stupid and meaningless and shallow and ohmygod was it bizarre to move from L.A. to MN and hear people talking about the weather. A lot. Interviews with not just meteorologists, but climatologists on an almost daily basis on public radio. Civilians with bizarrely esoteric knowledge of weather history and patterns and barometric pressure. Weather is a THING. Continue reading “The Weather”→
I had just left the Wedge grocery on Nicollet Ave when a man walking by called me over.
“Could you buy me an orange juice?”
“Sure.” I mean, how else could I respond to a question like that? Of course I can buy this guy an orange juice. Why had no one ever asked me that question before!? I had never felt more sure of anything. “Come on inside.” Continue reading “OJ and I”→