From Newtown to Newark and Back: The Always Ongoing Cycle of Despair

Not since 9-11 has a country mourned as it is now following the overwhelming, mindless violence that occurred in Newtown.

Twenty six innocent children and six innocent adults were martyred on the crucifix of insanity. We have to accept, as Yeats says in Easter 1916, that we’ve finally been Transformed utterly. All, indeed, has changed — Yeats says it and we must see it as well.

There will be a lot of talk in time — the Second Amendment to the Constitution, violence in America, assault weapons, the NRA, mental health. The list can be endless since Newtown — this new town — to many of us a new spiritual place, is now every town in America; everything that ails us crushed Newtown’s innocence.

Why? Why have we come to this?

A shadow of cloud on the stream/Changes minute by minute, Yeats tells us. The long-legged moor-hens dive,/And hens to moor cocks call;/Minute by minute they live:/The stone’s in the midst of all. How prophetic Yeats is about our problem: those common folks living in Eighteenth-century houses, we pass them by, nod and give Polite meaningless words. We move around and through people, not with people. We ensnare rather then enable. We are suffocating. We suffocate because we take meaning away, not work to understand.

But in the middle of all this, our constructed struggles, our foibles, is The stone, the grave, death. It’s inevitable so we try to move past it too. “These tragedies must end,” said President Obama. But in order to begin to address the problem we have to first acknowledge our inconsequentiality in the face of Nature. It has a power that brings us to our knees — Katrina, Sandy, now Adam Lanza. He, too — there is no doubt — is a force of Nature we don’t understand. He, too, is a storm of destruction.

Too long a sacrifice/Can make a stone of the heart, says Yeats. Is this who we are? Was this Lanza, his heart so cold, so lost? O when may it suffice? wonders Yeats. President Obama wondered the same thing in Newtown. He told us all that Newtown reminds us of what matters. Why do we have to have violence of such magnitude to remind us of what matters? Why?

What matters are the simplest things: Why are we here? What is the purpose for our lives, given that time is fleeting, our lives ephemeral? This is the terrible beauty that is born, says Yeats. The dull, almost empty sound that comes when we ask these questions. There’s no response. We turn to education and religion, exercise and excess, mediated sports and consumerism to find ourselves. We never turn inward, towards ourselves, our inner being.

Adam Lanza is the extreme example of an outward manifestation of a harrowing malady. Newtown is his response to his darkness. How can we evolve if we don’t embrace these frightening questions about ourselves, the shadows in Plato’s allegorical Cave, and face these together?

When President Obama read the names of the innocent children, I turned to Yeats and whispered, Now and in time to be, …/Are changed, changed utterly: A terrible beauty is born.

We are a culture that harbors anger against our inconsequentiality — …the birds that range/From cloud to tumbling cloud,/Minute by minute they change, while we run past each other, never taking the time, never asking, never wondering, watching, learning what ails us.

Nature’s indifference against our need to be seen and heard, to have relevance in a short life requires that we have systems of checks and balances that help us address questions of the soul, the mind, the spirit because we will each find ourselves, from time to time, in the darkest of places.

Of course, the change we need — one that also coincides with Nature’s insistence that we are merely part of its scheme, that’s all — must address the deepest, darkest aspects of our American existence. We must face our hand in evolving a world in which life is cheap, inconsequential.

As we turn to Newtown, as we should be, as we mourn, let’s not forget the hundreds and thousands of children that are killed yearly in places like Newark, New Jersey — not Newtown, which is a random brutal tragedy. Newark has been spiraling for a long time. A few years back a mother cried to me, in a Newark elementary school, to help make education better in the city because she lost a son to the streets and illiteracy as the system promoted him blindly — until at age 16 when he was shot dead in front of her.

Newtown didn’t need our attention because all the American signs of perfection were self-evident. Newark we bypass because, even though little school age children are killed every year, due to a harrowing street violence that, like Lanza, has no conscience and will use incredible fire power regardless, the people here are not like us. We push by Newark — and its people. There are far too many communities in America we bypass, leaving them to face incomprehensible violence on their own, leaving them to face questions about their existence in the shadows of our illusory splendor.

We all suffer equally. We all suffer. Some have more resilience then others; however, we have nothing in place to help those that might be lead down a destructive path — no mechanisms are available to diagnose, analyze and engage those among us who live troubled lives.

Questions of the heart and the soul have been relegated to prayer and service, once or twice a week; they’ve been sidelined in our daily actions, our close and sometimes intimate exchanges. Speed is privileged over contemplation; the quick fix over meaningful deliberation. We are desperate but we don’t have the means by which to express our anxieties. Some respond to their despair with gruesome violence — and we faciliate this by embracing an amendment to the constitution that was adopted on December 15, 1791 when we were new, fresh and worried about the shackles of a heartless government. Then, a well regulated militia was necessary; the security of a free state fundamental, as was the right of the people to keep and to bear arms. But now we have a fat Defense Department, and in States, we have militias — the National Guards. States differ, but in most states people can keep and bear arms — as Mrs. Lanza did.

Given these realities, what is the necessity of arming ourselves with assault weapons? Fear of government? Any local community police force can overcome any citizen militia, even if the citizens are armed with assault weapons. So what is the point of such armament? We know where it leads, particularly if we don’t have a robust system to work with our anxieties, our very human stresses, our discontents.

From Newtown to Newark, and back, the needs of a Nation are the same. The terrible beauty is that we can’t escape our place — life and death in a brief moment in time, the raw awesomeness of Nature, and our sense of a beleaguered self. All this requires one thing: mindful education early on. When it skips people, when we rush by it, even as change happens all around us, some will find no recourse but to continue down a dark and violent abyss whose only end is to spread pain and suffering to as many innocent people as possible because the despair is so overwhelming that it’s unspeakable.

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Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, Religion and the Higgs Boson: How the World Turns — and Is Turning?

Like many things in life, it depends on what you want to hear.

Whether you’re a religious person and don’t believe there’s a chance in hell for the Higgs Boson to exist, a devoutly religious person that denies priests are fondling children — and concealing it — or a Scientologist that believes, after donating thousands upon thousands of dollars, your soul or “thetan” is a reincarnation that has lived on other planets before living on Earth, such as Tom Cruise, recent (apparent) scientific discoveries in Geneva, Switzerland suggest that, though we may not want to hear some things, we should question everything, but in particular, the largest, most powerful science fiction story of all — or scam, take your pick — the creation of organized religion that is the bane of our existence.

Higgs Boson

Let’s begin, then, almost at the beginning.

“There comes a time,”Aldous Huxley wrote, “when one asks even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, is this all?”

The oldest religion, dating back to the early Harappan period (5500-2600 BCE), is Hinduism. Neither the pursuit nor the attainment of the world’s visible rewards brings true happiness, suggests Hinduism. Might not, then, becoming a part of a larger, more significant whole relieve life of its triviality, after all, we all want meaning?

This question alone gives birth to religion — and slowly and energetically moves from an existential question to the “opium of the people.” Without falling into the ridiculous arguments generated by ill-prepared politicians and journalist hacks, let’s just say, avoiding the term, Marxist, that Karl was right on this one. Marx actually said, “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” If we take this “Marxist” notion and apply today, we can see that if fits, it works.

Name a poor community in America where you don’t hear, “It’s God’s will” uttered by people that are homeless and suffering from some institutionalized mandate, whether it’s zoning and the lack of health care and environmental degradation, and climate change and just plain old inhumanity, such as the lack of social mobility, particularly through education.

Name a time that has been more heartless then our own whereby in the name of God and Allah we are separating, maming, killiing and destroying people simply because they view the world differently — or better, we need their resources and we need their strategic location from which to launch our control over needed resources.

In the name of God — who we say we trust — we rob the poor, in our own country and elsewhere (the evidence is overwhelming), then give them guns, and to keep our attention busy, we fly drones over the helpless, in the USA and elsewhere. And we, the citizens of this country that says, “In God We Trust,” turn from our inhumanity to all, and we’re suppose to be the most Christian, Sunday church going, Bible pounding nation in the world. What gives? But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, not in the name of God, anyway.

Let’s go back to the problem.

The question of Hindiusm — and all subsequent religions — What do people really want ? — becomes fundamental in creating orthodox structures that solicit obedience through dogma meant to respond to the question. Within these tightly structured boxes — or organizations — where allegiance is mandated above even faith, there is little room for debate, let alone creative disruption.

Hinduism tells us that the first thing we want is Being. We want to be rather than not be; normally, no one wants to die (Scientology has co-opted this narrative strain quite heavily).

Second, we want to know. We are instinctually curious, whether you’re a scientist probing the universe or at home with the family watching the news — we want to know. In fact, we’ll turn to gossip — or reality tv — just to get the sense that we know something, anything.

The third thing people seek is joy, a feeling tone that is opposite frustration, futility, and boredom. Hinduism — and all other religions — prescribe a road to this sense of joy, provided one follow a strict path. Allegiance comes first, followed by the embrace of a promise to live happily ever after in joy.

If we couple these three needs to the unique human capacity to think of something that has no limits, the infinite, we can see how Christianity, which began as a Jewish sect in the eastern Mediterranean in the mid-1st century, follows. And how, with Islam, both follow the notion that there is an uncorrupted monotheistic faith of Adam, Abraham, Moses, Jesus and other prophets, all of whom, first, try to answer the question, What do people want?, and, secondly, are the vanguards of strict organizations that get formed around the prophets’ ideas, long after these prophets are dead and buried, and try to conflate material reality with a science fiction pertaining to the afterlife, edenic spaces to experience life ever after, and even reincarnation suggesting that we’ve existed before, time traveling, century after century, year in and year, living and dying and being reborn again — perhaps into Tom Cruise — while all sorts of immoral actions are being leveled against the “flocks” of these organizations — and by the most staunch believers.

The latest insanity around Tom Cruise and Katy Holmes suggests that we’ve reached a pathetic end to these cloaked belief systems. Imagine the level of intelligence of people, celebreties or otherwise, that pursue a religion that was incorporated in 1953, by L. Ron Hubbard, a science fiction writer.  Hubbard created a rather false universe; it followed his treatise on self-help, Dianetics, describing a metaphysical relationship between the mind and the body.

But it makes some sort of sense, doesn’t it?

If we are in fact seeing the deterioration of monotheistic religions everywhere — and we are, simply based on the evidence of massive killings and the inhumanity being shown to the poor and the helpless in the name of God — and all these religions are, in fact, tales, stories, narratives that respond to the first question — What do people want? — it stands to reason that, after centuries we have been taught to find — and embrace — the ONE, the one man usually, that will respond to the question with a complex, albeit understandable, belief system that makes our desire to be, our desire to know and be curious palpable and manageable. (This notion, too, enters our political system big time, but the relation of religion and politics is yet another and larger story.)

Enter the Higgs Boson apparently discovered in Geneva the other day: picture a room full of people. We’ll call this the Higgs Field. Suddenly, in comes a person, a noted person. He steps into the room and begins to mingle, shake hands and so on; people gather around him or her. The more people gather around this person, the harder it is for this person to move. Then this mass of people begins to act — or move — as one. As one, it’s slow, large, difficult to move. Then a less popular person enters the room. Some break from the mass and move to the new person in the room — or field. This person’s mass is smaller, therefore it’s easier for this person to move about with his or her group. There you have the Higgs Boson. Without it, matter would not exist — we would not exist, and I wouldn’t be writing this. The Higgs is the foundation for matter, to put it plainly.

This is, apparently, the basis of the structure of the universe — and it is NOT the poorly named “God particle,” an The God Particleunfortunate statement made by Professor and Nobel Prize Winner Leon Lederman that titled his book, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What is the Question? , providing a brief history of particle physics. No other physicist or scientist has used the term as such, according to Matt Strassler, theoretical physicist at Rutgers University.

If the Higss is not the “God particle,” then what it is?

It is a scientific discovery, first and foremost, data that explains our being; our desire to be has a scientific explanation. Secondly, the apparent discovery comes from our curiosity, our search for answers to the most fundamental of questions, but in a scientific way, rather than a science fiction approach that has its own place in our culture (another story). Finally, the discovery begins to turn the corner for human nature’s need to know where we come from, how we’re made and why. It may even provide a road to where we’re going.

This is the next story, the story to come, and it’s built on science, not on science fiction; it’s built on reason and intelligence, carefully constructed around mathematics and physics — the Standard Model — that, in turn, enable us to create fields of information that are varifiable.

Stories and myths are essential for the human condition; however, these have to be used appropriately, which is not to control, mandate, influence — and then punish — as a way to find happiness and peace later, after one’s death.

We can find joy and learn about each other, with science and poetics, myths and faith working in tandem, not as antagonists. The Higgs Boson calls attention to our diversity, which we are now challenged to accept and embrace.

Here’s a teaser for  you, finally: THE MASTER, a film by Paul Thomas Anderson, to be released soon. If you understand nothing of what I’ve said, see it in film form.

The Uncanny Convocation in an Upside Down World

In the past few weeks thousands of young first year college students gathered for convocations across the US — the beginning of a new academic year. A convocation is a calling forth to assembly by summons. It’s a long standing tradition inherited from the culture we fought against, Great Britain. In Hymn, ‘O Day of Rest, Wordsworth writes, “To holy convocations The silver trumpet calls.” This past week students marched quietly and obediently into sanctuaries of learning because they’ve heard the call from higher education: come forth to your future — here is your future. In the Church of England, a convocation is a provincial synod or assembly of the clergy, constituted by statue and called together to deliberate on ecclesiastical matters. Despite faculty regalia (very Harry Potter — no wonder Quidditch is played on some of our campuses!), and the convocation usually taking form in hallowed ground in colleges and universities, in the secular world, first years are called forth to deliberate matters of conscious, moral matters that can be questioned in the disciplines. First years are called forth by the faculty, the representatives of knowledge, the bearers, we like to think, of wisdom; we call forth young minds eager to confront the ideas that have created our civilization, to learn.

But to what exactly are we calling first year college students?

In Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha C. Nussbaum suggests that in our pursuits — and allegiance to traditions and their concomitant ideals — “we seem to be forgetting about the soul, about what it is is for thought to open out of the soul and connect person to world in a rich, subtle, and complicated manner; about what it is to approach another person as a soul, rather than as a mere useful instrument or an obstacle to one’s own plans; about what it is to talk as someone who has a soul to someone else whom one sees as similarly deep and complex.” We have failed here. We are thus calling forth our first years to a world that defines human relationships, Nussbaum contends, as being “of mere use and manipulation,” rather than comprised of “faculties of thought and imagination that make us human and make our relationships rich human relationships.”

Two provocative New Yorker covers show the confusing world our knowledge making has created for our first years. We are calling our first years to Barry Blitt’s August 30 cover, “Pause,” and Peter de Sève’s “Beasts of Burden,” September 13.

Pause

Pause by Barry Blitt

Beasts of Burden

Beasts of Burden by Peter de Sève

[p]In Blitt we find a relaxed middle aged man, his slight paunch of satisfaction and complacency, staring at a vast ocean and murky sky, a world that’s wide and foreboding, aiming a remote control to pause it — or to change it. Peter de Sève gives us a city street, in the foreground a child bent over from the heavy backpack, pulling a donkey that is likewise burdened by all the belongings of her master; across the street, kids carry books as they hurry to school. Access and social mobility separated by a street — Main Street — where we find promise and hope on one side, the hopeless “beasts of burden” on the other.

Socrates advised that the citizens of The Republic should be educated and assigned by merit to three classes: rulers, auxiliaries, and craftsmen. This is the world we’ve defined for our first years. But Socrates, unable to devise a logical argument for this social construction of power, fabricates a method, and tells Glaucon:

I will speak, although I really know not how to look in your face, or in what words to utter the audacious fiction … They [the citizens] are to be told that their youth was a dream, and the education and training which they received from us, an appearance only; in reality during all that time they were being formed and fed in the womb of the earth…

Glaucon, in his reply, utters a prophesy: “Not in the present generation; there is no way of accomplishing this; but their sons may be made to believe in the tale, and their son’s sons, and posterity after them.”

Indeed, “Pause” and “Beasts of Burden” share in their conviction that we’re living proof of Gloucon’s prophecy. Blitt and de Sève point to a society “addicted to ideologies — a civilization tightly held at this moment in the embrace of a dominant ideology: corporatism,” says John Ralston Saul in The Unconscious Civilization. “The acceptance of corporatism causes us to deny and undermine the legitimacy of the individual as citizen in a democracy,” says Saul. “The result of such a denial is a growing imbalance which leads to our adoration of self-interest and our denial of the public good.”

In Blitt’s “Pause,” man is tragically convinced that he can “pause” the rate of change — be it climate change, political change, a change in how we perceive justice. In this cover cartoon, Blitt’s middle aged man still sees himself as the center of the world, now holding forth with a technology he falsely believes can save us. Our students have been raised with this conviction — technology can solve everything. De Séve shows us how blind we are, unable to see suffering at the hands of a vituperative, vertical socioeconomic system that relegates positions we can’t get out of, so we justify these with even more ideals — they must be lazy, if they only worked as hard as we do. What can I do to change this? our young minds wonder, succumbing to the wild and negative distributions of power. In both cartoons we see a society that scorns knowledge. “To know — that is, to have knowledge — is to instinctively understand the relationship between what you know and what you do,” says Saul. In Blitt and de Sève, knowledge is totally absent — gone, lost. We, the faculty, have lost our wisdom and we’re about to impart this sense of loss to our students.

These past few weeks, we called forth our first year college students to a world confused, upside down. Then we ask our new students to step into our classrooms where our wisdom will show that we have enabled a harrowing world to emerge from our regalia and our ceremonies, our traditions. In the September 4th Economist, in “Decline by degree,” Schumpeter, wonders whether America’s universities will go the way of its car companies. The American “luxury model is unlikely to survive what is turning into a prolonged economic downturn. Parents are much less willing to take on debt than they were and much more willing to look abroad for better deals … America’s universities lost their way badly in the era of easy money. If they do not find it again, they may go by way of GM.”

So while our young minds struggle to understand just how perverse the world we’ve created really is, they also must confront the notion that colleges and universities have been constructing a decorous world of illusion that cannot go on, if for no other reason than how we’ve been going to school and what we have been turning out as our future leaders have given us the world we now inhabit. We can’t “pause” this world — and in it, there is no Main Street, we are all “beasts of burdens” separated only by degrees.

Welcome to your first year!