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February 2017

March 2017

Out of Balance

Tolstoy-List-Main

David Brooks uses Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich to comment on how the pendulum has swung too far with the change in moral climate.  He writes, "Many of us are in Ivan Ilyich's position, recognizing that the social system we are part of pushes us to live out one sort of insufficient external life. . . .  The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture."

So, what's wrong with the current moral climate?  He lists some overarching problems and focuses on a few areas of society.  First, the overarching problems.

We have become "less morally articulate."  We are more materialistic.  More individualistic.  Less empathetic.  

We have become "a more competitive meritocracy."  He writes:

You have, like me, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world.  That's meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement--doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward success and status.

 What results is a culture of busyness where we fail to take the time to cultivate our moral and spiritual sides.  I thought of Richard Rohr's writing while reading this section.

The meaning of the term character itself has changed, away from an embodiment of the traditional virtues to now "describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity."  

Brooks does not think that social media has ruined us, as the damage was largely already done, but it has had "three effects on the moral ecology."  First, "It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths."  Second, "Social media allow a more self-referential information environment."  And finally, it "encourages a broadcasting personality."

He spends a few pages on changes in parenting that he dislikes, but I thought those arguments were overwrought.

In the final post of this series on his book, we'll look at what he calls "the humble path to the beautiful life."

The previous post in this series discussed self-actualization by looking at Katherine Graham.  And the post before that reviewed this change in moral culture.


Exploring an individual's metaphysical sensitivity

This weekend I began reading a collection of poems by Adonis, who is often mentioned as a contender for a Nobel prize.  And being a Syrian in exile who is in his late 80's, I've been surprised that he hasn't won in recent years.

In the introduction the translator summarizes Adonis' view of poetry.

Poetry, he argued, must remain a realm in which language and ideas are examined, reshaped, and refined, in which the poet refuses to descend to the level of daily expediencies.  Emerging as one of the most eloquent practitioners and defenders of this approach, Adonis wrote that the poet is a "metaphysical being who penetrates to the depths" and , in so doing, "keeps solidarity with others."  Poetry's function is to convey eternal human anxieties.  It is the exploration of an individual's metaphysical sensitivity, not a collective political or socially oriented vision.


No Picnic on Mount Kenya

No Picnic on Mount KenyaNo Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While browsing a book store in Dublin I came across this book and was intrigued.

Three Italians prisoners of war of the British in Kenya during the Second World War are tired of their confinement but do not believe they could escape to a neutral or friendly country. Instead, they decide to escape and climb Mount Kenya, which beckons from above their camp. And, there plan is to return to camp when finished. Just an excursion to spend some time in freedom and to accomplish something.

So, this is a wonderful adventure story about the power of the human spirit. And it's quite fun.

With none of the proper equip or recent training and no weapons to protect them from the wild animals of the jungle and savanna, the group (with the help of others in the camp) spends months fashioning crude implements, hiding them, and readying for the day of escape.

What follows is a daring nighttime run from the camp, days of trekking through the jungle and highlands, working to avoid people and wildlife, bitter cold nights spent on the rocks, hunger from lack of provisions, splendid beauty, and dangerous moments, all well told by one of the prisoner/mountaineers in a book he wrote after the war.

As the author summarizes near the conclusion, "Hadn't we, wretched prisoners that we were, also raised our hands toward the Mountain, to ask her to give us back to ourselves?"

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The Prelude

Wordsworth: The PreludeWordsworth: The Prelude by William Wordsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My morning poetry reading has not been that consistent since Sebastian's birth, disappearing with most parts of my decades-long morning routine. Oh well.

So, it took me a long time to get through Wordsworth's Prelude. Part of that is because the poem itself bogs down in places. The opening and closing books are the best, filled with his experiences of nature.

I've long known (and even written on) Wordsworth's influence on Whitehead's philosophy of perception. Having now finally read all of the Prelude I believe that Wordsworth may be the most important influence for understanding Whitehead and the development of process philosophy.

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Self-actualization

  Katherine-graham-1

So, in the middle of the twentieth century the moral culture changed, according to David Brooks.  He writes, "Each moral climate is a collective response to the problems of the moment."  The new moral culture which prized self-esteem, authenticity, and expression "helped correct some deep social injustices."  To illustrate he chooses Katharine Graham.

She was raised in an era when girls were "expected to be quiet, reserved, and correct."  The Stepford Wife idea.  Her husband belittled her and had many affairs.  When he committed suicide in 1963 she was elected president of the Washington Post Company and assumed she'd hold the job for a season before handing it off to her children.  

But, she thrived in the job and led the Post to national prominence.  The same year she took over the Post, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique.  

Graham illustrates why the moral culture needed to change.  Under the old culture it was too common that a woman like Graham would not have thrived.  Many people needed to develop a higher sense of self.  Brooks writes, "The emphasis on self-actualization and self-esteem gave millions of women a language to articulate and cultivate self-assertion, strength, and identity."

Last week I watched When We Rise on ABC (still marveling at that), a miniseries on the LGBT rights movement that focused on Cleve Jones and some of our other grassroots activists in San Francisco.  That show narrated the importance of our rise, our self-expression, our demands.  

Fortunately, Brooks does not fault either moral climate.  He thinks we need balance and to recover some of the value that was lost when moral realism was cast aside.  The main reason is that the old tradition gave us a longtested method for the formation of souls.

At its worst the new culture expresses something like these lyrics from High School Musical (which Brooks quotes): "The answers are all inside me/ All I've got to do is believe.

I've never liked that sort of idea, as much as I've embraced liberation and authenticity.  Maybe growing up in the more traditional heartland and remaining rooted in the church has helped to push against individualism?  My memoir, which I hope to publish this year, is about finding the courage to be my authentic self, but is a story contained within my culture, church, and family.  I have navigated a path to losing neither.

In the next post I'll write a little more about the ways he believes we've gotten out of balance.

The previous post in this series was about the change in moral culture that occurred in the 20th century.


The Dark Times

Ghazal: The Dark Times

Marilyn Hacker


Tell us that line again, the thing about the dark times…
“When the dark times come, we will sing about the dark times.”

They’ll always be wrong about peace when they’re wrong about justice…
Were you wrong, were you right, insisting about the dark times?


The traditional fears, the habitual tropes of exclusion
Like ominous menhirs, close into their ring about the dark times.


Naysayers in sequins or tweeds, libertine or ascetic
Find a sensual frisson in what they’d call bling about the dark times.

Some of the young can project themselves into a Marshall Plan future
Where they laugh and link arms, reminiscing about the dark times.

From every spot-lit glitz tower with armed guards around it
Some huckster pronounces his fiats, self-sacralized king, about the dark times.

In a tent, in a queue, near barbed wire, in a shipping container,
Please remember ya akhy, we too know something about the dark times.

Sindbad’s roc, or Ganymede’s eagle, some bird of rapacious ill omen
From bleak skies descends, and wraps an enveloping wing about the dark times.

You come home from your meeting, your clinic, make coffee and look in the mirror
And ask yourself once more what you did to bring about the dark times.



Citizens Dissent

Citizens Dissent: Security, Morality, and Leadership in an Age of TerrorCitizens Dissent: Security, Morality, and Leadership in an Age of Terror by Wendell Berry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the midst of this new year of dissent, I finally read this small 2003 book by the poet and essayist Wendell Berry and the novelist David James Duncan opposing the Iraq War and the moral decay of our nation. As imperative as all of this felt in 2003, it seems quaint now. Yet, I do believe that the immoral decisions of our government and society at that time have contributed to the rise in immorality of the Trump Era. So sad that the Obama's years, which were originally conceived as an age of redemption and healing for the immorality of the Bush years, did not live up to expectations.

I left the Republican party in 2003 over the Iraq War and the reality that the party I had once admired was now governed by Neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists. In subsequent years they devolved even further and now are governed by a nativist populist who is a moral reprobate.

So, the great worries that many of us expressed in 2003 are now coming to fruition. May God have mercy upon us and save us.

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