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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A Change in Moral Culture

UP CLOSE_Johnny+Unitas_Getty Images

The final chapter of David BrooksThe Road to Character is a rich and complex summary and an discussion of why and how our culture changed.

He opens by contrasting Johnny Unitas with Joe Namath.  Both grew up in the same area of western Pennyslvania and only a decade apart, but were fundamentally different people.  Unitas said "I always figured being a little dull was part of being pro."  Namath was anything but dull.  Brooks explains that Unitas viewed football as a job that was not fundamentally different from a factory worker or plumber.  Namath engaged in self-promotion.

Reading this section made me think of Tom Landry.  I miss his style of coaching.  Dressed in a suit like a professional, he was generally stoic in his response to the what was happening on the field.  I don't really care for the way most coaches dress and behave these days.

So, when did this change occur?  Brooks says that it wasn't the Baby Boomers and the upheavals of the late 1960's, like many people think.  No, the change occurred in what Brokaw called the "Greatest Generation."  In the post-war world they promoted a new culture of self-esteem and authenticity and abandoned the tradition of moral realism.

Brooks cites a number of examples, like Norman Vincent Peale's bestselling The Power of Positive Thinking.  Interesting, I read back in November that Peale was Trump's favorite minister and even performed his first wedding.

He writes that this change was a response to its time and that there were good reasons and results for the change, but I want to write about those in the next post.  But with the change "A moral vocabulary was lost and along with it a methodology for the formation of souls."

Key to the tradition of moral realism, according to Brooks, was a grasp of human limitations.  

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex.  We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves.  Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves.  Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves.  Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures.  To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence--on others, on institutions, on the divine.  

Brooks does not believe we need to abandon the new culture and return to the old one, but that we need to find greater balance between the two in order to respond to the moral needs of our time.  But more on that in a future post, in which I'll also share some personal reflections.

The previous post in this series was about "sweet gestures of self-improvement," focusing on Montaigne.


Sweet gestures of self-improvement

Michel-de-montaigne-4

In his chapter on Samuel Johnson, David Brooks contrasts the English writer with the French essayist Michel de Montaigne explaining that the two of them represent two different styles of goodness--Johnson struggled and suffered to become good, while Montaigne had a genial nature.  Of course they were born into different strata of society.

Brooks writes, "Johnson sought to reform himself through direct assault and earnest effort.  Montaigne was more amused by himself and his foibles, and sought virtue through self-acceptance and sweet gestures of self-improvement."

Montaigne retired from public life and discovered "that his own mind would not allow tranquility.  He found his mind, fragmented, liquid, and scattershot."  So, for him, "writing was an act of self-integration."

Brooks writes, "Montaigne's theory was that much of the fanaticism and violence he saw around him was caused by the panic and uncertainty people feel because they can't grasp the elusiveness within themselves."  Essay writing, which he largely invented, was a way of exploring and integrating himself.

Throughout this book, David Brooks has been exploring a cultural tradition in which people were more humble.  He locates that attitude in Montaigne.  Brooks describes him thus--"a low but accurate view of one's own nature plus a capacity for wonder and astonishment at the bizarreness of creation equals a calming spirit of equipoise."