I thought I’d have a little fun. For the last two nights, my wife and I watched Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, written by J. K. Rowling, between portions of Chris Hayes, Rachel Maddow, and checking in on the Senate’s fight over the Republican denial of health care bill.
It was a very surreal experience, like living in a fantasy world. McConnell became, in my mind, the powerful Auror, enforcer, Director of Magical Security for the magical world, a character named Graves (played by Colin Farrell). Graves was trying to appear like he was acting for the welfare of others. In reality, he was always pushing his own agenda, built from megalomania and a delusion of superiority, to undermine others, and make all of us Nomajs or Muggles subservient to him and his cohorts. We learn at the end that Graves was only a mask worn by the evil Grindelwald, a Dark Wizard, second only to Lord Voldemort, who hid away after nasty crimes in Europe. (Did he ever go to Russia?)
And then there was the Obscurus, a dark force that ran rampant destroying buildings and killing. The Obscurus was built from the energy created by the abuse, and oppression of the magical ability of Credence, an adopted son of Samantha Morton, the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society. These “Second Salemers” were like the first, religious bigots calling for a war against all those with magic and who are “different.” Graves-Grindelwald tried to use the power of the Obscurus, of oppression, for his own ends, but it turned against him. I took the Obscurus as a warning. When a government tries to assault the magic, well-being, and humanity of so many of us, it will only lead to destruction.
And on Wednesday, when Mr. T. had Secretary Zinke threaten Senator Lisa Murkowski for her opposition to the Republican bill, this fit in so well with the movie and the plot, of a battle by evil against the good. It was almost too much, too blatant, but the inappropriate behavior of this President is blatant.
I won’t try to make too close a comparison between the movie and the real life drama in the Senate. Rowlings work has often been seen as a metaphor for different battles between “good and evil.” But I think there were heroes Wednesday and Thursday. There was Senator Lisa Murkowski, certainly, and Susan Collins. And Senator McCain, who created a great and multi-dimensional drama of his own. And the Democrats, who stayed together as a unified force. Senator Mazie Hirono, Democrat from Hawaii, interrupted her cancer treatments to fly to D. C.. And all of us, who have been making calls, demonstrating on the streets or in the halls of Congress, or writing letters. I’m afraid that there will be many more battles, and we need to learn all we can from this one. In the end, it seems to me that we Nomajs are the ones with the real magic.
As many people have realized, this moment is a test. Right now. Or better yet, an opportunity. Not in the sense of a test in school, or for a job, not one with a number or letter score, not one with a scorekeeper. It is a test in the sense of a coming of age ceremony, which tests and strengthens our character. We human beings have a chance to come of age. Of course, this is true every moment. Every moment is an opportunity to wake up and demonstrate who we are. But some moments, both in our lives and in history, are heightened by the knowledge of what is at stake. This is such a moment.
In this moment in history, it is clear the Emperor has no clothes. His greed, and the greed of those other Republicans around him, his destructiveness, and total lust for power even at the expense of everyone else, even at the expense of the nation, even at the expense of the world’s environment, is there for everyone to see. Will the rest of us find ways to step up, come of age by working to save our age—and possibly the age of everyone who might come after us?
An example of just how little these Republicans in the center of this administration care about the well-being of others is the proposed health care legislation. The Senate bill would, according to the CBO, lead to 22 million Americans without health insurance, and thus lead to the deaths of 27,000 people annually due lack of adequate health care. It would have created economic and health insecurity for millions of Americans. The proposed repeal of Obamacare without a replacement would do even more damage to individuals and the economy as a whole. Yet they supported this and similar legislation over and over again. Why? To get a tax cut to a few thousand super rich? To say to their supporters, “look how we defeated the previous [Democratic/African-American?] President?” Certainly, none of the bills proposed by Republicans over the last four months would improve health care for a great majority of Americans.
Some argue that it has always been this way. By it they either mean all of human history, or all of US history. It is just more blatant now. Now, information is just more readily available. I disagree, not with the fact that the greed is more blatant now, but with the underlying assumption, that politicians or anyone in power, or every one of us, is essentially selfish, greedy, and lusts for power. That this selfish lust is just “human nature.” To believe this is to essentially give up. Look into your own heart. You will find enough selfish thoughts and feelings and motivations. But do those thoughts or feelings define you? Is that all or most of who you are? And when you feel that selfishness, what happens to your mind and emotions? Do you notice the isolation, sense of distrust, unease and fear that follow?
The struggle being waged this moment is not just to defeat the kleptocratic Republicans, preserve some remnants of democracy, and save our rights and environment. It is to save humankind— to save not only in the sense of physical survival, but in the sense of understanding whom we are. How we act is born in the womb of mind and heart.
Yes, throughout US history and possibly throughout human history (especially since the Neolithic Revolution and the invention of farming and private ownership), there have been people trying to seize power, not just for a moment, but for always. No denying that. But one of the allures of democracy is that it puts power in front of all of us (at least in theory) and says, “Go for it.” Political power is always in question because it resides “in the people,” dynamic and changing. Part of the dynamism arises from those who can’t handle that shared power and so try to end it by controlling it. However, the only way to have a relatively secure democracy is to teach people how to live with being insecure, and in living with and taking an active part, along with others, in exercising power.
Too many of us have been deceived into underestimating our own personal power and capacity to persist, endure, and to feel. We think the challenge is too large, the fight too long, the pain too strong. This is partly a result of the manipulation of media and events to create a sense of crisis or shock, like the “shock and awe” tactic in the invasion of Iraq. But this invasion is primarily against the American people.
According to Naomi Klein, in her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, this “shock tactic” is an attempt by the corporate right to take advantage of collective crises and natural disasters in order to disorient us, get us to feel so vulnerable that we will accept policies we would never have accepted otherwise. It is a sinister attempt to make us feel so vulnerable and powerless that our natural impulse to come together and help others is buried. But, as Klein says, we can and must refuse this manipulation. We can decide to use this common threat to build a movement of resistance, hope, justice and love.
To crudely juxtapose two disparate philosophies, that of the French existentialist philosopher J. P. Sartre, and the Buddha, humans are beings who, due to our ability to be conscious and self-reflect, define ourselves through our actions. Sartre said our “existence precedes essence.” We exist first as subjective experience, as personal conscious awareness, and then become who we are (within social and biological limits, of course) through our thoughts and actions. We are responsible for the person we come to be. And from a Buddhist perspective, one could say our essence is this very moment, this awareness. When our minds are clear, we feel how vibrant the world is, how interdependent we all are, and thus how vital and powerful our actions can be.
So, what will we do? What will you do? Will you speak up or take political action in a way you feel is right, maybe make phone calls to Congresspeople, sign petitions, write letters, demonstrate and educate? Feel the power of this moment and come of age? Even simple acts can be profound. Or let others shock us into surrender?
*Photo by Kathy Morris.
One of the most important lessons a good teacher teaches, beyond the subject matter, is how to live a moment or a year of moments. On the first day of classes, you teach how to meet new people, how to start an endeavor, how to be open to whatever comes. On the last day of classes, you model how to end something, how to say goodbye. You model how to face freaky spring weather in winter and winter weather in the spring. How to face a test, sickness or other challenge. To share insights, listen to the insights of others, think deeply about questions raised, and fears and joys expressed. How to face evil with insight, and violence with calm and clarity. And how to celebrate what you value and value what you celebrate.
In this way you model the …
This blog, with an embedded story, was published on Friday by OTV (Open Thought Vortex): A Literary Magazine for Open Hearts and Minds. Please click on this link to read the rest of the post.
Joy—What is it? Such a short and simple word. Sit quietly for a moment and let a moment of joy come to you. Maybe it will be a memory from the past. Maybe just a touch of the emotion itself will fill your heart. What do you feel? A sense of lightness, bubbling, or overflowing? A weight lifted from your chest? A release of something deep down, a sense of letting go or coming alive? An opening? You might feel you’ve discovered a secret and want to share it. Your hands might want to rise up, your body want to dance, your face smile, as if you were embracing the world, and your self.
I remember such moments. I remember receiving an email from my agent that my book was going to be published. I could barely believe it. Excitement and ordinariness both arose in me. Here was an email—I had received thousands of emails before, but none like this one. It was as if I had been hoping for this moment for my entire life. As if all prior emails had this one buried within them as a possibility. Likewise, when good friends or family came to visit. Or snow days, or at least when I first heard the announcement of a snow day. A burden was lifted. Or something feared was ended.
Joy can be what pushes back against fear. All emotion has this dynamic quality to it. No emotion is just one emotion. When one emotion surfaces, others arise on the borders. Love can carry fear as well as joy. Why is there fear with joy and love? Because love is allowing yourself to be vulnerable. Part of the ecstasy of love is the affirmation and sense of strength that comes from believing in yourself enough to know you can do this, you can feel this, even though pain might result from it.
When afraid, what do you do? Fear is a turning away from a threat or the possibility of pain, of hurt. It can be running away from others, from life, or a walling off, a way of hiding. It is the flight-freeze response. When afraid, you want safety and control. One way you gain a sense of safety is by rigidly controlling the moments of your life. You bind up time by filling moments with the simple and familiar, so nothing unknown and unfamiliar can occur. Fear is of the unknown or what might happen to the known.
You can do the same with your mind, filling it with thoughts and worries. Worries can seem like little magical mental devices you use to ward off what you worry about or fear. You deep down think “if I worry enough, what I worry about won’t occur.” You fill your mind with thoughts you’ve had hundreds of times before, to ward off the possibly dangerous and unknown with the safe and known, or with what you have already lived through. You use these worries and thoughts even though they might not be fun, because you’re focused on safety first, not joy.
The problem is you can go too far and create what you want to avoid. In order to maintain a wall, you have to create a sense of there being dangers outside the wall that must be avoided. You want to live. But by walling yourself off, you might wall away excitement, friendships, a sense of being fully alive. When you rigidly control the moments of your life, you don’t actually feel safe. You feel rigid. Rigid is another way to say fragile and fearful.
You have to let the light in in order to see what you have or could have. You have to take some chances in order to know you are capable of doing so. You have to embrace life, as much as you can at the time, and even when it’s difficult, in order to feel embraced. You can’t totally wall away the sense of vulnerability, because within it lies hidden not only life, but love and joy.
When I was in college, before going on a date, especially in my freshman and sophomore years, I remember I would first read a philosophy book or play music I loved, like that by Bob Dylan. I’d play “All You Masters of War” or “Maggie’s Farm” and feel filled with energy, with something to say, with character, and a self.
I’d become a persona built from my understanding of Dylan and what he meant to me. I’d become a rebellious philosopher, a person with a meaningful life who had meaningful things to say. I’d become, or tried to become, this mask that I wore for my date. I’d become, for a moment, someone worthy of loving.
But to focus on being this persona had side effects. I was looking for my self, “looking for love in all the wrong places.” The persona was a mask I wore not only for others but for my self. It hid me from myself. I expected it to be the real me, not whoever it was who wore the mask. So the reality of the wearer of the mask was hidden. And this led to a subtle sense that something was wrong with me. I felt anxiety because I could never feel real as a mask. A mask, no matter how well crafted, never feels like a face. Who wants to kiss a mask?
Only later on did I begin to realize that it wasn’t the music that “filled me up.” It was my love of the music that filled me. When the quality of mind is loving, whatever or whomever you meet is greeted with this emotion, including yourself.
Understanding the self is such a mysterious and complex endeavor. The more you look for the self, the more difficult it can be to find it. As Dogen Zenji, a 13th Century Japanese Buddhist teacher put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be actualized by myriad things….” You might think you are this image or memory you cherish, some demands or expectations you cling to for yourself, some hope that your parents or others hold out before you. But who you are can never be summed up by an abstraction, or a label you put on your character.
You don’t automatically develop this self-understanding. It is something you must work to discover, so persist at it with some gentleness. It’s not something you learn once and forever. It is a curriculum made by nature for your whole life, a class in which we are all both students and teachers. You have to learn that to live well, and to live fully, is what life is about. When you think of life as perpetual learning, or as a mystery you are solving as you live it, then you don’t spend too much time regretting or attacking yourself. You are more mindful; you notice, learn, and change. And to be open to learning, to learn well, it is helpful to be kind, or you won’t take in what is offered to you, and what is there in front of you. You need to appreciate, even love your life, in order to fully live it.
So, when you’re feeling lost or anxious or lonely, close your eyes and notice whatever arises. Feel the fact that you can feel and know. Simply breathe in the moment and let it go. If you normally hold up a mask of being unloved, you could instead hold up an image of someone who feels loved. If you normally hold up a mask of being powerless, imagine the face of someone who feels internally powerful. It might not be easy, but you can get better at doing it. You can even ask for help if you get stuck, find a teacher or therapist who you think knows his or her own mind. And study yourself: who is it that controls the whole play, who sees whatever is seen, who provides whatever reality is experienced?
The Lehman Alternative Community School, where I used to teach, has a Community Service graduation requirement. Service was such a meaningful experience for students that, at one of our weekly all school meetings several years ago, they voted to increase the requirement from 30 to 60 hours. Giving to others, and recognizing the reality of others and the suffering they face, and working to diminish that suffering, is helpful to everyone. It is especially helpful when you feel anxious or confused about who you really are. By giving, you feel you have more to give. You feel your inner world exceeds even your understanding of it, and in that excess you find yourself.
Three different pieces for you:
The first piece is a review of an article giving a detailed history of how a manufactured crisis in education and the undermining of American literacy might have led to the Republican administration. The second is an announcement of one of my blogs being published by the Good Men Project. The third is a link to a review of my book by Dr. Dave Lehman.
*Many people have said to me “I don’t understand the avid supporters of this President and his administration and can’t talk with them.” These Republican supporters “do not listen to facts,” and seem to be condoning the undermining of their own freedom, rights, and economic position. Many theories have been brought forth to explain this behavior: the fact of a tribalization of the news, so each group only listens to its own brand of news. The racism, anti-semitism, and misogyny inherent in our culture. Blaming the leftists and liberals for not listening to these people (and daring to have a different perspective). Not speaking the language and mythology of the right wing.
However, there is another interesting viewpoint: Did a long history of politically and economically manufactured crises, both in education and throughout our culture, cause increasing insecurity and illiteracy, and decreasing critical thinking, and thus lead to the new Republican administration?
An article in Salon.com by Henry Giroux raises this issue very cogently. It is called: Manufactured illiteracy and miseducation: A long process of decline led to President Donald Trump. At first, I thought the article was another attack on public education, blaming schools and teachers for the US political crisis. Not so.
Diane Ravitch, in her book Reign of Error, and Naomi Klein, in The Shock Doctrine, first provided me with this analysis. Starting with the Reagan years, public schools have been under attack, sometimes by the Federal government itself, often by private economic interests and the politicians who supported them, certainly in many media. For example, A Nation At Risk, a report issued by the Reagan administration in 1983, claimed public education and teachers were responsible for everything from a declining college graduation rate to the loss of manufacturing jobs. It said, “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” It said graduation rates, SAT scores, etc. were decreasing—all of this was later proved untrue. Academic achievement from 1975 to 1988 was actually improving, and not only for middle class white Americans. The divide in academic achievement between rich and poor was diminishing. But the A Nation At Risk report was just the beginning of the attack.
Giroux points out how the supposed reform movement led by elements of both major political parties called for “teaching to the test,” increased “accountability” (or decreased flexibility, creativity, and freedom for teachers to meet the individual needs of students), national standardization, corporate-produced tests and lesson plans, and the weakening of unions—all leading to “a frontal assault on the imagination of students” and the attempt to create corporate “pedagogies of repression.” Even in universities, knowledge has been increasingly viewed as a commodity, where the “culture of business” has become “the business of education.” Of course, many teachers are doing their best to fight this deformation of education.
The Republican administration, says Giroux, is now engaged in a frontal attack on thoughtfulness and compassion. Everyone and everything is valued mainly as a commodity and a source of profit. At the same time, Republicans provide their oppressed supporters with the illusion that those who impose “misery and suffering on their lives” are actually their liberators. What blinds them to the reality of their situation is what binds them together. (Newspeak, “consciously to induce unconsciousness,” 1984?)
You might want to read the whole article.
*In the gym yesterday, one of the younger men, in his late twenties, turned off CNN on the tv monitors above the elliptical machines and stationary bikes. He said, “I am sick of watching politics.” I understand how the news has become too disturbing for many to watch. But for this man, the news itself was political; facts were opinions or political statements, not statements about what was real…
This blog post was originally published here five weeks ago and was just re-published, in an edited form, by the Good Men Project. Here is a link you can use to read the rest of the piece.
*Dr. Dave Lehman, the founding principal of the Lehman Alternative Community School, in Ithaca, N. Y., where I taught for 27 wonderful years, wrote a review of my book, Compassionate Critical Thinking: How Mindfulness, Creativity, Empathy, and Socratic Questioning Can Transform Teaching. The review was published in the National School Reform Faculty, Connections. Here is a link. (Thank you Dr. Dave.)
*Photo by Kathy Morris
**Thank you to Jill Swenson who sent me the Salon.com article.