Can Birds Really Save My Soul?

bird feeders

I am looking out my back window.  The headlines from another senseless tragedy still scroll across my video screen.  But my backyard is serene and peaceful.  I have a clothesline pole with three bird feeders and two suet feeders.  A minute or so ago, there were more birds than I could count.  Throughout the day, Karen and I watch the birds come and go.  Sometimes there are more than twenty birds all taking turns at our feeders.

Yesterday, we saw hummingbirds, ravens, woodpeckers, finches, doves, grackles, robins, and several other species that we could not identify.  Karen keeps a bird guide and binoculars at the ready and is always on the lookout for a new species to add to the list that we keep.  We are not true birdwatchers, but we enjoy watching the birds.  Amidst the carnage of life with its murders and wars, the birds are our escape.  They help us to remember that there is indeed sanity in the universe.

Some of the birds we see are using the water fountain for a drink after an appetizer of suet.  Several species prefer to eat the seeds that fall on the ground from the feeders.  Birds are not always neat eaters.  Eventually a few squirrels will come around.  We never chase them away and they always appear happy to rummage about on the ground for food.  We have never had a bear problem with the feeders, but we have had some raccoons that like to take the feeders down and enjoy a hardy meal.  It does not bother Karen and me.  We just reload the feeders and put them back up.  In our daily scheme of things, bird feed is very economical.  Even if it meant eating less red meat to buy more bird seed, we would gladly make the sacrifice.

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Today, with the thoughts of yet another school massacre still running through my mind, I can’t help but notice the birds and how they interact.  In all our years of watching the birds outside our kitchen window, I have never seen any bird fights.  I see many birds of different species and they all get along.  They take turns at the feeders.  They come and they go but none attack any other birds.  If there is such a thing as “bird discrimination” or “bird racism,” I have not witnessed any evidence of it.

Jesus told his disciples:

“See the birds of the sky, that they don’t sow, neither

do they reap, nor gather into barns. Your heavenly Father

feeds them.  Aren’t you of much more value than they?”  — Matthew 6:26

This translates for me as an admonition to worry more about my soul than about physical things.  I do not need to acquire, accumulate, hoard, and stow away toys, stuff, and merchandise because God will take care of these things.  She/he does it for the birds, so it will be done for me.  With less concern for worldly things, I must turn my attention to my soul.  I need to do the things that will make my soul worthy of continuing existence after I leave this third rock from the sun.

Now, those of you who know me will be pondering my above words with some confusion.  I thought John was an atheist some of you will say.  Others will say, I thought John was an agnostic.  One of my best friends who is a pastor, says that I am more Christian than many of the people in his congregation.  In truth, I disavow religion.  I claim no knowledge to prove or disprove the existence of something or someone that created the food and earth that I survive with.

I write the above words from the perspective of an individual who wonders why so many people who profess to be Christians do not take Jesus’s words to heart.  Call them hypocrites.  They are in many religions.  It frequently seems to me that religion is one large stew of hypocrites.  A pot full of different denominations that unlike the birds cannot get along.  A big stew that does not mix well with other stews.  The Christian stew does not mix well with the Islamic stew.  The Islamic stew does not mix well with the Jewish stew.  Even within the same stew we find acrimony and bigotry.  “My religion and my God are the one true and righteous paths to salvation.  I will slaughter anyone who disagrees with me” says the “true believer.”

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Before this blog becomes too negative, I need to go back to my bird watching window.  The birds will restore my equanimity and smooth out the hills and valleys of my life.

Birds are the saviors of our souls.

A Political Hypocrite Gets Ripped

Watch Beto attack the hypocrite Abbott on stage.  Whether or not Beto is doing this for political gain or sincere convictions is beside the point.  The point is Abbott and many of his Republican comrades have pushed and pushed gun rights for a gun toting minority until the rest of our citizens have no rights when it comes to walking the street without fear of being shot by one of the 350 million legal guns in the USA. Guns graciously provided by the gun manufacturers and legalized by hypocrites like Abbott who make it easy for any nutcase, maniac or person with a grudge to buy a gun without a permit, gun training and in some cases without a waiting period or a background check.  Even as they provide their remorse for the deaths of 19 young children and three adults, these hypocrites are doing all they can in Michigan and other states to block any gun controls that might make us safer.  

If Beto is an embarrassment, if he has forgotten civility, then maybe we should all put good manners aside until we have people willing to do what is right.  Let’s call out these hypocrites whether Dems or Republicans for the money and favors they receive from the gun lobbies.  These favors are paid for with the blood of our citizens.  My kudos to Beto for standing up and speaking out.  

“Federal lobbying is not the only way to influence political debates. From 1989 to 2022, gun rights groups contributed $50.5 million to federal candidates and party committees. Of that, 99% of direct contributions went to Republicans.”Gun rights groups set new lobbying spending record in 2021

I will personally vote against any politician who takes one cent from a gun rights group or a gun lobby.

For some interesting comments and perspectives on the gun violence in the USA, see the following reader comments in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/texas-school-shooting-readers-philadelphia-20220525.html

 


The Brutality of the Second Amendment

I wrote this a year ago.  It is nothing new.  It is nothing many people have not said before.  We will have a “moment of silence.” A week of debate on new gun control laws.  A week of dithering.  A week more to let the memory of Uvalde and the dead fade in our minds.  A week to remember that the gun lobbies and gun fanatics will not tolerate any restraints on guns in America.  A week to let things go back to “normal.” A few more weeks until the next episode of gun violence.

Aging Capriciously

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The Second Amendment is the lever for mass genocide in America.  Every day Americans witness another mass killing or wanton murder.  Road rage shootings.  Family violence.  Workplace shootouts.  Shootouts in churches, parking lots, malls, grocery stores, Walmart’s, and on every highway and byway in America.  Twelve-year-old children taking guns to schools to kill as many people as they can.  Husbands killing entire families in a rampage.  Employees terminated coming back to assassinate former co-workers and their ex-bosses.  And throughout every one of these berserk episodes of violence, the same old tired excuses are made:

  • We need more mental health training
  • We need more guns to protect the innocent from the maniacs
  • We need better ways to screen people before they can purchase a gun
  • Guns don’t kill people, people do
  • When guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns
  • We can never stop gun violence
  • We are so sorry for…

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Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich: Thoughts on Gun Controls

“What do we love more: our instruments of death or our future?”

People should be working now, the pope said, to ensure a similar tragedy can never happen again. In the U.S., his sentiment was shared by another senior Catholic leader: Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago.

“The Second Amendment did not come down from Sinai,” Cupich said via Twitter. “The right to bear arms will never be more important than human life. Our children have rights too. And our elected officials have a moral duty to protect them.”

The cardinal noted that research has shown the expired federal ban on certain rifles was effective in preventing the terror of mass shootings.

“As I reflect on this latest American massacre, I keep returning to the questions: Who are we as a nation if we do not act to protect our children? What do we love more: our instruments of death or our future?” Cupich asked.

There have been 27 school shootings so far this year in the U.S., according to Education Week, which tracks gun violence on K-12 school properties.

Three Essential Reads on Gun Violence in America

What We Know about Mass Shootings in the USA

How to be civil in an uncivil world

Ms Hudson’s piece is marvelous.  She is a wonderful writer with insights on civility that we all need to think about.  This copy is from a site it was posted on with shares.  The site is called Civic Renaissance.  I advise everyone to sign up for this site and enjoy some excellent writing.

On Plato and civility: reflecting on Plato during his traditionally recognized birthday month, and civility for International Civility Month + win a YEAR of WONDRIUM!

Gracious reader,

May is the month that scholars traditionally deem to be the birthday of Plato. Also, certain authorities have declared that May is International Civility Awareness Month.

The School of Athens, a fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, painted between 1509 and 1511.

I’ve been thinking of both of these topics of late.

Plato and civility are never far from my mind, but I recently emerged from an experience that caused me to lean and reflect on them all the more.

(For those new to the Civic Renaissance community, my upcoming book on civility will be published by St. Martin’s press in May 2023.)

A recent, tumultuous business transaction prompted me to consider how civility applies to the real world—a and to ask a question that you may have considered, too.

How can we be civil in an uncivil world?

Is it possible for people who are committed to the principles of decency, courteousness, and treating others with basic respect to succeed and thrive when others do not abide by these principles?

Or is it a hopeless cause?

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The story

In a recent business situation, the opposite party lacked all manner of basic decency.

Their behavior did not quite reach the level of illegal — although it did come perilously close—they were certainly unethical. More than anything, however, they were just terribly unprofessional and unpleasant to work with.

But their conduct reminded me of the importance of basic civility that many of us take for granted. It is only when norms of courtesy and respect are broken that we fully appreciate their importance to helping us co exist with others in society.

It’s an important truth: we note and appreciate civility most in its absence.

I define civility as the basic respect we are owed by virtue of our shared dignity and equal moral worth as human beings. We owe this to others regardless of who they are, what they look like, where they are from, whether or not we like them, and whether or not they can do anything for us.

I live and breathe civility and have studied social norms across history and culture— including countless instances of when they have been broken. I was still taken aback by how unpleasant the entire interaction was because of the absence of civility and mutual respect.

From the outset the opposite party was more than rude. They dispensed of basic courtesies from the get go. They didn’t even attempt to appear generous, amicable, or conscientious.

They were single-minded in their aim: all things personal aside, they wanted to get the absolute best deal possible at any cost.

Business is business, I’m sure they were thinking.

They forgot that there was a person on the other end of the transaction.

This resulted in me feeling used, squeezed, bullied, nickeled and dimed throughout negotiations.

It brought out the worst in me.

Instead of making me want to help them or instead of making me want to reach an agreement of mutual benefit, their conduct inflamed my baser nature, tempting me to go “scorched-earth,” ensuring they didn’t get what they wanted even if it hurt me, too.

I was frustrated by the fact that we were operating on two different moral and ethical levels.

I tried to stay high when they went low, yet every grating exchange with them made me want to sink to their level, where all bets and codes of decency were off.

In the end, rather miraculously, we came to an agreement.

I managed to prevent my baser nature from winning out. I was able to rise above the pettiness and the vindictiveness that I wanted to respond with— a facet of the human personality that we all share when we feel we are under threat.

But it wasn’t an experience I particularly enjoyed.

I was left with feelings of frustration and exhaustion. I felt like I had been disrespected and degraded.

I also felt disappointed in myself.

Most of us have probably had thoughts like this during and after interactions with people who are willing to do whatever it takes to get the upper hand:

Should I have been tougher?

Was my commitment to civility in the face of incivility a handicap?

Did my attempt to uphold my values allow me to be taken advantage of?

This experience has caused me to consider the practical importance of civility in life.

Won’t the person who is willing to go low—one who is willing to throw off the shackles of decency and civility—always win out?

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How to be good in bad world

“How to be civil in an uncivil world” is a variation of an important question that people have been considering for a long, long time: how can a good person succeed in a world of evil?

Renaissance thinker and author of The PrinceNiccolo Machiavelli, who we have explored in a past CR issue, observed that, in history those who tend to gain and maintain power appear to have morals publicly, but privately dispense with their values the moment they get in the way.

“Politics have no relation to morals,” wrote Machiavelli.

Also in The Prince: “Thus it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, sincere, religious, and also to be so; but you must have the mind so disposed that when it is needful to be otherwise you may be able to change to the opposite qualities.”

In other words, Machiavelli argues that one who wishes to be powerful must be willing to dispense with the moral bounds of civility if the need arises.

While the civil person is contained by their commitment to civility, the uncivil person can do whatever is necessary to win.

Socrates—the Greek philosopher Plato’s teacher, and the protagonist in his dialogues—took a different view. He would take issue with how Machiavelli defines “winning.”

Socrates said that justice is to the soul what health is to the body. If a person gets the better end of a business deal, wins an argument, or comes out on top of a political battle, but does so by cutting corners and being dishonest, he hasn’t really “won” anything.

His soul is unhealthy and sick.

In Plato’s Republic, Socrates attacks the poet Homer, the educator of Greece, because he doesn’t like the values that Homer’s poems promote.

Achilles, the protagonist of The Iliad, embodies the ethics of revenge, slaughter, and vainglory.

Odysseus, the protagonist of The Odyssey, embodies the ethic of wiliness and deceit in order to come out on top of any situation.

Socrates purposes a new ethic: one that loves wisdom.

He wants to trade the ethic of revenge, “might makes right,” and vindictiveness with a shared love and pursuit of goodness, beauty, and truth.

Socrates believes that anyone who acts with injustice does so out of ignorance—after all, who would willingly make themselves sick? Who would knowingly choose sickness of the soul?

“Living well and living rightly are the same thing,” Socrates said in The Crito.

Socrates argues that a just person has an excellent and healthy soul, and the function of a just soul and person is to seek the justice and soulish health of others, too.

Socrates noted that it is not then the function of the just man to harm either friend or anyone else. Seeking to harm is an act of injustice, and therefore harms the harmer. The function of the just person is to seek the good of others, friends and enemies alike.

In a related sentiment, Abraham Lincoln once said, “Do I not defeat my enemy when I make him my friend?”

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Final thoughts: on virtuous and vicious cycles, and on unbundling people and situations

There are three thoughts I’d like to leave with you.

First, we should not underestimate the power we each have to promote trust and civility in our world.

Second, learning to “unbundle” people and situations can help us mitigate the vicious cycles of incivility that are so detrimental to a free and flourishing society.

Third, we must remember when we encounter incivility in our modern world — and we invariably will, as the problem of incivility is endemic to human nature and human social life — we have a choice about how to respond.

Norms of decency and courtesy comprise an unwritten social contract between us and our fellow citizens. We take this contract for granted, which is why when this bond is broken, we are surprised, offended, and dismayed. When people don’t uphold their end of the social contract, we lose a little bit of faith and trust in society and others.

When that trust in others and society is corroded by the thoughtlessness and incivility of others, often we are less likely to act in good faith and civility in our future interactions. Our less-than-civil response to others may in turn cause them to be unkind to others with which they engage.

And so the vicious cycle continues.

My recent experience with bad actors made me appreciate those today who claim that “all bets are off” when it comes to decency in public life. We often hear things like, “The other side has gone to a whole new low. How can I be expected to stay civil?”

We also see evidence of the “vicious cycle” all around us in politics today. When one figure breaks norms and bounds of decency everyone else feels like they have to so as to keep up.

We contribute to this trust-corroding ripple effect when we are uncivil. Others do, too, with their incivility. The incivility of others often tempts us to relinquish the shackles of decency in order to “win.”

But we must resist—for our own sake, for others, and for society.

We cannot control the conduct of others.

We can only control ourselves.

We must also learn to mentally unbundle people and situations. This means not assuming things about their character because of one deed, word, or interaction you had with them. We must learn to unbundle situations. This means not allowing one bad interaction or instance to corrode your trust in society in general.

This is much easier in theory than in practice. This is much easier said than done. but again, in the end we cannot control others. We can only control ourselves.

Socrates and Machiavelli remind us of why we are civil in the first place. The reason to be civil isn’t instrumental. It isn’t just a tool of success. As we’ve seen, sometimes it can be an impediment to success. Civility is instead a disposition, an outgrowth of seeing people as they really are: as beings with irreducible moral worth and deserving of respect. This is worthy for it’s own sake, even if it means we don’t gain the upper hand of every business dealing.

Being uncivil is poison to the soul. When we treat people as means to our ends, it hurts and degrades them, but also us, too.

Machiavelli is famous for the amoral aphorism: “The ends justifies the means.”

Socrates would respond, “But what is your end?”

No earthly battle is worth compromising your soul for.

Here are some questions to consider:

  1. Can you empathize with my experience? Have you had an experience where it felt like decency was not a match for indecency? Write to me with your story and how you dealt with it at ah@alexandraohudson.com
  2. Who do you find more persuasive: Machiavelli or Socrates? Do you think we can be civil in an uncivil world? Or will incivility always win out?

Thank you Ms. Hudson for a great piece of writing and morality.  

Try, Try and Try Again

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Once upon a time I watched a series of movies called Star Wars.  One of the characters in these movies was an enigmatic Zen spouting creature whose name was Yoda. Yoda was the oldest and wisest Jedi Master. Yoda took Luke Skywalker as an acolyte to teach him the ways of the Jedi.  One of Yoda’s favorite sayings was “There is no try.  There is only do or do not.”  I loved this thought and I used it far too many times with my spouse and friends.  Most of the times, they would just roll their eyes at me or look with some angst while I tried to explain the import of Yoda’s thought.  Whether they got it or not, I will never know.

It was clear to me that when you attempt something, you either do it or you do not do it.  For instance, if I say, “I am going to “Try” to do a cartwheel.”  Either I do the cartwheel, or I do not do the cartwheel.  As Yoda said, “there is no try.”  But lately, I have had to rethink this thought.  Maybe, I was too quick to embrace Yoda’s theory.  Perhaps I am lucky to still have any friends?  People the world over still respond with the phrase “Okay, I will give it a try.”  Am I right or is the world wrong?

I think there may be something missing with Yoda’s theory.  There is a try but try is not succeeding.  Yoda is right but only to a point.  There is only you succeed, or you do not succeed.  You do or you do not.  However, without try there is no succeeding.  Without try, there is no do.  The famous French revolutionary Danton (1792) said, “ Dare, Dare Again, Always Dare.”  What if we had the same attitude about try?

I recently saw the following quote by the great actress Lauren Bacall.  She stated that this was the philosophy of her late husband.  He was the renowned actor Humphrey Bogart.

Humphrey_Bogart_1940_crop“To be good, was more important than to be rich.  To be kind was more important than owning a house or a car.  To respect one’s work and to do it well , to risk something in life, was more important than being a star.  To never sell your soul — to have self-esteem— to be true— was most important of all.”

Great thoughts.  Wonderful ideas.  Ideas well worth living up to.  However, I am quite sure from what I have read of Mr. Bogart that he fell well short of his lofty aspirations.  Cameron Shipp wrote the following in the 1952 Saturday Evening Post about Bogart.

“Humphrey DeForest Bogart, who will be 53 years old come Christmas morning and doesn’t care who knows it, is a whisky-drinking actor who has been hooting at Hollywood and making fun of its pretensions for 22 years. Mr. Bogart’s derision, often acted out with alcoholic capers in night clubs followed by funny quotes in the public prints, is mainly aimed at the popular gospel that under their grease paint, glamorous or menacing, screen players are really fine, home-loving, dish-washing citizens like you and me. In his one bad-man campaign to correct this impression, Bogart has toiled to reestablish the more interesting belief that actors are not necessarily wholesome,”

The more I could tell you about Humphrey, the less you would want him for a role model.  But you would be making a mistake.  This is a common mistake.  All too often made.  We dismiss the message because of the man.  It is said that many kings would kill the messenger because they did not like the message.  But you can kill the message because you do not like the messenger.  In fact, the latter is more often done these days than the former.  And this is where the role of TRY becomes important.  Let me explain.

I have written more than 600 blogs.  In many of my blogs, I offer my advice and wisdom on how to lead a good life.  I counsel patience, compassion, and kindness.  I counsel tolerance, courage, and gratitude.  I counsel learning, discipline, and forgiveness.  I often look back on blogs that I wrote many years ago and wonder “who wrote that?”  I seem far wiser in my letters than I do in my actual life.  I ask myself “why don’t I follow my own advice better?”  It seems to me that over the years, in fact, even over the weeks and days, there is hardly a time when I do not violate my own wisdom and guidance.

PrintTry.  Yes, I try to lead a good life.  I want to live up to my own advice.  I want to be one of the people that I am telling the world we need more of.  I want to live a life consistent with my wisdom.  A life where my behavior mirrors my thoughts and ideas.  But then I fail.  I fall flat on my face.  I try and do not succeed.  I lose my patience.  I am not kind.  I suffer from a lack of gratitude.  I won’t forgive my neighbor.  If it is either do or do not, all too often I DO NOT.  I think like a Yoda, but my actions often lead me to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and despair.

But try, the word disparaged by Yoda comes back into my mind.  Don’t give up.  Tomorrow is a new day.  Stop feeling sorry for yourself.  Try, try, and try again.

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I think I have a lot in common with Humphrey Bogart.  I have lofty goals and ambitions.  I want to save the world.  I want to eliminate greed, poverty, crime, bigotry, and injustice.  I want to live a life of integrity and be true to myself.  But all too often I fail to live up to Gandhi’s admonition, “to be the change I want to see.”  I can’t even eliminate injustice or selfishness in my own life, never mind the rest of the world.  Then I tell myself, “try again.”  Try again and try again.  Maybe each time I try, I will get a little bit closer to success.

One day maybe, I will be able to tell Yoda that I did not try because I really did it.  Until then I will just keep on trying.

What If?

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  • What if I die tomorrow?
  • What if I lose all my money?
  • What if I never find true love?
  • What if I lose my health?
  • What if there is no god?
  • What if there is no meaning to life?
  • What if my writing really sucks?
  • What if my partner dies before I do?
  • What if I am a coward?
  • What if the sun does not come up tomorrow?

So many things to worry about and so little time to do it.  Just for fun I typed in Google “What if,”  I used the parentheses to ensure that it would look up the question as a whole rather than just what or if.  It returned 3,190,000,000 hits.  For perspective, I then typed in “I am sorry.”  This returned 40,000,000 hits.  Admittedly, these are very spurious results to draw any conclusions from, but I will anyway.  I conclude that more people are worried than they are sorry.  Either that or they spend more time worrying than they do sorrowing.  What do you think?

Is ”What if” the meanest phrase ever written?  We seem to think in the negative when we use these two words.  Choose any of the questions from the list above and see how you would answer them.  I would guess most of your answers will suggest some unhappiness, gloom, sadness, or even a loss of desire for life.  We can see “end of the world” scenarios in most of these “what ifs.”

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But what if the expectations and goals that are reflected in our responses were stripped out of our thoughts?  Would we be happier or more depressed?  Let me give you an example.  Some people would say that if there is no meaning to life, it is not worth living.  What would be the point of getting up each day, going to work, coming home, eating, making love, and going to bed?  On the other hand, if we rid ourselves of the expectation or need to have meaning in our lives, perhaps this “what if” would not bother us at all.  We would not care one iota if there was or was not any meaning.  The same could be said for all the questions I started this blog off with.  It is our expectations that give us a negative twist for each of these issues.

You might argue that I selected only issues that have a potentially negative response.  For instance, the sun not coming up is unlikely to have a positive outcome under any circumstances.  Then let us look at some positive “what ifs?”  Here are a few:

  • What if I won the lottery?
  • What if I found my true love?
  • What if my life does have meaning and purpose?

6f2b74dab966ae86c4beae966dded6eaBefore you go off on a binge of happiness and celebrations, think for a minute what a positive answer to these questions might mean.  There are still expectations and assumptions associated with any answer to the above questions.  You assume that if you won the lottery, that you would not have to worry about paying bills, buying things you want etc.  You assume that if you found true love, it would last forever and forever.  You assume that finding meaning and purpose would bring you happiness.  To all of these possibilities, I say maybe.  You still have many choices and outcomes to each of these scenarios.  These choices can leave us just as captive to our desires and wants as any of our responses to the “negative” “what ifs.”

Why is this so?  Are there any positive outcomes possible for us?  Why is easy to answer.  It is because nothing is permanent.  Nothing is guaranteed.  Nothing you or I can do will ensure that life will work out just as we wanted it to or just as we planned it to.  Whether we attach ourselves to happiness or misery, we are still attached.  Zen Buddhism gives us the concept of “non-attachment.”  But non-attachment is easier said than done.

“Every day as I wave to my children when I drop them off at school or let one of them have a new experience—like crossing the street without holding my hand—I experience the struggle between love and non-attachment.  It is hard to bear—the extreme love of one’s child and the thought that ultimately the child belongs to the world.  There is this horrible design flaw—children are supposed to grow up and away from you; and one of you will die first.”Sarah Ruhl, “The Oldest Boy: A Play in Three Ceremonies

Madison Avenue is the enemy of “non-attachment.”  The people who market for corporations want you to believe that unless you are attached to something, you will live a miserable life.  They would prefer that you were attached to things or services that money can buy.  The idea is for you to believe that you are no good unless you own things.  The bigger the things that you own or the more expensive the things that you own, the happier you will be.  Success is the pathway to happiness because it will allow you to buy and own more expensive things than your neighbors.

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However, it is not only things that you can buy that are attachments.  There are many intangibles that you can become attached to.  Some of these are for sale and some not.  Many people are attached to status and prestige.  For enough money you can buy prestigious memberships in exclusive country clubs, political positions by spending enormous amounts on advertising or expensive cruises.  Status is an intangible, but it can be bought.  Status in society circles can be achieved by spending and donating money to the right causes.  Have you ever gone to a concert and noticed how the list of donors are ranked on the concert handout. Platinum, gold, silver, bronze, and honorable mention is one scheme that I have seen.  There are other rankings, but they all point to the prestige and status that comes from being able to donate more money than anyone else.

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I have a good friend who always told me that “We need to let go of things.”  Ironically, years later and I would place him pretty low in my list of people who can let go of things.  He knew in his head that attachment and ego were barriers to fulfillment.  But knowing, feeling, and doing are as much alike as a snowstorm, tornado, and earthquake.  Controlling one does not necessarily mean that you can control the others.  There are men and women who are intellectual geniuses but incompetent when it comes to managing their emotions or doing something that they know should be done.

Stepping-into-riverMy conclusion is that “What ifs” are intellectually amusing as a past-time but as for practical value they are close to useless.  Seldom will you ever get to apply a solution to a “What if.”  The possibility of something in real life happening exactly like it did the first time is less than the chance of finding identical snowflakes or fingerprints.  Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher born in 544 B.C. said, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”   Those who forget the past may be condemned to repeat it, but the past will never be the same again.  Living requires adaptability and resilience.

Non-attachment is the best way to keep an open mind as to the possibilities that we will face each day as the sun comes up yet once again.

“To use the more traditional term “non-attachment,” I like to think of non-attachment as meaning “not attaching stuff to your sense of self.”  It doesn’t mean not investing yourself in things and doesn’t mean you don’t do everything in your power to bring about the outcome you hope for.  It just means not getting too caught up in your stories.” — “What Zen “Acceptance” and “Non-Attachment” Really Are” by  Domyo, May 4, 2017, Dharma Talks

For the Love of Smelt!

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There are many travesties in the world.  Methinks one of the greatest is the lack of appreciation for the lowly smelt.  Some of you probably don’t even know what a smelt is.  Up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin some of us do have an appreciation for its wonderful flavor and texture.  Smelt may not rank with walleye or lobster, but it is infinitely better than lutefisk or boiled cod, which for someone reason are more admired by Norwegians and Swedes.

A smelt is proof that to paraphrase Ben Franklin, “God loved man and wanted him to be happy.”  It is a small, tiny fish about 4-6 inches long.  You catch it in April or May when they are spawning  along the Great Lakes or the Atlantic seashore.  There are six steps to eating smelt.  I will describe the process in each step.

Smelt Dip

Andrew Long holds up a net full of fish during a smelt dip along the Cowlitz River in Castle Rock on Tuesday.

  1. Finding Smelt

You have three options here.  1. Buy a wader and a net and catch your own.  2. Find a smelt fry at a rural fire department, VFW Post or police station and be served smelt.  These venues often catch their own smelt and use the event as a fundraiser.  It will probably not be fresh at a smelt fry and now a days they seem to be smaller and smaller at these shindigs. 3. Try a dozen different grocery stores and if you are lucky you might find a one-pound bag of frozen or if you are really lucky fresh smelts for about four dollars a pound.  The price shows you how unappreciated they are.

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  1. Preparing Smelt

If you go to a smelt fry, you can skip this step and the rest of the steps following.  However, if you catch or buy smelt there are different ways of preparing and cooking.  To prepare fresh caught smelt, simply gut them and take the heads off.  No need to filet them as the bones are so small that after frying them, you can eat bones and all.  Some people just fry the fish, head, guts, and all.  If you buy them in a bag frozen they will already be prepared.

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  1. Cooking Smelt

The preferred method is to get some flour and oil.  Lightly bread your smelts and deep fry them in the oil.  Roll them in paper towers to absorb some of the grease.  Be careful here as grease adds flavor.  If you are wanting some variety, the Internet is full of smelt recipes where you can pretend that you are a French or Italian chef and cook them with some exotic recipe.  True smelt people look down upon these pretentious and gastronomical quirks.

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  1. Eating Smelt

I love catsup on my fried smelt.  Sometimes I will use tartar sauce.  It is important to eat smelt in modest size portions.  Most smelt frys will advertise “All you can eat or until gone.”  Eating medium size portions will enable you to go back for seconds and thirds without seeming like a glutton.  Your spouse may say that you smell like a smelt if you go back for fourths but sometimes even thirds will leave you reeking of smelt.

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  1. Cleaning Up After Eating

Good reason to go to a smelt fry.  No cleaning up after eating.  Otherwise, you will need to clean some greasy frying pans and the dishes you ate on.  If you eat at home, you can always take a nap after three servings of smelt and hope someone else will take care of the dishes.

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  1. Finding More Smelt

You will be hard pressed to find a smelt fry after the middle of May in either Minnesota or Wisconsin.  Smelt frys are usually poorly advertised.  You need to scan your local papers for where they will be holding them.  I came back to Wisconsin in early April this year and had already missed two local smelt frys.  I managed to find three more that occurred after I was home.  I had to check high and low for these events.

I also visited all the local grocery stores to see if anyone had smelt.  After going to St. Croix Falls, Luck, Siren, and Frederic grocery stores, I found a single bag at a grocery store in St. Croix Falls.  I noticed it had been opened and I gutlessly decided not to buy it.  It was a close decision because I was getting close to a withdrawal thinking about not having any more smelt until next May.

Well, That’s All Folks!

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Can You Really See the World from Another Person’s Point of View?

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One of the most often quoted and pro-offered bits of advice is “walk a mile in their shoes.”  Another version of this wisdom is to try and see it from their “point of view.”  Jesus said “ “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” — Luke 6: 37-42

I submit that all of these bits of wisdom are more than admirable; they are essential to a life of wisdom and justice.  The problem is that all of them are impossible to follow.  You can’t walk a mile in another person’s shoes because their shoes won’t fit you.  You can’t see it from their point of view because you are not standing where they are.  You will always suffer from a plank in your own eye since this is nothing more than cognitive bias which we all suffer from.

Ergo, how do I see the world from another person’s point of view?  How do I reconcile the fact that there are often many other points of view?  Most of our lives we will live in an ocean of viewpoints.  They are like waves washing up on the shore.  One after another they roll in, break on the beach, and wash back into the ocean.  I couldn’t stop the waves from coming in if I wanted to and I could not stop for a second to deal with all the viewpoints that I am constantly bombarded with.

2c087c4a21acb3d800bbee0ce8d4df62The internet has made the problem even worse.  We are deluged with a tsunami of viewpoints every day.  From right, left, central, religious, agnostic, scientific, spiritual, communal, familial and hundreds of other perspectives our viewpoints of the world are bombarded by messages that challenge our thinking and our very reason for being.  Whose shoes should I stand in?  Whose perspective should I try to take?

Another problem with taking someone’s viewpoint is even more basic and problematic.  What if I don’t like or can not even imagine myself in their shoes?  I don’t sympathize much with pedophiles, racists, sexists, homophobes, and white supremacists.  How do I walk a mile in their shoes?  I would have to take a few years of character acting classes to even begin to imagine what a member of the KKK feels and thinks when he/she burns a cross on someone’s front yard.

Finally, the world may not like you for trying to understand the perspectives of the underdogs or those less fortunate in life.  You may lose friends and family for challenging viewpoints which are hardened by narrowmindedness and prejudice.  I doubt few people want to hear about the perspectives of a rapist or pedophile.  Taking their viewpoint will not help you to win friends and influence people.

Those of us who are unwilling to try to see things from another’s point of view will find ourselves in a deep pit of myopia.  The effects of not being able to comprehend things from the points of view of others is narrow mindedness, prejudice, and bias.  Solutions to problems become more difficult as we narrow our perspectives.  If we cannot see the world from the viewpoint of a pedophile (regardless of how abominable they may be), how can we ever understand their problems enough to create solutions that will eliminate this scourge from the earth.

What are some ways that we can actually walk a mile or maybe even just a ½ mile in the shoes of someone else?  Here are some recommendations.

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Experience It First Hand

This might fall in the category which I dismissed above to “walk a mile etc.”  This idea will work for some things.  You can experience what a canoeist experiences by going for a canoe ride.  You can experience what some writers feel by trying to write a short story.  However, if you are White, it will be impossible to feel what a Black person does when he/she is treated badly because of their color.  This is true for many other demographics besides race including age, gender, education level and intellectual capabilities.

You will not be able to experience what many people experience either because it is impossible to walk in their shoes or it might even be illegal.  For instance, you might not be able to experience the thrill or fear that a bank robber does when she/he walks in a bank to rob it.  You will also never be able to experience what somewhat with a mental disability feels as they navigate the world.  Thus, while some say that “experience is the best teacher” when it comes to understanding the perspectives of others, experience may not always be the best choice.

However, there are a great many things that we can experience first-hand if we are only willing to try them.  I know too many people who will not try things.  I am sure we all know people who will not do things even though they have never tried them before.  They might have tried them once and decided on the basis of one try that henceforth and forevermore they would never do it again.  It takes a certain amount of gumption, open-mindedness, and just plain courage to experience new things.  If you are glued to your couch watching the TV or if you are afraid to risk and dare you will find the opportunity of experience a closed door.

A few of the “I won’t try it” items that I hear and that irritate me include:

  • I don’t eat fish
  • I don’t like to travel
  • I don’t like Mexican food
  • I don’t like to read
  • I don’t like music or concerts

You can add some items that annoy you to hear in my comments section.

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Experience It Second Hand

Years ago, I wanted to try to understand sexism, racism, and prejudice.  I started out by reading about these subjects from the point of view of authors like James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Susan Brownmiller, Betty Freidan, Anne Frank, Hannah Arendt,  Ronald Takaki, Vine Deloria Jr., and many more.  I learned a great deal from the stories and experiences told by the people who experience discrimination first hand.

As I got older, I found more and more opportunities to attend lectures and discussions where I heard first hand people like Stokely Carmichael, Angela Davis, H. Rap Brown, Jesse Jackson, Audre Lorde, Rosa Parks, and Sarah Lew Miller.  I attended anti-racism seminars sponsored by several different groups. I have watched many documentaries dealing with prejudice and bigotry.

I went to important cultural sites that included Indian museums in Oklahoma, the Holocaust Museum in Israel, the Civil Rights Museum in Birmingham, Jewish Cemeteries in Paris with memorials to each concentration camp and Dachau outside Munich.

My first-hand experiences with people of color grew through my friendships.  I went to places that many White people would have put off limits in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, and New York.

Along the way to trying to understand the experiences of other people, I tried to help whenever possible fighting racism or bigotry.  I wrote a grievance for some fellow Black soldiers when I was in the service.  I supported organizations that fought racism like the Southern Poverty Law Center.  I conducted some seminars with a friend dealing with Gay rights.  I spoke out whenever I had the opportunity against racism and sexism.  My writings deal with many of these issues.

I note the above not to impress you.  If anything, I am unimpressed by my progress.  Somewhat like they say about Alcoholics, “Once an Alcoholic, always an Alcoholic.”  The best you can do is to become a recovering Alcoholic.  Growing up a White Christian male in a predominately White Christian Patriarchal society, it is very hard not to be a sexist racist anti-Semite.

When I was a kid, I was told it was a mortal sin to walk into a Jewish Synagogue.  That was because “Jews Killed Christ.”   There were no Black people in my neighborhood and a woman’s role was in the kitchen.  After our Italian family get togethers on Sunday and holidays, the men would all retire to the living room to smoke and watch sports while the women retired to the kitchen to clean the dishes that they had prepared dinner on.  Italian men loved boxing and would always root for the White boxer over the Black boxer. No amount of argument would ever convince my Italian relatives that Rocky Marciano was not the greatest boxer of all time.   How could he not be?  He was White and an Italian.  Case closed.

BedtimeNoozOne year at a Martin Luther King memorial service on the University of Minnesota campus at Northrup Auditorium, the keynote speaker was Dave Moore, a well-known news and television personality.  Karen and I attended many of the MLK day celebrations over the years.  I had never seen a White keynote speaker.  I was somewhat surprised and wondered what he could say about Martin Luther King or any other issue dealing with racism.  It turned out to be quite an interesting talk.

Dave Moore, spoke on growing up in an all-White Minneapolis neighborhood.  He noted that because there were no Black people in his childhood, he assumed when he was older that he could not be a racist.  He admitted how wrong he found this assumption to be.  He told the audience how many racist attitudes he found that he grew up with from simply assimilating the prejudices of his White culture.  It was a very moving talk coming from a man that was so admired by many people.  He essentially admitted that he grew up racist without ever knowing a single Black person.

Later in my life, I had a more diverse group of friends.  Many of my White friends would say that because they had a Black, Brown, Yellow, Red, or Gay friend that they were not prejudiced.  I have found that most colored friends of White people tend to be the “good” guys as opposed to their non-friends who are usually “They and Them people.”

1006OPEDnegley-superJumboNow we get back to the difficult if not impossible people to understand.  How do we put ourselves in the shoes of a rapist or pedophile?  There are many that would think I am crazy for asking this question.  I believe we will never eliminate these problems if we do not understand the causes.  We cannot cure the problem simply by locking up all the pedophiles and rapists in the world.  I do not believe that these are inherited characteristics.  There have been times and places in the world where practices bordering on rape and pedophilia have actually been legal and condoned.

Marital rape is criminalized in many countries. Throughout history until the 1970s, most states granted a husband the right to have sex with his wife whenever he so desired, as part of the marriage contract.”Wikipedia

Although there is substantial evidence in the historical and anthropological record of the sexual use of children by adults, surprisingly little is known about the etiology of pedophilia or its relation to other forms of sexual aggression.”  —

Thankfully, attitudes have changed about many behaviors and while cannibalism may still be a practice in some obscure parts of the world, it has largely been eradicated.  Unfortunately, rape and pedophilia although largely recognized as crimes  throughout most of the world have not seen a similar level of diminishment.

But if we cannot and would not walk a mile in the shoes of a rapist or pedophile, it still behooves us to understand their motivations.  What are the kicks they get out of these anti-social behaviors?  Why do they do it?  What can we do besides lock them up to effect permanent cures?

The second-best way (through second-hand experiences) would no doubt help us answer some of these questions.  The problem is that no one wants to read about what a rapist or pedophile thinks.  I remember years ago reading “Soul on Ice” by Eldridge Cleaver and “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”

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In Soledad state prison, I fell in with a group of young blacks who, like myself, were in vociferous rebellion against what we perceived as a continuation of slavery on a higher plane. We cursed everything American—including baseball and hot dogs. All respect we may have had for politicians, preachers, lawyers, governors, Presidents, congressmen was utterly destroyed as we watched them temporizing and compromising over right and wrong, over legality and illegality, over constitutionality and unconstitutionality. We knew that in the end what they were clashing over was us, what to do with the blacks, and whether or not to start treating us as human beings. I despised all of them.” — Eldridge Cleaver, “Soul on Ice

Both of these books gave me some insights into the prison experiences of a Black man.  Both Malcolm X and Cleaver were once engaged in criminal and violent behavior and both men turned their lives around.  Their stories are profound and moving.  They also give the world some insights into the pros and cons of a prison experience.

Perhaps more insights provided by rapists and pedophiles might help us to better understand how to deal with these behaviors.  I cannot say with any certainty that it would help.  The one thing that I am certain of is that nothing we have done in the past seems to be making a difference today.  The statistics for child sexual abuse are horrifying.

  • There are more than 42 million survivors of sexual abuse in America. (National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse)
  • 1 in 3 girls are sexually abused before the age of 18. (The Advocacy Center)
  • 1 in 5 boys are sexually abused before the age of 18. (The Advocacy Center)
  • 1 in 5 children are solicited sexually while on the Internet before the age of 18. (National Children’s Alliance: Nationwide Child Abuse Statistics)

The statistics for rape and sexual violence in the USA are equally horrifying.

  • In 2019, over 652,676 women were raped.
  • Over 40% of women in the US have encountered sexual violence.
  • Nearly 80% of female sexual assault victims experience their first assault before the age of 25.
  • Around 20% of American males have been the victim of sexual violence.
  • Rape Statistics show that less than 20% of rapes are reported.
  • Women and men with disabilities face twice the risk of sexual assault than able-bodied individuals.
  • Sexual violence incidents, preceded by stalking, increased by 1.9% in 2019.

These statistics are from “32 Shocking Sexual Assault Statistics for 2022” by Jennifer Kuadli at Legaljobs.

In Conclusion:

  • First-hand experience can help us understand the minds and hearts of others, but we are sometimes limited in the experiences that we can actually undertake.
  • Second-hand experiences have pros and cons. Not all Blacks, Asians, Latinos, Indians, women, or any other group that you can think of will have the same experiences.  No one on this earth can speak for all people for all time. 
  • We need to try and try and try again. If the bell really does toll for all people, then we have a responsibility to understand what makes other people happy and what makes them feel miserable. 
  • We share this planet with other human beings and other species. The more we understand others, the more we can make the world a beautiful peaceful and happy place to live.

 

Two Short Pieces to Share

These are two short pieces I wrote to share with my writing class this week. I wanted to bring something that would not be too long. We each have about ten minutes in class to share a piece of writing, short story or poetry with the other students. My first piece was just something fun. At least for me it was fun.

The Spy Who Talked by John Persico

Interrogator:  “Let’s get this over with quickly.  We know you are going to talk so why make it difficult for yourself.” 

Spy:  “Nothing you can do will ever make me talk, so do your best.”

Interrogator:  “We have ways of making anyone talk, it is only a matter of time before you do.”

Spy:  “Could you give me an example?  What are some of the things that you might do that you think would make me talk?”

Interrogator:  “We could do Chinese Water Torture on you.”

Spy:  “That’s been tried before without any luck.”

Interrogator:  “We have a new battery and could give you some electric shocks.”

Spy:  “I find electro shock treatments to be rather therapeutic.”

Interrogator:  We could smack your feet until you talk.”

Spy:  “I love having my feet massaged.  Could you do my back as well.”

Interrogator:  “Ok, I am getting tired of this repartee, you asked for it.”

Spy:  “Asked for what?”

Interrogator:  “You want us to play hard ball!”

Spy:  “Can you give me an example?”

Interrogator:  “Well for starters, we can cut off your dick and feed it to our pet piranha.”

Spy:  “By dick, do you mean my cock and balls or just my cock?”

Interrogator:  “We usually start with the cock and work down to the balls.”

Spy:  “What if I tell you that I don’t have a cock and balls?  I am actually a woman disguised as a man.”

Interrogator:  “This is why we hate women spies.”  You make things so difficult for us.”

Spy:  “Is that all you’ve got?”

Interrogator:  “Let me check with our torture consultant and see what we have for women spies.  It will only take a few minutes.”

A Few Minutes Later:

Interrogator:  “We don’t seem to have a lot of good torture ideas for women, but we have come up with one that we think will do the job.”

Spy:  “I’m ready.  Do your worst.”

Interrogator:  “We are going to force you to watch 100 hours of old ‘Father Knows Best’ reruns.”

Spy:  “Please no, anything but that.  I will talk!  I will tell you all I know.  The whole truth and nothing but the truth.  So, help me God.

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Mission Accomplished by John Persico

You don’t know what you would do,

But I know what I did.

Like the good soldier I was,

I followed the orders that I was given.

245 Women, children, and old men,

All lined up in a row.

So peaceful now,

No more crying or screaming to hear.

Red people, yellow people, brown people, black people,

A rainbow of corpses all pressed to the ground.

“Sergeant, get the men back into formation,

time to move on to our next objective.”

“Yes sir, lieutenant,” I say,

As we march proudly away.

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