Sunday, December 16, 2012

What I Was and Who I Am Now

I was born in 1946, right after the end of WWII.  I am from Baltimore, at that time a major port and manufacturing center.  I grew up in the city and in the environs, the Baltimore countryside.  There was no Beltway, no skyscrapers, no Inner Harbor attracting tourists.  The major tourist attraction was Fort McHenry, featured in the War of 1812, and made famous by Francis Scott Key, a Marylander, when he penned the Star Spangled Banner (our national anthem based on an English pub melody).  I was as innocent and sheltered a child as we can even imagine.

In my early life, I played “war” and “hide and seek”, hopscotch, baseball and dressed in costumes my mother made us for Halloween.  Christmas was a magical, mysterious time such that Christmas Eve was overwhelmingly exciting.  My dad worked in the commercial real estate business, my mom was a homemaker.  I had girlfriends, beginning at the age of three.  I was terrified of school, teachers and being away from my safe haven of home.  I learned to ride my bike without even having training wheels, and a dad with a huge amount of patience.  I watched Hopalong Cassidy, the Lone Ranger, Howdy Doody, and Winky Dink.  I loved my dad’s music, like Louie Armstrong and Bennie Goodman, Nat “King” Cole, and Patti Page.  I had lots of friends, kids in the neighborhood, and a younger brother.  I had a sand box and swing set, both of which my clever, industrious father, build from scratch.  It was a good time for me, and I would eventually learn to love school, become a student athlete, and learn to dance, sing in the choir at church and school, and ride horses.  I had a very full life.

A couple of years ago I decided to write my story, my memoirs, so that anyone in my family, and beyond, could really get to understand my world, both as a child and as an adult.  Progress on these isn’t going very well, mostly because I have allowed lots of things to get in the way, but, hopefully, they will be finished some day before my expiration date arrives.  The reason why I even mention this is that ever since I made the decision, I have been forced to take a hard look at how I have changed, especially the ways in which I think about life, the world, the universe, and even who, how and what I choose to have as a belief system.  The maturation of my cosmology, metaphysics and corresponding epistemology has been a long and winding road, and really not a topic for this article.  Each of us makes that sacred trip in the spiritual realm, and from that journey we develop a view which enables us to determine how we act (our ethics), how we interact with our environment, from the local to the universal, and how we come to terms with the finiteness of our lives.  At some point in our journey we know that our own death will take us from this world, and our chances to experience this life and contribute to it will end.

Ever the student of history, I am amazed at what I see in my fellow man.  I am chagrined and appalled, awed and excited, by what I see.  I am surrounded by news of the best (a little hard to find sometimes) and the worst (continually trumpeted by the media).  I have become a true cynic, expecting little good, but an unhealthy dose of the other, and continuum running the gamut from the simply disappointing to the freakishly scary and evil.  Mostly, when I hear of the latter, I simply can’t understand what it is that makes people do what they do, mothers drowning their own children, crazy shooters in malls killing innocent bystanders and then themselves, children teasing other children to the point of driving them to suicide, people buying massive numbers of assault weapons which have no logical purpose except to kill other people.  And this enumeration only barely scratches the surface.

I watch as politicians seem to forget why they even hold office, that is, to serve the needs of the rest of us for peace, justice, prosperity, opportunity, etc.  They have agendas which reek of ego and false dignity, but which result in a hodgepodge of essentially meaningless things, or, as a poet once said, much sound and fury, signifying nothing.  I love it when public figures claim to be “Christian” without a trace of his teaching apparent in their actions, only moralizing (which he forbade, counseling us to leave that to His Father), and criticizing others conduct while they make unsavory deals in the back rooms of power.

Recently, to make matters even worse, I have been watching Oliver Stone’s somewhat brilliant “Untold History of the United States” which turns on its head nearly everything we have had foisted upon us regarding the history of this country in the 20th century.  I am driven to watch it, because I feel that it is better to know the truth than to live in a fantasy world, but, with each hour long episode, I walk away more depressed than ever.  And, I look forward to the remaining episodes with rapt anticipation, knowing full well that the process with leave me even more non-plussed by that experience, and even more depressed.  It is a horror from which I can’t remove my eyes.  All I know is that, if you watch these hour-long journalistic historical essays, it will be hard to maintain a conviction that you live in a great nation.  Not that other nations are so much greater than ours, but simply that we can no longer extol the virtues of a wonderful democracy that many would claim to be essentially without sin.  Anyone who chooses to claim this in my presence will feel the sting of my intellectual middle finger extended in their direction with its appropriate supporting thoughts.

I know that all of this sounds harsh, but I have always been a believer that if we talk a big game, we better be able to support it through action, and that bluster is worse than meaningless, and is truly the depth of sinful behavior.  So, facing facts is vital.  And, perhaps more vital is making demands that facts be given to us.

We live in a world and a country truly out of balance, where things just don’t add up to being human.  Humanity has a lock on the irreconcilable.  Let’s be clear, we have, in the last few years brought cancer to its knees, built a telescope in space that has taken us to the very edge of creation, mapped the three billion components of the human genome, come closer than we could ever believe possible to extending a person’s life indefinitely, and after those things, still a long list of massive achievements for our potential betterment.  At the same time, we continue to kill our fellow man at prodigious rates (Wikipedia tells us that nearly 300,000,000 of us have lost our lives in war), failed to ban nuclear weapons, pumped enough carbon dioxide into our atmosphere to make future life on this planet a tenuous proposition, passed surveillance legislation guaranteeing our future paranoia about the Orwell “Big Brother” democracy in which we live, failing to assist the truly needy and desperate amongst our citizens while we engender multibillionaires who make more money in one day than most of us will earn in our entire lives.

This is where my worldview kicks in.  I am truly fatalistic about mankind’s future.  I am old enough that I will not see the worst happen to make the planet’s population miserable to a degree we can’t fathom by what is yet to come.  But that doesn’t prevent me from grieving the bleakness of the future human condition.  That said, I must say that my worldview is essentially existential.  I believe in the original sin (best descriptor I have, but not a good one), meaning that the biggest reason why humanity will fail to survive is the fact that we are not only alone, but lonely.  The poet John Donne wrote that “no man is an island” and the meaning in his context was true and good, that is that we are all interrelated by proximity, birth, experience, etc.  But, in reality, we all, in our heart of hearts, truly feel completely alone.  We reach out to those around us for solace, whether friends, family, lovers, neighbors, teachers, coworkers, etc.  The solace we seek is simply acceptance of who and what we are, and sometimes, just our very existence as having some meaning in the world we inhabit.  As human creatures, we need validation in such ways, and, many times, lacking it, we become depressed, despondent, and escape into a fantasy world which gives us what we need.  Of course, in this kind of hell, in our heart of hearts, we know that our fantasy is only that, and isn’t really proof of worth, validation, or even a reason for constructive engagement in life.  This kind existential imbalance can quickly metamorphose into some form of mental illness.  Many times it progresses into some form of paranoia, and, where it goes from there is mostly reliant on our brain chemistry (explaining why there are fairly successful pharmaceutical treatments for some forms of mental illness).

In everyday human society, the major upshot of this profound existential loneliness, from which there is literally no escape, only amelioration, the results are deep, abiding, and, in my view, inescapable.  This result is the ways in which we treat our fellow humans.  Most of us are willing to push back at the loneliness by participation in life, work, recreation, education, and constructive interaction.  This is the core 90% of all of us from whom you will never hear.  It is in the “fringes” of humanity where the problems seem to appear.  These fringes are the milieu of those of us who are desperate, whether at the bottom end, perpetrating crimes of all sorts from the petty to the extreme, or those who find that they can’t be happy unless they are massively wealthy and powerful and who find solace in domination and perceived control of their world.  My belief is that, in order for humanity to survive and thrive on this planet, the outliers must be given a way out, a way to overcome their loneliness as the 90% has figured out, in constructive ways.  This is wherein the key to human redemption lies.  Our goal, as a world society, must be to provide all with the opportunity for constructive participation.  Although we are all destined to suffer from the profound loneliness dictated by the milieu of our existence, we all can find redemption in love and care, in fellowship and participation, in sharing and giving.

The next time the news blares some unfathomable travesty propounded by one of the fringe dwellers, don’t think of legislative cures, but think of human cures, that is cures that come from love and understanding.  You will note that this is the way that literally every great religious leader has taught us to be, whether the Gautama Buddha, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus, Mohammed, Mother Theresa, the Dalai Lama, or any other.  They all have counseled us to practice tolerance, love, acceptance, and extreme caring.  I would love to believe that we humans can figure this out, all seven billion of us, before it is too late.  Human life is truly beautiful at its best, and we should each strive to make a small contribution to its beauty and meaning.


Unfortunately, in the wake of the horrendous murder of twenty children, the nation cries out in anguish: Why?  Psychiatrists and psychologists fan the media with various mental conditions that could have caused the perpetrator to commit so heinous an act.  Theologians excuse their non-existent but professed omnipotent God on the grounds that it is simply evidence that we have been granted a free will, and we use these idiocies to excuse us from facing the real and truthful answer of:  Why?  Wikipedia tells us that there have been fifty-four such incidents in our country since 1950, and with each one we hear the same old clamor for gun control.  Doesn’t the fact that there are now more than 300,000,000 guns of all descriptions circulating in this country make control seemed a ridiculous solution? Then, of course, we hear the calls to clean up the violence found in our entertainment, the movies, television, and children’s toys and video games , but isn’t that ridiculous as well, since we are the ones that gleefully plunk down our dollars to satisfy the greed of those who gleefully profit from the production of such odious material.  

With our vaunted surveillance, we guard against the shameful possibility that our children might possibly be exposed to any suggestion of sex with no hint of violence, while we inundate them with a ubiquitous and most sadistic violence from which there is no escape.   

One call, however, that we will not hear as a possible solution, is a call to end violence as public policy. Our government, the government that we overwhelmingly support, is the purveyor, par excellence, of the most horrendous violence with its perpetual war, its admitted practice of “enhanced interrogation” and even the condoning of a president’s option to cancel habeas corpus and openly call for the assassination of American citizens.  We will also hear no calls for the abolishment of the tremendous inequality in our economic system that leads to poverty and its resultant violence.  

As a veteran of WWII, having witnessed many of the horrors of Nazi crimes, I have wondered how the German citizen of that time was able to sleep at night when those crimes had to be obvious to the casual observer.  Then it occurred to me that the individual German citizen, in order to prevent going mad themselves, had indeed become “well-adjusted” to a mad and neurotic society. They slept comfortably in their denial. The “mal-adjusted” were those that dared to venture opposition. Thus, it is, I believe, that we, by our own volition, have become just such a neurotic society, a society that can condone the slaughter of millions of innocent men, women and children by our military, a society that is oblivious to the inhumane sanctions our government imposes on any nation that would dare to stand in the way of its empirical goals, a society that will tolerate no deviance from the neurotic norm under the threat of being ostracized, or, in the event that the deviant should threaten the established norm, the retaliation could take the form of character assassination and even fatal assassination, as in the case of JFK, RFK and MLK Jr. 

This brings us to the question of how this came to be. For the answer, we must go back to our very beginnings and the violent subjugation of those savage Native Americans and docile African slaves, the effects of which have yet to be erased. Then, with the great western migration, the gun became the only justice to be found, and outlaws like Jessie James and Billy the Kid became virtual heroes to many for their defiance of authority, as did gangsters like John Dillinger along with Bonnie and Clyde during the great depression. Unfortunately all this reinforced the ridiculous idea of the “rugged individualist,” which we have adopted as a national trait.  It became, “Me against the world.”   And Darwin’s “Survival of the fittest” became “The law of the jungle.” This brought about a persistent alienation that, to this day, eventually destroys the human need for community and brotherhood along with the empathy and altruism that evidence now suggests we were hard-wired for at birth. 

So, why have we had 54 mass shootings in this country since 1950?  For an honest answer, I fear that we must stop the scapegoating and turn to the mirror. It is time to acknowledge that it is we, a sick and neurotic society, that have made violence a way of life by ignoring the violent crimes against humanity committed by our own government. It is we, a sick neurotic society that refuses to condemn the greed that has led to an insufferable poverty-ridden economic inequality denying its victims basic human dignity. It is we, a sick neurotic society, that has brought about an alienation in which cooperation is replaced by ruthless competition and with it a veritable denial of what it means to be human.  To make the situation even worse, this sick neurotic society then arrogantly but falsely proclaims “Exceptionalism” which allows it to reject the rules and norms of civilization.  The truth is that we are far less than exceptional when it comes to a claim of leadership in education. We rank 17th among leading nations.  We may, however, be exceptional in providing health care.  In spite of the fact that, according to the World Health Organization, we are number one in our per-capita expenditure for health care, we rank a poor 38th in its provision. 

One would think the time has come when we should face the truth of our neurosis. The time has come when we should stop shouting down those who have found the courage to speak out. The time has come when we should renounce the false patriot’s ignorant assertion “My country right or wrong.” 

Accurately read, it should conclude with, “If right, to be kept right, if wrong, to be set right.”  The time has come when we should look to the mirror and admit that we have met the enemy and the enemy is us.  Only then can we begin to answer the question:   Why?

By Hal O'Leary