Friday, October 22, 2004

My Team Can Beat Your Team

There was much made of the recent contest between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, and I suppose it cannot be ignored. What I will remember of this confrontation is that it ended with the death of a young woman who got in the way of a supposedly non-fatal rubber bullet shot by a police officer in Boston; that no problems of human enmity or the war against Nature were solved; and that the forces of Greed and Excess once again prevailed among us. The following is a "prediction" I had written on the evening of the final game.

I am examining the fall of the cards, the glow of the orb, the incandescent light of the coins, and I foresee the following: one set of trim, muscular multi-millionaires will score more runs than another similar set tonight, and one fat, bloated, egocentric owner will swim in champagne while the other angrily orders the building of an additional wing to the yacht. One mayor will have to order a lobster or a pizza to send to the other. Tim McCarver will make another obscenely obvious error in analysis, which he will embellish and aggrandize in a self-serving voice-over of a slow motion replay that visually exposes his distortion; meanwhile, Joe "Mega" Buck, a disgrace to his old man's memory, will sing a J. Geils tune while the camera pans around on fans in attitudes of prayer or contempt. Corporate America will celebrate the event with a fresh, game 7 set of Madison Ave. jingles (except of course for AIG, which will feature the same stupid letters dancing around with only the added message: "ignore those executives being led away in handcuffs...look at the cute letters doing flips for your money").

The game will be briefly interrupted by an appearance of Michael Moore's Slacker Uprising Tour, until the home plate ump reminds Moore that NY is already in the bag for the Dems. Then he will leave and go to New Jersey, where the GOP is making gains. If the Yankees lose, Steinbrenner will be possessed with self-flagellatory guilt and issue free season tickets for 2005 to all fans in attendance. Little will they know that by next April the entire team will have been sold, traded, or executed, depending on the level of blame assigned to each player for the debacle. The ball boy on the third base line will be ritually sacrificed in a post-game ceremony, and the prisoners in the nearby Bronx Correctional Facility will choke on the fumes of his burning flesh. Once the game is over and the parking lot has been cleared of the Jaguars and BMW's, the South Bronx will return to its normal life as a place where anonymous people, most of them people of color, struggle to survive amid crime, drugs, and poverty.

In the locker room and beyond, for days to come, players on both sides will talk, like imperial generals to embedded reporters, to fawning pressmen about their courage, determination, character, heart, and religious zeal, even as they sheepishly defer questions about next year's free agent contract to their agents. Jeter will shrug his shoulders and say, "didn't you see the ghosts? Bring a Polaroid next year--it always catches their aura better than those fancy digital cameras." Tom Brady will appear and mutter, "4 in a row? Big deal...come talk to me after you've won 16 more." The money will be eagerly, lasciviously counted on both sides, with no thought of the difference between wealth and excess, between abundance and depravity, between prosperity and corruption.

Mariano Rivera will skip his shower and hurry to the airport, to get back home to the people who still need him there.

Monday, October 11, 2004

An Elegy for a Man Who Lived Well

Our news media seem to love dealing in tales of opposites: stories of life and death, wealth and loss, healing and sickness, abundance and depravity, good and evil, are showered upon us in every morning's front page, in every television newscast, and on every Internet news site or RSS feed. Unfortunately, the news media tend to miss the meaning of the events they report, in their obsession with the appearance, the image, of the stories and the characters. They missed the meaning of the build-up to the war in Iraq, when they eagerly traded their journalistic mission for a spot in the elite caravan of embeddedment; they missed the meaning of the "Mission Accomplished" turning point (which was the beginning of loss, rather than the completion of victory), because once again they accepted the veneer that was painted over their eyes. Finally, they have missed the meaning of the current election, in their morbid obsession with the furors raised by fringe rumor-mongers and third-rate historians, over what one candidate or another might have (or not) done a generation and two or three wars ago.

"Image is Everything" comes the cry from the television voice that funds the news we receive from the mass media. The truth is, of course, that image is nothing--it is an illusion. Granted, a baleful, dangerous, restrictive illusion--but a fable nonetheless, a "tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing," to quote Shakespeare.

Thus, it should come as no surprise that the collective media have completely missed the significance of the life and death of Christopher Reeve, a man who lived an entire life beyond the pale of image and appearance. Reeve lived a life of abundance, boundless energy, and an unabated love of learning and of humanity: he would no sooner have accepted the institutional bromide that life is a march of suffering toward a relentless night of unremitting death, than he would have bought into the ideology of privilege and human supremacy. He knew better than to reside in the realm of opposition and image; he knew that life truly lived constantly pierces the hand-wringing, fearful conservatism of guilt, insular violence, and group-centered prejudice. He lived with abandon, but also with the boundless energy of humility and devotion to family. He was living that way on a day in 1995, when a near-fatal accident involving the sport he loved most changed everything.

But he was ready.

If he hadn't been prepared for that crisis, for that moment of seemingly bottomless disaster, he wouldn't have survived, let alone have become a living embodiment of courage and transformation. He would instead have retreated into despair and self-pity; he would have gone down to death in the manner that millions do in our culture--in a resentful, life-denying rage of mortification and blame. He would have faded amid that demented, nursing-home cry of benighted hatred--blaming himself, blaming humanity, blaming Fate, blaming God.

But he had not lived that way before, and he was not about to start because he had been thrown into a pit of disability and physical dependence. He spent the remainder of his life drawing upon the teaching energy of his seeming misfortune, listening to the voice of the Cosmic Teacher that spoke through his suffering. He lived his life in a wheelchair exactly as he had lived on horses, or performing his own stunts in Hollywood: he reached beyond the pale limitations which his "image is everything" culture had defined for him. He decided, or learned, to carve his own unique path through Suffering, since it had thus met him; he strode into and around his personal tragedy and wrenched from it all the light it contained, and then he shared that light with the rest of us. His path thus inspired his family, his friends and colleagues, his doctors and caretakers, and millions upon millions of people he never knew nor met. How far into his darkness must he have traveled, to have emerged with such a vast store of healing energy!

Reeve's life and death tell us two fundamental things about life and Nature: first, that we have not been made to live in suffering, to trudge on a treadmill of anger, tears, and guilt. Reeve lived with a seemingly boundless energy and abundance, both before and after adversity found him. The second lesson of Reeve's life is that when suffering does come our way, we are not meant to deny it or bewail it or run away from it or repress it--we are meant to look deeply into the being of suffering, to explore it to the marrow, to ask it endless questions, until we feel that we have soaked it for all the teaching potential it contains. From that point, we will be able to freely share what we've learned--with those we know and love, and with those we do not know but love still. For when we learn this way, we become teachers; when we love this way, we become leaders. Christopher Reeve was both. And so he remains.

Sunday, October 3, 2004

A Call For a World Led By Reason

It is commonly heard by most of us in the ordinary course of our lives: at the grocery store, in offices and elevators, at work sites and churches, and in this venue, amid discussion groups and chat rooms all over the world. As with most of our most common threads of communication, it is an expression that needs to be examined carefully.

"Everything happens for a reason."

We'll begin by accepting it, by allowing that it contains at least a seed of truth or resonance, and then ask questions of it. What kinds of situations or problems does this phrase speak to? Why do we say it--what benefit of insight or consolation is arrived at through this phrase? What do we really mean when we say it? What does it signify about our guiding, underlying beliefs and assumptions? What alternatives might be discovered to this assurance? These questions will serve as our starting point, and will no doubt lead us to more pointed and illuminating questions, for this is the process by which all understanding is advanced.

We seem to be affirming something when we say that "everything happens for a reason." We seem to be reminding ourselves that there are greater or broader purposes operating in the universe than we humans can perceive. That's why the phrase is so often heard in response to news of events that seem to make no sense: a murder, bad news from the war front, a terrorist attack, a personal reversal such as job loss, death in the family, divorce, a financial disaster or a material loss.

So far, it would appear, so good. But (speaking of good), do we mean that everything happens for a beneficial reason--that God or the Universe intends that we suffer, that we struggle, that we muddle over the treadmill of group expectations while precious years dwindle away before us? In other words, is the phrase implicitly assuring us that "everything happens for a good reason?" If that's what people mean when they trot out this phrase, then we'd better keep asking questions.

Is the course of events currently being perpetuated in Iraq actually providential on some Cosmic plane? I think you'd have a difficult time making that case to many of the parents of those being brought home in bodybags. Sure, the reversals and the inertia of the war are leading people to question what their government is doing there, and whether a change in our leadership might liberate us from the train of pointless tragedy that has ravaged the lives of families in both Iraq and America. Yet to say that we can learn and transform ourselves through adversity is not the same as saying that it's happening out of a benign Cosmic intent. The fact is, not everything happens for a good reason: some things happen because people--especially people in positions of power--are too short-sighted, corrupt, greedy, or just plain mistaken to think and feel their way clearly through an issue or problem before taking impulsive action. Kerry's assessment, spoken during the recent debate, is correct: there was a "colossal error of judgment," for which innocent individuals are being forced to pay a horrible price.

Obtaining inner clarity before one acts is about much more than kneeling piously in the Oval Office and asking God to help one's cause. There are other steps involved--both on the plane of feeling-consciousness and in the realm of intellectual understanding. For the former, there is perhaps no better personal strategy than to simply ask questions of one's own beliefs, and discard the ones that cannot stand up to a simple, visceral process of self-examination. One such belief, for example, is captured in the impulsive dogma, "Force is the only influence that people understand or respond to positively." The fact is that force is what people least understand, and are most unwilling to accept. The use of force creates a forceful reaction, which breeds more frequent and more violent force, in a maelstrom of strike and counter-strike that soon adopts its own uncontrollable momentum. If the President had taken a cursory glance at history, or if he had read his father's book, he might have perceived this truth for himself and been able to discard the obstructive delusion before it had led him in the wrong direction. And in the way of seeking a balanced intellectual perspective, if he had been more careful to choose advisors and staff members that represented a more diverse range of perception, then he may have learned something from his cabinet that could have prevented the egregious errors that seem to have defined his administration.

Obviously, these things didn't happen "for a reason," except the reason that the self-aggrandizing beliefs of a privileged few were allowed to dominate the prevailing feeling-wisdom of the many who knew in their bones that this war was based on an egotistical delusion. The Universe has no "reason" for causing people to die and mourn while justice is undermined and the planet further degraded.

So, perhaps a more appropriate statement to make in the face of such events is, "Everything can teach us something, if we listen carefully." Can we learn to listen within ourselves for the noise of fear, the impulsive thrust of violence--can we learn to identify, isolate, and destroy the inner distortions of malignant belief that have crept into us during the process of societal conditioning? Can we learn, as Thich Nhat Hanh said in the wake of 9/11, to "kill the Osama bin Laden within us"? And might not such an effort on our part help us to act responsibly, maturely, and in proper measure, on the outer plane?

I do not know the answers to these questions; I can only point out that the alternative that has been offered by the Bush administration is the same option that feudal autocrats have obsessively pursued for thousands of years--it is the ideology of enmity and division: "kill them all and let God sort them out." As John Kerry has repeatedly said during his campaign, we can do better than that. And we must. Perhaps it is time now to cease our search for a "reason" for our struggles, and instead discover their lesson.

A Message to President Bush, From an Ally

The British have fought beside your soldiers, President Bush: they have almost single-handedly in substance led the "coalition of the willing". Therefore, it would seem meet that their brightest literary and cultural light of all their long history--and perhaps the greatest of all poets who have sung in war and peace upon our planet--be allowed voice as you, President Bush, face your own decline, and that of your imperial ambitions.

Our selection is from King Henry V, Act IV, Scene i. Amid the English campsite on the night before the battle of Agincourt, the King appears, disguised, to mingle with his warriors and measure their mettle. He enters a spontaneous debate with a soldier who, most interestingly, is named "Williams"--perhaps a self-reference on the part of our worthy author. Let us hear what Shakespeare has to tell our President, through the mouth of "Williams":

Bates: Ay, or more than we should seek after; for we know enough if we know we are the king's subjects: if his cause be wrong, our obedience to the king wipes the crime of it out of us.
Williams: But if the cause be not good, the king himself hath a heavy reckoning to make when all those legs and arms and heads, chopped off in a battle, shall join together at the latter day and cry all, We died at such a place; some swearing, some crying for a surgeon, some upon their wives left poor behind them, some upon the debts they owe, some upon their children rawly left. I am afeared there are few die well that die in a battle; for how can they charitably dispose of anything when blood is their argument? Now, if these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the king that had them to it; who to disobey were against all proportion of subjection.