Thursday, December 8, 2005

Two Wise Men Talk About Thinning

There's a lot of talk from the neocon right about "thinning government"—in the words of their party chairman (whose name escapes me now), making government small enough so that "you can drown it in the bathtub."

But what we see all around us amidst this talk is bigger, messier, more intrusive, and far, far more wasteful government these past five years. The budget and trade deficits are at all-time highs; job loss across the board remains a disturbingly and consistently huge problem (despite some recent minor gains that have been ballyhooed as a "recovery"); the Iraq War is on course to become a half-trillion dollar quagmire by the time the Bushies leave office; the costs of recovery from Katrina and other unnatural disasters (i.e., those natural incidents which became disasters because there was absent or inadequate human preparation) have not even been fully tabulated; and the tax writeoffs to mega-corporations and the ultra-wealthy have cost us hundreds of billions that we do not as a nation have anymore.

This is not a conservative government, my friends: this is socialism on steroids. It is an aristocratic oligarchy of self-appointed demi-gods who have made the government of a free people into a club—a financial circle jerk society of such raucous indifference to human needs and social justice that it more resembles an economic version of a piranha tank. In this case, the fish are really fat and their teeth cut through flesh like white phosphorous.

So it appears as if merely talking about diminishing government and drowning it in the tub is not enough to create the desired effect in action. In fact, mere rhetoric seems to exacerbate the problem: the very people who talk most about making government smaller are cashing in the most on its current feeding frenzy. So we have to look for alternatives, both as individuals and as organized groups of citizens.

My preference would be that we start with, and focus most of our energy on, ourselves as individuals. For when each cell is working optimally as it was designed by nature, then the body as a whole tends to remain healthy and lean. In other words, if we can clear out the ideology of obesity from within ourselves, then our institutions will tend to slim down without force or conflict. To that end, we offer tonight two complementary teachings from a pair of wise men who deserve our attention. The first is a fellow from San Francisco whom I've never met named Mark Morford. His regular column appears in SF Gate, and his wisdom and humor are always refreshing and appropriate. His latest piece, "Long Needles for Large Butts" addresses the very topic we're touching on this evening. There he asks a question that many of us may need to be addressing of ourselves (and then of our government and other institutions):

I know obesity is a terribly complicated issue, crosses myriad sociocultural lines, is more than merely too much unhealthy food coupled with too much laziness coupled with too much I'm-a-victim thinking coupled with lack of self-control coupled with lack of exercise coupled with lack of decent health education coupled with lousy upbringing coupled with sinister garbage-food corporate marketing coupled with increasingly sedentary TV-addicted lifestyles coupled with pain-avoidance mechanisms coupled with believing it's all up to the Big Pharmcos to merely invent a magic bullet to cure it all. Oh wait, check that, it's not more than that at all. That's exactly what it is.

But it is messy, and difficult to unpack all the sociocultural layers and the psychology -- and even the spirituality -- behind it. Say what you will about the typical causes of obesity and gluttony and lack of self-respect, but there is one question you have to keep returning to when it comes to bulking ourselves up to a degree that scares small animals and makes the floorboards shake: What, really, are we so hungry for?

Our second commentator on this topic is well known to regular Daily Rev readers: the ancient Chinese philosopher, poet, and curmudgeon, Lao Tzu. Here is what he has to say about the dangers of excess, and of the fulfillment to be found in the liberation from excess:

I have but three pearls
That I keep and cherish:
The first is love,
The second is avoiding excess,
The third is modesty.

When these three lead, the true self follows.
Love can thereby be fearless,
Excess negated can thus be generous,
Modesty can therefore lead the world,
And help its life force to endure.

But today the ego has renounced pure love,
And elevated empty chivalry;
It has wasted moderation
By exalting lavishness;
It has abandoned modesty
For the sake of renown.

He applies this principle to the government of nations as follows:

Therefore, let your nation follow Nature’s way:
If it is big, let its actions be small.
If it is small, it is already complete,
So it need not strive for greatness.

In the eye and the mind of the cosmos,
Borders and boundaries, fences and flags
Have no meaning.
In this there is benefit for all.

Thus among both hearts and nations:
If you would discover the great,
You must look first to the small.

Morford offers this set of observations, which appears to accord perfectly with Lao Tzu's message:

Obesity is, by and large, a reaction, a response to a spiritual crisis and a deep-seated energetic hole in the head/heart/soul.

It is the basic formula: We consume more crap, both comestible and technological, to try and make up for what we aren't getting, deeper down. We gorge to fill a void, to cover up the pain of abuse or neglect or even heartbreak; we neglect the self to avoid responsibility because responsibility is, well, hard -- and isn't that why we have war and Prozac and Jesus?

Just look. We are living in a culture that thrives (OK, not thrives -- more like wallows) in war and governmental lies and acidic pseudo-Christian ideologies that most of us know, on a deeper level, are pure poison. We sanction gluttony, savage the environment, allow unrestricted growth at the expense of nature and perspective; we have corporate greed like a mantra, fiscal irresponsibility as a way of life, war and death like karmic emetics, sugar as our internal medicine, Pizza Hut as a family balm.

As goes the national agenda, so goes the populace. As goes the deterioration of meaning, so goes our need to bulk up, thicken our skins, add layers of blubbery armor to help add a tiny shred of comfort to protect against the slings and arrows of a maniac world we seem to understand less and less, all while maintaining our God-given sense of denial that we are, in fact, the ones in control of our lives.

Perhaps it is time that we each look within ourselves and ask, "What do I hunger for?—what is it that makes me feel this terrible lack that I attempt to fill with junk food, TV, and eye candy? What can I do to free myself from this round of consumption? And in case you imagine that I'm preaching, guess what—I'm still working on it myself, still cleansing myself of the same cultural myths of insufficiency, victimization, and the lust for accumulation that has been programmed into me since childhood. Even though I've written a book in which this very theme is examined and where I offer some possible approaches in dealing with it, I still find that I haven't fully worked it all out yet. It's a problem, after all, that is so deeply ingrained in our consciousness that an enduring solution will not come quickly or easily; but I am certain that it will succumb to a consistent and unhurried effort of disburdenment. It's well worth the effort, of course, because the stakes—both for ourselves as individuals and for the corporations, governments, and other institutions that now threaten to suffocate us in their layers of stinking, oily fat—can scarcely be higher.

Finally tonight, in observance of this dark day in our world's history—the night on which John Lennon was murdered, 25 years ago—I have one more remark from Lao Tzu, who had this to say on the urgency of diminishing the excess in our lives and our institutions; I think you will find the thought eerily appropriate:

When those who have more than enough stop at good measure, and those with less than enough gain access to what they need, the world can therefore be one.

The visions of wise men such as Lao Tzu, Mark Morford, and John Lennon will never be fulfilled until we, through the gentle force of individual and collaborative effort, make them a reality. It is all up to us, in this very moment.

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