Notes on the Post Religious World

Since the release of my book The Holy Bluff, the Search for Meaning in the Post-Religious World, I’ve been asked several times how I can speak of a “‘post religious world” when whole nations are still governed by Islamic law, the Pope is Time Magazine’s Person of the Year and the President of the United States still concludes his State of the Union Address with “God Bless the United States of America”. So what am I talking about?

To understand the post-religious world, which I believe we’ve been living in more or less since the turn of the twentieth century, it’s important to understand the religious world we lived in before then. It’s easy at times to forget that for all of human history from the caves on up, the existence of some form of deity was for homo sapiens as much of a reality as the sun, the stones, the water we drank, the food we ate, our fellow creatures and, most importantly, ourselves. In fact, all these lesser realities (including us) were seen in the context of divine creation – which is why we called ourselves “creatures” in the first place.

In the religious world, the fact that different people and groups had different views on God’s nature and intentions were not seen as a challenge to God’s existence. Different tribes had worshipped different Gods from the very beginning. God was by definition mysterious.  If your neighbors disagreed with your version of the almighty, you reacted to them with tolerance or with charges of heresy, depending on your tribe’s inclinations. Disbelief was simply not an option. The American experiment (still ongoing) in separation of church and state is a prime example. The founding fathers did not choose unbelief over belief – they simply decriminalized heresy and identified freedom to believe as a God-given right, which in the religious world is not a contradiction. Fish don’t doubt the water.  So what happened?

There had been major groundswells of change during the 19th century. The Catholic Church executed its last heretic in 1826;  The Origin of Species was published in 1859; Neichze declared God dead in 1882 – and he wasn’t burned at the stake [1]; in 1879 Thomas Edison harnessed the magnetic power of the universe to turn on the lights–  and by 1893 the gods’ angry thunderbolts had become something you could make toast with. Our sense of ourselves was changing. By the end of the century, with a long overdue nod to Galileo, heliocentrism (the idea that the earth orbits the sun and not vice-versa) was fully entrenched as humankind’s default position, Genesis notwithstanding. As the century turned, Religion still explained many things for many people – but it no longer explained everything for everybody. The fish were beginning to rethink the water.

When I was doing my research into what would become The Holy Bluff, I stumbled upon a fascinating book by the Reverend William Hallock Johnson, The Christian Faith Under Modern Searchlights, in which the Reverend argued for the endurance of and continuing need for adherence to the eternal truths provided by faith despite the mechanistic information provided by Darwin’s discoveries and the seemingly game-changing view of the universe provided by recent advances in cosmology. I was well into the second chapter before a reference to the terrible war raging in Europe prompted me to check the date of publication – which turned out to be 1916.  The Reverend was not simply defending his beliefs against some other theologian’s, but the validity of belief itself. A century before, he would have had no one to argue with.

In the century since, the argument has rumbled on with all the subtlety of a tectonic shift. From the Scopes trial in the 1920’s, where beleaguered evolutionists fought for the right to teach their theories in school, to today’s courtroom battles for (and against) the inclusion of an “intelligent design” curriculum as an alternative to evolution, we’ve seen a major tide change. And like all tides, it has left a lot of people high and dry.

The difference between the religious world view and the (for lack of a better word) secular world view comes down to one simple point: in the religious view, an eternal perfect being created everything for a purpose and we created beings draw our lives’ meaning from serving that purpose. In the secular view, creation is an accident, with no guiding intelligence behind it and nothing eternal except eternal change. Those of us who live in the post religious world are stuck between these two positions and both sides are digging in. It’s not a comfortable place to be, but it’s where we are. The United States is split pretty much down the middle and it’s not working for us.

Religion isn’t over. It’s not going anywhere anytime soon. It’s my opinion that we wouldn’t be any better off if it did. The first two attempts to base a modern nation on a purely secular ideology were Communist Russia and Nazi Germany. Few among us, believers or unbelievers, would consider Stalin or Hitler preferable to Jesus. They simply filled a vacuum left by the collapse of something that had been there before.  In the post-religious world, vacuums are a problem, perhaps the problem.

Which is why I wrote the book.


[1] The actual quote is “Though God is dead, we still see his shadow” – as good a picture of the post-religious world as you’ll find.

God Is An Analogy – But Then, So Is the Number 6

Depending on how it hits you, this little sound bite comes across as either completely obvious or completely wrong, or at the very least counter-intuitive. Believers feel that it’s short-changing God because he is. Unbelievers feel that it’s short-changing science because you can find six things and count them. The fact is, God and science have a lot more in common than meets the eye. God is the same way six is. This only became obvious to me recently. Let me tell you about it.

Human beings think by analogy *. The pictures we make in our heads are what runs our intellectual operating systems, with strong real-time links to our emotional, information gathering and even our digestive systems (especially when the emotions kick in). Our sense of ourselves is derived by analogy and our means of communicating that sense to others is accomplished for the most part by using the thousands of mini-analogies we call words. It’s easy to forget that we made us up. Nature provided us with breathing, eating, defecating and breeding machines to live in. We thought up the rest, literally. The human brain is as flesh and blood as the rest of us, but it does things the rest of us can’t. It makes things up. Everything from the wheel to the satellite to the love song to the listening device it’s played on had to be imagined before they could be made. E=mc² wasn’t a matter of seeing what was there and writing it down. There was an intuitive leap involved, a work of imagination that, when tested against reality, turned out to be true – with a vengeance. 

Galileo saw some solid dots moving across Jupiter and figured out that the earth wasn’t the center of the universe – quite a jump, also involving the use of a lot of imagination. It took a long time before that game-changing  “big blue marble”  picture taken from the moon verified it, really verified it. What’s easy to forget is that the idea that the earth was the center of the universe required the same use of imagination – and until a guy with a camera touched down on the lunar surface, the observable facts pretty well supported it. The experience of normal life still does. Even though we know better, we still call sundown sundown and we still say (and sing about) moonlight even though the moon is a dead hunk of rock that doesn’t give off any more light than the wall behind my light bulb.

So what does all this have to do with God? Everything. The idea of a God, an invisible, powerful, much, much bigger projection of ourselves who’s actually running everything, has been with us since we first started imagining that using a rock for a weapon could protect us from animals with bigger teeth than us. We were right about the rock, so we figured we were right about God (or the Gods, as it started out – we were social beings, so we figured they were too). It made sense. We had no reason to believe that night, day, wind and weather were the result of invisible thermodynamic interactions related to the spinning of the earth, the planet’s distance from the sun, variations in the jet stream and the butterfly effect. Any ancient weathergirl who got up on a rock and tried to say so would have been offered whatever primitive psychiatric care was available, and probably prayed for (or stoned depending on the local religious orientation). It was perfectly plausible to assume that things were happening because something or somebody was making them happen, just like everything else that happened in front of our faces – the trees got wet when it rained, a footprint in the dirt meant that some foot had stepped there, an animal bled when you hit it with that rock, because you hit it with that rock. We had no reason to think things were happening randomly (they aren’t, actually – but it still feels like they do – and we still don’t like it). Which brings us to our next point.

Of more importance than the apparent, intuitively consistent truth of an earth-centric universe with an interested deity running it is the psychological truth behind both ideas. We are the center of the universe – I am, you are, each of us in his or her own way sees everything around us, unavoidably, from the seat in the center. And when we’re gone, it’s gone. Seeing our planet as the center of it all is only an analogy (remember analogies?) for our own comforting sense of being the reason why it’s all here – and the fear that kicks in when we realize that we’re not is what got Galileo locked up. The fear that this gigantic chaotic multi-million planet ship we call the universe, and our own soccer ball-shaped starship in particular has nobody at the helm is pretty unsettling. “God” is nothing more or less than the name we give to our feeling that “I may not be able to see who’s running all this, but somebody is”. God is the picture we put on that feeling, an analogy we can address our complaints to, beg for strength or forgiveness as the occasion demands, and get at least some sense of order and control from – God and the number six.

It’s easy to forget that there’s no such thing as six. We made it up. It’s our projection onto disorganized reality to help us make sense of it – an analogy. The universe can’t count. Only we can – with that analogy-making brain we were talking about. And when we put our analogy “six” to the test, most of the time it holds up pretty well, whether we’re trying to get to a place one block past Fifth Avenue or buying beer in an easy to carry container. Six works. When it doesn’t, it’s usually just because we counted wrong and we get to try again. Testing the divine analogy is harder. God is by definition invisible – she, he, or “the life force running though the universe” isn’t available for observation.  Projecting the analogy of a guiding hand that cares about us onto the workings of nature, blind chance and the actions of our fellow humans is getting harder by the minute. Prayers aren’t getting answered like they used to. Or are they?

Despite the occasional success story (similar to the 65 year old lady from Piscataway who hit the slots jackpot in Atlantic City on her first try), prayers throughout history have not been answered. For every miraculous cure, there were a million praying people who stayed sick. And even the ones who got better died anyway – all of them. But people still pray – because that’s not what prayer is really about. We’re not praying for concrete results. Despite the way its official salesmen try to package it, prayer isn’t an investment. It’s simply a way of making us feel a little less powerless in the face of life’s hurricanes. And in that way, it’s not all that different from watching the contemporary weather person on the eleven o’clock news. We can track this stuff better than we used to, but we can’t control it any more than our cave-dwelling ancestors. The millions of irresistible, non-negotiable forces underlying the unexpected wintry mix that caused that thirty car pileup on route 80 are still frustrating and scaring us, especially if we have to drive on route 80. But we’ll watch the weather tonight anyway, just for the feeling of having a little more control than we do. And you can bet a lot of people stuck in that nine-hour jam-up on route 80 looked up at the snow-filled sky at least once and cried out “Why does this happen to me?” 

We need to ask somebody – and number six isn’t listening. To say that God isn’t either misses the point. Six is the right analogy for getting a grip on how many pieces there are in two sets of three, and God is the right analogy for getting a grip on ourselves when the pure size of it all hits us in the face. The fact that both analogies came from the same place may just be the starting point to get the believers and unbelievers talking to each other – whether they know it or not they’re already speaking the same language. 

* For those interested in going into it more deeply, Douglas Hofstadter, and Emmanuel Sander’s Surfaces and Essences: Analogy as the Fuel and Fire of Thinking  does a great job of charting out this thought-provoking (or is it analogy-provoking) territory.    

Heroes

In the media coverage surrounding the recent passing of South Africa’s Nelson Mandela, perhaps the most reverberating theme has been that of his role as a hero. This word gets thrown around a lot and deserves a little attention. Individuals who earn this title do things that go beyond themselves. Whether it’s a onetime action or a lifelong series of activities, the common factor for all heroes is that their actions do good things for other people. It can be as simple and direct as a fireman risking his life to save a child from a burning building or, as in Mr. Mandela’s case, the transformation of an entire society. The other common factor is that the hero isn’t doing it for “selfish” motives. The fireman isn’t looking for a promotion and Mr. Mandela wasn’t acting out of political ambition – in fact, he turned down a second term. The hero is seen as acting in response to a “higher” principal, which is where it gets tricky.

The standard of what makes a higher principal higher is harder to pin down than it appears. The word that gets used a lot is “selfless”. In the recent “CNN Heroes” broadcast, it came up constantly. Whether they were building homes for wounded U.S. veterans, providing medical care to impoverished African communities or organizing their fellow citizens to clean up trash-clogged waterways, the thing this diverse group of good people was portrayed as having in common was their “selflessness”. I believe that if we look a little closer, we’ll see that this idea is selling the heroes short, and is missing the real point.

A truly “selfless” person would be hard to be around. A person with no sense of themselves or their own value would be very unlikely to inspire other people to serve the greater good, which is what heroism is really all about. Heroes are heroes because they make us all want to do better. They raise our image of what human beings are capable of. In our “better selves”, we want to have the courage of the fireman who is willing to risk it all to save a fellow human being. That kind of person has a strong sense of identity, very strong – he or she considers human life worth saving. To think the hero would take his or her own life out of the equation is ridiculous. The truth is that the hero values his or her own life more than most of us do, much more. That’s where their courage comes from. The courageous person is the one who doesn’t kid themselves about the hard fact that all human beings, including themselves, are mortal. They know what they’re risking. The courageous person is the one who knows damn well you can’t beat death – that it always wins in the end – but the hero says not today - death isn’t getting that little girl on the third floor- it’s going to have to take me first. It takes a person with a pretty high opinion of themselves to stand up to death and spit in its eye. The truly selfless person is the one who started the fire to collect the insurance money.

If Nelson Mandela had known the day the prison door slammed shut behind him that he’d live to become President of the whole country, the sacrifice of his liberty would have been pointless. The day he went in, he had to assume he wasn’t coming out. A selfless person would never have been able to sweat out 27 years – or 27 seconds. The selfless person has nothing to sacrifice, nothing to lose. The hero has everything to lose and knows it – everything but themselves. Mandela went to jail because he was unwilling to live in a world that didn’t measure up to him. He was a free man long before the key turned the other way and the doors opened. He never stopped being free. He was never locked up.

Heroes are people who don’t wait for the world to catch up with their idea of how they’d like the world to be. If their image of the world includes the notion that fragile, mortal human beings need to look out for each other, the fact that many of their fellow human beings or, to get specific, their own oppressive governments don’t agree doesn’t stop them. The fact that their actions are for the most part symbolic and can only “fix” some small part of the bigger problem doesn’t stop them. The fact that a wall of flame or a uniformed man with a gun tells them to cut it out and behave like everybody else doesn’t stop them. The fact that they may die trying and not achieve their goal doesn’t stop them.

In “The Holy Bluff”, I talk a lot about good symbolism vs. bad symbolism. A man willing to put his life on the line for human liberty is good symbolism. A government that holds onto its power by legitimatizing the oppression of most of its own citizens for the advantage of a few is bad symbolism. Good symbolism is contagious. Bad symbolism stops at the border. Good symbolism is holy, in the fullest sense of the term,    which is “wholeness” – the whole picture, the whole story, the whole truth. Good symbolism tells the truth. Bad symbolism is lying.

Heroes are simply people who see the truth and act accordingly. This may seem like a rare commodity, especially if you’re watching the rest of CNN’s programming – but it really isn’t. The fact that the “heroes”’ actions reverberate with so many of us suggests that we’ve all got secret heroes hiding inside of us.  It’s time we started listening to them. Now more than ever, we need all the heroes we can get.

Unlimited Sequels – When the Movie Stops, Part 3

You can’t make this stuff up. The LAX shootings, coming hard on the heels of the Nevada school shooting and the next day’s police shooting of a teenager carrying a toy gun, is sending a message none of us can afford to miss. Our symbols are out of control. People are no more or less crazy than they’ve ever been, weapons are no more or less easy to get if you really want one than when the first cave man picked up a big stick and challenged his romantic rival to slug it out. What’s changed is that our symbolic vocabulary has expanded and the sticks are a whole lot more efficient.

If you’ve been reading my previous two blogs on this subject, this line of thought will sound familiar to you. I’m not surprised this kind of thing is happening – I expect it to happen and keep happening – but I’m alarmed at the way the momentum is picking up. We used to have at least a few weeks off between incidents – sometimes a few months if we were lucky – but this franchise is cranking out sequels while the last one is still in the theaters, and the next theater it plays is likely to be the next bus you get into, your neighborhood church or your daughter’s school. This thing’s gone viral. Anybody who’s not scared isn’t paying attention.

The LAX shooter survived, despite himself. He didn’t mean to. He wasn’t wearing body armor, he had no exit plan. He simply combined two familiar symbolic scenarios – acting out against symbols of authority and police assisted suicide. It was his own pain he was trying to fix, not the system. He’s not going to have any new “answers” for us when he comes to. He doesn’t have to.  He’s already given us all the answers we need.

The scene from the LAX drama that keeps getting replayed is the killer’s face-to-face encounter with a regular passenger. The killer looked down at the man cowering on the floor, asked him if he was “TSA”, took his word for it that he wasn’t, and walked away in search of other targets, designated targets. Designated is the operational word here. In the killer’s mind, TSA employees had become symbols of government oppression and the source of his sense of personal powerlessness. TSA employees, especially uniformed ones, were therefore not persons but symbols and therefore legitimate targets. The passenger on the floor, by identifying as “non-TSA”, retained his personhood and was therefore considered neutral or perhaps even identified as a fellow sufferer. The fact that individual TSA employees, the persons behind the symbols, had no more to do with the shooter’s problems than the man on the floor didn’t matter. Once a symbol, always a symbol. It’s about identity, not employment. You work for the Transportation Security Administration – you are “TSA”.

When the symbols get muddled, things get dangerous. I’m painfully reminded of the disconnect in the Vietnam War that occurred when children began being used as assassins and saboteurs by the already hard to identify enemy. The expansion of the symbolic title “enemy” to include not only children but the entire civilian population reached its horrific climax in the My Lai massacre. Blaming the massacre on a single out of control officer and thinking that was the end of it missed the point, and didn’t keep any of the thousands of subsequent symbol-driven killings or the events of the last two weeks from happening. We need to understand what we’re up against, and who. We don’t have to look far.

If ever the phase “We have met the enemy and he is us” could be applied to a situation, this is it. We are symbolic creatures. Our symbols and analogies are the operating systems that run our concepts, our emotions and our actions. The difference between what we see in front of our faces and what we see in pixels on a screen is becoming less by the millisecond. Art doesn’t imitate life. Art is life. And for humans, especially twenty first century humans who are able to see images of events happening anywhere in the world in real time or within days or minutes, life isn’t imitating art, life is art.

So what it really comes down to is the difference between good art and bad art. And after all the arguments about style, technique and competence get lost in the din, the line in the sand between the good and the bad, for art and just about everything else, is the truth. If a work of art honestly, or even accidentally, expresses some truth about human beings and the world we live in, it tends to provoke an honest response from those who experience it, and in some cases, to last long after the artist and his or her original audience is long gone.

A gunman mowing down random citizens like video game opponents is bad art. The random citizen who crawls across the fire zone to assist the wounded is good art. There’s a simple truth that separates these two works of art and these two artists – the simple, bedrock truth that we’re all fragile humans and we’re all in this together. If a fellow human being is a symbol of our shared mortality, then I won’t be eager to kill him or her, and I won’t feel so alone with my own vulnerability. If he or she has become a symbol of something other, something that threatens me, then anything goes, and anything’s possible.

I closed my blog on the California police shooting with a confession that in my own symbol system, the image of myself shooting the Newtown school killer dead five minutes before his attack on innocent children is one I can live with and would in fact welcome. I’m not happy about that but I can’t deny it. I’m as infected as the rest of us. Those who deny it are not to be trusted, and won’t be able to solve this thing. Here’s how we solve this thing.

The difference between me facing a real killer and that killer facing a classful of elementary school kids is that my symbolism is based on a true story. It’s the same story our caveman friend was reading when he picked a fight with his flesh and blood rival to win the girl of his dreams. It’s one on one and the winner actually does get the girl, or protects her children, or feeds his family, or whatever’s at stake in the real world. The Newtown killer, or the LAX killer, or that poor depressed boy in Nevada were dealing with symbols based on a false story – their targets weren’t a threat to anybody. That’s the difference – the only difference.

As long as our mass communication continues to feed us images of symbolic enemies, be they Taliban, bullies, Tea Party, Liberals, Republicans, Democrats, gays, bigots, drug dealers, the DEA, mass murderers or TSA Employees (pay your money and take your pick) the more our symbolic confusion will increase. Life and theater bleed into each other- they’re too alike not to. Twenty four hour theater is an exhausting prospect, but that’s the world we live in and there’s no going back. I’ve checked my e-mail twenty times since I started this piece and that trend isn’t going to change. Keeping our sense of our own (and each other’s) flesh and blood in the face of this onslaught will be the major task of the next century if we mean to survive it. We need to catch up with our technology. It’s already rewiring us, for better or worse.

As history demonstrates, we could use some rewiring. Mass murder isn’t new, but you used to have to be a king or a Fuhrer to pull it off. Now anybody can do it. We have access to the king’s imagery as well as the king’s weapons, and there’s no missing which of the two is the more dangerous.

I’d like to be able to hope that the next sequel in this bloody franchise isn’t already in production, but I know better. There will be more symbolic killing sprees and the media will cover them blow by blow, with interviews of surviving witnesses, expert testimony, official finger pointing to assign blame for the breakdown in security, and, of course, live video of the event from the cell phones of those who, in the moment of crisis, decided it was better to film than run. We’re all turning into war correspondents. And that, oddly enough, is the good news.

Since this battlefield is in our own backyards, and not in some far off mythological place, we have a reason to stop the war. Since this enemy looks too much like ourselves to turn into a generic symbol, we have no designated target to kill.   We can’t win this war the old fashioned way. What we’re up against is us, the new us.

 

That’s as far as I can get with this particular series. I want to try to post this before the next shoe drops. There’s a lot going on in this can of dangerous worms and I’m going to have to step back from things a bit to try to sort it out. Any fresh ideas anyone can throw into the mix would be appreciated. I need all the help I can get – as do we all.

 

 

 

 

When the Movie Stops, Part 2

Boy, do I hate to be right.

When I ended my blog about the symbolic underpinnings of last week’s heartbreaking Nevada school shooting with the words “more to come”, I had no idea how soon “more” would turn out to be. As it turned out, the day after the Nevada shootings, a California policeman shot a teenager to death because the boy was carrying a toy gun.

While this second tragedy doesn’t seem to meet the usual standards for a “copycat” killing, the link between the two events is hard to miss. Let me spell it out. Repeated media coverage of teenagers shooting up their own schools has altered the “symbolic arsenal” of police officers. Whereas in an earlier time a child with a gun would have been treated with more restraint than a similarly armed adult, this is no longer true. The benefit of the doubt when it’s “only a kid” is gone. Just the opposite – the California police may well have reacted with deadly force out of fear that the young man in front of them was on his way to carry out his own “copycat” of the Nevada shooting.

There’s a lot going on here, but it’s not complicated. Like I said before, it’s all about bad symbolism. The depressed boy sees killing his schoolmates as a way to deal with his depression, the terrorist sees blowing up buildings full of people he doesn’t know as a way of solving his own sense of purposelessness and the policeman sees shooting a child in the street as a way of saving other children, not to mention himself – the Nevada child fatally shot a teacher who tried to talk him down and now that’s part of the California cop’s symbolic arsenal too. All territory is becoming enemy territory – and he who hesitates dies. That’s a hard symbol to shake.

But there’s another layer of bad symbolism going on here as well. The on-line coverage included a picture of the gun the boy was holding. It wasn’t a water pistol. It was an assault rifle. It looked like an assault rifle – adult size, polished wood, dark metal, sites in place –primed and ready to go– just aim, squeeze and spray. Not a gun anybody would mess with. Tax-paying companies that employ church-going people are making these toys and parents are buying them for their children. Those children are playing video games where the objective is to kill enemies in the high three figures (or four plus on the advanced levels). The symbols are driving the market and the fear is driving the symbols. And when the movie stops a couple of sick to their stomachs cops are standing over a kid’s body on the sidewalk a couple of blocks from his house, where his video game player is probably still plugged in.

The oldest rule of war is that it’s easier to kill a hundred people than it is to kill one. The more the enemy becomes a symbol the less he is someone with a mother like yours and the easier he is to send home to his mother in a bag. The problem is, on a flat screen TV everybody’s a symbol.

The genie’s out of the bottle – time can’t go backwards. We can’t not hear about these things. If it’s not on the news it will be on Facebook. We’re not going back to flintlock rifles and there’s no market for cap guns – though there probably will be for bullet proof vests in children’s sizes very soon, if there isn’t already. So what can we do?

First, we can stop wasting our time asking “why?”. We know why. Our primal urges (fear, self-protection, rage –that sort of thing) have been given a lot of new ways to express themselves by our technology and things have gotten out of hand. It’s not the technology’s fault. It got us out of the caves. We just didn’t come all the way with it. We need to stop forgetting that. Whether it’s weapons technology or communications technology doesn’t make much difference – they’re both tools in human hands. And from the beginning of the human experience, our tools have been more than just tools – they’ve been the symbols we use to deal with our reality, our emotional protection from a world we didn’t make. My club is not just a stick, it’s my sense of power. An assault rifle is only a better club. My enemy, real or imagined, is a symbol of everything I’m afraid of. Whether I get my information about who my enemy is from my tribal chief, CNN or my PlayStation,  I’ll react the same way when I see him coming, even if he’s a thirteen year old boy.

When war becomes game, human beings win, and live to play again. When game becomes war, human beings lose, and die before their time. Telling the difference is getting harder.

None of us are immune. Ask any cop in the country, what he would give to have encountered the Newtown shooter walking down the street with a visible firearm in his hands five minutes before the killer entered the Sandy Hook school. And if you follow that up with the question, “And what would you have done if you had?” you will only get one answer – “Shoot the bastard dead” – from every cop you ask. I know that’s the answer they’d give because it’s the same answer I’d give.

We have a lot of work to do.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“School Shooting” – When the Movie Stops

One of the saddest and clearest indications of the existence of the “big black hole we all need to fill” in contemporary life is the fact that the term “school shooting” exists at all. In the post-Columbine era, we all know exactly what it means. Our first reaction on hearing it is always the same: “Oh no, not again.” The definition of the term keeps expanding as the number of incidents mount up: at this point it can be any grade from kindergarten through college, the shooter or shooters can be anyone from a kid in your daughter’s class to a person from the outside with no obvious connection to the school. The common factor is the location (school), the targets (children and teachers) and the fact that people die.

What “school shooting” incidents also have in common is being a subset in a larger category we could call “acts of violence against random persons, usually resulting in multiple fatalities, frequently (but not always) resulting in the death of the perpetrator or perpetrators”. This larger group includes the growing number of attacks in shopping center parking lots, movie theaters, restaurants, public events like the Boston Marathon and even on military bases, where you’d think they’d be ready for it.

They aren’t. None of us are. We can’t hide all the guns and we can’t build walls high enough. Half the time, the killers are already inside. The other half they walk in like ordinary citizens – because they are ordinary citizens. The sad fact is we can’t protect us from us.

If I come off sounding a bit technical, it’s because we need to be. We need to understand what we’re dealing with. In all these events, questions of “who” and “how” tend to get answered in the first twenty four hours, a few days longer if it takes some time to run down the killers – but they get answered. “Why?” doesn’t get answered and keeps coming back for more.

As I spent a lot of time going over in “The Holy Bluff”, “Why?” is different from other questions. “Why?” can’t be answered by “just the facts”. “Why?” isn’t about the facts. It’s about the reasons behind the facts. And on this planet, only a human being can answer this particular question, since we’re the only ones who have individually created reasons for the things we do. If a wolf attacked a school child, no one would ask it why. They’d just shoot it and give out more hunting licenses. It’s not that easy with human beings, especially those who kill other human beings for no apparent reason. Frequently the answers die with the killers. The sad fact, though, is that we don’t get much better answers from the killers who survive to come to trial – a lot of background and speculation, reports from doctors, but no clear statements that make a whole lot of sense to anybody but the killers, if even to them.

It’s time to take the gloves off. We know what’s going on. It’s been going on for as long as there have been human beings. The only difference is that the weapons are better and now it’s on television, which makes a big difference – because what we’re talking about here is symbolism, plain and simple – symbolism gone wrong – and in our world mass media is the language of our symbols, both external and internal.

Let’s take a look at another subset of our larger group – the terrorist attack. Take away the political/religious underpinnings and it’s no different from a school shooting. A lot of people with no personal responsibility for a problem end up paying for it because they happen to be in the wrong symbolic place at the wrong real time. The terrorist and the depressed teenager have more in common than might meet the eye. Both are looking for symbols to make sense of their lives. Finding no positive symbols that keep the darkness at bay, they turn to negative symbols.

What mass media has to do with it is in some ways obvious. The amount of information constantly coming at us about random acts of violence has had the unavoidable effect of increasing the “symbolic arsenal” available to the depressed person or the potential fanatic. What’s not so obvious is that Newspaper coverage of Lindberg’s flight across the Atlantic had the same effect on the general public’s arsenal of potential transportation options. Something that had not been heard of before was now possible. 9/11 presupposed the Wright brothers. Today’s school shooting presupposed the Alamo. One symbol leads to another. Positive and negative get mixed up in the symbolic soup, the movie ends – and the shooting begins.

Perhaps the most chilling part of today’s coverage from Nevada was the line “he didn’t seem like the school shooter type” at the top of one of the press releases. We expect the killer to look a certain way, to have certain predictable problems – broken home, history of mental illness, difficulties at school or in the community. We need to remember that we all fit the profile. We all need positive symbols to keep going. Life is more like a movie than we imagine. We need to pay better attention to the script, for everybody’s sake.

More to come.

The Need for Myth

The need for mythology is probably greater at this point than at any other time in recent history. Therapy has failed, self-help has failed, exercise, diet, the acquisition of money, political allegiance, even the old standbys, drugs and booze – all failures.  Religion, the most popular form of “official” myth, has become downright dangerous. We’ve tried just about everything and we still ain’t satisfied. We want answers. The only place we’re likely to find them is in what I like to call “good mythology”.

I’m going on about this because, as far as I’m concerned, my job, as well as the job of any other writer, singer, poet or storyteller is to be above all a maker of good myths. And what is a good myth? A good myth is a true myth. Not in the sense that “this thing I’m telling you about actually happened”. Far from it – myth, by definition, is at closest a reworking of some actual event to enhance its significance. Myth doesn’t need a historical event to be valid. The truest myths, in fact, are those that are unencumbered by being confused with actual events – hence the more dangerous elements in religion as noted above – when the holy grail got mixed up with whatever cup was put in front of “historical Jesus” at his last Seder, people started questing for it and sacking each other’s cities over it – we’re still paying for it.

Good mythology has its basis in our dreams, our brain’s unconscious mechanism for sorting things out while we sleep – pre-verbal, pre-writing, pre-having to believe it because they tell you to. The song, the story, the poem, the play, the prayer and even the Hollywood blockbuster are our attempts to bring the process to light where everybody (including us) can see it.

And why exactly do we need to do all this? The reason, which shouldn’t surprise anybody, is that human life simply doesn’t work. We’re born screwed. We want the wrong things, we love the wrong things, we chase the wrong things, and no matter how hard we try or how well we do, we’re gonna get picked off anyway – the pink slips are already in the mail – mine, yours, the President’s, everybody’s. Bad mythology denies, avoids or tries to bargain this away. Good mythology faces it head on and deals with it.

Finally, it all comes down to the blues.

If your baby takes your money and buys a present for her new boyfriend, you’ve only got three choices:

Do something really bad to her and spend the rest of your days in jail.

Start drinking heavily and drop the rest of your natural life in a rusty can

Put it in a song and consider the royalties sweet revenge on her, on yourself, on everything – the whole damn package.

 

The blues is myth in its purest form, stripped to the essentials. Beethoven is the blues with extra instruments.

We can’t get even with the universe for doing this to us. The universe doesn’t care. The simple fact is that the universe is a blind, stupid mass of junk racing around following rules it doesn’t even know about. We’re the only ones who know what we’re doing, much as we try not to. We’re the only ones who get to tell the story and we’re the only ones listening.

So we might as well sing.