Friday, January 05, 2007

The Matter of Morals

The embarrassing, shameful, unconstitutional, and reckless behavior of the George W. Bush White House can easily provoke a passionate rant. [What did we call it before making “rant” a very common noun? A tirade? A venting of anger or letting off of steam?] I have been given to such spontaneous outbursts over the past several years. It is not my intent for this to be one, but I offer this prelude to disclaim neutrality.

What is it that makes behavior moral or immoral?

This is no small question for it entails much of human reflection. I am reminded of a professor from days of yore—back when I was taking Introduction to Greek Philosophy—who spoke of two focal questions. My memory is too unreliable for any hope of reproducing the questions accurately but I believe the trustworthy substance of the questions are as follows: What is the nature of reality? How ought one to live?

These questions, for me, are the philosopher’s equivalent of the summary of the Torah given by Rabbi Hillel and Jesus. After these two questions all the rest of Greek philosophy is commentary.

The issue of morality, then, relates to the second question of how one ought to live. The faith and wisdom traditions of the centuries offer many excellent guidelines. One may ponder Hillel and Jesus in light of the Decalogue or the entire Torah. The prophets and wisdom literature of the Hebrew Scriptures have much to say about how one ought to live. Christian Scriptures can be frustratingly open-ended in terms of living according to the Spirit but they also offer the model of Jesus’ behavior and the new commandment to love one another. Socrates echoed the inscription at Delphi with the daunting imperative to know oneself. Patanjali articulated ten commitments from a Hindu perspective, Buddha offers the Eightfold Path, and Native Americans remind us to walk in a sacred manner (or walk in beauty). Most people are aware that some variant of the “Golden Rule” is part of all spiritual paths.

The tricky part is usually discerning what is good, and what is better. We turn to the many guidelines, such as those just mentioned, to help us in this discernment.
  • Knowledge of reality, knowledge of self, knowledge of the other;
  • loving the other and loving oneself (as one loves the Ultimate);
  • doing what is helpful rather than hurtful;
  • lessening suffering and enhancing wellbeing;
  • leaving behind the paths of ignorance, fear, and hatred for the ways of understanding, love, and compassion—all these help us to do the good.

Yesterday I wrote about developing compassion and the practice of kindness by understanding that others suffer as we do and they also have their own mighty struggles. It is in the common ground of our shared humanity—and at a more basic level, shared creatureliness—that we discover the ability to understand, to care, and to develop the mutuality that enables us to live together without destroying each other and ourselves.

When we think of the “amoral,” we usually envision those who either have no sense of right and wrong or, knowing the distinction, simply do not care. I believe that what usually underlies this sort of sociopathy is a missing, or at least stunted, ability to feel compassion. The amoral either cannot envision or bring themselves to care about the feelings of others. The suffering of another person or the destruction of our planet: these are of consequence to the amoral only to the extent that they might impinge upon such a person’s own will or self-defined wellbeing.

A person may have the outer appearance of leading a “good” or “righteous” life yet be only observing public superficialities. A degenerate “moralism” that places its emphasis on narrow lists of righteous, godly, or admirable behavior will become lax in matters that matter widely and deeply. This is the sort of thing Jesus denounced when he spoke of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel! (Matthew 23:24)

Such a “good” man or woman may participate regularly in religious observances, care for both children and parents, maintain personal hygiene, pay bills on time, observe sexual monogamy or abstinence, rarely raise either a hand or voice in anger, and refrain from “bad language.” The same person may also, with no hesitation, participate in business dealings that exploit others; espouse policies that degrade the earth; waste precious resources with no thought for future generations; and—by thought, word, and deed—foster ignorance, prejudice, fear, and violence (to the point of war).

An amoral person may have principles, beliefs, an ideology; these will not keep such a person from causing great human suffering, either directly or indirectly. Indeed, a sociopath may take pride in conviction and consistency. W. B. Yeats said as much in The Second Coming: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

The problem lies in the utter lack of imagination that enables one to feel with and for another (since that is what “compassion” means). We see it in children who torture animals and, if alert and responsible, recognize this as an early sign of sociopathy. It is to be hoped some helpful action can be taken then before it is too late, though I do not know at what point it is too late.

As I indicated at the beginning, I do not want this to be a rant but rather a dispassionate consideration of morality. What it all leads to is the assertion, which I truly believe, that George Walker Bush is not a moral person.

By some chance and much corruption he has come to occupy the White House [no, I do not believe he was legitimately elected either time] and the United States and the world must suffer the consequences of that unfortunate reality.

As a child, W used to shove firecrackers up the asses of frogs and blow them up. Now he has launched a “pre-emptive” war, invaded a nation that posed no realistic threat to the United States, continues to pursue an ill-defined and disastrous course that leads to thousands of American deaths and hundreds of thousands of other deaths—and he sleeps well at night.

At formative moments in his early life his parents were largely absent to him, most especially after the death of his sister Robin. His parents played golf the day after her death and there was no funeral. George never learned to grieve, to allow himself to feel loss, to mourn another human being. It was not modeled or encouraged. His mother famously said that things worked out rather well for persons temporarily warehoused in a sports stadium after their homes had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina—a destruction made more likely by the failure to maintain and improve the levees of New Orleans in the first place, then exacerbated by gross federal inaction, and further compounded by the fact that so little has been done for the hurricane victims over a year later.

For GWB it was all a set for photo opportunities (pulling visiting firemen aside from their work to be seen in a photo walking around with him). He utters the platitudes, but he does not give any serious evidence of EVER feeling anyone else’s pain. He attends state funerals for his presidential predecessors but he has not attended a single funeral for our military men and women killed abroad. He makes inappropriate jokes. He belittles other people—staff, reporters, foreign dignitaries, and the condemned—but he is quick to take offense at the smallest perceived slight to himself.

His world, his thoughts, his actions are all about him. The devastation he wreaks on others does not trouble or haunt him. The consequences of his policies—for the poor, for the sick, for future generations—seem to be given no thought. If it works for him, for his political power, and for his corporate buddies, then it meets his criteria.

He makes flowery speeches about blastocysts when vetoing stem cell research but give little evidence about caring for children already born, especially those who do not have the advantage of great wealth.

He talks about Jesus and says (and, God help us all, I think he really believes) that God put him in the Oval Office for a purpose. If God did so, I think it might be more in line with the admonition of Micah to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8) George W. Bush does not do humble, though his academic “performance”: and business “career” are reason enough for humility, without even considering the damage done to health care, the middle class, workers, the environment, education, international cooperation, and national security. He has consistently behaved as though he and the executive branch of the government were above the law, flouting the Constitution and international treaties (which, once ratified by the United States, are also the supreme law of the land).

That any president or holder of office in the United States could even consider torture, much less implement it and try to justify it, goes beyond moral bounds.

We have an amoral President. He is not “a good Christian man.” He is a bully and a slacker. He is willing to gamble American lives on fool’s odds. He will make a bad situation worse just to shore up his own ego. He will not admit mistakes or change his mind. He does not give a damn about others. Period.

This is a great sadness and a great tragedy for our nation and the globe. Although some of this has the tone of a rant, I have been able to write it dispassionately, quietly, without elevating my blood pressure. Furthermore, it does spring from some of the consideration of the previous days.

In the midst of all the problems George W. Bush has made worse and all the damage he has done, he now seems to be gathering resources to repeat his greatest mistake. When he wanted—so desperately he could, I believe, taste it—war with Iraq, I knew he was going to get his war. He protested that nothing had been decided but I knew he was lying. Now the whole world knows it was a lie.

Frankly, I think we are a hair’s breadth away from him doing the same in Iran. The catastrophe would be far greater than the disaster he has created in Iraq. I believe he wants it and I don’t know how the American People and Congress can stop him.

If GWB were anything like a moral person, one who had the capacity to behave well because of understanding and compassion, I would say that based on his actions he is out-and-out evil. I hate resorting to that sort of language about any person. I have concluded,however, that he is simply amoral, not even capable of being immoral.

He is a badly damaged human being and he is a human doing vast amounts of damage. He is, alas, a spoiled frat boy, a bully, and a careless, reckless person. It is a pity that thousands suffer because of it. And the “intervention” of the Iraq Study Group did not succeed.

I would like to get through one day’s political news without feeling that





For all the excitement of a new Congress, I am still very anxious. And I hope I am wrong about Iran.

—The BB

Crosby Stills Nash & Young - Teach Your Children

You who are on the road
Must have a code
that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good bye.
Teach your children well,
Their father's hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why,
if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh
and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can't know the fears
that your elders grew by,
And so
please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth
before they can die.
Teach your parents well,
Their children's hell
will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked,
the one you'll know by.
Don't you ever ask them why,
if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh
and know they love you.

Facing the Darkness Together

A dear friend in California shares with me a sensitivity to the solstices. Both of us are rather fond of daylight. We mourn at midsummer when the days begin once more to shorten. The winter solstice, in contrast, offers the encouragement that now, at last, the days begin to lengthen once more.

I thought of her while looking out my window the other day, hoping that she had also gladdened at this turning of the year.

Here is a photo taken by a colleague after work last week, with me standing in front of a snow-dusted tree in the early evening. I am dressed mostly in black and snowflakes swirl all around. The landscape lighting and the flash manage to etch highlights in the dark.

I have, since last April Fool’s Day, been at work on my first novel. My current best guess is that I am at the two-thirds point and eager to finish the homeward journey so I can see the completed first draft in its entirety. Then begins the hard work, for I find the imagining to be play; revising will be another matter altogether.

Though I have never before attempted anything so grand in scale, this is but the flowering of an old seed. When composing some playful tales back in the early 1970s, I conceived of related stories in a larger cycle. The first tale, chronologically, though not in order of imagining, was of a lad who became an epic hero. His deed was the slaying of a demon, a discarnate force of darkness and despair. The outline was in my head, the general course of his hero’s journey discernible on my maps of an alternate world.

And there the tale has remained, ever present in my head but not yet on paper (nor, in more recent times, on disk). Since those early days I have learned more of darkness and depression, not to mention the human condition in general. One would hope that I might learn some things in over three decades!

As a recently ordained assisting priest I came to realize that, as I put it, “everyone is bleeding on the inside.” Whatever our perceptions of others, no matter how “together” they seem—how successful, smart, talented, good-looking, wealthy, powerful, peaceful, charming, and spiritually evolved—they have their own wounds, pains, anxieties, and fears. This unseen hemorrhage is a great leveler and a key to compassion. One need not know the specific pain of another to acknowledge simply that it is there. It is not necessary to open the door of their heart and mind and look within. Trust me, the wound is there.

Once we recognize this, we can more easily set aside envy, resentment, or intimidation in order to behold our fellow sufferer. It is not a matter of “pulling them down” to our miserable level. Actually, I find it ennobling of all. We all suffer, we all try to cope, we all do what we can. Some may do it more elegantly, or more effectively, or more convincingly. But we are, as we affirm so often that it is a cliché, all in this together.

Today I came across a parallel insight. Wee Mama, as she (I assume “she”) identifies herself on Daily Kos, has a tag for her signature line that struck me: “Be very kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.”

This actually takes it a step further. Not only do we all suffer our inner wounds, we all struggle in our own way. Each of us has our own epic battle, the living of our particular life. Each of us is torn constantly between good and evil, most often in the small choices among sundry goods and various evils. It is the decision for the greater good or the lesser evil, and the repeated settling for the lesser good or being swallowed up in the greater evil, that shapes our struggle.

To recognize these truths about each other is to be aware of our common humanity, our limitations, our great failures, and our potential for glory. Once we see this, and realize the truth of it, it is so very much easier to “be very kind.”

How much better our struggles, small and large, might go if we were more kind to ourselves and to one another, if we chose to be allies in each other’s attempt to do right, to do well, to do better.

One of the benefits and dangers of writing fiction is reflecting on what the telling of a tale has told about ourselves. I know that I am in every character and situation and they are all a part of me. (Memories of learning about Gestalt many years ago….) What am I revealing of my own reality or what I wish my reality were when I tell a story of a young man—far younger than I—who has a mystical vision of ultimate light and also, willingly, enters utter darkness?

As midnight approaches and my mind and body weary, I do not propose to answer that question here. Indeed, the question will stay with me through the finishing of the first draft, and the revising, and the pondering when the tale is told.

I wrote on New Year’s Day about “Black on White,” the ebon motion of ravens against a snowy background. Tonight it shifts to light and darkness, hope versus despair.

And so I share the photo: darkness and light everywhere one looks and myself in the middle of the mystery.

“Be very kind, for everyone you know is fighting a great battle.”

(h/t to Wee Mama)
--The BB

Monday, January 01, 2007

Black on White 2007

In a rapid shift from “how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given” to how noisily we chase away our fears, my year began with me standing outside in a snow-covered world watching fireworks in the street and beating a few of my drums. The neighborhood was not lost in total racket but this was not a time to sleep in peace. Back in California I could never be sure I was not hearing guns fired at the beginning of the year but the only pops in the midnight air last night seemed to be fireworks. (We live in hope.)

Having chatted earlier with Don Cuervo (not the tequila—never the tequila) about my perpetual mild sleep-deprivation, I allowed myself to sleep in today. When I arose and looked out a bedroom window, the world was still layered in powdery white (not cocaine—never cocaine) and the sun was shining on the construction sites of future homes, and beyond that to new homes not unlike my home, and further west the low rise of the mesa. I spotted a corvid, then another and some more, perhaps a dozen or so in all. Without a close look or a chance to hear their calls, I am rarely certain if I am viewing crows or ravens. Then I noticed two of them in tandem flight. They flew low and wove their way around the masonry walls dividing the lots. One appeared smaller and was usually flying above or only slightly behind the larger. Was it a game, a courtship pattern, or one just mimicking and harassing the other? I have no idea but it was fascinating to behold.

Since ravens delight in aerial acrobatics, I shall assume they were ravens, Don Cuervo’s people, his totem critters—creative tricksters among the ranks of the gods. Let us call it auspicious, the flight of these ebon avians across the snow-covered landscape at the dawn of a new year.

However arbitrary our civil calendar, I wish health, inner peace, and the astonishment of beauty for all. With less fear and more wonder in our lives, may we then blossom and bear the fruits of mutuality and upbuilding of the common good. From that may justice and peace flow like the mighty rivers of Amos’ thundering imperative.

Love yourself this day. Then love someone else.

—The BB