LIVE LONG IN THE BODY, BUT NOT TOO LONG

By Paul M. Lewis

There’s an interesting article in the April 3, 2017 edition of The New Yorker entitled “The God Pill” by Tad Friend. It discusses the money invested, and the lengths people are going to, for the purpose of coming up with a medically or technologically assisted prolongation of life. In some instances even, there is talk of living forever, whatever that may actually mean for a body. The impetus, and the money behind the energy to engage in this kind of research, comes mainly from Silicon Valley billionaires. A number of different options are being looked at, but they fall mostly into two categories. One has to do with fixing genes that are thought to cause aging, turning them off, or tweaking them in certain ways, so as to slow down or even reverse the effects of the passage of time. The other more or less gives up on that approach and looks instead to a science that will find ways of creating replacement parts, ones that can be slotted in and take over from badly damaged or non-functioning ones (like putting a new carburetor into an engine). There’s even talk of a third possibility, a kind of wholesale transferring of one’s consciousness into “the cloud.” Apparently, or so the thinking goes, if you live in the cloud, you live forever.

Although enthusiasts like to claim otherwise, most of this is likely only to be a possibility that might take place, if it does so at all, in the distant future. Still, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see that things are already beginning, if slowly. Current medical science regularly puts new hearts, livers, kidneys etc. into people’s bodies. Still, such replacement parts come from other human beings, not off the shelf.

Unless you are someone with access to the almost unimaginable (for most of us, anyway) disposable wealth of the superrich, much of the above might just as well be science fiction. The majority of us are happy enough if we’re able to get regular medical coverage, the kind that takes care of ordinary illnesses that plague human beings. We’re delighted that doctors have antibiotics that can cure bacterial infections, which in the past might have brought a slow and painful death, or that medical knowledge has advanced to give us actual–if mechanical–replacement parts, like new knees or hips, or stents to open up clogged coronary arteries. In fact, these days we breathe a sigh of relief when we get to keep medical coverage at all, given the recent politics of wrath that would take coverage away from millions.

So, Silicon Valley billionaires don’t want to die? What a surprise! If you were to ask most of us, would the answer be so different? Obviously, the knee-jerk reaction of most living beings is to want to go on and on. And this is so whether you believe in an afterlife or not. Of course, there are exceptions here and there, like brainwashed suicide bombers, or poor souls so despondent they decide they no longer wish to live. But these are outliers. The tendency for almost everyone is to say they’d like to keep on living, even if we may not have thought through very well what that would exactly entail.

What would it really mean for us to live on endlessly? It’s not even easy to envision, this notion of going on decade after decade, century after century, in the same body we know and love. All of our experience as a species predisposes us to look for an ending in whatever we undertake. And this is true in all of nature; plants, animals, and insects all die. A few live long lives, like the Arctic Sea Sponge that can go on for 1500 years, and the Methuselah of them all, the California Bristlecone Pine that is reported to be 4,765 years old. But even these ancient ones come to an end. Suns, planets, whole galaxies die eventually, so why should we be an exception? Even practically speaking, there are difficulties and challenges. Where would we be, for example, if large numbers of people never passed on? Would they also stop having children? Because, if not, projections related to the overpopulation of the globe—as dire as they currently are—would quickly angle up entirely off the charts, in the most devastating of ways.

But practical issues aside (as important as they are), the real question may be: Why would we wish to live forever? Here we pass on from medicine and technology to matters more in the philosophical or even spiritual realm. How would it feel to live on and on, if friends and loved ones did not as well? Of course, a billionaire could pay for a few selected people to also be given the same treatment he or she got, though most of us could not do so. But even if we could, would that be enough? How many of us would really want to keep on going long enough to witness the horrors of what the future is very likely to offer? If there were appalling and shockingly devastating wars, and horrific, cataclysmic natural events in the past surely there will be others—and even worse ones—in the years to come. Given the already out of control population increases, dire new technologies of war, and the likelihood of massive destruction due to the ever-increasing warming of the globe, is this something we really wish to go out of our way to stay around and witness? Isn’t it bad enough that we condemn our own children and grandchildren to have to endure what is likely to come, due in part at least to our lack of foresight and unwillingness to act?

In centuries past, eternal life was thought of exclusively as the business of churches. Christians and many others cringed at the thought of dying unshriven, outside of God’s good grace, and winding up in hell forever. But is the traditional notion of heaven any better, sitting around in some idealized space somewhere, whatever it may look like, and doing, well, what exactly? Yet, whether or not one believes in such a scenario, is it reasonable to think that endless life in the body, or in “the cloud” somewhere, would be so much better?

Personally, my choice is to opt out of this endless life-in-the-body thing, or some super-cyber connectivity (who knows how one’s personality, or even one’s thoughts, would survive there; and who maintains the system, how does it keep itself going?). Better, far better, to concentrate on living each moment of one’s normal everyday life purposefully, conscientiously and compassionately; to care for one’s fellow beings (and not just one’s fellow human beings); and to honor and celebrate the earth as a living entity, rather than chase after some will-o-the-wisp concoction of everlasting life on earth. As if the earth itself would last forever, anyway. Far more appealing, to my mind, is the Hindu notion of God referred to as “Sat, Chit, Ananda.” It means “ever existing, ever new bliss.” A life not in a never-ending body, or tethered to some mega-web, but living instead in the constant awareness of a continually new and joy-filled consciousness.

So, live in the body? Yes, absolutely, and to the fullest extent, for whatever our time may be. But what has a beginning also has to have an end. If whole galaxies and star systems can die, so probably can we. Billionaires might do better to spend their money helping the poor and the dispossessed make a better life in the moment, rather than searching for some would-be Fountain of Youth they’ll never find.

In the meantime, I’ll keep on trying to attain a consciousness that transcends the body and anything material. Or, better, one that includes the body and all of matter. That’s not a quest limited only to the super-wealthy; it’s open to everybody. A consciousness that lives with the body or without it, now and later, here and there, in ever-new happiness, forever and forever more—now, there’s a “God pill” I can go for.

WHERE YOU LIVE IS WHERE YOU BREATHE

By Paul M. Lewis

There are so many things happening in the political world these days that it’s hard to decide which to highlight. That being so, why not go for the biggest, the most menacing, the one that has the greatest overarching effect on all of us—namely, climate change, the warming of the very globe we all call home?

Yet the topic of climate change, in and of itself, is too vast and complex for any one article. It needs to be broken down into component parts. There are innumerable ways of approaching the myriad of issues related to it. But one that is surely among the most important, and yet which gets far less attention than it should, is that of overpopulation. In 1944, the year I was born, the world had fewer than 2.2 billion people in it. Today there are nearly 7.5 billion, an increase of more than 5 billion in the space of 73 years. Predictably, we will also see that number rise to 8 billion by 2024, and to 9 billion in 2042. What are we to do with all these people? How to feed them? Where to house them? Where to find enough arable land to grow crops for them? How will they make a living for themselves and their families? And what will be the effect of vastly increasing numbers of humans on the environment?

As daunting as these figures and these questions may be, hiding from them is not an option. We must look at them head on and not flinch. Once recognized, we then have to decide what to do about it, how to change what we otherwise know is coming. And, although it may be tempting to go to what seems like the simplest and most direct solution, that is, for people to have fewer children, as true as this may be, that option has not proven to be a particularly feasible one, at least as far as governmental regulations are concerned.

The one exception is China, with its now defunct one child policy. The population increase there has leveled off markedly in the last several decades, since the inception of the policy. For example, there were 33 births per thousand women in 1970, but only 15 births per thousand in 1998. This is an enormous difference, but the decrease comes with its own set of problems. Boys, always more desired in traditional Chinese society, were wanted and kept, while girls were often aborted, or sometimes even abandoned at birth. As a result, there are unnaturally more males in the population today than there are females, a major demographic and societal problem. And the rapidly aging population of China now has far fewer younger citizens to help support their elders in retirement. Additionally, it’s obvious that no western-style democracy would ever be willing, or able, to put into place the kinds of prohibitive restrictions the Chinese government did.

The best control on population growth is, and always has been, education—and education for girls, in particular. Note, for example, that the number of births per woman in Japan is 1.3; that same number for Guinea-Bissau is 5.7 births per woman. According to the Earth Policy Institute, “One of the most effective ways to lower population growth and reduce poverty is to provide adequate education for both girls and boys. Countries in which more children are enrolled in school—even at the primary level—tend to have strikingly lower fertility rates.” Let’s hear it, then, for more education.

But we know that there exist a number of obstacles to the education of children. Many countries are simply too poor to offer adequate teaching facilities for a large majority of their children, and there are others where social, religious and cultural factors prevent girls in particular from receiving an education. All of which points to a substantial likelihood that world population will continue to rise, at least for the foreseeable future. It’s therefore incumbent on us now to do what actually is in our power to help counteract the most deleterious effects of overpopulation.

The Trump Administration has already demonstrated that it does not believe in global climate change, or at least that the warming of the globe has anything to do with human activity. This perhaps should not be all that surprising. According to the Pew Research Foundation, almost three-quarters of Americans don’t trust the consensus of 97% of world scientists, who assert otherwise on climate change.

When it comes to actual numbers, however, and to hard data related to worldwide temperature variances, this is not really a question of belief. To cite one recent example, of the thousands that could be given, this past February was the warmest February on record. If the world really is warming, regardless of whom or what we believe may be responsible, it’s imperative to try to do something to prepare and protect ourselves and our environment from its worst effects. Decreasing the amount of fossil fuels used is what is most frequently suggested. And that must be done. But here, again, we run into corporate, and now governmental, doubters. If you don’t believe in human-induced global warming, why should you do anything about it?

Where, then, does that leave us? Fortunately, we do not have to rely solely on government at the federal level to effect changes. These days, a majority of the work is being done at the state and local level. And while I’m of the opinion that we need more than that, sometimes in the moment we have to take what we can get. Additionally, it’s encouraging that many businesses, and the military, have weighted in on the need for action to address global warming.

One plan that has gotten recent press (see “Housing is key factor in climate goals” in the Los Angeles Times, March 6, 2017) puts the emphasis on greater collectivity within cities—in other words, population density—as a way of drastically reducing commuting and the consequent use of gasoline. The idea, obvious enough, though not necessarily easy to accomplish, is to create urban spaces where people can both live and work in their own neighborhood. This eliminates the need for long commutes by car, and it allows people to get to jobs and places to eat and shop and play that are either within walking or biking distance, or that can be readily reached via fast, clean, affordable and reliable public transportation.

What’s being suggested is not so different from the kind of city I grew up in the 1940’s and 50’s. My family did not have a car, and that fact never felt to me like a burden. My father walked to work every morning; my mother took the bus to the department store where she worked; and my brother and sister and I all either walked or took the bus to school. The local grocery—a literal corner store—was a block away, and we lived across the street from our parish church. Sometimes, it may be that what was good was mistakenly discarded in the pursuit of what we like to think of as progress.

This new, or not so new, concept of closely packed housing near places of work and shopping and worship may not be welcomed by all. We have grown accustomed to driving in our private cars, sometimes long distances, to work and elsewhere. The concept of the soccer mom has become so acceptable as to even go unnoticed. Meanwhile, she drives her children hither and yon to team practice, to sporting events, and even to parent-arranged “play dates.” What ever happened to kids playing with others in the neighborhood? Some of the most affordable and desirable housing has been put up in sprawling suburbs with few amenities within easy reach. It is not uncommon in places like Los Angeles for an individual to drive an hour, even an hour and a half, each way to and from work.

As much as we may wish for a house in the suburbs with three bedrooms and two baths, it may be that we have to face the fact that it is, in the long run, unsustainable. And if it is difficult to maintain now, with the population we currently have, what will happen in 2042, when there are 9 billion people on the planet? The idea of attempting to reduce some of the excesses of overpopulation through the encouragement of urban population density is of course not a panacea. Indeed, like most things, it falls far short of a complete solution, and it brings with it its own pluses and minuses. It is, though, one of the many factors about which humans will have to make choices in the coming years, if we are to hope that our children, and their children, will be able to live on a healthy planet.

The truth is that change is coming, whether we like it or not, and whether we acknowledge it or not. Surely, it is better to look directly at what will be, and to make the adjustments needed now, in order to help diminish some of the worst effects of these eventualities. What is needed is a willing coalition of ordinary citizens, of city and county government officials, of the private sector, of state leadership, and eventually (or so we can hope) support and encouragement at the federal—and the international—level, to make the kinds of changes that are needed.

This is a tall order, especially in today’s hyper-partisan atmosphere. But in the end, the consequences of doing nothing may be too terrible not to contemplate.

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHAT TO DO WHEN CHAOS REIGNS?

By Paul M. Lewis

I’ve asked myself a number of times why I haven’t written much of late, given the unprecedented and disastrous advent of the Trump Administration. Surely, I thought, there has been plenty happening, and I must have something to say about it. There are innumerable topics about which I have deep feelings, opinions that diverge sharply from the reprehensible actions of the president and his staff. These actions have to do with everything from immigration and deportation, to foreign policy, to civil rights, to climate change and environmental policy generally, to healthcare, to international trade, and on and on. In one sense, this itself may have been the problem for me. I’ve felt stymied, sometimes almost paralyzed, by the avalanche of deplorable and reprehensible actions that come willy-nilly from the Trump administration on almost a daily basis.

In the end, however, silence is not a tenable position. While the feeling of being submerged by the events of the day is understandable, what isn’t all right is to sit back and do nothing. Not that it’s my intention to tell anyone else how they should act. Each person will take on what she or he feels is possible to do. But even the smallest thing may contribute in ways that we may not always be aware of. And an accumulation of small actions, bound together in solidarity and common interest and common passion, can often do more than a single large action.

I suppose it could be because of these thoughts I’ve been mulling over lately, but I had a dream the other night in which I saw a poster on which was written in bold letters: “Write Your Blog and Do Your Part.” So, I’ve decided it’s time to stop feeling hobbled and constrained by people and events. After all, I am a believer in the notion that every word spoken has a wide-ranging and resonant effect in the world, and words uttered from the heart, as well as from the head, are all the more powerful.

What then do I think about the Trump Administration? My very first reaction was that it might bring fascism down upon our country. And I should add I’m still concerned that it could. But what strikes me more so these days is not so much its execrable authoritarian bent, as terrible as that is, but instead the disordered, almost anarchical chaos of its dealings with the world. Trump is someone incapable of long-term planning, so very unlike his measured and highly intellectual predecessor. The new president is clearly uncomfortable with logic, forethought and groundwork, anything that hints of a cool, cerebral projection of ideas and policies. By his own admission, he prefers to keep us guessing, so as to keep people off balance and, in so doing, gain the advantage over them. And while such a strategy may work in business, although I have my doubts that it does even there—at least not in the long run—it is a disastrous way to run a government.

Of course, chaos and turmoil are hardly new; neither were they introduced into the world by Donald Trump. He is merely the latest iteration. With very little effort, anyone who studies history can come up with multiple examples of it. To name general categories, rather than specific instances of each (as the list would otherwise be almost endless), we might include the following: wars, slavery and forced labor, massacres, purges, internment camps, human-induced mass starvation, killing in the name of religion or political ideology, forced conversion, human sacrifice, cultural genocide, and on and on. This is what people have done to each other over the millennia, and it continues today.

The Principle of Chaos is seldom far removed from our lives, as much as we may think of ourselves as civilized. Before Hitler, many Germans surely thought of themselves as—and were—refined and enlightened, good solid citizens of the state, well mannered, and compassionate. But in the end, great fear, as well as a certain human willingness to overlook what is happening around one, took over and blinded people as to what they were allowing themselves to become.

The tendency toward chaos appears to be a thing deeply embedded in the human psyche, though most of the time we rouse ourselves to combat and counteract it. Some are more successful at it than others. We see it in our deepest mythic stories. And what are mythologies, but tales we tell ourselves and others in order to help us understand the frightening underlying power of the unconscious mind? Here again, there are countless examples: the coyote trickster in many American Indian traditions; fear of the dark wood in European fairytales; Loki in old Norse stories; the fallen angels—to say nothing of Satan—in Christian thought; and the Fomorians, a group of anti-gods in Irish myth, who fought against the gods of the upper world. Some of the Fomorians wound up marrying the gods (the Tuatha De Danann) and having offspring, a not too unsubtle nod to the idea that we are all mixtures of good and bad.

Along with great uncertainty and tremendous disruption in people’s lives, chaos also brings with it fear and panic. Where there had once been a calm certitude about life, a sort of ordinariness, even a boring routine, though one that induced assurance and confidence that life would go on as it always has, now instead ensues tumult and confusion, mayhem and disarray. We see this in the millions of immigrants—legal and illegal—who are wary of going to work in the morning and to school, or to the market to buy food. They are frightened even to go out into the street, lest an Immigration and Customs Enforcement official stop and arrest them. We see it with Muslims, too, and among transgender students, leery of going to school anymore, with the millions who now fear whether or not they will get to keep their health insurance, and even in the scientific community, where people are justifiably guarded and watchful of government agencies disrupting studies they disapprove of.

Chaos is not just something that appears in myth. It is a real thing that takes place in the world we live in. We see it in mythological stories precisely because it happens in everyday life, because it is part of how humans sometimes act. None of this is meant to say that we must accept it. It is inevitable only to the extent that we acquiesce to it, that we allow it to happen.

Donald Trump may thrive on chaos. He may have chosen his closest advisers, people like Steve Bannon and Steve Miller, exactly because they feed his need for it. But there still remain elements of our government and our society that can fight and counteract the hubbub of despair that comes with chaotic and authoritarian governmental action. So far, at least, the judiciary has stood solid, the press has remained vigilant, and most of all the people themselves have made their voices heard.

That is why I am writing today, and why it is important for all of us to do whatever we can to protest loudly and forcefully, whenever it’s required that we do so. Otherwise, chaos continues to reign; otherwise, the forces of disorder and confusion sap our energies and lay us low. With will and determination, we can counteract at least some of the upheaval of a newly topsy-turvy world. And we can, as well—come 2018—effect dramatic changes of our own making.

LIBERTY and NATURE Embracing for Life

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SOME THOUGHTS ON EMBRACING FOR LIFE

by Paul M. Lewis

Emma Lazarus wrote, as seen on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless and tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” This is—or was—the sacred promise of America, and if that doesn’t sound like today’s refugees and immigrants, the poor and dispossessed of the earth, it’s hard to imagine what else it could describe. What does the notion of liberty actually mean, other than freedom of choice, the ability to do as one wishes, unfettered by physical or social constraint, so long as others are not harmed and, in doing so, one does not unduly trample on the rights of others?

But why, in the picture, do we see Lady Liberty embracing Mother Nature? The two come together because none of us, neither human beings nor any of the other creatures of the earth, can live our normal lives beyond the boundaries of the physical world, or beyond an emotional and social context. What this suggests is that our vaunted freedom to choose is best used in opting for the right and the good, not only for ourselves, but for the life of the planet as a whole. It’s incumbent on each of us to recognize the natural world in all of its diversity. As Yeats put it a century ago: “…the young in one another’s arms, birds in the trees, the salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas, fish, flesh, or fowl…whatever is begotten, born, or dies.” This is the world of nature, seen, experienced, and lived in by all of us.

The two figures are depicted as holding each other and kissing. Just as with human lovers, each needs and chooses the other in an ultimate exercise of freedom. But that choice can only be made in the absence of coercion and of political or social authoritarianism. If Lady Liberty and Mother Nature hold each other today, it is the duty of each of us to do all we can to ensure that continued ability to embrace and kiss. In so doing, Liberty and Nature engender love and creativity, as well as a hope for a better future for us and for the planet. If the politics of the day work against this, only our will and our eternal vigilance can counteract it.

 

SOME ADDITIONAL THOUGHTS

from the artist – Kevin L. Miller

Lady Liberty is one of the primary symbols for the United States of America. Mother Nature, of course, represents all of Nature and the Earth itself. When a friend and former colleague suggested that I might consider drawing Lady Liberty and Mother Nature as friends, I thought “What a good idea!” But when I began to develop a composition on the screen of my mind their “friendship” became much more – a deeply committed intimate relationship of love and mutual support. And this seems entirely appropriate, since the U.S. and the Earth need each other in order to survive. America cannot thrive if the Earth becomes unable to sustain life. And the Earth will cease to be able to do so, if the U.S. and all of humanity does not quickly learn how to nurture, honor, and respect our planet. Lady Liberty and Mother Nature are embracing for life. Their intimate embrace is a fundamental necessity, whether we and the world’s nations and leaders acknowledge it or not. If we want to avoid the looming Sixth Mass Extinction and leave a planet where our children and grandchildren can thrive, then we will support and celebrate Lady Liberty and Mother Nature embracing for life.

 

WHAT WE WANT FOR THE HOLIDAYS

By Paul M. Lewis

I have always felt that the holidays tend to amplify and magnify both what is good and what is bad in life. The good things seem that much nicer: spending time with family and friends, eating wonderful food, or just enjoying the warmth of a season when people, sometimes at least, really do try to treat each other a little better. And the bad things are that much more hurtful: the continued wars in the world, the violence and killing, all the horrors that people perpetrate on each other, from casual caustic remarks to curses to racial or ethnic slurs. All this when what we’re most longing for is some basic human respect, and maybe even a little bit of kindness.

I have, for a long time now, particularly had mixed feelings about the month of November. That’s because both of my parents died during this month, and now my partner’s father and his sister have, as well. In addition, his mother and brother passed away, one in late October just this year, and the other in mid-December a few years ago. Even so, we make the best effort we can to celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with an open heart and mind.

What exactly is it about the holidays that makes us all the more long for those feelings of warmth and closeness or, to put it more simply, the desire to be loved? Because isn’t it a truism that, always and forever, what everyone wants is to be loved? Even the gruffest among us, those who do not make a habit of freely giving their own love to others, nonetheless somehow want love in return. We may do our utmost sometimes to make that wish sound more adult, more mature, more grown up. We call it things like acceptance, or a kind of welcoming or even, minimally, a tolerance of who and what we are. But dig down deep enough, and we see that what’s really meant is simply that we want to be loved.

The other day, my partner and I were going into our local grocery store to do the weekly shopping, and there, next to the door, sat a beggar. There is no other word to use, no other term to soften, mollify or sugarcoat it. He was dressed in the filthiest of rags, his hair was unwashed, and he had a long beard that hung down in tatters. I looked at him and smiled, if for no other reason than that most people were quickly turning away. It was clear that he was about to ask for money (another reason why people were probably avoiding his gaze), even though he had not quite gotten around to it with me yet. So, I walked over to him.

It’s a strange experience to encounter a total stranger who, in a sense, stands naked before you. I don’t mean he was without clothing, of course. His nakedness was psychic, psychological, if you prefer. He sat there with no pretense whatsoever, no attempt to hide who and what he was. Through his unkempt hair and his rumpled and disheveled appearance, he looked up at me and smiled, and he said to me in, I swear to you, the sweetest and most loving way: “I’m an alcoholic.” That’s it, no other words, just a simple declaration of how he thought of himself. Now, I am no stranger to alcoholics. My father was one, as was my brother, and several of my uncles. In a way, I guess, it’s kind of a family trait. My partner’s mother was also, albeit one who was able to achieve a wonderful twenty-eight years of sobriety, and we have other close friends who are recovering alcoholics. I answered him and said, “Yes, I know you are,” and I gave him a dollar. Then, mostly for my own comfort, not his—I do get that—I added, “I hope you spend it on food, not on booze.” We both knew what he would probably do, but by now there was a sense whereby that no longer mattered as much. What felt more important to me was that we’d had at least a moment’s worth of honest human interaction. In that instant, he became no longer just another bum by the market door, not just a piece of human flotsam, washed up on so-called civilized shores to be seen for an instant and avoided by upright and respectable citizens. Instead, he had showed himself in the fullness of his humanity, to be sure, with glaring flaws that were uncomfortable to look at, but still, a magnificent child of the Universe.

Walt Whitman has something interesting to say about how the good people of the polis ought to act toward those who do not follow paths accepted and acceptable to society. In the prelude to his great work, “Leaves Of Grass,” he exhorts us with these words: “Give alms to every one that asks, (and) stand up for the stupid and crazy.”

What does any of this have to do with the holiday season? I wondered about that, mulling over both the unbearable sadnesses I’ve come to associate with the time of year, as well as the multiplicity of its astonishing, sometimes even its staggering sense of happiness, joy and fulfillment. Then, I recalled that the man by the door of the market that day was also singing. As my partner and I walked up to the building, we could hear him intoning some kind of a song, maybe—or so, at least, it was my wish—from a happier time in his life, from a youth perhaps when he had greater hope and, who knows, a plan for his life, someone to love and for whom he longed, whom he wanted more than anything always to be with.

Isn’t that what each of us wants? Doesn’t that get us back to the desire, the need, the awful (awe-filled) longing to be loved, not for our position in life, or what we can give, but just for who we are? Just for being children of the Divine Spirit, who deserve all the love and consideration, and yes, respect, that each of us can muster to give to the other? Here was a man with a song on his lips, who was smiling at people, at passersby who ignored and probably even feared him. What kind of a man can sing his song, all the while being snubbed and disregarded by everyone around him?

If he was crazy, as Whitman says, so what? Maybe it’s a craziness we all should long for: the ability to sing a song, while the world ignores and passes us by. Which one of us has not been hurt, terribly damaged, by the lack of love we see all around us, whether in the form of an angry, selfish, or distracted parent, or spouse, or brother, or sister, or friend—someone whom we think, or hope, should know better—or merely from some passerby, a stranger we rub shoulders with for an instant and who’s gone in the flash of a moment?

Whitman goes on to say, in that same prelude: “Here is what you shall do, love the earth and sun and all the animals.” More good advice and, I think, a good way to end one year and begin another. Because even the earth and the sun and the animals want to be loved. Because that’s part of what it means to be in the physical world. Because it’s what makes us human, and also divine. And what greater joy can any of us have than to be a part of all that?

It could be we’re prone to thinking about such things at the holidays because, for whatever reason, we hope for love more now than at other times of the year. If that’s so, then this longing—and especially this giving—is maybe what they call the holiday spirit, whether we celebrate Christmas, or Chanukah, or Kwanza, or the magnificence of the Winter Solstice. It’s a time when we light candles, so as to epitomize life and hope in the darkness. It’s a time when we should all sing a song, wherever we may be and whatever is in our hearts, as we sit in the warmth of our comfortable homes, or alone, in the cold, by the doorway of the corner market.

OCTOBER ELEGY

By Paul Lewis

As a kid in upstate New York, I always had mixed feelings about the month of October. We were back in school again, and that part wasn’t so good. As such, “the Good Nuns,” as my Irish grandmother always referred to them—who never seemed so good to me—were lording it over us once more. Even so, the horrible shock of the September return to school was over and you were beginning to remember again how best to hide behind the kid in front of you, so as not to be called on in class. All this meant that at least you were getting used to things once more, after a summer of freedom.

On the plus side, there were the trees, which were glorious. In my neighborhood alone, you could see the brilliant red of brash, almost arrogant Sugar Maples, the soothing yellow of tall, wispy American Elms waving in the autumn wind, and the browns of less showy, but always stalwart Sycamores, dropping leaves that rustled like bits of dried paper that crunched as you stepped on them while walking along the street. And the air! Leaving behind the dusty, depressing sultriness of still-warm September, the October air had become crisp and clean and invigorating. As you went outside and walked down the steps of your stoop and looked up, you thought that the sky had never seemed so deep a blue.

There really was no escaping the feeling that something miraculous was happening, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on, but which was so magical, so otherworldly, and so elusive that, if you could somehow manage to capture it, in that one instant you knew your whole life would change. You would become this massive being of light and spirit, free of the cares of the earth, living an evanescent and ethereal life beyond that of any ordinary mortal being. And if the feeling lasted only for a moment, at least it gave you hope, a kind of assurance that you would not always be a child, utterly powerless and tossed about by the vicissitudes of dread and the fear of failure, and that someday you would grow into adulthood and make your own choices. And if you believed those adult choices to be free of the crippling contortions of restrictive rules and binding regulations that you felt so keenly, so much the better. A good thing it was, probably, that you hadn’t yet come to realize how life at every age brings its own enormities of limitations and confinements.

Remembering those Octobers within a soothing haze of romanticized nostalgia, it’s easy to forget just how murderously complex and full of gripping drama life could also be: my father’s anger and his drinking; my mother, always worried about money and how to make the next payment on an endless list of bills; and my own dread of the horrors of grammar school, a place where I never failed to feel incapable of keeping up with its continuing challenges. But then October would suddenly come once again to the rescue, at least temporarily. In the town where I grew up and in those years of the 1950’s, by mid-October the plate glass windows of the larger stores were painted over in Halloween scenes created by local high school art classes. Each group outdid the next in more frightening depictions of witches, zombies and monsters lurking in darkened cemeteries, where enormous and ominous full moons loomed in the night sky, framing the silhouettes of owls that looked down on headstones leaning and sinking into the crumbling earth of newly dug graves. There was a kind of magic in the air, and an anticipation of something to come. And while Halloween was never my favorite holiday, it did announce the not-far-off coming of Thanksgiving and Christmas—festivals of light and love and a kind of comfort.

For the moment, though, death seemed to be everywhere. As lovely as the trees themselves had been in early October, by the time Halloween came they had become bare, twisted skeletons. Here and there a single dried leaf might cling tenaciously to a branch, all the while writhing in the increasingly chilly wind. And afternoons, soon after we were let go from school, a cold darkness would begin to fall, even before we were called in for supper. No one doubted that, soon enough, the snow would fly, though not before trick-or-treaters ventured along darkened sidewalks, and brash teenagers threatened soapy windows, or worse, if candy wasn’t quickly handed over. Even at that age, I sensed that a mask worn by someone could transform that person, a friend or a classmate, somebody from just down the block, into a wholly different persona, a menacing and aggressive figure that had lost all sense of right and wrong; unrestricted, such a hidden presence was capable of anything. Maybe what I really saw was the wildness of my own burgeoning urges and desires, things I knew I had to control at all cost, lest I lose my own way, offend the Church, and wander forever in the wilderness.

October was like that. It could on the one hand lull you into thinking that you were made of light and of spirit, and then the next moment show you the untamed, savage side of who you were, a side that masked all you thought to be exquisite and unearthly and that risked dragging you down into the freshly dug grave of your most base and craven desires. The Druids of old celebrated the Festival of Samhain beginning on Oct. 31st, a liminal time when the veil between life and death became thin, and fairies, witches and demons freely roamed the earth. Food was typically set out to placate them, an obvious precursor to the treats later handed out that day, so as to avoid an encounter with life’s less welcome tricks. Shakespeare, too, likened this time of the year to death. In his sonnet number 73, he lists a long line of harbingers of the end, everything from falling leaves to the setting of the sun to the glowing embers of a dying fire. And yet, he ends with this hopeful couplet: “This thou perceives, which makes thy love more strong,/To love that well which thou must leave ere long.”

October reminds us of our mortality and warns us of a difficult winter to come, a time when we may have to struggle more, work harder. It begins in beauty, and ends in barrenness. Its opening days are still warm and filled with sunshine and light, and its last days are dark and promise yet more darkness to come. But it also shows us the glory of color and of clean, crisp air, and a light that somehow never shows itself at any other time of year. It brings to mind equally that beauty—as we normally think of it—is glorious, if fleeting, and that darkness and even death will surely come.

Living in the moment, seeing all of life as fecund and robust and full of its own kind of energy is what is called for. Was that the magic I sensed in the crisp air all those long years ago? What I didn’t know then, but I do now, is that the passing moment can be experienced in fullness. What seems ephemeral isn’t, at least not necessarily; instead, it can be eternal. Maybe what I saw that morning back then was a glimpse of eternity, showing itself in a second of time. Like October itself, such seconds can be their own kind of mask; or they can be a rich and luminous gateway, revealing what is, what was, and what always will be, forever and ever more.

MOTHER TERESA, POLITICS, VALUES AND WHAT IS OF ULTIMATE IMPORTANCE

By Paul M. Lewis

Formally, at least in the Catholic Church, a saint is a person who has led a holy and exemplary life and about whom an official proclamation has been made by the Pope that she or he is now in heaven, the latter evidenced by the fact that at least two authenticated miracles can be attributed to that individual’s intercession with God. Following these criteria, the Church declared just the other day that Mother Teresa of Calcutta (nowadays, the city is known as Kolkata) has been decreed a saint.

Yet, in spite of this official endorsement, controversy has continued to follow the new saint. There are those who argue against the wisdom of making a claim in favor of her saintly life, to say nothing of her actual sainthood. Their arguments are relatively well known. They include allegations of her having been willing to accept charitable contributions from sometimes highly questionable sources, a supposed over eagerness to hobnob with the rich and famous and powerful of the world, a marked tendency on the part of the nuns trained by her to refrain from administering medication that might have saved lives, or at least alleviated suffering—in favor of the goodness, even Godliness, of suffering—and, finally, attempts at overly enthusiastic, if not outright forced deathbed conversions of lifelong Hindus or Muslims to Christianity. Surely, if any one of these is true, it could be said there may be reason to question at least the first criterion of saintliness, that of having led a holy and exemplary life.

Having said all this, it is not my intention here to try to pass judgment on Mother Teresa. I admit to not having any certainty as to whether the allegations made against her, or the nuns of her order, are true or not; as much as some critics vehemently insist they are. And there are large numbers of people who truly revere her for what she has done and who now pray to her. What interests me, instead, is the complexity, the complications, and the controversies that come to us all as we lead our lives. Mother Teresa’s example is striking for the most part not only because she became famous, but also because her actions have had an outsized impact on many people’s lives.

Knotty and convoluted issues related to what is appropriate or inappropriate, good or bad, and right or wrong regarding our various chosen courses of action plague each of us in our everyday lives. Such choices run the gamut from the relatively small, for example, just how bluntly truthful any of us should be in our interaction with others, on to larger issues, such as whether or not Muslim women should be allowed to wear the hijab, or the burkini, in public. Exactly how accommodating, generally, should one culture be towards another in the face of prevailing opposing local norms, especially given the potential threat of violence; indeed, how obliging or amenable ought a culture be regarding any other way of thinking and acting, when there is a clear-cut clash of values? And there are larger questions still, such as who has the right to decide when a life should be considered viable—whether in the womb or after birth—or having to do with the taking of life generally, either in war or by way of a state-sanctioned death penalty? And what of our human relationship with the environment, with the very earth itself? Was it “put here for man’s use,” or do the animals, all of nature, have their own right to exist, totally separate from anything related to human beings?

Clearly, some people have a lot less trouble with moral ambiguity than others. We don’t have to look far in today’s political landscape to find people willing to condemn entire swaths of humanity because they come from a place somehow deemed to be “less than,” or because they are simply perceived to be too different from the numerically prevailing white population. Or just the other day, when it was reported that Kim Jong-un, the iron-fisted ruler of North Korea, condemned a high-ranking military man to death by firing squad because he was politically incorrect enough to slouch in his seat while the Great Leader was delivering a speech. And, lest we forget about religion with which we began this discussion, members of one faith are hardly immune from condemning millions of others to supposed hellfire because they are infidels or apostates or atheists. And to bring it back to Mother Teresa once more—again if what has been alleged is true—just how certain do you have to be of the righteousness of your religion before prevailing upon a man or woman, in the throes of the death agony, to renounce the beliefs of a lifetime in favor of your supposedly superior religion? Where exactly is common sense there, or simple human understanding, to say nothing of empathy, mercy, or compassion?

I guess it could be argued that it’s just all too human for us to believe that the conclusions we come to are the right ones. And to that extent, we may all be guilty of a blind belief in our own absolute rectitude. After all, isn’t this the very nature of what we mean by a value system, that is, that we possess an unshakable inner assurance in it, and a dogged confidence that our judgments equate to whatever is right and best for the world? Otherwise, how else would we have come to these conclusions in the first place, or why continue to hold to them? And if I am right in my values, than doesn’t it stand to reason that you are wrong in yours if you do not agree with me?

The problem with this argument is that values change, not just from one person to another, but sometimes from one stage in life to another (how many young liberals go on to become old conservatives?), from one culture to another, or from one historical era to another, and if that is the case, how exactly can we be assured that we are so absolutely right? Yet, most of us persist in doing just that. It seems to be almost a part of the human psyche, a kind of biological imperative, or at least an evolutionary accommodation that has proven itself to be somehow advantageous for the species. And yet, I keep coming back to my earlier question: what of understanding, tolerance, empathy, and compassion? Surely, these are equally human virtues. Where do they come in to play? Are they not perfectly legitimate, too, just as much as any others that can be named?

When it comes to living with other people, whether they be of a different language, culture, religion, political persuasion, sexual orientation, or simply a completely varying worldview in general, what may be of greatest use is an ability to negotiate, to adjust, to enter into a kind of give and take, and the occasional ability to back off a bit, a simple willingness to adjust and habituate. Dare I say, to compromise? It might even be said that this comes with a degree of maturity in life, that is, learning when it’s best to speak forthrightly, and when to make some accommodations. Although, admittedly, there can be a very fine line between diplomacy and not speaking up when one ought to. As Walt Whitman puts it, sometimes you’ve got to “stand up for the stupid and the crazy.” But he also cautions, “argue not about God.”

Following Whitman’s advice, I’ll keep my own counsel about whether or not Mother Teresa is “in heaven.” But I will, on the other hand, say that I think Donald Trump is a mean-spirited ogre of a man, who riles up the fears and hatreds of suffering people for his own aggrandizement and self-promotion. And anyone who doubts that humans have had a disastrously deleterious effect on the earth, our home, simply does not know what he’s talking about. In other words, sometimes I speak out about my values, and sometimes I choose not to. But I always act according to them.

At our innermost core—or so it is my belief, my value system—each of us is the very image of the Divine Spirit. That image sometimes gets hidden, forgotten one could say, by our overwhelming ego needs, our foolishness and our ignorance. And all too often our vaunted values arise out of this state, what’s referred to in Sanskrit as maya, or illusion. In the end, the best we can do is what Krishna suggests in the Bhagavad-Gita, that is, try to become one with Brahman, the One Indivisible. He, Krishna, then goes on to say that, in so doing, the individual who achieves this state becomes so blended that he or she “sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained.”

Now, there’s a heaven I wouldn’t mind inhabiting, with or without Mother Teresa. And there, I think, is a value no longer subject to change.