COSMIC MYSTERIES AND OUR NEED TO KNOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Watching Stephen Hawking’s “Genius” series on PBS recently has reminded me what fascinating topics theoretical physicists study. They specialize in asking such big questions as “Where did the universe come from?” and “Is there a center to the universe?” And while it’s true that there has always been a degree of contention in regard to how these questions are answered, there is at least general consensus on the Big Bang itself, that is, the very beginning of the universe. That term may be a bit misleading, however, in that physicists do not believe it to have been an actual explosion. In fact, the term Big Bang was coined as a kind of put down of the theory by an early doubter. Instead of an explosion, it was probably more of an almost inconceivably rapid expansion, followed immediately by what is called “an inflation,” indicative of the fact that the infant universe moved rapidly outward, expanding in all directions. And the universe continues to expand even now, 13.7 billion years after the initial expansion. No less a figure than Einstein, himself, long doubted the idea of an expanding universe, but even he finally came to accept it, due to the patient observations of another renowned scientist, the great astronomer Edwin Hubble.

How did the Big Bang come about in the first place? Where was it located? And doesn’t it make sense to think of it as having somehow occurred in what might be thought of as the center of the universe? These are all legitimate questions to ask. The answer to the first, that of how the Big Bang came about, is very simple: no one knows. In that sense, it becomes, at least for now and in the absence of further scientific break throughs, more or less a philosophical or a theological question, although naturally scientists do continue to explore it. Regarding the query having to do with the Big Bang being in the center of the universe, the problem it raises becomes a question of logic. To think in locational terms assumes there was some “place” to be. However, there could have been no place for the universe to begin in until there actually was a universe. In other words, how could there have been a physical place, before there was such thing as space to be in? This also means another way to think of it is that everywhere is the center of the universe.

Before the Big Bang, nothing at all existed. It’s extremely difficult for us to conceive of nothingness. Language itself begins to break down, but it’s clear that nothing cannot be “a thing.” The definition of nothing is “no thing,” a complete non-existence of whatever can be perceived by our senses. How can we imagine what this might be like? Some might suggest we can envision it in terms of outer space being a vacuum, that is, of it “containing nothing,” again, as if nothing could somehow be contained. But even that is not the case, since physicists now understand that space is actually filled with Dark Matter. And as much as Dark Matter is unperceivable, it is known to comprise some 80% of all of the matter in the universe. On the other hand, normal matter that can be seen (i.e. asteroids, comets, stars, planets, galaxies, cosmic gas, as well as you and I and all the creatures of the earth and on any of the other planets) therefore accounts only for about a fifth of the known universe.

Theoretical physics routinely deals with imponderables. It works at the edges, at the border between science and philosophy/theology, between what can be known empirically and what can be inferred, or imagined, or intuited. Take another question that physicists are currently studying, that of the multiverse. The idea is that there may be many universes aside from the one we live in. Some even suggest that evidence points to there possibly being an infinite number of these universes, all existing in parallel form. In part, this originates from studies done by the German physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger is one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics, which studies the mysterious workings of the micro world of atoms and subatomic particles. He posited that a quantum state is the sum, or the “superposition,” of all possible states, hypothesizing in his famous “cat experiment” that an imagined feline in a box could be both dead and alive, and that we simply point to one or the other state as a kind of convenience, a sort of book-keeping device, only knowing if it is one or the other when the box is opened and it is observed. Additionally, according to another famous student of the field, Werner Heisenberg, quantum particles can exist in multiple locations simultaneously. This is referred to as his Uncertainty Principle, whereby the location of a subatomic particle can be calculated, but not its speed; or the speed can be calculated, but not its location. Some subatomic particles even appear to spring automatically, if fleetingly, into existence from nothing. All this happens at the tiniest—the quantum—level.

At the macro level, on the other hand, String Theory has to do with the workings of gravity and the vastness of the universe, and may ultimately help explain both Dark Matter and Dark Energy (the latter being the mysterious force that is thought to drive the expansion of the universe). The holy grail of modern physics is to come up with a theory that would adequately explain the universe using both the laws of Quantum Mechanics and those of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which deals with the macro universe. So far, unfortunately, no genius physicist has yet been able to explain this so-called Grand Unification Theory.

As for the multiverse, speculation on that question has not yet risen to the level of an actual theory. In fact, it is useful to remember exactly what is meant, in scientific terms, by the word theory. What it is not, and what many non-scientists believe it to be since this is how the word is used in everyday speech, is a kind of guess—as in, “your theory (of whatever) is as good as mine.” Instead, scientifically, a theory is a system of ideas meant to explain something, based on principles independent of the thing being explained. Thus, we speak of the Theory of Evolution—which is not a guess at all, but a hypothesis that has been tested and retested over the years, and proven itself to be true beyond any reasonable doubt. This is also the case with Quantum Mechanics, whereas String Theory (admittedly, confusingly) has not yet been fully accepted by the scientific community as a whole.

So, we see from merely a short sketch that there are myriad puzzles, inconsistencies, and mysteries in the universe. Any number of others could be added, such as the inexplicable nature of Black Holes, and other singularities like the Big Bang itself. How the two are alike, or not alike, is as yet unknown. And what happens to Space-Time, when it enters into a Black Hole, if even light itself cannot escape its super gravitational pull? Does intelligent life exist on other planets? How did self-reflective consciousness come about? And what exactly is antimatter, which was created at the time of the Big Bang? In principle, when antimatter comes into contact with matter, the latter is annihilated. So, how do we exist? One possible explanation is because there is one extra particle of matter for every billion particles of anti-matter. And is this a matter of luck, or something more mysterious, more mindful?

Which ultimately brings us to the question of God, or if you prefer, some ultimately unknowable Universal Intelligence. How does he—or she, or it—fit into the picture? Does he exist? My own theory, to use the everyday vernacular form of the word, is that he does, and the way toward understanding him lies within, in private, not out there in the practices of organized religion. As Einstein once famously said: “Teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.”

To be sure, science can help point the way, by examining the mysteries of the universe that we somehow have an innate longing to comprehend. Even if we never get there by using the scientific method, or generally through the normal processes of the human mind, at least we know we are trying to elucidate these ultimate questions. And if, as I believe, there is a Mystery Beyond All Mystery, one we will never fully plumb with our ordinary minds, then I should think such a Divine Being would really be pleased with the efforts of his clever, curious and ever-striving creatures.

THE BENEFITS OF MEMORIZATION: OR HOW BEST TO GET A POEM

By Paul M. Lewis

I know of no better way of understanding a poem—I mean, of really getting it—than to memorize it. Yes, of course, just reading a piece of poetry is always good; and in rereading it several time one can certainly begin to comprehend at a deeper level what a particular piece, especially a complex and complicated one, is all about. But if you want to make a poem completely yours, learn it by heart.

This was something I first discovered while memorizing some of the sonnets of William Shakespeare. It all started more or less on a lark. I was spending a lot of time on various workout machines at the gym, treadmills mostly, and it soon enough became clear to me that this did not provide much mental stimulation. So, rather than stare at the inanity of the TV screen in front of me (thankfully, the sound is always turned off), and more or less by way of self-defense, I took to memorizing a few of my favorite poems. It was mostly a way of keeping my mind active and interested, present, you might say. I began with a few by Gerard Manley Hopkins, and eventually I moved on to Shakespeare.

The first time I read one of Shakespeare’s sonnets, however, I admit I had to wonder a little what exactly it was about. I’m not a Shakespearian scholar, only an interested amateur, one who likes to go to his plays and listen to the sonorousness of that glorious language. That said, it’s not just sound that’s important; after all, the language also does mean something. Take his sonnet number five, as an example. In it, we read, “Were not summer’s distillation left/A liquid prisoner pent in walls of glass.” Now, what in the world does that mean? As I practiced and learned the poem by heart, it became clearer that Shakespeare was talking about perfume made from flowers and stored in a glass vial. Then, going on to the last two lines of the same sonnet, the traditional rhyming couplet, he writes: “For flowers distilled, though they with winter meet,/Leese but their show; their substance still lives sweet.” Again, words not necessarily immediately understandable to our modern ear. But with some practice, it soon enough became clear that Shakespeare was talking about the stored up scent of flowers (i.e. perfume), and though the flowers may lose their outward beauty, the preserved scent still gives great pleasure any time of the year, even in winter.

Of course, if you’re not particularly drawn to poetry in the first place, to the unique and exquisite way it can condense and refine language, creating its own phantasmagoric world, then I suppose a legitimate enough question is, why bother at all? Why put the effort and the mental energy into memorizing something that may not appeal? I get that, and have no argument against it. But still, if you consider for a moment just how magnificent the language itself can be, how the compactness of its meaning is so striking, so astounding, how the rhythm, the sheer vibratory energy of the poem can be so surprising, so breathtaking, so extraordinary, then you may come to a deeper and greater appreciation of what it is.

I have always felt that language is a powerful tool; that its sound, its throbbing vibrato, the pulsation of it, has the ability to make changes in the world. I’m not necessarily talking about changes “out there,” making things appear or disappear, for example (although, who knows, maybe someone with a profound enough ability to concentrate can make things happen that ordinary mortals cannot?). But at very least, what I am talking about is the ability it has to make changes in our own consciousness, that is, to lift one’s thoughts from the mundane and the everyday to the greater heights of the ethereal and the otherworldly. Shakespeare himself seems to suggest this in another sonnet, the famous number 29. Here, he begins with a long list of things that have put him (the speaker) into “disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” In that list, we come across such items as wishing that he were “…like to one more rich in hope,/Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,/Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,/With what I most enjoy contented least.”

Now, it can be said, as lovely as the language is here, it is nonetheless about a kind of depressed state of being; and therefore it might be thought of as not particularly uplifting. However, as so often happens in the structure of these lovely sonnets, beginning with the ninth line, things take a turn: “Yet, in these thoughts, myself almost despising,/Haply I think on thee,” and then his state does change. But who is this “thee” that Shakespeare is speaking of, by the way? Many scholars believe it references the beloved youth, the young man to whom the first 126 sonnets are addressed. No one knows who this was, or even if it was an actual young man whom Shakespeare loved, or a compilation of people, or even a symbol of something else. And because this part of it is less than certain, it clears the way for each of us to insert our own “thee” into that space. Whether that turns out to be a person, an ideal, a hope for the future, a wish for greater things to come, or even—if you prefer—some spiritual being, who may help us be better than we think we’re capable of, all that can be left to us.

The important point is that, with mere words—albeit powerful ones—there actually is a way of uplifting one’s own consciousness. Indeed, there may be no better way of demonstrating this than by quoting verbatim here the rest of this lovely poem and letting it speak its overwhelming beauty directly:

 

“…then my state,

Like to the lark at break of day arising

From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven’s gate;

         For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings

         That then I scorn to change my state with kings.”

There are other poems, too, that uplift and that change how we think, how we see the world. William Butler Yates does it all the time. In his “Lake Isle of Innisfree” we read, “I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree.” What can Innisfree refer to except that inner space wherein we feel ourselves to be liberated (“in-is-free”)? Or Gerard Manley Hopkins, who in his “Pied Beauty” speaks, although perhaps less directly and more figuratively, of all things spotted and mixed: “Glory be to God for dappled things,/For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;/For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim.” He ends with this laudatory attribution: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:/Praise him.”

Coming back full circle to where I began, as lovely as it is simply to read any of this, the memorization of it somehow serves to incorporate the language into our psychic DNA. It takes the immense beauty of the words, and of how the words work for and with one another, and the meaning, and all that is beyond mere meaning, and instills and integrates it into the very elemental fabric of our being. In this way, we too arise and go to Innisfree, to this place far beyond the intellectual, beyond the ken of everyday understanding, and we assimilate it into the fiber of who we are. As Yates says in the same poem, speaking of such a spot:

“And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,

Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;

There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,

And evening full of the linnet’s wings.”

Who would not want to live in such a place? And is it really possible to do so? To be sure, the world out there has its grandeur and allure, though who does not also see its terrible ugliness, as well? But the deep world of poetry, learned by heart, made one’s own and fully taken into one’s own private inner sanctum, such that one is not merely saying the words but living them, experiencing them in the fullness of their totality, transforms us in a way that art, at its highest and very best, as well as beauty, and truth, and love, and even spirituality, has always been meant to do.

THE QUESTION OF IDENTITY: WHO ARE WE, AFTER ALL?

By Paul M. Lewis

Whom do we identify with? That’s a basic question all of us may want to spend some time thinking about. It might seem at first to be of relatively small importance, too abstract to even mean anything in the real world. But it turns out the answer to it influences a lot about how we live our everyday lives.

Let me start off with an example from my own life. When I was young, I thought of myself as a good Catholic boy. At least, that is what I strove to be, possibly more so even than many of my classmates at St. Patrick’s Grammar School (yes, in those days, they were thought of as schools where grammar was taught, meaning not just how best to construct a sentence, but more widely, how to comport oneself in the world, how to construct a life). At St. Patrick’s, there were good boys and bad boys, the latter (mostly Italian—no one said Italian-Americans in those days) being those who flaunted the rules and wore their hair in a certain style the nuns most definitely disapproved of called a DA, or duck’s ass. They were the rebels, the tough guys, the non-conformists, the group I didn’t belong to (as much as I may have secretly wanted to be one of them).

Instead, I hung out with those who were less outwardly rebellious. But even these boys swore, spent a lot of time talking about sex, and generally didn’t take religion all that seriously. I tried to identify with them, but somehow it never came off very naturally for me. Inwardly, I disapproved of (could it be said that I feared?) their language, their topics of conversation, and their general disinterest in religious teachings. I suppose some might have thought I was a bit of a pill. The one saving grace I probably had was that, even at a young age, I instinctively knew enough about how to get along with people for them to accept me as one of their own. But, unbeknownst to them, I would often sneak off and kneel in prayer in the darkened interior of St. Patrick’s Church, or attend Friday night Benediction (a traditional Catholic devotional service). No wonder then, at age fourteen, I decided to enter a monastery.

Even there, however, I found boys who did not quite live up to my standards, which were very high! Yet people still appeared to like me because I was by nature a peacemaker and someone who tried to see the best in others, while openly criticizing no one. A big part of my not criticizing others stemmed from the awful realization that I knew I was far from the idealized self I imagined I should be. How could I blame others for not being somehow better, when the very faults I recognized in them I also saw all too clearly in myself—in fact, far worse ones? There were things the Church said not to do which I did, and many others which, while I might not have done them, I earnestly wanted to. And if I wanted it so much, wasn’t that tantamount to actually doing it? In short, the standards I believed the Church established for me, and those that I freely embraced on my own, were mountains so high I could never hope to fully scale them. In that sense, I consistently set up my own failure.

And so, my principal focus of identification in those years was with an idealized Church, one that I believed would allow me to lead a life I felt I was supposed to lead. It was a kind of umbilical cord that provided an association, a connection with an entity that I felt to be greater than myself, and which at the same time gave me a kind of scaffolding upon which to construct a life that I otherwise felt to be constantly on the verge of collapsing disastrously out of all control.

It worked, too, at least for a while, even if not completely, because I often felt I failed at the high standards I had created for myself. As such, and in keeping with Catholic teaching, I thought of myself as a sinner. Still, the superstructure did provide me with a consistent foundation upon which I endeavored to build something. Until, of course, it didn’t. The first problem with what might be called the “idealized external” is that it is, by definition, outside of oneself; and the second is that it, too, eventually shows itself to be less than perfect. Even I could see that the luster had begun to tarnish, that the Church was showing a darker, seedier, more squalid side. After all, it was made up of people, and people are far from perfect. Aside from being sometimes good and helpful and even loving, they—we, all of us—are also more than capable of selfishness, cruelty, prejudice, cynicism, arrogance, egotism, deceitfulness, anger, even violence. And the list could, of course, go on.

What I am saying is that any organization, any human group, no matter how good its intentions (in particular, its initial intentions, until time and usage begin to break them down), is so flawed we ought to think long and hard about fully identifying with it. And not just religious organizations; other groups as well could certainly be included, such as political parties, philanthropies, environmental groups, sports teams, cultural associations, as well as organizations affiliated with labor, the military etc.

In fact, the core of the problem comes exactly down to the question of the depth of one’s identification with the external. My childhood relationship with the Catholic Church, and with the particular monastic tradition I belonged to, was so all engulfing as to obscure everything else. I took it to be all there was, and when I eventually began to realize that life was writ far larger than that, more complex, messier, dirtier, more intent, more insistent on its own needs than anything I had previously thought possible, then I saw that this first object of my identification could no longer contain everything that I was.

But what could? That is the very question I have struggled with for many years. It is a question all of us must face. What I have always looked for is a wider, a deeper, more all-inclusive connectivity. Ultimately, I came to believe that this was my own relationship with my self; or, I should say, with my Self, the capitalized “s” indicative of some part of my being (and not just mine, of course, but everyone’s), beyond mere ego identity, that both includes all the things of everyday concern and, at the same time, goes beyond that.

I take great comfort in a particular passage from one of my favorite scriptures, the Bhagavad-Gita. If ever there has been a more insightful statement on identification, in the largest sense of that term, essentially on who we are, then I don’t know what it might be. Speaking of union with Brahma (the Creative Principle of the Godhead), Krishna says: “He so vowed, so blended, sees the Life-Soul resident in all things living, and all living things in the Life-Soul contained…Who dwell in all that lives and cleaves to Me in all, if a man sees everywhere—taught by his own similitude—one Life, one Essence, in the evil and the good, hold him a yogi, yea, well perfected!”

Taught be our own similitude—that’s a very interesting phrase. The language may sound a bit obscure, but put more simply, what it means is that we see in others exactly what is already within us, namely both evil and good; actually, more to the point, some messy, chaotic intermingling of the two. That is what human beings look like, at least on the outside. Within, who knows? Perhaps something bigger, more perfect, something that connects with all of life, and at the same time transcends it. Maybe this is what it means to realize who we truly are. And, if so, that’s what I want to identify with.

WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO DIE A NATURAL DEATH?

BY PAUL M. LEWIS

How best to care for elderly relatives is an issue many people are struggling with these days. It’s a subject close to home for my partner and me, as well, given that his mother is in hospice care and has been for the past six months. In addition, we know at least half a dozen others, good friends, who are struggling in their own ways with taking care of elderly parents, whether they live close by or at a greater distance. We are, ourselves, some 500 miles away from my partner’s mother and make the nine-hour trip there at least once a month. Another friend undertakes a seven-hour drive to see his mother every week, arranging to work a full-time schedule in four days and compacting Mom’s care, plus the 14-hour round-trip, into his Friday-to-Sunday weekends. Yet another has his 93 year old mother living in his home, with him as 24 hour-a-day caregiver. And one other close friend is overseeing the care of both of his parents simultaneously, one of whom is in a skilled nursing facility, while the other still lives, at least technically, on her own, but needs almost constant care. Additionally, there are still others who have it much worse, those who have to combine eldercare with raising small children, for example, or those who are struggling with their own physical ailments, while attempting to deal with the illnesses of aged parents.

In one sense, this is not entirely new. To an extent, families have always dealt with taking care of the elderly. At one point in our history, it was not at all uncommon for grandma or granddad to live in the same home with a grown daughter or son and their family. People simply contrived to take care of the older person, as he or she got sicker and closer to death. What has changed, however, and changed dramatically, in the last few decades is the length of time that people have been living. Not so long ago—certainly within my lifetime and in the lifetimes of many of my contemporaries—common diseases would have caused the death of many an elderly relative. In my own family, both of my grandfathers had died before I was born, and neither of my grandmothers lived much beyond their mid 70’s. During the 1950’s and 60’s, when they died, that was relatively common, and simply seen as part of the rhythm of life that comes to its expected end. I am not suggesting that the loss of a loved one was any easier, or less traumatic, in those years. The point is only that it often happened earlier in that person’s lifespan, and consequently in the lives of their offspring and caregivers.

Today, diseases and other ailments that, only a few decades ago, might well have carried off an individual are now regularly treated by modern medicine in such a way as to prolong the lives of those suffering from them. I am speaking of afflictions such as heart disease, stroke, pneumonia, even some forms of cancer, to say nothing of helping those seriously injured in devastating accidents that at one time might have very well brought about death. Again, I want to make it clear I’m not at all suggesting that this is bad. Of course, we all want those whom we love to go on living. What I am saying is that the longer a person lives, especially into what we now think of as extreme old age, that is, the nineties and beyond, the more difficult it becomes not only for them, but for those whose lot it falls to to care for them, particularly as their quality of life becomes more and more compromised. And the burden of this care can be a heavy one, physically, financially, emotionally, and simply in terms of time and energy.

Ultimately, the larger and more overriding question may be this: What does it mean to die a natural death? Many people have decided that they do not wish to live on life support and have issued what is commonly referred to as a DNR—a Do Not Resuscitate order. Both my partner and I have done so, as has his mother. Even so, the question is not as clear-cut as it may at first seem. There are endless gradations involved, gray areas, in between places when it falls to the person who is acting for another to decide if “this is really it.” If an elderly mother, for example, has a stroke, who is to say if she can come back from it and regain much of her strength and mobility? Or if a father in his 80’s has an abdominal aneurysm, should he be operated on in order to relieve the potentiality of it rupturing? Of course he should, many of us would say. And yet, this was exactly the case for a good friend of mine. It turned out his daughters decided for him, as his mind was already somewhat compromised and he had difficulty fully understanding the ramifications of decisions. Yet, after the operation, he slipped more and more into a world inaccessible to anyone, and lingered for another year in that twilight state. This is not to blame his daughters, who did what they thought right, but was it what my friend really wanted?

At what point do we decide, either for ourselves or for those we are looking after, that no more medical help ought to be given, other than palliative, non-curative care? And what of people who have decided that the time has come, choose hospice care, and yet somehow still cling to life, in essence forgetting that they may have made such a decision? And if they made that decision while in sound mind, but now appear to no longer be capable of making fully informed, rational judgments, what then? What are we to do if, having made one decision, they change their mind again, back and forth sometimes even from day to day, or from week to week? These are questions that cry out for answers that we do not always have at the ready.

Could we even say that the very notion of a natural death has been so changed by the advances of modern medicine that we no longer exactly understand what we mean by it? I can offer myself as an example. Nine years ago, after having had a second heart attack, I underwent angioplasty. The doctors miraculously inserted two stents into the arteries of my heart, and I seem to be fine today. If they had not done so, there is every possibility that I might well have died long ago of a heart attack, as my mother did in 1970, at age 50, much before such things as stents were even dreamed of. It could be said she died a natural death. Or did she? But what of the fact that she smoked for most of her life, that she worried constantly about everyone, her children in particular, and that she worked hard in a factory much of her adult life? Didn’t all this contribute to her early demise, and if so, how “natural” is that?

Still bigger, in a sense more global, questions could be asked. What about poverty and its consequences, such as lack of access to medical care, living in overcrowded conditions and susceptibility to infectious diseases, the inability to buy healthy food and have clean water to drink. Even lack of education can affect a person’s lifespan, as we have seen when women tend to have fewer babies the more education they get. Is it natural to die while having an eighth or ninth child?

And while this may seem to have led us relatively far afield from the topic of eldercare, what I am suggesting is that it all contributes to our understanding of the overarching question of what it means to die a natural death. Indeed, in the world of the 21st century, it is more of a conundrum than ever. Do not resuscitate, yes, of course! Few of us would wish to linger on life support, while living essentially in a coma (although even here there are exceptions, as many of us may remember from the Terri Schiavo case).

All too often, the choices are not cut and dry. It is difficult enough for each of us to make choices when it comes to our own lives. Do we opt for chemotherapy, for example, if diagnosed with cancer, given its terrible side effects and the likelihood, or not, of its working? And it is even less clear when needing to make such decisions for someone else. Should we have told the emergency room doctor to do everything possible for Mom or Dad after that stroke? Is their current quality of life enough to have justified that decision, even though a DNR was on record? And add to this the fact that such decisions must often be made on the spot, amid the terrible haze of emotional trauma, when one’s own judgment may not be as clear and dispassionate as we might otherwise wish.

There are few clear paths through the maze of such questions. It may be that the best any of us can wish for in taking care of others is to follow our hearts, with the hope of an informed intellect and, with luck, perhaps even some clarity and wisdom. We all wish that, when the time comes to shuffle off “this mortal coil,” as they used to say in my Catholic youth, we may not linger, and instead exit with a measure of grace and dignity. Yet, no one is assured of what might be called a clean and clear-cut ending. Do we get the death we deserve, or the one that we need? Should it be conscious; or do we hope for a silent slipping away while asleep?

Maybe the best preparation for a natural death is for us to not be so concerned about it at all. In Hindu thought, there exists the notion of God’s “Lila,” the idea that all of creation, including life and death, is part of the divine play, with Spirit being the only true Reality. There is comfort in this view, and perhaps even great wisdom. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad-Gita: “Mourn not for those that live, nor those that die. Nor I, nor thou, nor any one of these ever was not, nor ever will not be, forever and forever more.” And if that is the case, then, in the end, maybe death itself ought not to matter so much.

 

THE BIG CON

Sawmill Barn Art Gallery exterior horiz 2010 IMGP1612

Living deep in the woods of South Central PA offers some respite against the constant onslaught of “The Big Con,” which is so all-encompassing that it is hard to see until we step back, become still, and gain some quiet perspective.

by Kevin L Miller

Maria Konnikova’s book “The Confidence Game” is right up my alley. It’s all about how con artists succeed and the ways in which all of us are susceptible to their manipulations. It dovetails very neatly with a big topic that I have been mulling over for months now — how we all get schnookered into the biggest confidence game of them all: “The Social Order.” Back in the ’60s, we counterculture types used to call it “The System,” and we looked for ways to “turn on, tune in, and drop out.” It took me 50 years to get there, but I am finally a hermit in the woods, turning on, tuning in and dropping out of what I consider to be an enormous, elaborate LIE — “The Grand Social Contract.” It isn’t real. It’s a con, designed by wealthy, powerful sociopaths at the top of the corporate/ military/ industrial complex to persuade us to give our lives to their even greater enrichment and aggrandizement. And for my money, you may as well throw in organized religion as well. God! I wish I had figured it out 40 or 50 years ago. But I’m a slow study and a late bloomer, I guess. Now, at age 66, I’m finally waking up.

For me, one of the key passages in “The Confidence Game” is: “Human beings don’t like to exist in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity. When something doesn’t make sense, we want to supply the missing link. When we don’t understand what or why or how something happened, we want to find the explanation. A confidence artist is only too happy to comply — and the well-crafted narrative is his absolute forte.

The “Social Contract” is the comforting narrative that assures our anxious hearts that if we play by the rules of “The System” everything will seem real, right, and secure… as it should be. If we behave in school and don’t question our teachers and all the assumptions behind our education, we will position ourselves for a good career in a respected profession. During those professional years, if we buy all the corporate/ military/ industrial and organized religion cons, and promise to be good team players who question nothing, we will achieve the “American Dream” of material comfort. Never mind that the 20 richest Americans hold more of the wealth than the lowest 50% of the population. We are told that we should not mind that the top 1% are getting exponentially wealthier and more powerful while the middle class is disappearing. After all… We have our home, car, TV, digital gadgets, appliances and credit cards. We should be satisfied. What’s good for the wealthiest will trickle down to us. A lie.

Miller Walking Proudly in Our Winter Coats 2004 11x14 018

“The System” promises us that if we put away a lot of money for “security in old age” and buy into one of a million “Disneylands of Death” that dot the American landscape like a pox, we will have a fulfilling old age and a pleasant death, especially if we invest in long-term care insurance. Instead, we wake up one morning to discover, as my 91-year-old Dad says, that we have “fallen into a trap from which there is no escape.” We are prisoners with no rights or freedoms in a beautifully landscaped and well-appointed death camp that offers very few comforts or joys in life. I know. I am living half of each week in one of those death camps now, trying to make life bearable for my captive parents, who, like the rest of the world playing the game by all the rules, will give up their entire excruciatingly saved fortune to pay exorbitant prices for this lack of sufficient care and profoundly low quality of life. It’s all a LIE!

The system is a LIE — a con game — a charade, and we have all been taken in by it. One of the clearest proofs that it is a con is what happens when you try to drop out. People around you get very angry. They tell you that you CANNOT do that. They feel rejected and criticized because you are choosing not to play the game anymore — the game to which they have given everything. Ultimately many of them reject you, because you are so threatening to their belief that “The System” is real and worthy of the sacrifice of every life. They shake their heads and whisper amongst themselves that you have lost your mind. You have become unbalanced. If you try to tell them that the Emperor is wearing no clothes — that they are working for the benefit of sociopathic con artists — they turn away and vote against their own best interests, for all the candidates of “The System” — Trump, Cruz, Hillary, Bush. And when the fabric of “The System” seems about to unravel, they do what G W Bush told us to do. They “go shopping” and give all their money to “The Man” (another term we had for the perpetrators of the big con back in the ’60s.) Worst of all, the materialistic con game in which we have all invested our lives, has poisoned the Earth and insured our ultimate destruction. We have sold our children’s future, their birthright, to the highest bidders, and they are exercising their option to cash it in.

So what’s the answer? Well, there IS no answer ultimately except what is Ultimate — Spirit. But when it comes to daily life on this mud ball the answers are always within the questions. And until we become willing to endure our own anxiety and insecurity and dive into the process of questioning everything every day, we will live a lie and perpetuate the con. Unless we become willing very soon to turn away from “The System” as it currently operates, and create an entirely new kind of lifestyle in harmony with the Earth and Spirit, humanity will become victims of The 6th Mass Extinction and the massive con that we call our “Social Contract.”

I’m as susceptible as anyone to the seductive lie of materialism, if not more so. After all, I worked for over 25 years as a facilitator, artist, and consultant to Fortune 500 companies seeking to invent new products and strategies to perpetuate “The System” of omnivorous materialism. When I get hungry enough, I still do some of that, if the specific project is not too heinous. The big con still takes me in, now and then, in all sorts of ways. It’s hard to divorce myself from the ubiquitous “Social Order.” That’s why I’ve chosen the life of a hermit in the woods. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a million times… maybe I ought to consider a different way of life and a new system of “reality” that doesn’t surrender all my treasure and blood to the sociopathic con artist hierarchy. Yes, this choice has left me floating alone in space. But I can see things more clearly from here, and the stillness is exquisite.

I encountered a friend the other day who was wearing a T-shirt that said, “If I’m not moving, I’m dead.” I looked at him in his T-shirt and said, “That’s the difference between you and me. I’m not fully alive until I become still.” We are opposites. I don’t know what the answers are, but I am finding life lived amongst the questions more and more compelling and rewarding. The deeper the questions, the more profound and beautiful the stillness.

Peace, -k

TRYING TO KEEP AN EYE ON THINGS

By Paul M. Lewis

You know you’re getting old when… I suppose there’s an endless string of completions that could be made to that sad beginning.

I was faced with one of my own the other morning when I woke up, opened my eyes, and saw a weird kind of amorphous, squiggly, circular outline dancing in the center of my vision. I remember saying to myself, “I don’t think that was there yesterday, was it?” As if some other person, other than the I of the dancing squiggle, might have been there to answer. The reply came back swiftly enough as a fairly definite “no, not that I recall!”

So, what to do, I wondered. Should I just ignore it and hope really hard that it would go away? This is a strategy that has worked for me in the past, sometimes with better results than others, to be sure. Or should I mention it to my partner? That, I knew, could have only one consequence: he would insist that I call the eye doctor as soon as his office opened up and try to get an appointment. And not that he wouldn’t have been right about it. Sometimes I may have the tiniest tendency to procrastinate, especially when it comes to dealing with doctors.

In this case, however, it was clear even to me that I really had to act. The background is that, for whatever reasons of genetics, or karma, or just the simplest of unfortunate happenstances, I was born with amblyopia in one eye. Sometimes called “lazy eye,” amblyopia is a condition wherein the brain favors the stronger eye over the weaker one. It can be corrected, if caught in childhood, which mine unfortunately was not. This means that my vision today mostly relies on my one good eye. I’m more or less legally blind in the other, and it was of course the good eye that now displayed the wavy lines.

I won’t go into a lot of detail about the visit to the doctor’s office. Suffice it to say that I did get in the same day, and he told me that this is just something that happens as people get older. Something about the vitreous humour, the clear gel between the lens and the retina, pulling away from the back of the eye. Most of the time, the moving circle that results eventually goes away, but you never know how long it may take, and if there are other symptoms, worse ones (e.g., exploding lights, whole darkened areas), then I needed to call him anytime, night or day, which I have to admit got my attention. I pictured myself no longer able to drive a car, maybe even not able to go to the gym anymore because I couldn’t make out the machines, or at least the buttons and levers you need to make the machines operate. I imagined bumping into grumbling people, while I stood there mumbling, “Oh, very sorry, but I can’t see a damn thing.” And what about reading? My God, what about reading?

The good news is that my worst fears have not come true, at least not yet. The darkened outline of the jostling circle seems to be diminishing. As a result, I’m having fewer fantasies about running into people while attempting to get on the treadmill. Still, all this makes me wonder: Is the body beginning to fall apart? In one sense, I suppose the answer is as simple and direct as, yes, absolutely! It could be said that the body begins to fall apart as soon as we’re born. It’s just that the process starts to get more apparent when you enter into your 70’s. Who ever called these the golden years?

All of this made me reflect further about the whole notion of what it means to fall apart. There’s a scientific term referring to this sort of thing that I have long been fascinated by. It’s called “entropy.” Stephen Hawking defines entropy as “a measure of the disorder of a physical system.” He goes on to talk about entropy as it relates to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which he defines as “the law stating that entropy always increases and can never decrease.”

That’s technical speak, of course, but here’s my take, using less scientific verbiage. What we’re talking about is the increasing unavailability of a system’s energy source and the gradual decline of that system into disorder. In other words, the demise of the body’s physical energy, the slow and steady contracting of the circle of life, ending in the diminution of our physical abilities as we age. When we’re young and full of energy, we’re eager to explore the world, to make our mark, to do something that makes a difference. With age, the energy it takes to do such things becomes less available. In extreme old age, or catastrophic illness (whichever comes first), we no longer have any energy at all to expand outwardly. Everything becomes focused inward.

This is what it means for a body when entropy begins to set in. At first, the gel of the eye pulls away from the back of the socket, creating peculiar shadowy shapes. If we’re lucky, that eventually dissipates. If not, it pulls away, tearing the retina and causing permanent damage to your ability to see and interact with the world out there. But note the part about being lucky. Is it really true, does chance, or random happening, have anything to do with entropy? It might in the detail of it, that is, in terms of how things happen (such as wavy lines in front of your eyes, or something else), but not in terms of its ultimate eventuality. As Hawking says, entropy always has its way.

Even so, the bigger issue isn’t so much about it simply happening, but about whether or not there is a larger, a greater scheme of things, a plan that our lives follow that has a meaning we can point to, beyond the stark imposition of natural law in our lives. These are questions that science has nothing to do with. Does religion, or philosophy, or even mysticism? That’s a question only each of us can answer on his or her own.

Who knew that waking up one fine day and seeing zigzaggy, undulating lines could bring about such thoughts? Even if the lines do go away, as I think mine are, or eventually will, it leaves me to wonder when some other morning will come when I might wake up and something is there that won’t go away. When will entropy finally catch up with my personal system, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics begin to exert its final, inexorable effects? As in physics, so in life, there are no reprieves from such laws.

Steven Hawking comes to mind yet again while reflecting on all of this. There’s someone who really understands entropy, not just in the abstract, scientific sense, but in terms of what it has done to his body. Talk about disorder and the break down of a physical system! How has he handled it? How has he managed to hold things together all these years? I don’t know him, but I can only imagine that it is surely with determination, definitely with dignity, and probably even with a measure of humor.

To me, this raises the question of whether there’s an even more fundamental law of the universe, one that charges us with facing our inevitable disbanding, the failing of our personal physical universe, and the release of the atoms of our bodies into the cosmos; in other words, the dissolution of our bodies. Human laws can be broken, even if there may be consequences to pay. The physical laws of the universe cannot be. They are inexorable, fixed forever, inevitable, utterly inescapable.

Whether there are yet other laws still, higher ones if you will, that require us to face ultimate questions of meaning, of purpose, or of cosmic design, is again up to each of us to answer on our own. But in the end, what could be more worth our time to look into? My own hope is that, maybe someday, I will get to see beyond the entropy of physical systems, past the universal laws of dissolution and disintegration into something higher and grander, something permanent and unmoving, beyond questions of unwinding or decay. Call these laws what you will, the word matters little, but this is what I would like to catch a glimpse of, wonky eye and all.

THE POPE’S CALL TO ACTION–MUCH THAT IS GOOD, AND SOME THAT IS LEFT OUT

By Paul M. Lewis

Pope Francis’ encyclical, “Laudato Si” (meaning “Praise be”), is a stirring reminder of the harm that human beings are doing to the environment in which we live and a call to action for us to change. In doing so, he has incurred the ire of climate change disbelievers, who claim that there is no credible evidence at all that the globe is warming, or that, if it is warming, it’s because of normal climate cycles as seen in the past, and that humans have nothing whatsoever to do with these changes. Pope Francis addresses these criticisms upfront when he says: “Numerous scientific studies indicate that the major part of global warming in recent decades is due to the high concentration of greenhouse gas…emitted above all because of human activity.”

It should be noted that the pope is speaking as a religious leader with a specific point of view, using the language of scripture and of Catholic theology, and not necessarily as a liberal politician or climate change activist. That said, it is true enough that there are times when the ideas, and even the terminology, of these various groupings may overlap and agree with one another. And this can only be for the good. An example of such a convergence is when Pope Francis talks about the grave implications of climate change. “Each year,” he points out, “sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever,” or again when he says that access to safe drinkable water is “ a basic human right.” These are areas of concurrence wherein politicians (most, at any rate), scientists, and climate activists can readily agree with the leader of the Catholic Church. Even so, it’s worth noting the essential anthropocentric nature of the pope’s statements. Animals are presented as creatures that humans will or will not see, not as creatures with their own right to live and prosper apart from human concerns, and water is a thing for human consumption. This may sound like mere quibbling within the larger context of the aims of such an important encyclical and the ultimate good it may bring about, but it does shed some light on a particular point of view. Humans may be the source of the problem, and of the solution, but they are nonetheless still very much at the center of things.

The major environmental argument used by the pontiff, the encasement in which it is packaged, is essentially a moral one. This fits in quite well with the general themes of his papacy, namely, care for the poor and dispossessed and respect for life. He points out time and again in the encyclical that those most affected by the disastrous warming of the globe, initially so at least, are those who live on the margins of society, those who do not have the time, the money, or the resources to work on mitigating the ill effects that will come, in ways that the more affluent of the globe might be able to deflect (again, at least until things get to the point where even the rich are overwhelmed). He castigates—rightly so—the selfishness and greediness of human beings in wanting more and more, far beyond what is needed even for what might be called a normally comfortable life, and for living in bubbles of technology that ever increasingly cut us off from most of the natural world. And as such, although it may not be easy, he urges us to make changes in how we live and in the amount we consume: “Every effort to protect and improve our world entails profound changes in lifestyles, models of production and consumption, and the established structures of power which today govern societies.”

The ethos of the modern world, in general, comes in for blistering criticism. There is, the pope tells us, an ever-increasing desire on the part of human beings for instant gratification, and a growing self-obsession that always puts the individual first, not just before other people, but well in front of any other living creature. He blames this on the excesses of individualism, and on the insistence that the “I” must always come before the “we.” Happiness is too often seen as depending almost entirely on the fulfillment of one’s own needs and desires, rather than on any kind of open and sharing inclusion in the collective. I have no quarrel with any of this. I also believe that we humans have far too often overshot the boundaries of our own impulses and cravings. The world, as a result, can no longer sustain the growing demands of individuals who are inordinately and unhealthily interested in acquiring more and more, in order to feel as though they are full and complete.

But what I do hold issue with in regard to the pope’s environmental declamation is what he leaves out. Nothing is said in the encyclical, for example, suggesting a cutting back on the consumption of meat, which would immediately decrease the number of animals raised for human consumption. Not only are current practices unsustainable at present rates in terms of how to feed these animals (in general, it takes 20 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of edible beef), but it also does not address the enormous problem of the emission of methane from animal waste. Estimates at the lower end of the range suggest that livestock account for a minimum of 18% of global greenhouse gas. Some experts put that estimate far higher—at close to 50%. And don’t forget that methane has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2.

Even more importantly, the pontiff omits any mention of the overwhelmingly devastating effects that the sheer numbers of people have on global ecosystems. Nowhere in “Laudato Si” do we read that it is time for humans to have fewer children. Nor does the pope say a word about the Church’s continued emphasis on banning all forms of artificial birth control, or indeed, on its unyielding insistence that such methods are outrightly sinful. How can he in good conscience leave out such an obviously crucial component in a rational, and even a moral, effort to argue against the human-induced warming of the globe? The world currently has 7.3 billion people in it. Realistic projections regarding growth put the global population at 9.6 billion by 2050, and at somewhere between 11 and 12 billion by the end of the century. How, in anyone’s calculations, can it be said that this squares with the “basic human right” for drinkable water, or for the “thousands of plant and animal species” which our children will never see? Are uncontrolled rates of birth not their own kind of excessive human self-centeredness?

Clearly, this is an important omission, as it obviously does not align well with Catholic doctrine or belief. And yet, in spite of such an extremely unfortunate exclusion, we must pleased with what the pope has said. Very few global leaders have taken on this vital issue as head on as he has, and he is to be congratulated and thanked for doing so. We can only hope that the moral authority of his person and his position will bring about an open and honest dialog regarding what we need to do and the changes that must be made. The poor surely are at greatest immediate risk, to say nothing of the creatures of the earth who have every bit as much a right to live and prosper as do humans. But beyond that, all life—human and non-human alike, that of the rich as much as that of the poor—is potentially threatened. As the pope aptly concludes: “Nobody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age. But we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur.”

This has been said before, but perhaps never more forcefully, or with such moral authority. The pope is right. Now, not later, is the time to act.