THE QUESTION OF THE DECADES

By Paul M. Lewis

There’s something about turning 70, as I did not so long ago, that gets your attention in a way that turning 69 did not. One day, you’re still in your 60’s, and the next morning suddenly you’ve arrived at what sounds like a whole new level of agedness. Of course, these are just numbers, numerals that have their life on a page, or in a computer, or while otherwise calculating something that can be counted up. This momentous moving from one ten-year spacing of numbers to the next that startles us so is what I think of as the question of the decades.   But it’s not the numbers per se that matter; it’s more what they remind us of. They seem to say: What have I done with my life; see how fleeting it all is; and what ought I to do with what remains? Ultimately, it’s the question of mortality that we all must face. How many more of these numberings will I attach to my life’s span before this particular series runs its course? The 17th century English poet, Andrew Marvell, put it this way: “But at my back I always hear/Times winged chariot hurrying near.”

Time – more to the point, fleeting time – is like that. It brings with it questions of meaning, of what we have done with what has been given to us. No wonder it’s a common topic in art of all kinds, since art at its finest puts us in touch with the ultimate questions. Art can make us ask ourselves, using whatever devices and conventions are specific to its particular expression, what is most important in life. We see it in theater, in novels and stories of all kinds, in painting (note the heartbreakingly beautiful and almost too painfully truthful self-portraits of the aging Rembrandt, for example), and as noted above in poetry. William Butler Yeats is one of those poets who spoke movingly of getting older. In “Sailing to Byzantium,” one of the great seminal poems of the early part of the 20th century, he says: “An aged man is a paltry thing/A tattered coat upon a stick”. But he doesn’t stop at such a simple lament. The whole remainder of the poem speaks of what to do with our lives as we age: “unless/Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing/For every tatter in its mortal dress,/Nor is there singing school but studying/Monuments of its own magnificence.”

Soul clap its hands and sing. What an interesting image; and what a wonderful thing to do as the body grows older, to make one’s own music, to choreograph one’s own life with a dance that incorporates the ages into it. How each person does that remains forever his or her own personal expression. And it is no one else’s place or right to dictate how that particular manifestation reveals and articulates itself. It is, after all, the reason for the journey in the first place, to give each of us the opportunity to create that most personal revelation of the ultimate magic of who we are. I am, as you no doubt have already noted, speaking here about nothing less than the meaning of life. And not just in some general philosophical sort of way, but specifically and most personally the meaning of one’s own life. That is the thing that no one can tell you, because as life unfolds, as we put foot in front of foot and make our way along its sometimes torturous path, our life slowly reveals itself to us, even as we create it ourselves. It could even be said that it reveals us, ourselves, as we most truly are. That’s why art is such a fine metaphor for life, because art too unveils itself through the artist’s use of what is within and without, all the while creating something utterly unique, a thing the world has never seen before, and which it will never again see the likes of.

What is it that the world sees? And in that ultimate sense, what do we see, as we both create and reveal our lives? Each day presents its own high and low points, its own opportunities for triumph and failure. Yes, of course, there are times in everyone’s life, critically divergent moments, when the choices we make set us along a certain course that veers this way or that. This also means that there were other paths that were presented, but which were not taken. Such are the decisions we all have to make, and we make them to the best of our abilities at the time. There is no room, no time later for regret, for the way we have chosen reflects who and what we were at the moment of the choice.

Still, it must be said, most of life is not so dramatic. We go about our business according to the diurnal patterns we all create for ourselves. We work each day, or we otherwise spend our time according to frameworks that have become familiar to us. And there is nothing wrong with that. Or, I correct myself, there is only something wrong with that if we do so unconsciously. Because the job of life must be to live as consciously as we can, in order to participate as fully as possible in its blossoming possibilities. It is exactly these steps we take each day, each moment, one following after the next that finally makes the fabric of the life we are weaving. Wisdom does not necessarily come with age. How many older people do we all know who have not achieved wisdom? No, it is not physically surviving for a certain number of years that counts, but the quality of the life that we have created. How to go about that? The best way I know is through reflection, dare I say meditation, that deepest form of introspection. Which one of us was born wise, and who has gone through childhood unscathed?   These are the givens that we must deal with. What we make of it all is what is ultimately important. Life never skimps in giving us opportunity after opportunity to test ourselves, to grow, to flourish and blossom, or else to wither and fade away. The highest inner qualities, peace and joy and wisdom, do not always come at first invitation. They are shy and diffident visitors; they must be coaxed and cajoled, lured even into the warm hearth of the soul.

These are some of the things I think of as I turn 70. It seems natural that one should think about them at this stage of life, but we all do well to think of them at every stage. Who we are at any moment in life is the end creation of what we have thought and done, what our hopes and aspirations are, how we treat ourselves and others in the wider world. That is as much true at age 20 as it is at 70. And we can only hope that with 50 years in between we might have learned something about what is important and what is not.

In Yeats’s symbology, Byzantium represents the goal, the hoped-for end of life’s journey. It is a mystical place that can never be fully explained, only experienced, because it is not a thing of the intellect. And that perhaps is a good part of ultimate wisdom, the acceptance of the fact that we cannot explain any of life’s final verities, only strive to achieve what a human being can never fully achieve, left to his or her own devices. In the last stanza of the poem, Yeats likens the soul, the human spirit, to a bird “set upon a golden bough to sing/To the lords and ladies of Byzantium/Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”

It is a great metaphor. In the end, what more can any of us do but sing our song, work to understand the past, fully embrace each passing moment, and look with hope and trust for what is to come? Good advice to myself, as I enter into this next decade, and maybe not such bad advice at any age.

THE TYRANNY OF AMERICAN OPTIMISM

Relentless Dogmatic Positivism

vs.

Critical Thinking, Realism, Affirmation and Action

By Kevin

A Personal Rant

The title for this essay is also the name of the illustration – “The Tyranny of American Optimism.” I cannot take credit for the phrase. I don’t know who first said it. I heard it at a time when I was suffering from this peculiarly American drive to suppress rational discrimination and realism in favor of relentless dogmatic positivism. Some family members, friends and work associates were criticizing me for what they saw as my pessimistic views about the world and human behavior – perspectives that I felt were rational and realistic. They were, and still are, uncomfortable when anyone talks about Global Climate Change, or the theft of U.S.elections, or when someone warns of impending economic collapse due to unsustainable financial practices.

There is a tendency toward Orwellian mind control in American society, attitudes and business. We are attempting to spread our thought policing methods of relentless dogmatic positivism throughout the world along with McDonald’s and Starbuck’s. Orwell’s “1984” is especially evident in corporate America. Enron was allowed to bankrupt its investors and defraud the business community and the world without anyone questioning its corrupt ways. Wall Street got away with selling disastrous credit default swaps and poisoned derivatives to us, very nearly pushing the world into global depression, and nobody asked how these impossibly complicated financial instruments really worked. Despite our very close call with total financial collapse since the economic house of cards fell down in mid-September, 2008, we are still hearing demands for total deregulation of the financial industry. Many people even now want to blindly trust the greediest among us with our future. Shouldn’t we stop for a minute and rethink our reckless ways?

What’s Positive about Positive Thinking?

There is a lot that is positive about positive thinking. In order to be spiritually and psychologically and physically healthy one must lead an affirmative life. That is to say, we need to envision, affirm, and focus with gratitude upon what is good in life – Spirit, Love, Wisdom, Hope, Creativity, Vitality, Prosperity – all the goodness within and around us. No practical person would ever suggest, however, that positive thinking means closing our eyes to the greedy, destructive and negative forces also arrayed around us. If we did that we would not be able to prepare and defend ourselves against dangerous elements at work in the world. How do we protect our children against predators? We tell them about bad people who might try to lure them away with candy and promises of fun. We describe what can happen and ask our children to confront these unfortunate realities so that they will not fall victim to them. We have to do the same thing for ourselves as adults. We need to face potential negative outcomes, plan for them and then invent strategies to avoid and overcome them. Even while we face our worst fears we must work hard and enthusiastically to achieve our highest hopes. Ignoring potential adversity is like sending a naïve child into the woods unprepared to identify and respond to the wolves lurking there.

The Dangers of Relentless Dogmatic Positivism

Several years ago I had the privilege of serving as an instructor in an international business training seminar. At one point in our discussion I happened to mention to these business women and men from other parts of the world that in their dealings with the USA they would encounter “the tyranny of American optimism.” I explained that it was characterized by zero tolerance for questioning the current strategies, raising concerns about the business climate or practices, any form of skepticism, and any tendency to prefer autonomy and independent thought over team spirit and group activity. They all thanked me warmly for opening up that topic, admitting that they had often spoken to one another about this peculiarly American business psychology which they simply could not comprehend. They questioned me closely about it: How could it be in any way practical to require positive group thinking to the exclusion of sensible empirical analysis? How do you identify and solve problems if you are not permitted to acknowledge them? What has happened to the American spirit of individualism and freedom of expression? Why is critical thinking and evaluation now viewed as negativity in the USA?

Why, indeed? I have thought about their questions for years. Only a few beginning ideas have occurred to me about why Americans seem hell-bent on abandoning individualism, freedom of expression and personal discrimination and critical thought. I suspect it begins with our Puritan roots. We have a founding tendency toward rigid authoritarian religious dogma that shuns questioning, doubt and intellectual rigor. We tend to mistrust open-minded thinkers and intellectuals. In recent decades there has been a return to those tendencies with the powerful resurgence of right wing fundamentalism in the USA. Many Americans will admit that they like to have all their questions about how to live and think answered for them by religion. They do not want to have to struggle with doubt and questions and problem-solving. They want simple formulaic answers and they wholeheartedly embrace philosophical and religious systems that offer clear recipes for living a good life without having to think or analyze the world around them.

Simplistic dogmatic positivism is tragically dangerous in today’s world which is facing the potential extinction of the human race and other life forms as the earth becomes uninhabitable over the next 100 years due to Global Climate Change caused by human folly. There are other very dangerous and serious socio-political conflicts and problems like nuclear proliferation, terrorism, overpopulation, poverty, hunger, and potential pandemics as well. But humanity will not have the luxury of solving those problems if we don’t first save ourselves from extinction due to Global Climate Change. And yet a large portion of our population believes that all the scientists and climatologists sounding the alarm about global warming are just fear-mongers engaged in a conspiracy to destroy our economy. What possible motivation could they have to commit such a crime? All the experts agree that we are in dire trouble and must act urgently now to reverse Global Climate Change, but our attitude of relentless, simplistic dogmatic positivism keeps us in denial. While we pretend not to notice and insist that everything is fine, both polar ice caps are rapidly melting as is theGreenlandand all the glaciers. Eventually frozen methane beds in the sea floor could be released, causing exponentially accelerated warming. The oceanic base of the food chain may be disrupted, and the Gulf Stream could be altered, throwing Europe into a new ice age. Nevertheless, we ignore all the signs. I am writing this on Feb 27 in snow country, but it is 58 degrees outside and my spring flowers are coming up. Meanwhile, mega-storms spawned in warmer oceans have already devastated the gulf coast, and gigantic tornados are terrorizing American towns. And the games have only just begun. How long can humanity remain in “positive denial?” Wouldn’t it be better to face facts and take serious steps to save ourselves now?

Living a Considered Life and Taking Action

Five years ago, just weeks before the real estate bubble burst, Robert and I sold our big beautiful 5-bedroom, 3-bathroom house in the suburbs where we had lived for over nine years. We bought eleven wooded acres in the wilderness with a half-acre stocked pond, a stream and many springs. We paid off our debts with the proceeds, and we have no mortgage now. We are rebuilding a crumbling old trailer house to transform it into our painting and sculpture studios and woodshop, while improving and adding onto the little hunting cabin that has become our new home. We’re halfway off the grid, but some day we’d love to become totally energy independent. We hope to grow and can our own food. We want to learn centuries of living skills from our Amish and Mennonite farmer neighbors. We have much work to do and a lot to learn, and we are more enthused about it every day.

Some of our friends think we are insane. What we are doing threatens their commitment to the “American Dream.” We were role models. We had achieved that “dream” even though much of it was a nightmare for us, and now we have turned our backs on it in a fit of negativity some people think. How could we refuse to have credit card debts and a huge mortgage and car payments? How could we walk away from a show home that had been featured in local papers and on pond and garden tours? How could we refuse to pretend that that the world is fine, and face financial and environmental crises unprepared, in panic and horror as many people apparently prefer to do? We will just have to allow people to think us mad, for we choose to face obvious realities now and prepare as best we can, rather than to bury our heads in the sands of relentless dogmatic positivism. Meanwhile, we are very excited about our new woodland life. We love it! We do not agree that it is foolish or pessimistic to read the handwriting on the wall and respond with appropriate life changes aimed at survival for as long as possible with the highest quality of life we can create.

A life anchored in Spirit, positive affirmation and gratitude does NOT require that one must become a dogmatically optimistic automaton with one’s head in the sand. We can all live very positive, creative lives without giving up independent critical thought and analysis leading to creative problem solving and strategic planning. A considered life is still the best life. It is not enough just to decide what one wants, visualize it, think positively and wish for it to come true. Childhood words are “need, wish,” and “want.” Adults say, “I will do this” and “I will not do that,” or “I am willing to do this” and “I am not willing to do that.” It is very natural for children to engage in a great deal of magical thinking. Mature adults observe the world critically, analyze the conditions relative to their own needs and desires, and creatively solve problems and invent strategies for achieving their goals. Yes… that process involves a lot of painful confrontation of inconvenient truths, difficult soul-searching and doubt, and long hours of analyzing potential scenarios and solutions. But the alternative is living by default and blindly suffering the consequences. Living a considered life is often hard work, but the result is a rewarding sense of critical understanding, the guidance of inner conviction, and a sense of profound personal meaning in life.

POLITICS, PEOPLE, AND THE PURPOSE OF LIFE

In the summer of 1971 I was twenty-six years old.  The previous November my mother, whom I was very close to, had just died at the young age of fifty, and I was feeling lost and hopeless.  As a high school teacher at the time, I had summers off, and I decided it would take my mind off things if I learned another language.  I had long been interested  in Russia, its culture, its people, and its literature, so I enrolled in an intensive summer language course at SUNY New Paltz. The first six weeks of it took place on that verdant and inviting campus, but the really exciting part was the second six weeks, when we went to what was then known as the Soviet Union.  We took an Aeroflot flight to Moscow in July of that year, and – believe it or not – when I arrived, I felt like kneeling down and kissing the Russian earth.  Luckily, I refrained, and did not make such a complete ass of myself

 Having grown up in relative poverty, I wanted to visit the Soviet Union because I thought that communism might provide a possible answer to the unequal distribution of wealth that I felt so keenly in this country.  The whole set up, then, seemed to me like a good way to kill several birds with one stone.  I would get to visit Russia, see communism first hand, learn some of the language, and then – well, unfortunately, that’s about where any clarity of thinking on my part ended.  After that, I guess I thought I’d just somehow figure things out later. 

 I should maybe hasten to say that things did not turn out as I had planned.  Not so much in terms of the language.  Although Russian is complex and difficult for foreigners to learn, I worked hard and began to gain a little fluency.  That part was fine, and I was pleased with my progress.  However, once I arrived in the country, along with my professor and the class I was part of, it began to dawn very quickly on me that communism wasn’t what I had hoped it might be.  People seemed depressed and downtrodden, and although I met more ordinary Russians than I had expected, most of them did not seem at all happy with their government.  Anything built at least since the war had a shoddy look too it, and people seemed somehow disappointed.  I remember one person telling me, frankly to my surprise, that he didn’t think much of communism, and he added: “We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us,” 

 I started to question all of the premises I had previously held, and by the time I left the country six weeks later, I was depressing aware that communism was pretty paltry as an economic system.  And what was worse, I had also witnessed enough of its totalitarian governance system to know that I did not at all like what I saw. 

 So, I came back to the United States in late August of that year, a little sadder, maybe a little wiser, and just in time to begin my teaching assignment in a rural high school in upstate New York. The point of all this reminiscence is that I felt adrift, morally and politically.  Communism was clearly not going to be the answer, and capitalism had always seemed cruel and greedy to me. 

 Things eventually changed in my life, and I left upstate New York, heading west, settling after a few years in California.  There I decided that you  can’t stay disappointed with life forever, so I plunged in headlong.  Later still, I ended up working at a large public university.  I ultimately rose to hold a relatively responsible position there, in charge of the university’s international programs. 

 But the question remained in my mind, had I ever figured out what was the best way to live?  In the end, there was no getting around the fact that I had embraced capitalism.  I was not a rich capitalist, mind you, but it’s almost impossible to live in this country without taking on the trappings of the system.  I eventually earned a decent wage, not huge, but enough, with my partner’s salary, to live not too uncomfortably.  Now, I’m a pensioner, and although in my heart I often still feel like the shanty Irish stock I come from, I’d have to say that things are okay.

 But I think a lot about other people, right here in this country, those who have not been as fortunate.  I think about the millions who do not have jobs, young people who haven’t been able to start their careers, people who can’t feed their families, or who have to choose between buying food and buying medicine, of those who are serving long prison terms for minor drug offences, those who are sick but have no insurance, or just so depressed they don’t feel like they can go on much longer.  Has capitalism served them well?  Probably not has to be the answer, I think.  Would communism have been a better choice?  Again, I doubt that very much, especially if Cuba and North Korea are any models from which to learn. 

 Contemplating these questions is, in a way, a lot like facing the issues related to global climate change.  You often feel pretty helpless about doing anything that seems all that meaningful.  I guess what I have ultimately decided is that I can at least write about my concerns, and I can give what’s possible to the charities I believe in, and I can vote for politicians who seem better to me than their opposites.  That pretty much comes down to voting for all the Democrats I can.  Not that Democrats are universally wonderful, but they’re a whole hell of a lot better than most Republicans, who cynically use wedge cultural issues to get the working class poor to vote for them, even though it goes contrary to people’s own economic interests.

 So, I’ll vote for Pres. Obama in the fall, and for as many liberal politicians as I can find.  All the while, knowing that the system is awfully far from perfect, that I in some ways contribute to it by accepting it and living according to its rules, and just by leading as happy a life as I can.  But maybe in the end that’s the answer, if there is one: live as intensely and as fully as you know how to, help others whenever possible, do what you can to find the answers to the Big Questions, however you define them, and leave the rest up to whatever Divine Power is beyond the thrust of your everyday routine.  It’s not a political dogma, that’s for sure, at least not like capitalism or communism, but it’s probably the best we can do.   And that, after all, is maybe all that’s expected of us.

Paul