religion, sisyphus and me

An excerpt from a piece I wrote in 2011 for Souciant:

I spent several weeks during Xmas season in 1972 in Indiana, where I had lived in 1971-2. My friends and I would stay up until all hours, drinking wine and smoking weed, going on “adventures” like a trip to the supermarket to count the number of items containing garlic. One night, we were sitting around, probably high on some combination of things. I started talking about Camus’ Sisyphus, how he was condemned by the gods to push a rock up a mountain. When he got to the top, the rock rolled back down the mountain, followed by Sisyphus, who, when he reached the bottom, would once again push the rock up the mountain. This punishment was eternal. Sisyphus would perform his task forever, and would know as he performed it that he would be pushing that rock into eternity.

Something about the telling of that story got to me. I had a flash of insight, perhaps the only one I have ever experienced. I didn’t understand Camus intellectually. Rather, I connected in some visceral way. In that instant, I thought I understood the meaning of life in a deeper way than I ever had, before or since. We are all Sisyphus … this is the message that filled me with emotion far more than it filled me with an intelligent recognition of the facts.

I started to laugh.

I was always prone to giggle fits in those days (I’m still susceptible; perhaps we all are.) But this was not that; I was not giggling. No, I was laughing with awe and sadness at the wonderful absurdity of human life. We push the rock up the mountain, it rolls back down, we push it back up, indefinitely.

I am very suspicious when people say something changed their life. It seems to me that life-change is a process, that if we change at all, it takes a lot more than a moment, that it must be spurred on by more than just one event. And, in any case, I have no idea what was actually occurring as I rolled on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. But I do know that to this day, I think of my life in terms of what happened before that night, and what has happened since.

Of course, at the time, I wasn’t really thinking about what would happen down the road, or what the implications were for my laughter. But something happened that night, and whether I knew it then or not, part of that something was my spiritualism flying out the door.

throwing the thursday oracle

For some reason, I got the idea of examining The Man in the High Castle by way of the I Ching. One person commented that the post gave him “a glimpse of insight into your hippie past”, while another agreed that “it betrays a certain level of hippie”.

Not sure I have any photos or sound bites for this. But yes, in my wannabe hippie past, I consulted the I Ching. I was introduced to it in a few ways. Ken Kesey, who was an important influence on me at the time, wrote about it, in the classic-to-us-at-the-time Last Supplement to the Whole Earth Catalog:

The oracle works on the cybernetic gestalt principle that when you stand at the free-throw line that the information concerning the future and distant relationship and outcome of ball-and-basket is contained in your physical state at the moment of the shot. We always know down in our cells which fork in the road to take but the knowledge is usually not permitted audiance in the tight-assed regime of the courthouse of ego and attachment that we recognize, in a kind of diplomatic dither, as our consciousness ... so we are sometimes forced to rudely bypass the red-tape media garble of our city hall for some grassroots opinion. So we give the Ching a ring. Of course we can’t stop the boys in the smoke-filled rotunda from tapping our line but then neither have they figured out a way to stop the call so we toss the coins and figure, What the hell; go ahead and listen, Captain. You get good advice from the Ching even when you’re eavesdropping.

Also, every morning the DJ on KMPX/KSAN (I forget which or both) read the daily I Ching. I think the DJ was Bob Prescott, although I could be wrong. The point is, it was part of my daily morning ritual.

Later, I think in the late-70s but again, not sure, I had a calendar/diary by Khigh Dhiegh. Looking at a photo, I think it was 1978. The book was called I ching: Taoist book of days: calendar-diary. 1978 Year of the Horse. (If I have the wrong year, then the title reflected whatever year I had.) As I recall, you threw the coins once for each week, and once for each month, and you made plans for yourself based on the readings, and then you wrote about your experiences. I think my diary entries eventually devolved into one “I hate my job” after another.

Dhiegh was an interesting man. He founded a Taoist sanctuary, and had a doctorate in theology, so writing a book featuring the I Ching wasn’t all that unusual for him. But his primary claim to fame was as an actor. He was the arch villain Wo Fat in the original Hawaii Five-O, and played a brainwasher in the 1960s version of The Manchurian Candidate. Furthermore, in true Anthony Quinn mode, Dhiegh usually played an Asian character, but his actual heritage was Anglo/Egyptian/Sudanese. In fact, he was born in New Jersey, as Kenneth Dickerson.

link dump

“’We seem to be more frightened than we’ve ever been’: Eula Biss on anti-vaxxers, white privilege and our strange new culture of fear”. “If you don’t approach your subject from a paranoid posture, the risk is that you’ll be seen as naive and complacent, as someone who is kind of playing the fool to institutions of power.”

Blame Republicans, Not Madison, for Gridlock”. “The real problem preventing compromise isn’t inherent in the political system. It's something particularly wrong with the Republican Party, which has become increasingly hostile to the very notion of compromise.”

New Atheists are wrong about Islam. Here’s how data proves it”. “A majority of both Christians and Muslims seem to embrace at least some separation of sacred and secular in politics. That’s one finding that was perhaps surprising and also showed that Muslims are less distinctive than we might think.”

The Hunting of Billie Holiday: How Lady Day found herself in the middle of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics’ early fight for survival.” “Billie didn’t blame Anslinger’s agents as individuals; she blamed the drug war itself—because it forced the police to treat ill people like criminals.”

'That's Not All!' Kevin Trudeau, The World’s Greatest Salesman, Makes One Last Pitch”. “There was his own Mega Memory training program; the Sable Hair-Farming System (which he promised would ‘end hair loss in the human race’); Dr. Callahan’s Addiction-Breaking System (which he said could break the user of any addiction in 60 seconds ‘virtually 100 percent of the time’); Howard Berg’s Mega Reading speed-reading program, the Perfect Lift Non-Surgical Face Lift, and Eden’s Secret Nature’s Purifying Product. There were magnetic toe rings and magnetic mattress pads, crocodile protein peptide, and Biotape, an adhesive tape said to relieve pain by reestablishing broken electrical connections in the body.”

let us be dissatisfied

Today marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The past few years, I have given an essay assignment in my classes:

Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech is one of the most famous speeches of all time. Almost four years later, King gave a speech often called "Where Do We Go from Here?", in which he stated, “One day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising a question about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.” Why is this speech less famous and less frequently anthologized than "I Have a Dream?"

The 1967 speech was given to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

The most common thesis my students offer is that “I Have a Dream” was seen by an enormous number of people, thanks to television, and was associated with a famous event, the March, while “Where Do We Go from Here” had a smaller audience and was not televised. Far less often, students noted the latter speech was far more radical than “Dream”, which makes it less appealing to anthologists. It was rare for a student to further examine why the “radical King” would be unappealing.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the speech:

We must develop a program that will drive the nation to a guaranteed annual income. … Now we realize that dislocations in the market operations of our economy and the prevalence of discrimination thrust people into idleness and bind them in constant or frequent unemployment against their will. … I say to you today, that if our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God's children on their own two feet right here on earth. …

[T]he Movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society. There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question, "Why are there forty million poor people in America?" And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth. When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalistic economy. And I'm simply saying that more and more, we've got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life's market place. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Perhaps most telling, the repetitive catch phrase that King uses as he closes his speech, the equivalent of the earlier “I have a dream”, is “Let us be dissatisfied.”

So, I conclude by saying again today that we have a task and let us go out with a "divine dissatisfaction." Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education. Let us be dissatisfied until integration is not seen as a problem but as an opportunity to participate in the beauty of diversity. Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character and not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied. Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God. Let us be dissatisfied until from every city hall, justice will roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together. and every man will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. Let us be dissatisfied. And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth. Let us be dissatisfied until that day when nobody will shout "White Power!" - when nobody will shout "Black Power!" - but everybody will talk about God's power and human power.

conversion narrative

Souciant is running a piece of mine today that I hope you’ll check out. You can find it here:

I am very suspicious when people say something changed their life. It seems to me that life-change is a process, that if we change at all, it takes a lot more than a moment, that it must be spurred on by more than just one event. And, in any case, I have no idea what was actually occurring as I rolled on the floor in uncontrollable laughter. But I do know that to this day, I think of my life in terms of what happened before that night, and what has happened since.

credit where credit is due

President Obama spoke on the issue of the proposed mosque in Manhattan:

Recently, attention has been focused on the construction of mosques in certain communities — particularly New York. Now, we must all recognize and respect the sensitivities surrounding the development of lower Manhattan. The 9/11 attacks were a deeply traumatic event for our country. And the pain and the experience of suffering by those who lost loved ones is just unimaginable. So I understand the emotions that this issue engenders. And ground zero is, indeed, hallowed ground.

But let me be clear. As a citizen, and as president, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as everyone else in this country. And that includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are. The writ of the founders must endure. …

We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus — and nonbelievers. We are shaped by every language and every culture, drawn from every end of this Earth. And that diversity can bring difficult debates. This is not unique to our time. Past eras have seen controversies about the construction of synagogues or Catholic churches. But time and again, the American people have demonstrated that we can work through these issues, and stay true to our core values, and emerge stronger for it. So it must be — and will be — today.

i read the news today, oh boy

Roger Ebert:

New Age beliefs are the Creationism of the Progressives. I move in circles where most people would find it absurd to believe that humans didn't evolve from prehistoric ancestors, yet many of these same people quite happily believe in astrology, psychics, reincarnation, the Tarot deck, the i Ching, and sooth-saying. …

At dinner in my environs I rarely hear anyone share that they have been born again in Jesus. They may well have been, but they keep it to themselves.

They were raised to avoid religion and politics at dinner parties with strangers. Yet they assure everyone they are "a typical Gemini," were royalty in a previous lifetime, have a personal spirit guide, and have been told they will develop a serious disease but will recover from it. …

We live in the harrowing early years of a century when the nation must compete in a new way, and this battle will be fought on the grounds of science defined by the traditional Scientific Method. We can have no patience with a chief executive who professes the value of ancient superstitions in the forming of policy.