The New Republic magazine celebrates its 100th anniversary with a special section called “100 Years, 100 Thinkers.”
Unfortunately, the categories into which these “minds who’ve defined our century” are helpfully slotted are almost parodically First World, elite-uptown-liberal:
“Architecture.” “Environmentalism.” “Songwriting.” “Diplomacy.”
And of course, “American Civil Rights.” (Zzzzzzzz….)
Unless you count “Medicine,” no hard sciences were deemed worthy of consideration.
An alien browsing this section would be forgiven for assuming that man never set foot on the moon.
But who cares when someone named Alice Waters “made (local) lettuce sexy!”
(And besides, The New Republic assures us that “Martians need only watch one of [Richard Pryor's] concert films to best understand the human species in the shortest amount of time.”)
Naturally, there’s a “Sex” section, and Alfred Kinsey comes out on top (as it were.)
In one of his most memorable roles, as the eponymous character of Tim Burton’s 1990 film Edward Scissorhands, Johnny Depp plays a semi-human manboy with shears for fingers, stuck in eternal youth as those around him wither. I thought of this film last week, as I watched a fifty-something Depp, drunk and clad in his usual get-up of randomly placed crosses and scarves, stumble to the microphone at a televised awards show and deliver a slurred “speech” in which he giggled, cursed, rocked, and swayed his way through a painful two minutes. Here was another manboy on display, albeit one lacking the charm and innocence of Burton’s creation.
It was a shame to see Depp, a genuinely talented and by most accounts kind and gentle man, reduce himself to this display. He is well into middle age—not that any age is an appropriate time for public drunkenness. I suspect his career won’t be dented much, if at all, by the episode. This is not just because he is a celebrity. One can’t imagine, say, Morgan Freeman stumbling onto the stage, delivering a gin-soaked introduction, and walking away with his career totally intact. No, it is Depp’s enduring “bad boy” image that affords him the extra latitude. Those crosses and scarves go a long way. If you can set yourself up as some kind of outsider, those on the inside will start to think they’re caged animals and become desperate for your kind of freedom. The bad boy’s appeal comes from nonchalantly scuffing the social rulebook with his cowboy boots and daring us not to like him because of it.
On November 9, 2006, as the free world celebrated the seventeenth anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s demise, an 83-year-old man died in a peaceful slumber at his home in the German capital city. The man was Markus Wolf, who during the Cold War led the foreign-intelligence section of East Germany’s secret-police apparatus: the Ministry for State Security (Ministerium fuer Staatssicherheit), known colloquially as “the Stasi.” The Stasi’s most renowned spymaster, he controlled thousands of agents, whose purpose was to infiltrate important Western institutions and government positions. Often mistaken as the inspiration for John le Carre’s shadowy Karla character, Wolf for years remained a mystery to Western intelligence services, who didn’t even have a picture of him until the late 1970s—several decades into his career. Historians have marveled at his success in leading the Stasi’s foreign wing, known as the HVA, or Hauptverwaltung Aufklaerung. Perhaps his most well known accomplishment is having one of his agents, Gunter Guillaume, become a trusted aide to Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor.
Seven years after Wolf’s death and twenty-five years after the Wall’s, the West still doesn’t appreciate the breadth and depth of the Stasi’s brutality. (The KGB still reigns in the popular imagination as the ultimate secret-police force.) Formed after the Second World War in the Soviet occupation zone of Germany, the Stasi grew to become the most potently effective Eastern bloc intelligence organization. They possessed a more impressive informant network than even the KGB. When East Germany crumbled, the Stasi employed upwards of 190,000 unofficial informants. By 1989, approximately one out of every 90 East German citizens was a Stasi informant. Referred to as inoffizielle Mitarbeiter (“unofficial collaborators”), most were simply ordinary German citizens, tasked with reporting everything they could about possible (real or imagined) anti-regime activity, as well as details about family and friends. Even children were involved in spying on their parents.
Denny Burk, professor of biblical studies at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, recently addressed the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission on the subject of transgender.
Saying that the gay marriage battle is all but over, Burk believes “sexual revolutionaries are turning their attention to the ‘T’ in LGBT” which will lead to significant cultural changes.
Burk, author of What Is the Meaning of Sex?, said,
At the heart of the transgender revolution is the notion that psychological identity trumps bodily identity. In this way of thinking, a person is whatever they think themselves to be. If a girl perceives herself to be a boy, then she is one even if her biology says otherwise. If a boy perceives himself to be a girl, then he is one even if his biology says otherwise. Gender is self-determined, not determined by the sexual differences that the Creator has embedded into every cell in our bodies.
He doubts that most Americans have thought through the implications of accepting without question that psychological identity should trump biological identity when there is a conflict.
Burk gave the example of a man named John who was featured on Fox News a few years ago. He felt like he was a one-legged man trapped in the body of a man with two legs. “When I see an amputee — when I imagine the amputee — there is this inner pull that says ‘why can’t I be like that?’” the man asked. It wasn’t until after 42 years of marriage that he revealed this “secret” to his wife. He suffers from what psychiatrists call “body integrity identity disorder.” The only known cure is amputation of the offending body part.
“The primary ethical question is whether a man in John’s position would be right to amputate an otherwise healthy limb,” Burk said. “Would it be right for a doctor to remove his leg so that John can feel whole? If John feels himself to be a one-legged man inside a two-legged man’s body, why not encourage him to have his leg amputated? At a gut level, most people recoil at the suggestion. Nevertheless, this is the implication of the view that psychological identity trumps bodily identity,” he said.
Typically, individuals who suffer from such a disorder cannot find physicians to accommodate their requests for amputations, and they are not encouraged to amputate otherwise healthy limbs. Most people would say the individual’s thinking needs to be altered rather than taking drastic steps to alter the body.
Those with long memories will recall that Wes Craven’s Scream, which came out way back in 1996, was praised for its hip “self-awareness,” coming as it did in a particularly “meta” era of ’90s postmodernism, full of overrated cult fare like Pulp Fiction and Clerks. The film’s edginess consisted in banging on the fourth wall without quite breaking it. In one scene, for instance, a horror-movie fanatic and video-store clerk (remember: 1996) played by Jamie Kennedy tells his fellow teenagers about the “rules” of surviving a slasher film.
One of these “rules,” which is now common knowledge, is that in order to survive one mustn’t practice the carnal arts. Those who do it always get it. What the less eloquent might call “c*ckblocking” is an established horror-movie tradition. In the first Halloween film, Michael Myers ruins one couple’s tryst by stabbing the guy and then assaulting his teenage girlfriend—which might sound like a standard Friday evening at Roman Polanski’s house, but for an audience of 1970s suburban teens it was genuinely frightening. Come to think of it, every horror movie has a boyfriend character, football letter jacket and all, who gets his head caved in while fetching a few beers from the fridge. Each series has its own tropes. The Friday the 13th movies rely on the obligatory sex-in-the-woods scene: two camp counselors set up a tent, and before long Jason shows up with his machete for an especially kinky threesome.
Editor’s note: this is part 3 in an ongoing series exploring the history of dictators and their evil ideologies. See the previous installments: Part 1:”Why It’s OK to Be Intrigued by Evil Dictators“ and Part 2: “Does Everybody Want Freedom?” Have ideas for who you’d like to see Robert explore next? Get in touch on Twitter: @RobertWargas and @DaveSwindle
Celebrating its centennial, The New Republic recently mined its archive and republished an intriguing piece from its February 27, 1965, issue: an exclusive interview with Mao Zedong by the American journalist Edgar Snow. As TNR correctly notes, as far as interviews go this would be analogous to a Western journalist today being granted exclusive access to Kim Jong Un. The sit-down took place almost seven years before Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger arrived in Peking to re-establish relations with China.
Though the interview has value as a journalistic artifact, it isn’t the most satisfying piece of reportage when it comes to Mao the man. Snow, who was not exactly Red China’s greatest critic, wasn’t allowed to quote the Great Helmsman directly, and most of the discussion concerns issues of policy and military strategy. These are big subjects, and big subjects always make for big answers laden with propaganda.
Mao comes across as intensely theoretical; he seems genuinely infatuated with Marxist theory and its rigorous application to world affairs. When asked about the Vietnam War, for instance, Snow writes that Mao “repeatedly thanked foreign invaders for speeding up the Chinese revolution and for bestowing similar favors in Southeast Asia today.” He ”observed that the more American weapons and troops brought into Saigon, the faster the South Vietnamese liberation forces would become armed and educated to win victory.”
Inevitably, Robin Williams’ suicide saw the “raising awareness about mental health issues” camp fighting it out online with the “he was a selfish git” crowd.
When the latter reject the “disease model” of addiction and mental illness — people like Theodore Dalrymple — they do so prompted by a laudable instinct:
They think depressed people or addicts use the “disease” model to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.
This is a bit like the New Atheists’ concept of “God,” as “an old man in the sky.” They proudly and loudly reject that concept, seemingly unaware (despite their alleged sophistication and superior education) that so do most actual believers.
Likewise, few addicts who accept the disease model (and not all do) use it as a “get out of jail free” card.
It’s called “How It Works” not “How It Lounges on the Couch Eating Cheetos and Watching Judge Judy.”
“Some of us thought we could find an easier, softer way, but we could not…”
Making amends, taking inventory, doing service and even prayer and meditation are exercises in responsibility and action.
Robin Williams apparently did all those things and stayed clean and sober for 20 years.
Then he “went out” in 2006 and was never the same.
Or, as Catholics like to say when they can’t explain something: “It’s a mystery…”
(If you say it in a somber enough voice, and include the “…”, it sounds satisfyingly deep.)
“You need to have a good mood. Good family, good children, good work, and then you’ll be happy,” he added. “You need to be a sociable person. I love and respect all people. After what happened to me, I don’t only value my own life more, but I deeply value the lives of all human beings. It’s very important to have good company and good friends. I view everything with optimism, it’s very important.”
As a grandchild of a survivor, I’ve always had a special interest in Holocaust studies. I have read many memoirs and attended numerous classes on the subject. But, from the very first class in a small Israeli school in the suburbs of Afula, to the courses I attended in a large North American university — I had always felt that something I had learned from my Grandfather was missing from these lectures.
For years, I had trouble pinning down that missing piece. It frightens me that my grandfather’s gift may have been lost all together: No one would have known that there once lived a man named Srulik Ackerman, who challenged our understanding of human nature, and with that, could bring hope in even the darkest of times.
…after just a few minutes with my Grandpa you would see the mystery that had perplexed me for so many years. The first thing that would strike you would be his wide, welcoming smile. Grandpa smiled and laughed more than anyone I knew. He took every opportunity to tell jokes and bring joy to others. Without a doubt, Grandpa was the happiest person that I had ever met.
How was that possible? I spent two years writing his memoir, hoping to discover his secret. But, even after the book was complete, I still had no idea what gave him such unparalleled resilience.
So, I decided to ask him directly. “How do stay happy on a daily basis?” I asked during one of our conversations.
Do yourself and your kids a favor: Get to know a Holocaust survivor so you, too, and your children can understand how a human being can survive and thrive in the face of death. There aren’t many survivors left, but there are countless resources through which you can interact with their thoughts and experiences. Tomorrow, the United States Holocaust Museum is sponsoring a Google+ Hangout with Holocaust survivors specifically geared towards school-aged children. Take advantage of this opportunity to get to know the real “secret” to happiness.
And don’t forget to thank them for sharing it.
Last week here at PJ Lifestyle, we saw a lively debate over the difference between altruism and giving out of love — particularly in a Judeo-Christian context. My colleagues Walter Hudson and Susan L. M. Goldberg eloquently shared their thoughts on the nature of altruism in a series of compelling posts:
April 8: Altruism In Religion’s Free Market
April 9: Love And Altruism Prove Opposite
Walter, Susan, our editor David Swindle, and I continued the discussion on Facebook, which morphed into a bigger exploration of faith and religion. At one point, Susan brought up the notion we often hear from secularists that “God doesn’t want us to be happy.” I replied:
I don’t think God wants us to be happy, either. He wants us to be filled with joy. Happiness is temporal and circumstantial, while joy is sustained.
There’s a clear difference between happiness and joy. Circumstances and relationships determine our happiness. An ice cream cone can make you happy. A great comedy can make you happy. An upbeat song (even that ubiquitous Pharrell Williams tune) can make you happy. But happiness is transitory and momentary — and ultimately external. Psychologist Sandra A. Brown writes (particularly in the context of relationships):
Happiness is external. It’s based on situations, events, people, places, things, and thoughts. Happiness is connected to your hope for a relationship or your hope for a future with someone….
Happiness is future oriented and it puts all its eggs in someone else’s basket. It is dependent on outside situations, people, or events to align with your expectations so that the end result is your happiness.
And happiness can disappear as quickly as it comes. The same people who make us happy one moment can hurt us or let us down the next. That great meal you ate can give you unbearable heartburn. You can grow tired of the songs, films, and shows you once loved. A storm can ruin that perfect trip to the beach. The happiness we seek can often disappear without warning.
Do you have a highly intelligent child who struggles with writing and spelling? A child who, despite good scores on standardized tests, is performing below his “potential”? If so, you may be the parent of a “stealth dyslexic.” According to learning experts, dyslexia manifests itself in a variety of ways beyond the most common form where individuals reverse letters and have difficulty learning to read. Indeed, stealth dyslexics often learn to read quite easily because of their outstanding memories and ability to compensate for their deficits. But because of this, their learning disability is often not detected until later in life.
According to school psychologist Jim Forgan, ”These highly intelligent or gifted children compensate for their dyslexia because they learn to rely upon their outstanding memory, keen intuition, and general smarts to work around their reading weaknesses.” Stealth dyslexia often goes undetected until the child is in third grade or older. “Your child may have stealth dyslexia if they are very smart and can read but don’t enjoy reading and rarely read for pleasure. Many of these children don’t read for pleasure because it’s laborious and mentally exhausting,” says Forgan.
Teachers often think that these obviously smart kids are lazy, inattentive or “not applying themselves” because they have precocious verbal skills and many, in fact, have high verbal IQs. According to the Davidson Institute, there is often a huge gap between the child’s verbal skills and the ability to read and write, especially as the student progresses to more difficult assignments in the middle school years. The Davidson Institute says that children with stealth dyslexia tend to exhibit some of the following characteristics:
1. Difficulties with word processing and written output.
2. Reading skills that appear to fall within the normal or even superior range for children their age, at least on silent reading comprehension.
3. Difficulty remembering how to form individual letters (resulting in oddly formed letters, reversals, inversions, and irregular spacing.
4. Difficulty remembering the sequence of letters or even sounds in a word.
5. Difficulties with sensory-motor dyspraxia, or motor coordination problems resulting in handwriting problems.
6. An enormous gap between oral and written expression.
7. Spelling errors in children’s written output that are far out of character with their general language, working memory, or attention skills.
8. Persistent difficulties with word-for-word reading skills, resulting in subtle word substitutions or word skips; which can result in significant functional problems, especially on tests. This occurs despite the appearance of age-appropriate reading comprehension on classroom assignments or standardized tests.
Since the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, researchers have struggled to figure out what factors drive ordinary people to commit acts like those in Nazi Germany. Were the Germans of that era inherently evil, or did they simply fall in line with the orders of charismatic leaders like Hitler? Did William Calley’s defense of “just following orders” absolve him of his responsibility for the My Lai Massacre? Psychologists have spent years trying to figure out what’s behind obedience to authority.
In the early 1960s, psychologist Stanley Milgram embarked on a series of controversial experiments in which he set out to discover what factors lead regular people to commit atrocities. Milgram’s experiments involved subjects administering electric shocks to participants who, unbeknownst to the subjects, were actors involved with the experiments. Though many believed his experiments skirted the boundaries of ethics, Milgram concluded that people in general would obey orders regardless of the harm those orders may cause.
Author Gina Perry’s excellent 2013 book Behind The Shock Machine (which I recently read) recounts the experiments, and Perry discounts Milgram’s findings. She concludes that Milgram manipulated his results and that the experiments were as much about the theatrics as they were about getting to the bottom of the issue.
Today’s researchers are still trying to figure out the real motivation behind atrocities. In a recent Pacific Standard article, Bettina Chang recounts a more recent finding:
Sophie Richardot, a social psychologist at Université de Picardie, France, sought to answer this question. She first became interested in the subject in relation to Milgram’s famed obedience experiment. Milgram showed the disturbing extent to which normal people are willing to inflict pain on people in the name of obeying authority. Richardot says that Milgram’s orders were not coercive, but they were explicit.
From what she knew about the Holocaust and other mass war crimes, however, the orders were more coded and ambiguous. So she set about categorizing the orders given to commit war crimes and looking for patterns.
Attention, the Creative Community: does this make any sense to you? One of my pet peeves on Facebook — and you may friend me there simply by looking up “David Kahane” and finding the avatar for Rules for Radical Conservatives — is this kind of list, which purports to impart wisdom but usually just makes your brain ache. Are “creative people” “easily bored”? Do they “think with their heart”? Do they “hate the rules”? No, no, and Hell No, says I.
As the author of six novels (with a new one on the way), one produced script and another heading into production, plus half a dozen sold scripts and four or five projects in various states of fruition (i.e., producer and director attachments), let me say as a member in good standing of the creative community that this list strikes me as better describing a civilian’s idea of “creativity.” For one thing, creative people are not easily bored. From conception through publication of my novel, And All the Saints (winner of the 2004 American Book Award and soon to be available in a spiffy new Kindle and other platforms e-edition), the time elapsed was seven full years. Seven years to think it up, internalize it, decide on the voice (first-person) and the tone, research it on location in New York City and Hot Springs, Ark., write it, get it edited, proofread the galleys and at last hold the finished book in my hand. Was I bored? Not a single time, never, to quote another famous resident of Hot Springs and, as it turned out, a protege of my narrator, the great Irish-American gangster Owney Madden. When the work is going well it’s not work, it’s fun.
Another false meme is that creative folks hate the rules. On the contrary, we love the rules. We internalize the rules. We master the rules. And we continue to love and use the rules even when we are breaking them — which of course we could not do had we not learned them well in the first place. Rules are not arbitrary edicts, but standards that evolve over time based on what works. Only amateurs break them without knowing them — and it shows. The creation of any work of art requires a knowledge of structure, which is why writers and other artists — such as architects — learn how to build from the ground up. They don’t think with their hearts, they think with their heads. After all, the heart can only beat when it’s encased in a solid structure first.
Even “work independently” is not quite right. True, the super-glamorous profession of novelist or screenwriter takes place for long stretches of time with the writer sitting alone in a small room, typing. But nothing exists in a vacuum: writers have agents and editors, screenwriters have agents and producers and directors and studio suits and a horde of other colleagues once the film is actually being made. We interact constantly and symbiotically, and benefit both emotionally and (some of the time, anyway) financially.
One thing that’s true: we do make lots of mistakes, with the bones of countless false starts, misdirections and even whole drafts buried in our back yards. And it’s also true that we change our mind(s) “alot.” A. Lot. We also learn how to spell. Meanwhile, back on the home front:
Love it or hate it, The AMC channel hit series The Walking Dead is a mirror of our culture. The show is nominally an apocalyptic zombie series but it is really about how people deal with a total societal collapse.
The answer is: Badly. Usually very badly.
Episode #14 of season 4, “The Grove,” is a thoughtful and tragic examination of what a society should or can do with a psychopath. (Spoilers!) Set in the woodlands of the American south after a zombie apocalypse, in this episode a group of five refugees find a cabin to stop and rest for a few days. There, disturbed young Lizzie goes homicidal. She stabs another little girl to death. Her mother-figure, Carol, then asks her to “look at the flowers” while she prepares to execute her, the only solution possible in their terrible new world.
The clues were all there, laid out carefully in past episodes. The girl had an obsession with capturing and cutting up live rats. She had sudden outbreaks of violent rage and anger. She was fascinated with zombies and couldn’t distinguish between the living and the dead.
The clues are all here in the real world as well, and we are no better at preventing the slaughter when a mentally disturbed person decides to kill. The Sandy Hook killer, the Aurora theater killer, the murderer at Virginia Tech, the killers at Columbine High School, all exhibited distinct indicators of violence and psychosis. All of these killers were under psychiatric care and on medically prescribed drugs. Each of them showed signs like little Lizzie on The Walking Dead, and her path ended the same as theirs, in blood.
In “The Grove,” just as in America today, we wait until a disturbed person becomes a killer and only then do we do something about them. Only then do they receive the confines of a cell or a grave. We can do better than this. Unlike Carol on The Walking Dead, we have options.
In the heartbreaking and frightening essay “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” the mother of a mentally disturbed boy explains how she cannot find care for him. “With state-run treatment centers and hospitals shuttered, prison is now the last resort for the mentally ill.” This mother doesn’t want to put her innocent (but violent and disturbed) twelve-year-old boy in prison. Would you like to live in a world where people are jailed for crimes they might commit? Instead, we need to re-build our mental health care system in this country and that includes treatment centers and hospitals. If we don’t, we will continue to endure the slaughter of innocents at the hands of the mentally ill.
City folk have always looked on their country neighbors with superstition. According to John Podhoretz at the Weekly Standard, this suspicion has carried a clearly political bent since the days of W. His evidence: Scary white dudes, like Walter White (Breaking Bad) and Bill Henrickson (Big Love) from middle America invading your TVs.
“In Difficult Men, Brett Martin’s book about the remarkable writer-producers who brought television to new cultural heights, Martin notes that there was something explicitly political at work in the early days of what he calls television’s “Third Golden Age.” Americans “on the losing side” of the 2000 election, Martin writes, “were left groping to come to terms with the Beast lurking in their own body politic.” As it happened, “that side happened to track very closely with the viewerships of networks like AMC, FX, and HBO: coastal, liberal, educated, ‘blue state.’ And what the Third Golden Age brought them was a humanized red state. . . . This was the ascendant Right being presented to the disempowered Left—as if to reassure it that those in charge were still recognizably human.”
…It’s the depiction of the worlds in which they live that is so striking, even more so in the series that have come along since the body politic’s shift to the left, beginning in 2006. The canvas on which these characters are brought to three-dimensional life isn’t a “humanized red state” at all, but rather the red state of liberal horror fantasy.”
Podhoretz concludes: “Still, rich Hollywood folk making mincemeat out of poor rural folk is another element of the ongoing American culture war that should not go unremarked.”
Fair enough, although any critical studies grad could tell you that whitey from the sticks, especially them man-folks, have been derided for a long time among the educated liberal elites who fill television’s coveted writers’ rooms. Educated liberal elites, mind you, who are primarily white dudes.
Have you ever gazed into the eyes of a newborn? Could you feel the pull of your soul into hers?
Hold your answer. We’ll get back to that.
At the sincere behest of a respected reader, I’ve begun a new series; the exploration into the works of Ernest Becker. Our introduction to Becker begins with Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man.
At first blush his point seems overly simplistic.
“[D]ualism of experience–the fact that all objects have both an inside and an outside…It is one of the great mysteries of the universe, that has intrigued man since remotest times. It is the basis of the belief in souls and spirits. Man discovered it and elaborated it because of his own self-reflexivity, the real and apparent contradiction between the inside of his body–his thoughts and feelings, and the outside…These are hardly new or startling thoughts, but they help us to introduce the problem of man’s distinctive interiority…”
Becker goes on to explain that this reality “presents a poignant problem that dogs us all our life.” I would suggest that not only does it “dog us” it also imprisons or sets us free. How we view the “inside” of man, is directly related not only to our own value and happiness but our right to pursue that happiness.
Sometime in the 6th century (see “About Dates” below) not far south of the Himalayan mountains on the Indian subcontinent, a man laid out a simple idea: people are unhappy, lack peace of mind, because they cling to their illusions and fantasies about the world instead of seeing things as they are.
Traditional accounts agree his personal name was Siddhartha, “the successful one” or “the one who achieves”, which was a popular name then and is popular today. His gotra family name was Gautama, and he was born into a clan called the Shakya, of the Kshatriya or “warrior” class. His father was named Suddhodana, and his mother was named Mayadevi. Suddhodana is usually called a “king” but he was an elected ruler, and the Shakya’s government was something more or less like a republic.
The traditions say he was born prematurely, and unexpectedly, under a tree in a place called Lumbini, and recent archeological discoveries show that there was indeed a tree-shrine at the location the tradition identifies. Mayadevi died shortly after Siddhartha’s birth.
Siddhartha was raised as a rich princeling, but he left this life of wealth to become a renunciate, and eventually became known as a teacher called “the one who woke up” — the Buddha.
The first written records we have, however, are from at least a century after his death, and most of the written texts describing his life and teaching were first written down more than 500 years after he died. Many of these stories are fantastic, magical — and, as they say, they probably grew in the telling.
Can we look into these stories, the sutras, and see more clearly what this man’s original teachings were? What he taught before the sutras were written down?
What can we learn from the Undocumented Buddha?
We’ve all seen the type, or maybe we’ve been it at one time or another. You know the one — the teenager who spends hours in front of video games, seeming to alienate himself from the real world for hours on end. Now imagine if you or your teen lived that lifestyle for many years, refusing all contact with the outside world, dependent on parents for everything. Welcome to the world of the hikikomori.
Over the last couple of decades, a new phenomenon has emerged in Japan — the emergence of the hikikomori (“withdrawn”). Psychiatrist Tamaki Saito discovered the phenomenon in the early 1990s, and he has pioneered treatment of these young men.
[Saito] was struck by the number of parents who sought his help with children who had quit school and hidden themselves away for months and sometimes years at a time. These young people were often from middle-class families, they were almost always male, and the average age for their withdrawal was 15.
It might sound like straightforward teenage laziness. Why not stay in your room while your parents wait on you? But Saito says sufferers are paralyzed by profound social fears.
“They are tormented in the mind,” he says. “They want to go out in the world, they want to make friends or lovers, but they can’t.”
The Japanese government has estimated the number of hikikomori at between 200,000 and 700,000, but Saito believe the number could exceed one million. What makes these teens and young men withdraw from society?
The trigger for a boy retreating to his bedroom might be comparatively slight – poor grades or a broken heart, for example – but the withdrawal itself can become a source of trauma. And powerful social forces can conspire to keep him there.
One such force is sekentei, a person’s reputation in the community and the pressure he or she feels to impress others. The longer hikikomori remain apart from society, the more aware they become of their social failure…
A second social factor is the amae - dependence – that characterizes Japanese family relationships.
Hikikomori are different from another Japanese subgroup — the otaku (“geeks” or “nerds”). Otaku, like many American teens, immerse themselves in video games or cartoons/anime, but they associate with peers outside the home. Hikikomori remain reclusive for months or years.
In the previous post on the possible rise of male sociopathy here, reader Gawains Ghost says he is not sure he knows exactly what sociopathy is. He is in good company. People seem to use a number of psychological terms interchangeably and it often gets a bit confusing.
According to this article, Robert Hare, author of Without Conscience: The Disturbing World of the Psychopaths Among Us:
“suggests that the difference between sociopathy and psychopathy may primarily reflect how the person using these terms views the factors contributing to the antisocial disorder.” More apt to view antisocial behavior as arising from social conflicts, sociologists typically prefer the term sociopath. Whereas, psychologists use the term psychopathy to describe a psychological disorder that is the product of a combination of psychological, biological, genetic and environmental factors (Hare 1999).
To make it a bit more confusing, psychologists use the term Antisocial Personality Disorder from the DSM-5 to describe some of the traits of the psychopath though it is important to remember that one can have APD without being a sociopath or psychopath.
This article looks decent and might help you understand more about these terms if you wish to confuse yourself even further.
Why does yoga help and a flood of alcohol hurt? Well, the money is on GABA. Gamma-aminobutryic acid is a neurotransmitter I’ve made brief mention of before. GABA is the chief inhibitory neurotransmitter in the mammalian nervous system. It cools things off and chills things out. People with depression and anxiety have been shown to have low amounts of GABA in their cerebrospinal fluid. MRI spectroscopy has been used to estimate the amount of GABA in people who are depressed, and the levels are low compared to controls (4). …
In 2010 the same group at BU did a second, somewhat larger study (5) comparing walkers and yoga practitioners. Again, healthy people were studied, not anyone with psychiatric illness. This time, 19 yoga practitioners and 15 walkers did yoga or walked for an hour three times a week for twelve weeks. The yoga practitioners reported improved mood and anxiety compared to the walking controls, and MRIs showed increased GABA in the thalamus (a part of the brain) of the yoga practitioners compared to the walkers. The increase in GABA correlated with the decrease in anxiety scores, which makes sense. Since there is a body of evidence that exercise is helpful in depression and anxiety (6), it is interesting to see that yoga could be even more helpful than regular exercise.
I have started doing yoga and Pilates recently on a regular basis and I have to say that the yoga is much more calming and feels less stressful than either Pilates or weight training. When I was younger, I hated yoga, as it seemed too calm and almost inactive and, frankly, frustrating to me. Recently, however, I have been getting more out of yoga. I don’t know if my mind has calmed down as I have gotten older or if I don’t have the stamina I once did, but yoga is definitely relaxing and seems to be great for those of us who spend the day on the computer.
image courtesy shutterstock / Pikoso.kz
Do you know about Challenge Day? If not, you may want to find out if your child’s school is hosting this intrusive, emotionally manipulative, Oprah-endorsed program that promises to provide schools and communities with “experiential programs that demonstrate the possibility of love and connection through the celebration of diversity, truth, and full expression.” Challenge Day claims the program has been presented to a million students in 400 cities in 47 states.
By “full expression” they mean confession, lots of hugs and physical contact, and tears — the weeping and gnashing of teeth kind of tears.
The “Be the Change School Guide for Creating the School of Your Dreams” has high hopes for the program — world peace: “With the ever growing increase of violence and oppression in our schools and on our planet, we believe a commitment to these simple principles can actually create peace on earth.” They attempt to accomplish that by addressing issues they believe are common in schools, including “cliques, gossip, rumors, negative judgments, teasing, harassment, isolation, stereotypes, intolerance, racism, sexism, bullying, violence, homophobia, hopelessness, apathy, and hidden pressures to create an image, achieve or live up to the expectations of others.”
Schools pay $3200 (plus travel expenses) to bring the Challenge Day program, which was the subject of the MTV series, If You Really Knew Me, to their students.
Permission slips warn parents that “students can and often do share personal difficulties and experiences with the group” and the experience can be “emotional.”
Participants are confined to a room for 6 1/2 hours during the school day. Challenge Day heavily regulates the environment. Everything from the room size, to the temperature of the room, to the windows (must be covered), to the chairs (no arm rests), is controlled. Challenge Day even dictates the number and size of tissue boxes schools must provide.
Whenever something awful happens, there’s an impulse to look for something that might have caused it, something we could have done, some way to control things so it wouldn’t have happened. There’s a technical Buddhist term for this, bhavatrishna, and I’ll probably write more about it in my Buddhism column on Sunday, but what’s important now is that it happens regularly.
Many times, this shows up in the form of conspiracy theories: rather than feeling essentially helpless, people develop complicated stories of conspiracies to explain things; whether it’s the Mafia, the CIA, NSA, the Freemasons, the Illuminati, the Bilderbergers, the Federal Reserve, the Democrats, the Republicans, the Communists, the Koch Brothers, George Soros, the Jews, the Moslems, the Catholic Church, Opus Dei, or shape-changing reptile people. At least if there’s a conspiracy, then someone has control.
So this time, we’ve got the Navy Yard gunman — you’ll forgive me if I don’t bother to name him — and, of course, people are looking for easy explanations. From the left, we’ve got the usual one of blaming it on the AR-15 he used (which was never there); from the right, in particular Infowars and that consummate ass Alex Jones, we’ve got the assertion that it was psychiatric medications — which it appears were also never there. According to several stories, yesterday and today, the gunman complained of insomnia and was given a sleeping pill that happens to be an ineffective antidepressant.
So, just like the Navy, guns, or Buddhism, it wasn’t psychiatric drugs. In fact, according to the reports:
Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis had sought treatment for insomnia in the emergency rooms of two Veterans Affairs hospitals in the past month, but he told doctors he was not depressed and was not thinking of harming others, federal officials said Wednesday.
After being burned a few, make that several, times, I’ve learned two rules that always apply to the news about something like the recent shootings at the Naval Research Labs:
- First reports are always wrong.
- In case of doubt, refer to Rule 1.
So, let’s review the things we know aren’t true that were reported:
- It was a single shooter, not three.
- He didn’t have an AR-15 or any sort of “assault weapon.”
- He didn’t steal an ID, he had a valid ID.
- He didn’t get a general discharge, and his military discipline problems weren’t major. They also happened mostly in the last couple of years.
There are some things that are being pretty reliably reported now, too:
- He took refuges (read “converted”) and attended a Thai Buddhist temple in Fort Worth.
- He had a history of oddly random instances of anger.
- He was apparently very intelligent (he learned Thai from hanging around with Thai people watching Thai TV. This is not easy.)
- He was being treated by the VA for emotional problems, including “hearing voices.”
Now, here’s what the Mayo Clinic says about the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia:
Signs and symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia may include:
- Auditory hallucinations, such as hearing voices
- Delusions, such as believing a co-worker wants to poison you
- Emotional distance
- Self-important or condescending manner
- Suicidal thoughts and behavior
With paranoid schizophrenia, you’re less likely to be affected by mood problems or problems with thinking, concentration and attention.
Delusions and hallucinations are the symptoms that make paranoid schizophrenia most distinct from other types of schizophrenia.
- Delusions. In paranoid schizophrenia, a common delusion is that you’re being singled out for harm. For instance, you may believe that the government is monitoring every move you make or that a co-worker is poisoning your lunch. You may also have delusions of grandeur — the belief that you can fly, that you’re famous or that you have a relationship with a famous person, for example. You hold on to these false beliefs despite evidence to the contrary. Delusions can result in aggression or violence if you believe you must act in self-defense against those who want to harm you.
- Auditory hallucinations. An auditory hallucination is the perception of sound — usually voices — that no one else hears. The sounds may be a single voice or many voices. These voices may talk either to you or to each other. The voices are usually unpleasant. They may make ongoing criticisms of what you’re thinking or doing, or make cruel comments about your real or imagined faults. Voices may also command you to do things that can be harmful to yourself or to others. When you have paranoid schizophrenia, these voices seem real. You may talk to or shout at the voices.
Look, it looks pretty classic. As far as the Buddhist thing goes, the priest at the local temple says now he thinks the guy was just looking for a Thai girlfriend. But anyone who has practiced in any Buddhist group is also aware that a fair number of birds with broken wings come in, hoping meditation will help them.
Sometimes it does.
Last week in the comments, Zopa asked me to explain the terms nirvana and samsara. It’s an interesting question, and the more I thought about it the more interesting it got.
There is a whole Buddhist cosmology that we’ll go into another time, with six Dharma realms from the realm of gods living in intense rapture to the level of intense suffering, a sort of Buddhist version of Hell. If you visit the Tiger Balm Garden in Singapore, you can see brightly painted versions of the six Dharma realms, along with lots of other Chinese mythical figures and scenes.
The problem is, since Buddha was pretty definite about the doctrine of anatman, the doctrine that there’s no such thing as a permanent identity or soul, what is there to reincarnate?
Then it occured to me that Buddha, as a teacher, was known for crafting his message to communicate with the person in front of him at the moment. The stories of his previous incarnations, the Jatakas, are teaching stories, parables; a lot of them are basically children’s stories, with bunnies and tigers and mysterious silent princes. Maybe these are basically Buddhism with training wheels, intended for people who do believe in reincarnation and rebirth. So, okay, let’s start with training wheels Buddhism to explain samsara and nirvana.
Basically, in the training wheels tradition, a person has a part that survives death and is reborn. Krishna explains this to Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita’s second chapter:
The wise grieve neither for the living nor for the dead. (2.11) There was never a time when these monarchs, you, or I did not exist, nor shall we ever cease to exist in the future. (2.12) Just as the living entity (Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires a childhood body, a youth body, and an old age body during this life; similarly, it acquires another body after death. ….
Just as a person puts on new garments after discarding the old ones; similarly, the living entity (Spirit, Atma, Jeev, Jeevaatma) acquires new bodies after casting away the old bodies. (2.22) Weapons do not cut this Spirit (Atma), fire does not burn it, water does not make it wet, and the wind does not make it dry. Atma cannot be cut, burned, wet, or dried. It is eternal, all-pervading, unchanging, immovable, and primeval. (2.23-24) The Spirit (Atma, Self) is said to be unexplainable, incomprehensible, and unchanging.
Notice that this translator, Dr Prasad, has included a hint there that Spirit in this context is Atman.
Hindu tradition would be that this Spirit acquires credits for good deeds and debits for bad deeds, and so when a body died, the Spirit is reborn into a life that is well suited to it. An incarnation is like going to school, and rebirth is kind of a Cosmic Sorting Hat that puts you in Griffendore or Slytherin as you deserve.
Buddha saw that this thing, this spirit, had to be something that changes and so was subject to cause and effect; it changes, so it is essentially impermanent. It can’t be the unchanging permanent thing it’s supposed to be.
So here’s one view of samsara and nirvana: samsara is that cycle of rebirth, returning again and again. Nirvana is graduation, leaving that cycle. For what? That’s one of the Unanswerable Questions: it’s literally unspeakable.
To which a whole bunch of profound students of Buddhism, in the -4th to -2nd centuries, said “what?”