# Finding Depth, Seeing Clearly

The frequent presence of a serious thread of self-righteousness in the opinions and speeches and exhortations to save the earth, to stop hating, to become accepting, to love everyone, to be inclusive, to stop being a racist, to take responsibility, to work hard — you know, to be righteous — corrupts the conversations we need to have, blinding us to where we actually are and what we need to do.

Little that I hear that strikes me as coming from a simple, humble spirit of deeply honest, good will. Perhaps this is because most who have that authentic goodness — that simple approach to making the world a better place — do little talking and no preaching.

Instead, in the opinions and speeches and exhortations (and tweets and posts) there is often a clear dose of hypocrisy or arrogance or self-righteousness (or all three). Sometimes they are muted. Sometimes it is difficult to see anything but these three. The intensity with which this is impressed on me can be overwhelming, perhaps because I am myself particularly vulnerable to the temptation to self-righteousness.

Take, for example, the ongoing circus in Washington DC.

I am deeply opposed to almost all that Trump is doing. From a distance he seems to be a deeply narcissistic bully, to be into precisely one thing: himself. Yet the rhetoric of Trump’s many enemies is almost always very distasteful because of the self-righteousness, the hypocrisy, and sometimes even hatefulness.

This phenomena is not new with Trump – politics has always had these elements.

But in the era of Trump, it is out of control. While Trump has descended to a level that was unimaginable by most before he became president, his opponents have unwittingly become the flip side of the same debased coin they so despise, though this can only be seen in the nuance and the subtle details of the fantasy that is unfolding in Washington DC. This ugly show began as soon as Trump became a threat to the elites who were used to running things. Starting with the mistakes they made in thinking it was impossible for him to win, they quickly settled into the role of full out attack, with little attention to depth and nuance and detail and fairness. (It is not without merit to wonder what would have been if Trump’s enemies had not opposed him with such contempt and hatred, for does this not feed his worst instincts?)

This dearth of nuance, patience and depth is pervasive, extending far outside of the DC fantasy. The shallowness of TED talks, thought leaders and talking-head experts lulling elites into a self-satisfied state of cozy superiority is rarely interrupted by wisdom, deep thought or fearless attention to detail.

Stories in the news, podcast/televised interviews and broadcast discussions all suffer, sometimes to a great degree, from a lack of details and nuance that would put events in a very different light. This is intentional at some level — if there were a real will to produce deep reporting, the money aimed at truly thorough reporting would not be so microscopic. In the battle between thick data and big data, between clever TED talks and deep wisdom, between “faster, better, cheaper” and and taking the time to think, it seems that the big data, the TED talks, and the “faster, better, cheaper” is winning.

One hot topic suffering deeply from the lack of nuanced, detailed, deep examinations is the nature and uses of big data, machine learning and AI. I know that some would claim that O’Neil’s  Weapons of Math Destruction, or Broussard’s Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World, or Lanier’s Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, and others like them fill that gap. While these admittedly are a small start, these books neither plumb the depths nor exhaust the subject. In fact, they are rather unsatisfying as an answer to the threat that these hitherto undisciplined forces represent.

More generally, non-fiction literature is now dominated by book-length expansions of TED talk or Atlantic articles. There is an idea or two, inflated into a book, often with haste, with little attention to nuance. The time to think and the discipline of patient observation leading to a mastery of the art of waiting, to finding a “feeling for the organism”, is not often evident.

Every once in awhile though, you run across someone who has taken the time to really think, and feel, and see, and then write from a place of true depth and intense focus. While I have not finished the book, I am convinced the new book by Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: the fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, is one such book. There is a depth and a passion flowing from the immersive focus that created the book. This intensity in combination with the focus on the threat to the very soul of civilization posed by surveillance capitalism is unique.

I first heard of this book when I listened to Shoshana being interviewed on the NPR show, On Point. I was very impressed. But a much deeper impression was made when I started reading the book.

I quickly came to the realization that I was dealing with the results of deep, focused thoughts I was accustomed to seeing in mathematics (for example, Federer’s Geometric Measure Theory) or in philosophy (for example, Josef Pieper’s Leisure – the basis of culture).   An example from Shoshana’s book: though I had thought about the parallels between the ruin brought on the natural world by industrialization and the ruin the information age promises to bring on the human mind and spirit, Shoshana’s book is the first time I have seen someone else put these thoughts on paper. And it was not only the fact that these observations were there, it was the way in which they appeared and the care with which she examined and stated things. Yet is is not a dead, scholastic work, though it is very deeply researched.

Somehow, it is also alive.

While I have not yet finished the book, the parts I have read so far only confirm the initial impressions of depth and thoroughness and even wisdom.While I am sure that there will be things I quibble with, I am certain they will not be because she is being hasty, careless or thoughtless in some way. I am convinced enough of its value to have chosen this to be the next book my own graduate students have to read, the next book for the book discussion group I lead, and the next book that I buy multiple copies of to give away.

In order for us to do something, we have to see things correctly and deeply — that is the thesis behind Shoshana’s book. If we are to do this in the political arena, we must first recognize that things were extremely corrupt, even completely bankrupt at the deeper levels long before Trump came along.

While Obama put a good face on things, he was not getting in the way of the massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the super-rich, nor was he into the truth, if that truth cost him power. Witness how he dealt with Ed Snowden.  (Those that think the Democrats are somehow more righteous than the Republicans are dangerously deluded. It is not an accident that “House of Cards” has the psychopathic president in the democratic party.) Listening, for example, to Jame Risen (at http://theintercept.com), you begin to understand that both Bush and Obama were doing deeply disturbing things, that they were precursors to Trump in very important, often ignored ways.

What allows almost all of the elite-bubble inhabitants to miss these facts is the haste with which they seek to know and the elitism that blinds them.  Their devotion to the big, fast, crowd and the unwillingness to spend the time to think and see and feel,  to wait patiently for wisdom, doom them to a darkness they think is light.

The humility that comes from realizing how all of us are actually susceptible to these errors opens us to the pursuit of depth, to investment in thick data, and, above all else, to a fundamental reorientation towards wisdom. When we prioritize the time to think and attention to the patient search, we begin to understand the intense power of quietness. Slowing down,  our eyes are opened to a rich, living path in and through everything. We begin to avoid labels. We abandon the naming so detrimental to our ability to see and to the desire to search more deeply.  Where we are and what we see becomes rich with information and nuance.

In this place of deeper awareness, armed with clearer pictures of the complexities and grounded truth, we begin to have a chance of making progress on real problems.

Returning to the work of Shoshana Zuboff, it is this universal lesson that comes as a corollary to a careful reading of her work. Though it seems obvious — that for real solutions, time to see, to feel, to think, to know, must be invested, the fact that books like Shoshana’s are not the norm tells us that the lesson needs much more emphasis.

In fact, I believe it is this deeper universal message that can have the biggest impact on thoughtful readers of the book. And this, in turn, compels me to do my part to make the number of such readers larger.

The stakes could not be higher.

# Animals and Empathy

Many years ago, I ran a lab that used hamsters to study micro-circulation.  It is something that I eventually could no longer let myself do.

In recent years, I have come to be completely against the use of animals in experiments of any kind. I believe the cruelty that humans inflict on animals reduces, even removes their own humanity.

The lack of empathy shown in experimenting on animals should be frightening to us.

I propose that if we were fully conscious, fully mindful, that lack of empathy would horrify us. We would see the direct link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans. We would understand the lack of humanity, lack of conscience, lack of connection that enables us to kill other humans.

If we were to let ourselves feel with the whole heart, to understand that “the end justifies the means” is the most evil principle of all, to understand that mans inhumanity to animal and man alike is his greatest sin,  we would seek to heal instead of wound, to love instead of fear, to create instead of destroy.

Beneath all this cruelty is fear that drives us to deny our humanity, deny our empathy for other living things, deny other living things their right to life and peace. Believing that we must preserve our lives at the cost of anybody and anything that gets in the way, we attempt to save ourselves and in so doing, we condemn humanity to endless war and suffering. Only when we accept that “whosoever shall seek to save his life shall lose it; and whosoever shall lose his life shall preserve it” will we ever bring the cruelty to an end.

Empathy will guide us through darkness to light, if only we open our hearts to it. And when their suffering ends, so will ours.

# Obi

Dogs are simple angels, disguised by their dogness, but ministering spirits all the same.

Filled with unconditional love and devotion, they are also sprinkled with flaws so as not to give away the fact they are working, under-cover, single-mindedly, to save as many humans as they can.

Their living fills us with joy, if we will but open to their joy. Their dying gives us such intense grief, it saves us from arrogance, if we permit ourselves to feel honestly their passing. And their simple, complete devotion and love while they are living disarms us so reliably, that we almost always permit ourselves to feel honestly, their passing.

Remembering them, we finally understand their mission in our lives.

We understand that love and humility are the channels through which all life and healing flow. We know that these simple, faithful friends never wavered, never faltered. We see the power of a pure heart.

Dogs are simple angels, disguised by their dogness, but ministering spirits all the same.

# Disrupting Digital Delusions

A great deal is made now of inventions and ideas that will disrupt the usual way of doing things. “Thought Leaders”, eager technologists and the newly rich digital class are alive with a buzz that leaps from idea to idea and innovation to innovation, with scarcely a moment left for reflection or contemplation. Whatever is not the way it was yesterday, technologically speaking, is seen as the key to a glowing future.

Of course, there are naysayers, those that warn of the dangers and point out the signs that not everything is rosy, but humanity keeps accelerating, pressed on by their ubiquitous mobile devices. Email, Twitter, Facebook, Slack, Google, and thousands of other digital tools compete to capture and command our attention. Music in the form of mp3 files, books in the form of eBooks, anything (and everything) from Amazon, and a host of other digital replacements for what we used to see and feel and experience in “real life”, seduce us into thinking that  non-digital things — things that we can see and touch and hold and smell and own with no ambiguity — that those analog things are passe. Thus Vinyl Records, real books, real stores, and real jobs where things are made with our own hands are considered relics from a bygone era.

But anyone that slows down enough to think and to feel begins to question this idolization of technology and speed. Looking for books to read along these lines, they might find The Shallows: What the internet is doing to our brains by Carr, or You are not a Gadget: A manifesto by Lanier or Hamlet’s Blackberry by Powers, all of which are good. In Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, David Sax takes another approach, focusing on an argument for things thought obsolete, making the argument, often eloquently, that those analog things are not at all obsolete. He asks us to consider the possibility that analog things are far from dead, that in fact they might rescue us from the dangerous cliff that everything digital has lured us towards. I think he is on to something.

In the book, we find vinyl record companies like United Recording Pressing and Third Man Records, real film photography companies like FILM Ferrania, Lomography and The Impossible Project, real books made of paper and bookstores made of brick that thrive because they know their books and their customers, magazines like Stack — a meta magazine that send out a different, new independent magazine every month, and Delayed Gratification — a slow news magazine that you cannot read electronically. In a chapter in work, we discover Shinola, the luxury watch company in Detroit the is employing hundreds of formerly unemployed workers that construct watches and other distinctive products in an environment committed to making things in the USA. Another story I was intrigued and inspired by, was the story of the Newspaper Club that enables anyone with an idea to generate a small scale paper or magazine.

Even though, as Sax points out, real things are often still the way to make money, this does not explain why customers should prefer analog to digital, as is becoming clear is the case. Serendipity of finding a book you were not looking for when you go to a real bookstore stocked by real and knowledgeable staff or of meeting people in real places like cafes and brick and mortar stores, that we would not meet online, the importance of putting pen to paper for the purposes of remembering and recruiting the entire mind in the creative process, the nuances and range of response that real film offers that digital cannot match — these are a few of the reasons that digital cannot replace analog. In particular,  it seems that face to face connection, free of digital mediation is incredibly important for sustaining a network of real human connection, so important for mental and emotional health.

I finished the book before we traveled to Chicago on the Amtrak Empire Builder, in a sleeper compartment. The train seemed a fitting response to my decision to disconnect and slow down. The slow pace, the shared meals with other travelers we had never met,  conspired to engage Beata and I in conversations with several fascinating couples and individuals, some of whom may in fact become long term friends. The slow pace also, somehow, prepared me for the stay in Chicago, where, in addition to my usual impromptu maintenance and design challenges for my mother-in-law (and her mother, who turned 94 while we were there), I visited a sequence of bookstores and a Shinola Shop, all using the subway trains.

In the back of my mind (and occasionally in the front, as when recommending Revenge of Analog to bookstore owners), Revenge of Analog informed my search for books and magazines. Getting on at the Harlem stop, not far from O’Hare, it did not take long to get to Logan Square, where I visited CIty Lit Books, owned by Teresa Kirschbraun with whom I had a long discussion. After buying The Internet of Us by Lynch and another, The Book, by Houston, I moved on to  Uncharted Books, where I found Nick Disabato’s design publications, among other books. In Wicker Park, a few stops closer to downtown, I found Quimby’s, Myopic Books and Volumes. Over a few days I visited a few more including Ravenswood Used Books on Montrose and Unabridged on Broadway. I recommend both of these stores along with the previously mentioned stores, though I would have to say that the most engaging stores to shop were City Lit Books and Ravenswood Used Books. (In Wicker Park I also bought a notebook in the Shinola store.)

Somewhere in this summer and process of reorientation of focus and energy, I found myself realizing that I have to make changes in order to recapture the analog, face to face interactions that flow at their own pace. A maker space is one idea, as is a place to be, to connect, to converse, with little in the way of time constraints, perhaps some sort of updated version of the 18th and 19th century Salons. This is what I am finding the summer of avoiding email (checked only on Tuesdays and Fridays) and movies (we canceled Netflix and Youtube Red), and instead reading and thinking and walking and talking, has led me to. Yet another idea that is emerging is the recreation of a Bell Labs like environment, updated, but also very retro in its demand for time to think, with a focus on an organic interdisciplinarity that would have seemed natural to the innovators and thinkers in the 18th, 19th and very early 20th centuries.

I began the summer very burned out from interaction with the highly dysfunctional, ego-focused, post-student-focused academia (i.e. the new normal in academia), and have arrived at a point where I see what to do. Revenge of Analog was an important catalyst. In one way, it did not teach me too many new things, yet in another way, it was an absolutely critical inspiration, moving me towards understanding where I must go. But that is what good catalysts do — they take things you know or almost know and then push you to respond to the inspiration that emerges from your own unique experience and whatever new thoughts the catalyst might add to the mix.

If we are to have a healthy future, community focused activities and places to be together to talk and connect and explore and learn and create must be preserved and expanded. it seems fitting that I found David Sax’s brilliantly timed catalyst for this rethinking and renewal on the new book shelf, in the local public library.

While my interests have led me to pick a few projects in line with this vision, there are an enormous number of variations and innovations that promote and support connection and creative productivity. All of them depend on fundamentally analog, tangible, non-virtual experiences. As a part of my response to the book, I intend to encourage as many people as possible to read this book. In fact, I am considering starting a book club that would begin by reading Revenge of Analog.

Perhaps I can even convince the local library to add this book to their book club list so that they will have multiple copies on hand when we read the book together.

# Metrics and Inequality

Metrics — measures of performance or value — drive what we do at every scale, from the small, individual scale to the massive global scales. When those metrics are founded on misconceptions of reality, they contort behavior in such a way as to appear to support those misconceptions. To get back to the natural order of things, away from the artificial reality created by those false beliefs, we must start by reseting our metrics.

I was reminded of this as I perused the Harvard Business Review (HBR) I had purchased for the purpose of inspiring thoughts and reactions. I do not peruse the Review very often, but when I do, I am usually turned off by a large amount of what I find. The price  of 16.95\$ reeks of self-importance. And the articles overflow with much that I find distasteful in academia and in the broader, elitist culture — the same culture that is currently driving the world to the brink of destruction. But the metrics and implied metrics in the articles got me thinking about the influence of bad metrics, about the models of reality that implicitly encode inequality. Those models are everywhere.

Take the current focus in the news and social media on racism.

The real problem is that racism is an epiphenomena. Looking more deeply, we find the pervasive illusion of organic superiority/inferiority and the (negatively) powerful habits of ranking in all areas of life. These survive only because people can’t tell the difference between (1) powerful (negative) beliefs that become self-fulfilling prophecies and (2) fundamental truths. (While behavior does follow those unhealthy ideas, I am talking about potential here, not the reality created by those self-fulfilling prophecies.)

But to confront the fact that our brains are all pretty much equal, and what really matters is environment and opportunity, we have to face man’s inhumanity to man and our own moral degradation and greed.

And facing that fact is painful and difficult.

Once we begin to understand the effects of trauma of all sorts, of the massive power of emotions — actually, of our entire environment, we begin to understand the observed behavioral data differently. We begin to see that our beliefs in inequality combined with our inhuman treatment of others actually generate inequality. We begin to see that any solution to inequality that does not begin with the understanding that people are, actually, truly born equal is bound to fail.

Because we cannot fix inequality and believe in inequality at the same time.

Though it is a fact that there are organic differences, that there are a relatively small number of (very) basic groups of talents people are born into, any solution to inequality cannot succeed if it does not start with the understanding that these talents are not rankable, but are equally amenable to (even extreme) development.

When this position is taken, we see that inequality is pervasive, that the roots to racism are found in how we treat each other in every environment, including very white environments. In fact, if you were to restrict yourself to purely White Anglo-Saxon Protestant environments (though finding such environments is getting harder), one would find the fundamental disease that becomes racism in other environments.

When we begin building metrics based on the facts of equality, we begin to stand a chance of making a difference.

This brings me back to the HBR articles and their usual conformity to a traditional interpretation of behavioral data.

Of course the mistake the intelligent people who populate academia and the elitist cultures make, is the mistake that scientists often make, of not taking into account the effects of multiple time/context scales in their studies. It is sort of like the Chinese story of the man who lost his horse ( 塞翁失馬 — Sāi Wēng Shī Mǎ) in which what appears to be a good thing or bad thing depends on context that keeps expanding. Not taking all the different temporal/spatial/contextual scales into account, often leads to incorrect conclusions.

To many such observers, the data appears to confirm that (1) unfettered competition and greed are natural and probably  good and (2) inequality is organically based. (Note: I am not saying that all competition is bad, only that the current vision for competition is deeply unbalanced and actually unfair to many smaller entities that want to compete.) Of course, the more sophisticated the person, the more polished and palatable their presentation of these ideas.  But, as I observed above, the process by which we can see differently is uncomfortable for everyone and painful for most.

So instead, we pretend that the results of greed and inequality are some sort of natural law that we have no power over. And we end up missing the principle that enables us to find richness almost anywhere.

We do not realize that enough is a feast.

I am far from the first to observe that enough is a feast, that aiming for more than enough is wasteful, and that piling up great piles of wealth of all kinds (not just financial) and locking it away literally or figuratively is an obscene crime against humanity. It is just that even though it has been said before, by many others, it seems to be one of those things we need very frequent reminders of.

What I am interested in is a world in which taking time to think has priority over the rush of the over-achiever, where what my family and my dog thinks of me is more important than what my department or academia in general or the National Academy of Sciences thinks of me, where being a fundamentally independent thinker is more valued than status as a “thought leader”, where quiet generosity takes precedence over noisy philanthropy, and success is measured by whether or not I and those around me have enough, not if I have enough money or prestige to supply a small country.

In such a world, where “enough” becomes integral to our metrics, there is enough for everyone. And when this happens the enormous human potential that we have been obscenely wasting is unleashed.

When, as Bryan Stevenson makes a case for in Just Mercy, we understand that healing begins in seeing our own brokenness, we begin to understand why we strayed from “enough” in the first place. We then understand that everything good begins with healing, that, from the humility we gain in that process of healing,  every other good thing flows. Then we understand that humility is not so much the opposite of arrogance and the drive for status, as it is the opposite of spiritual blindness.

For blindness was the problem all along. What we needed, what we really wanted, was always at our fingertips. Only our inability to see the true order of things stood in our way.

Accepting this, we are set free to find healing and a rich abundance that has nothing to do with impoverishing others in any way.

# Finding Quietness

Rereading parts of Glynne Robinson Betts’ 1981 book, Writers in Residence, recalled simpler, deeper times, when finding places of quietness and taking time to think was part of the routine many people used in order to hear themselves and others. In fact, reading this again prompted me to expand the time I spend without Internet interruptions. Steps as simple as ignoring email for extended periods or as comprehensive as turning the computer off for the entire weekend, are emerging as a necessary part of reclaiming quietness and time to think.

There is nothing profound in these decisions to disconnect — whatever is profound happens as a result of taking that time to see and listen and think.

When I do slow down, every pause, every quietness, every moment taken to see, to listen, to think, rewards with a rich, living connectedness and depth that cannot be exhausted. The fabrics of the past and future join with the present, without seams, without a sense that I am working to recall, to see, to feel. Time opens up, I enter, to travel my own path, to sit or stand or walk … stopping time, finding passage to places beyond space and time.

To the strictly modern intellect, what I have just said probably seems like non-sense. Reason, based on easily observable facts, will find little irrefutable evidence that a skeptic would find compelling.

I therefore offer no argument to convince the skeptic. Instead I say, “Come and see”.

When we begin to let go of dogma, the regard of peers, and the comfort of the in-group, room for discovery is created. Launching into quiet spaces, where fear is replaced by stillness, a boundless infinity surprises. We find flow.  In this personal place without limits, I find an overflowing garden, teeming with life. On the living path, everything is illuminated.

Yet this is something I cannot really transmit. It is only something I can hint at in what I write, faintly, incompletely. The experience of discovery, of knowing, of traveling to those places that are here and beyond at the same time, cannot be captured in words.

To see, you must see though your own eyes. To see, you must choose to slow down, find quietness, and dwell there.

I believe that most – possibly all – human beings have, at one time or another, experienced immersion in flow and a connection to the place without limits. There is a resonance emerging from any such experience, no matter how brief, that enables those with that experience to hear each other.  But life often seems to conspire to crush those memories, to remove our ability to hear and see. In the quiet, we can be moved to remember, to see, to hear. In the quiet we remember the place without limits.

In writing something of what I see and hear, there is a chance that faint recollections will be stirred in those that read, in the way Writers in Residence stirred my memories, my recollections of a time when quietness and time to think was plentiful.

The thought of this possibility brings a subtle sense of connection, of silent conversation, with those as yet undiscovered friends. Lingering in rediscovered quietness, we move against the flow of noise and commotion and modern distraction, encouraging all those in our circle of influence to rediscover for themselves their own place without limits.

# Heresy and Freedom

Reading the words of Albert Schweitzer and bits of the life of Roger Williams is both inspiring and motivating: inspiring because they were both independent thinkers and motivating because their writing and lives ask for reflection and response.

I especially like the Epilogue in Out of My Life and Thoughts, Schweitzer’s autobiography; It seems more important today that it could have seemed in 1931 —

I am in complete disagreement with the spirit of our age, because it is filled with contempt for thought … The organized political, social and religious associations of our time are at work convincing the individual not to develop his convictions through his own thinking but to assimilate the ideas they present to him. Any man who thinks for himself is to them inconvenient and even ominous. He does not offer sufficient guarantee that he will merge into the organization. Corporate bodies do not look for their strength in ideas and in the values of the people for whom they are responsible. They try to achieve the greatest possible uniformity. They believe that in this way they hold the greatest power, offensive as well as defensive.

Yet I disagree with Schweitzer’s theology on significant points: I believe in Jesus the Messiah, that he was in fact God and Man, the His death did provide a way through annihilation for all of creation and a path to eternal life, that he was raised on the third day, that he is coming again. Further, I believe in the literal creation of the earth by the actual word of God and I believe in a struggle between God and Satan/evil centered on the existence of free will and God’s claim that free will is harmonious with good and life. And I believe that only in that context — of a cosmic struggle, that history begins to make sense. But I do not retreat into magic for explanation (the first part of this paragraph not-withstanding), neither do I believe that Jesus came to establish a religion, nor do I condemn in any way those that fail to believe as I do.

All this clearly begs for a much longer discussion, though more immediately it most likely triggers strong responses in many readers.

The facts that I have so many differences with what has become traditional Christianity — to the point that I find most of the dogma of Christianity to be unhelpful,  and that I am clearly at deep odds with the religion of science (and that is precisely what science has become — a religion) , often lead to me feeling isolated and politely ignored.

Which brings me to Roger Williams (1603-1683), one of the early proponents of true freedom in the new world. His life was one of innovation with concrete results that continue to this day. In addition to insisting on true freedom of conscience, and as a result being exiled to Rhode Island that he later obtained a charter for from the King of England, he was a friend to all those that did not fit in with the dogma and narrow way of life prescribed by the Puritans. Yet his defense of freedom to choose what we believe was not founded upon an idea that truth was somehow elusive. Neither was that freedom relegated to only those areas in which he had no strong opinion. Rather, it was his position that liberty of conscience was fundamental and God given. As a result, it was something that men could not withhold without grave consequence. And it is this that made his ideas so powerful.

Moving forward to the present, I find it disconcerting that the liberals and progressives with whom I agree on many fundamental principles, have such trouble applying what they believe when it comes to acceptance and tolerance as a practice rather than a theory. It reminds me of the same sort of dissonance between the theory and practice of Christianity.  There are of course many kind and respectful (and therefore tolerant) Christians and many similar liberals (some of whom are Christian) — in fact they might even be the majorities. But the minorities in these cases are loud and, sadly, often unchecked by their more reasonable brethren. And in both cases, underneath, separate from the individuals, there is that institutional desire to bend the wayward ones towards the “truth”. To me, this is the hallmark of a formal religion — the desire to bend the will of others to my way of thinking, the fear that somehow if others do not believe as I do, very bad things will happen to my tribe, my organization, or even me personally.

Ridicule that those who feel superior heap upon the “unenlightened” follows quickly. The stupid creationists and the unsaved, deceived evolutionists, the godless atheists and the ignorant bible-thumpers. And so on and so forth. Resorting to labels instead of real conversations based on a deep respect for life, freedom and a shared humanity, we retreat into our own smaller tribes. We view others through a montage of the worst of the loud proponents of the “others”. And because of the fear we gather and cultivate, we do not seek to find grounds for conversation.

Of course, there are terrible ideas and histories that beckon us to the side of fear: the atheist Stalin generating extreme suffering, the (unbiblical) doctrine of hell and the horrendous implications of what that would mean about God, the deep loss of freedom that results for various people on the fringes when socialists get the upper hand, the equally deep loss of freedom for the poor and the economic heretics when unfettered capitalism holds sway, the demonic inhumanity of the inquisition and the horrors of the Nazi experiment. These are indeed strong inducements to side with fear.

Yet there are also examples of real freedom and the alternative power of discourse based upon deep respect, not the least of which includes the life of Roger Williams. The path to  connections which illuminate and defeat fear all involve listening and talking and writing and reading and thinking and more listening and talking and listening … conversations of the right type are at the center of this model of positive change.

While I do believe that some conversations only work in very small settings due to the complexity of the subject matter and the fact that these conversations trigger deep fears that can shut down thinking and spiritual insight, there is still room for writing things down, for conversations that are slow and deliberate and open. Even though it is unwise to “cast your pearls before swine” — meaning that communication without the preparation of a history of respect and real connection can be worse than pointless — one can and should opt for the hope that there are those out there that do in fact seek real conversations, that are seeking to explore and will appreciate co-travelers, co-explorers. As long as we do not try to speak to each other from on high, from the perspective of one who is enlightened, but rather from a position alongside others, ready to listen and see, especially when in disagreement — so long as this is true, we will find ample opportunity for connection and progress.

To disagree is the extent to which my freedom, when combined with respect and love, permits me to fall out with others. And in this version of falling out, there is no reason that the conversation has to stop. While some ideas and ideologies must be restrained from crossing the line and actually hurting others, that line is not something that we are usually dealing with when focused on the present, local circumstances, whatever they are.

But to disagree and ridicule and belittle, to disagree and use force of any kind — spiritual, intellectual, physical — to try to bend others to my will, is a serious abuse of freedom. In fact, I believe that this abuse is the root of many problems in the present and the past, but that is another discussion.

So while I disagree with the theological conclusions of Albert Schweitzer, I also find deep inspiration in his writings. I find that in this falling out, nothing is lost and much is gained.

I think that Roger Williams would approve.

# Beginning Again

I am beginning to see tiny, yet brilliant slivers
of something that happened at the Cross that was so
enormous, so full of wonder, so full of illumination,
so powerful that it brings a deep stillness to everything
it touches.

A defeat of death and sin and all that is evil, a defeat
so complete that time held its breath, so awesome that
everything changed in that instant.

The tearing of the veil was the beginning of a tearing,
of a cracking, a disintegration of all the separates us
from God.

We were at that moment in a completely new era.

Time had begun its transformation, back to where it
began.

Face to face, in the silence that sings and heals, with
words that speak without words, nothing is withheld.

Nothing is withheld.

---

KRV


# Thoughts on receiving a negative review

This is a slightly edited version of something I wrote in 2009, not long after arriving at WSU from Los Alamos. It remains as pertinent now as it was then. Coincidentally, Gaza is again in the midst of increased mayhem.

Today I received a copy of a review of a paper I am an author on. Needless to say, the reason I am writing about it here is that the review was negative in a way that was not helpful. While the reviewer did make some good points, and we will address those points, it was done in an unfriendly way.

Have I seen worse reviews? Of course. So why write about this review? I suppose because it comes at a time when I am being reflective and when I am thinking about such things more carefully. The error that reviewer made was in not reading the paper carefully enough. Of course we can improve the paper and make it less susceptible to misinterpretation, and we will, but I think that the acceptance of this status quo of negativity and a cultivated attitude that looks for errors and ignores insights, ends up robbing our society of a great deal of original, creative productivity.

In my new position in the mathematics department at Washington State University, as I look around and get the intuitive sense for this university and put that in context of what I have observed at other universities, I see a pattern. And that pattern is tradition and conservatism and narrowness that has its roots in narrow self interest. It inhibits interdisciplinary work. It makes people far more apt to see the mistakes in other work, rather than finding the insights and innovations.  It makes people timid and afraid of adventure, of risk.

Do I like it in academia? Yes. There is still a decent amount of good and potential for a great deal more. There is freedom to develop truly new initiatives. And there are some students and colleagues who are inspired and inspiring.

But the threads I am disturbed about are simply local expressions of global states of human consciousness that we all observe in their horrific consequences: Gaza, the economic crisis, epidemics in Africa, etc.  Underlying everything are multiple threads, but the one that I see everywhere is an unconsciousness, a blindness that is deeply disturbing.

In this state, humans think there is no connection between their personal negativity and selfishness and the atrocities in Gaza. It is acceptable or even good to inflict inhuman atrocities on your enemy, but evil for those “terrorists” to strike back in the ways they can. The unconscious see a great gulf between them and the “terrorists”. They believe that some people are intrinsically good and some intrinsically bad. And the end justifies the means. The work of Chris Hedges — see for example, “I don’t Believe in Atheists” or “War is the Force that Gives us Meaning” or his columns in truthdig.com — feels and proclaims aloud the absurdity of these inconsistencies.

So what can my response be — be it to the reviewer, or the critical, narrow nature of some in academia, or the unmotivated, narrow minds of some students, or the unthinking, unconscious state of some people I run into in my daily life? Certainly, becoming negative and critical is not the answer.

It seems to me that the only thing I can do is to spend all my energy creating a personal atmosphere of rich, creative productivity and connection based on love. Generating happy beauty and a vibrant, living atmosphere, beckoning to those in the sphere of my influence to cooperate in creating little bits of heaven on earth, even if only locally, is the only real evidence there is for the existence of love or heaven … or God.

# The Power of solitude … and Social Connection

Awhile ago, Eric Blauer blogged this:

“Of this there is no doubt, our age and Protestantism
in general may need the monastery again, or wish it
were there. ‘The Monastery’ is an essential dialectical
element in Christianity. We therefore need it out there
like a navigation buoy at sea in order to see where we
are, even though I myself would not enter it. But if
there really is true Christianity in every generation,
there must also be individuals who have this need. […]”
—Kierkegaard’s Papers and Journals:  A Selection,
translated and edited by Alastair Hannay,
47 VIII I A 403, pg. 275

in response to something I had written him. In turn, that prompted me to write the following.

The monastery in its essence has always been there.  At least in its original, unpolluted version of time in solitude with God, it has always been accessible. The solitude of walks with God in nature, the quiet seclusion in which we hear and see, is closer than most think.

In fact, we are invited to find it by waiting:

“But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew [their] strength; they shall
mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; [and]
they shall walk, and not faint” Isaiah 40:31

“… in quietness and in confidence
shall be your strength …” excerpted from Isaiah 30:15

Which my walk has combined to:

“They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their quietness and confidence”

The monastery, as an ideal, is flawed. In pursuit of this ideal, a culture is robbed. For it is fundamentally wrong to view communion and union with a mate, interaction with the world, and social flow as distractions from a deeper walk with God. Acted upon as a model for spiritual depth, such views lead to an impoverished life, an impoverished culture.

Yet the simple, solitary walk with God is a powerful experience leading to deep insights and fresh originality. Spiritually, creatively, we are drawn to the greatest depths by an existence constantly moving between a walk with God and a walk with others.

The monastery impulse, stripped down, reduced to its essence of deep communion with God, is a powerfully transformative impulse. Enlarged by communion with others, it grows generous. Freed from the burden and unnatural restrictions of tradition, it becomes the source of such a rich profusion of creativity and connection that observers are constrained to recognize that something extraordinary is at work.

In such an atmosphere, where love and depth, generosity and creativity flow freely, no arguments are needed to persuade others that we have good news, for it is self evident.

Who we are becomes the only argument we ever need.

# Stillness

Prelude to Stillness

Many years ago a cousin of mine suggested that I make a habit of walkabouts in the woods and forests where I lived. He cited his observations of the deep peace that he always saw in me after I went on some wandering exploration, often after having started the walk in some agitated state.

I took his suggestion.

Those walkabouts in nature,  started many years ago now, have opened me to the rich, tangibly living nature of stillness, of quietness. My talks with God and connection to life, to creative flow, to the infinite, living universe we inhabit, all flow out of that quietness. Each of these pieces of Isaiah:

“In remembering and rest you are healed, in quietness and confidence is your strength”

“They that wait upon the lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up with wings as eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint”

has become personal and tangibly real.

The Path of Quietness

“Trust in the lord with all thine heart” is the “peace, be still” state. From here flows the quietness and confidence that is my strength. The “peace be still” state releases any need for final, absolute statements or a capturing or encompassing of universal laws. In particular, it accepts the abundance of apparent paradoxes and conundrums which are actually teachers of deeper truths. It relaxes in the finite approach to the infinite.

The struggle to encompass, to make whatever finite statements of truth we can muster the focus of our trust, is a struggle to not have to abandon ourselves to the naked freedom of trust in God.

I now realize that the invitation to abandon an encompassing of final absolute truth, is an invitation to infinity. Accepting that I cannot hold it all within my being, I have opened to an infinite exploration. While God is infinite in being, we are infinite in potential. And trust releases us to experience these infinities.

# Anarchy as Optimal Versatility

In the very teachings that Christians claim to base their religion on we find clear revelations of the non-institutional structure of the flow of life and innovation:

“Ye are the salt of the earth”

with the accompanying admonition to distribute and mix throughout the world.

Shallow readings of this can be viewed as admonitions to send out missionaries and to evangelize boldly. But a deeper reading will connect with the anti-institutional, anti-organizational and even anarchist nature of the most innovative streams of inspiration and life. Freedom is ever at odds with the propagation of organizations and the rise of institutions.

Mass movements very quickly gain an organizational, institutional structure that begins immediately to destroy the pure creative fiber that is at the foundation of whatever is good in the initial inspiration. There rarely is anyone bold enough, wise enough, to remind the inspired, who are in the process of being carried away with the euphoria of revelation, that “Ye are the salt of the earth”. Freedom is quickly challenged and slowly (sometimes quickly) falls prey. Group dynamics begin to dictate individual behavior and constrain what is and what is not acceptable. At this point the inspiration has been hijacked and the demonic nature of the institution begins to hold sway.

This is not to say that all forms of individual behavior are harmonious with life and innovation. Indeed there are sociopaths and psychopaths that would, if permitted, exploit any situation or collective or group. But it is often the tyranny of the majority, expressed in the form of an organization, that exerts its destructive will on the individual, limiting the free action of the individual and the unfettered creation of living diversity.

It is one of the apparent mysteries that inspiration and degradation share such close quarters, that the euphoria of inspiration can so quickly turn into evil. Part of the unraveling of this mystery surely lies in the fact that inspiration gives power and power very easily corrupts — and in groups, humans do things that they would hesitate to do individually. For in quietness we see most clearly.

But there are organizations that emerge spontaneously and are purely cooperative, transitory phenomena, not violating or leading to the loss of freedom. This kind of grass roots behavior is highly fluid. In its purest form it leads to the accomplishment of some immediate goal at which time the collective dissipates into its creative, living pieces, gathering new energy and diversity, becoming better prepared for the next emergent goal.

This, though seen faintly, through a glass darkly, keeps our hope alive.