Category Archives: Natural Law

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.