A Few Thoughts About Music


This world is a very mysterious place, even if we often don’t notice it. I expect to be writing about some of the more mysterious aspects of it from time to time, to give my perspective, such as it is. One of the more mysterious aspects of it is music, in my opinion. Music can make you laugh or cry. How does it do it? Sometimes maybe the words to a song will grab you, but I think more often, it’s the music itself, and just why music should have such a powerful effect on the human nervous system is beyond me. Sometimes just one chord will grab you, sometimes an intro, or a solo. Sometimes it takes a whole song, and you don’t really know why this one, and not that one.

To talk about the powerful effects of music, I have to go back quite a few years, because I don’t listen to current music much, and when I happen to hear some, I don’t often find anything that really reaches into me.

I grew up in the 1960’s, a time that ought to still be famous for the music being made. A lot of different streams came together, and a number of musicians were influenced by a lot of different stuff. I had been hearing music all my life. My mother played us children’s music, we sang hymns, and she also played classical music. My sister was retarded, ans music seemed to soothe her, so maybe that was part of the reason she played it, but I think she would have anyway. Her mother had been musical, so she’d been exposed to music herself, and I think she wanted to pass it on to us.

So there was music playing at all hours in our house. We inherited my grandmother’s piano, and I had piano lessons for three years, but they didn’t take. What did take was the records I heard. Specifically, to begin with, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto, which I began listening to consciously one night. I found it moving, so I started consciously listening to other classical music. We didn’t have anything like an exhaustive catelogue of it, but we had a fair variety, and there isn’t a lot of classical music I’ve enjoyed since that I didn’t hear at home first. And I didn’t like all of that.

Another mystery, as far as music goes, is why one person likes one kind of music, and another doesn’t. Some people think Bach was the greatest ever, some Mozart, others Beethoven. I never cared a lot for Bach (with occasional exceptions), or Mozart, but I loved Beethoven then, and love him still. I can’t hear everything that others hear in him, but his appeal is universal enough that a lot of people can agree about which are his best pieces. I had been familiar with his Fifth Symphony, and his Sixth, when I first heard his Ninth. I think I must still have been in elementary school then, or not far past it, but it was obvious to me that the Ninth was miles beyond the other two symphonies, as good as they were. Nowadays I don’t care that much for the Fifth, still love the Sixth, and still find the Ninth to be one of the most profound pieces of music I’ve heard. I think others agree with that estimation, though a good number find his late String Quartets to be beyond even the Ninth. I spent some time this winter listening to them, and wasn’t able to hear that in them, which doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.

Anyone who knows anything about popular music in particular knows that musicians affect people powerfully. I remember seeing part of a movie about Abba, the Swedish group, who were competent enough, and some of whose songs I liked. But the movie showed crowds of people showing up at airports when they were about to arrive. That’s something I never did, and Abba would never have inspired me to do it.

The first popular song that ever made me sit up and listen was The Wayward Wind, by Gogi Grant. I looked her up on Wikipedia, and couldn’t find out much about her. Just another musician who had at least one hit, who nobody knew much about. Jimmy Dean was the next one that struck me, with Honeycomb, and Kisses Sweeter Than Wine. The latter is more lyrically profound than the former, but I liked them both. Otherwise, as far as popular music went, I was clueless in the 1950’s. I saw Elvis in a movie preview, and wasn’t very excited (I wasn’t a teenager yet, which may have had something to do with it). I might have heard a little of Buddy Holly, and I did know who the Everly Brothers were, and liked what I heard of their music. But I didn’t know about Chuck Berry or Little Richard (I think I had heard Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill), Jerry Lee Lewis, or any of the others who were making music exciting in the 50’s. I got exposed to them through the Beatles.

The Beatles were the ones who got me listening seriously to popular music. I saw the cover photo of their American album that made them a hit here, and was blown away by it. It doesn’t look like that much from my present perspective, but then it was powerful and mysterious, and I went out and bought the first two Beatles albums, and decided to love all of that music. Next was Bob Dylan. I joined a record club sometime in that period, and I may have bought a couple of albums through that, but I think Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited was the third album I ever bought. And it was a pretty amazing one. Dylan, of course, had started his recording career as a folkie, and had only recently, at that time, gone electric. I didn’t really care about the controversy over whether it was bad for him to play electric guitar or not, or have a band. The music wasn’t all that sophisticated by standards then even, but it was enough to turn me on, and while I didn’t have much idea what the lyrics meant, they were powerfully mysterious too.

Next were the Rolling Stones, whom I hadn’t liked when I first heard them, until a string of hits that I DID like, and finally Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown, which persuaded me to be a fulltime fan. And after that, it seemed like new people were coming from everywhere for awhile. I loved the San Francisco bands, particularly the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, but also the Steve Miller Band, the Quicksilver Messenger Service, and Moby Grape. But my tastes weren’t everyone’s tastes, and 10 years or so after the Beatles hit America, I began to lose interest.

Part of it were the changing styles. I didn’t care much for metal, much less disco or punk. But the other thing seemed to be that music had started losing its effect on me. After all this time, I’m not entirely sure why that was, though using it as a way to run away from things I should have been facing may have had something to do with it. I still occasionally found things I liked, but it got more and more rare. I discovered, or rediscovered, at least a couple of songs while I was courting my wife, and for awhile during that period I found myself often crying when I heard something. Things seemed to touch me more deeply then. But that period ended. I had to go to work to support my family, and music receded for me.

There was one exception, and that was What Comes Around Goes Around, by Justin Timberlake, of all people. My stepdaugher had been a fan of N-Sync, the band he’d been part of, and I’d watched part of a video of one of their concerts when she was watching it, dismissing the band as being show-biz and little else. So I was surprised when I heard the song, immediately liked it, and then found out who had done it. I like music to move me deeply, but sometimes I’m surprised myself at what I like.

So why do we like music? There seems to be something in the human nervous system that responds to it, but I don’t know if I could say what. Some of it seems to be rhythm. Rhythm is a basic part of our lives, starting with the beating of our hearts, and it’s as important to athletes as it is to musicians. If you’re an athlete, and can find the correct rhythm to whatever game you’re playing, you find yourself doing more than you ever thought you could. The same is true of other forms of work. Sometimes you fall into a rhythm, and do everything on time, and just as it ought to be done. Other times you can’t seem to do anything right. Nobody can find the correct rhythm all the time. Sports teams have their off nights, as do musicians. And while sometimes a recording will move you more than the band performing live, other times the recording will pale in comparison.

I went to a classical concert by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra some 35 years ago, because they were playing a couple of my favorite pieces. Those two came first, and I certainly enjoyed them. But last came Shostakovitch’s Fifth Symphony. I’d heard of Shostakovitch, but hadn’t heard any of his music, and I had already decided to go home early, because I had to work the next day. The memory of what I heard of the music still haunts me, though. It was powerful, and seemed to be conjuring up twisted people, or something. That’s about the closest I can come to describing the effect, and I wonder what it would have sounded like if I’d stayed for the whole thing. But when I listened to a recording of it, there was no comparison. Maybe it was the quality of the recording, because it sounded tinny or something. Whatever it was, the power that I’d experienced at the concert was totally missing.

I could go on a lot further about music, but this piece is already getting too long. I’m planning to revisit the subject, and hope anyone reading this will forgive me for leaving it so incomplete.



Cal Thomas, in a recent column, recounted the fable about the grasshoppers and the ants. The grasshopper, in this case, is the government, which takes from the rich to give to the poor, which keeps the poor addicted to government aid. As with much propaganda, there’s an element of truth to this, but what Thomas doesn’t mention, and probably would prefer no one notice, is that government doesn’t just take from the rich, and doesn’t only benefit the poor. Wall Street bailouts are the obvious example, but he studiously avoids mentioning those.

Nor is government the only entity to take advantage of that dynamic. Capitalism has made an artform of selling convincing people they need things they actually don’t, and making them pay outrageous prices for them. Does anyone really NEED Smart Phones, for instance? My phone isn’t that advanced, but I don’t use all its functions, and can’t imagine I’ll ever need to. Nor do many people need to buy a new car every year, though car companies would like us to believe we do. Thomas says that human nature guarantees that anyone who can take other people’s money without working for it will become addicted to government. Is that all they might become addicted to? If you define earning as making a useful product, then we might debate whether what Wall Street does is earning. It hardly seems the business of government to bail out businesses that have been poorly run. And if those bailouts are justifiable, why not bail out the people who unwisely bought the mortgages that were issued? From what I read, they often weren’t told the truth about what they were buying.

Thomas also differentiates between “spreading the wealth around” and teaching people to create wealth themselves. Just how people without money to begin with are supposed to do that can be problematic. The so-called job-creators have been busy creating jobs in other countries, where they don’t have to pay workers as much, or worry about laws against pollution. The logic of this strategy has been seized on by various companies in this country as a mandate to pay their workers less too. How is such a worker supposed to create wealth?

Conservatives often like to look back to the 1950’s as a good time in American life. They were a good time, in some respects, but it’s also an interesting example of how government can work. The economy was very strong in those days, but taxes on the wealthy and on corporations were also much higher. That seems to disprove the contention that low taxes stimulate the economy, if the experience of the last four years wasn’t enough.

That was also the time that the interstate highway system was begun, a plan initiated by government, which improvved the country’s infrastructure, as well as creating jobs. Of course there were rich and poor then, as there presumably always will be, but the gap wasn’t nearly as wide. Ordinary Americans had enough money to spend on things besides necessities, and that’s one of the things that makes an economy work. If a large percentage of people are excluded, then a large percentage of people will struggle to survive, while a small percentage have way more wealth than they need. Greed may be an enduring basis of our economic system, but greed can also cause it to collapse, and no longer serve the majority of people. That seems obvious, but Republicans have been trying to convince us otherwise for quite a long time.

Whenever people criticize the wealthy, or large corporations, Republicans cry, Class Warfare. While I haven’t read Karl Marx, my understanding of that part of his thesis is that class warfare goes on all the time, and that the wealthy usually have the advantage, which seems to be the case now. Does that mean I approve of the Communist approach of taking over a country and expropriating the wealth of rich individuals? Of course not. A society is, in a sense, an organism. I think one of the best things about this country has been the American Dream, which enables anyone willing to work hard and smart enough to become  successful, regardless of their origin. It’s rarely been as inclusive as it should be, in my opinion, but the 1950’s was one of the more inclusive times in American history.

Not inclusive enough, obviously, as that was when the Civil Rights movement started to really get traction, but more inclusive than what we see today. When I began working for a living, in the 1960’s, I could go almost anywhere and get a job almost any time. Obviously, that time has passed, especially for young people just entering the work force, and especially for those without higher education. In the 1960’s and before, there were plenty of jobs that you didn’t need a lot of skills to perform. Among other things, they gave young people a taste of working life, and may have motivated them to become educated, so they could support families, etc. That training ground is much less available now.


A Couple of Novels


Recently I read a couple of novels about Catholic priests. Something to read (I’m a book addict), and a different world from mine. The first was The Cardinal, by Henry Morton Robinson, an American author. The second was Monk Dawson, by Peirs Paul Read, an English writer, and they’re set in different time periods, as well as different social classes.

Robinson’s novel begins in the early 20th century. The main character is either the eldest, or nearly so, of a large Irish Catholic family in Boston. He’s had the desire to become a priest since his early teens, and he’s just finished his preliminary education in Rome as the novel begins, and is on his way back to Boston to become a curate, the bottom rung of the Catholic hierarchy.

The novel follows him as he goes from curate to priest, to bishop, to archbishop, and he’s just become a cardinal as the novel ends. I suspect the novel presents a fairly realistic picture, though I think it’s probably a bit idealized too. Not everyone can have the energy and sense the main character has. Undoubtedly there are bad priests as well as good in the Catholic church, but we don’t see too many of them in the novel.

One thing I did like about the novel, in particular. I had read another novel about a priest (title and author long forgotten) in which the question of his chastity came up. He said something like, it never seemed important, which I thought was a cop-out. The cop-out has been underlined in recent years with the revelation that there have been a number of pedophile priests, and that the Catholic church has conducted a cover-up on their behalf. I don’t know exactly why chastity seemed to be so important to the Catholic church, when it wasn’t in the Orthodox church. An anti-sexual movement came along at about the time Christianity was beginning, and that probably had some influence, but it’s still difficult to understand.

In Robinson’s novel, chastity isn’t something that always comes easily to the main character. It’s not something he thinks about constantly, but he’s very attracted to at least two women, and his attraction to one of them leads him into a crisis of faith, which he needs help to overcome. He does successfully overcome it, but at least the issue isn’t treated as trivial.

That novel ends just before World War II begins. The second novel is set in the 1950’s and 1960’s, and was published in the late sixties. Of course the picture is very different.

The novel begins in an English boy’s school. The main character is someone the narrator knows, who decides (although he’s somewhat pushed into it) he has a vocation to be a priest. He goes directly from school into the education a priest needs, and eventually becomes a priest. But things don’t go too smoothly, and he has a crisis of faith, which leads him to resign from the priesthood and become an ordinary civilian.

Naturally, this is pretty disconcerting. The narrator is a journalist, and helps him find work in journalism. Now he’s able to support himself, if not lavishly, and at some party meets a woman he’s attracted to, and who’s attracted to him. One thing leads to another, and he moves in with her, her husband being out of the picture since having driven into a tree, and died.

After some time with her, he begins writing a series suggesting that humans have grown up enough to no longer need religion. It’s just a matter of enjoying the wonderful things of the world, and the idea of God need no longer be taken seriously. He’s not entirely comfortable with this theme, but decides, why not?, and writes it.

Not long after this the woman he’s been living with runs off with a younger man. He finds this rather devastating, but perhaps even worse is when he writes an article about a prominent union organizer, and the magazine he’s working for refuses to print it. He becomes depressed.

Rescuing him from his depression is a young woman whose confessions he used to hear as a priest. They become involved sexually, besides being friends, as she tries to take care of him. They eventually marry, but that doesn’t go well: she’s not very comfortable with sex, becomes very unhappy, and commits suicide. The main character disappears.

The narrator looks for him, and eventually finds him, living as a contemplative monk in a monastery. The man is no longer interested in the outside world. Most of the people he’s been exposed to have been fairly wealthy, and their lives consist of parties, travel, buying things, and sex. Not that he hasn’t enjoyed that life, but he’s seen that it doesn’t prevent suffering, and it’s also trivial. To the narrator, he seems to be happy in the monastery.

Catholicism in particular has made the whole year a continuing drama to move everyone who may be open to it. There seem to be fewer now than there used to be, and I doubt that makes the world richer. On the other hand, what once was liberating eventually becomes imprisoning. Many people feel that about religion now, but what will they put in its place? What many people see as freedom is just licentiousness. Conservatives aren’t wrong when they say that freedom goes with responsibility, but they sometimes see responsibility differently than others. The whole concept becomes politicized in our current cultural wars, and then it’s hard to talk about it reasonably.

Catholicism is alien to a lot of us, but aspects of it may still speak to many who aren’t Catholic. The Roman Catholic church has done its share of wrong, as has any human institution, and perhaps more than most, in its longevity and power. Let’s not let that detract from the good it’s done, while being clear-eyed about how what once was good has sometimes turned to evil. I think St. Francis would have been appalled to see Franciscans forcing Serbs to convert to Catholicism or be killed. Christians have generally behaved better when they were being persecuted than when they were doing the persecuting.

The message in both novels is that life takes effort, if it is to be good. How can anyone disagree?

The New Hate


This is the beginning of my blogging career. I’ll be fumbling around with just how to do what I want to do for awhile, but here is where it starts. I’m going to be writing about things that interest me, and hopefully will interest some other people too. If you like anything I have to say here, you may like some of my poetry, somewhere down the line. Let’s begin.

Arthur Goldwag has written a book, The New Hate, which finds that it’s not a lot different from the old hate. The main difference is that rather than George Orwell’s Two-Minute Hate, the hatred is now on 24 hours a day, and the media magnifies its effects. The objects of hate are still the same old reliables: blacks, Jews, secret societies, Catholics and homosexuals.  Maybe liberals are a little bit newer than the aforementioned, but not by a lot.

Mr. Goldwag characterizes the haters as conspiracy theorists; not because he denies that there are any conspiracies, but because such theorists see conspiracy as superhumanly able to affect practically everything that happens. This leads to some interesting ideas that are logically opposed.

For instance, if whites are so superior to blacks, and other minorities, why do whites feel so threatened? People may hate President Obama for a variety of reasons, but I think few believe that he’s the stereotype black: stupid, and barely able to take care of himself. I suspect the picture most haters have of him is more like the stereotype of the Jews: subhuman, but at the same time more intelligent than most whites, which means that poor innocent whites can be manipulated into slavery, or whatever other diabolical fate the villains have in mind.

This leads to some unintenionally amusing ideas. Dinesh D’Souza supposes Obama to have been greatly influenced by his father (who left Obama’s mother when the President was two years old) into Kenyan anticolonial sentiments (his father was Kenyan, which I suppose most people already know). This influence is supposed to have led him into hatred for the United States.

Silly me! I thought the United States was anticolonial (or at least that we used to be), and that colonialism was something it was perfectly okay to dislike.

The author does a conscientious job of tracing the historical roots of various hatreds, incidentally giving a more complete account of the forgery known as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion than I had previously come across. An interesting aspect to that book was that it originally was a satire about Napoleon III of mid-19th century France, and had nothing at all to do with Judaism. The person who put The Protocol together seems to have been associated with the Okhrana—the Czarist secret police–, and the book became hugely popular and influential when it became widely known in the 1920’s. Hitler seems to have taken it at face value, but also to have used a number of its ideas for his own tyranny. Quite possibly others in the 20th century did too.

Hitler was also influenced by Henry Ford, who was anti-Semitic, perhaps because he saw Jews as generally controlling financial interests (another popular stereotype about Jews), and published a newspaper to publicize his ideas. Not only did Hitler eagerly agree with Ford about Jews, but he also used Ford’s innovative assembly line in his death camps, making his genocide perhaps the most efficient so far seen in the world.

Ford was concerned about farmers being pushed off their land by moneyed interests, but ironically, it was probably his assembly line innovation that did the most to break up the old family farm system. Close to half of Americans were farmers at the beginning of the 20th century, while only about 2% of the population are now. The factory farm (assembly line again) have almost completely taken over agriculture in this country.

While hatred has a long history, it tends to become virulent during uncertain times, and our times have become very uncertain. Hatred often appeals to people who feel insecure, and there’s plenty to feel insecure about right now. The future looks very dangerous, and people want to have someone to blame. There are a lot of media figures around to tell them who to blame, too. Perhaps most prominently on the Right, but there are also Leftist propagandists, though they seem to be generally less effective. I think most will know the various names.

One who is of some interest to me is Glenn Beck, though I can’t claim to know a lot about him (I watched part of one of his TV shows once). I first heard of him because he is alleged to have said that everyone claiming to be concerned about social justice is either a Nazi or Commnist. This statement, if true, implies that Beck believes in social injustice, which I find an interesting stance to take. It’s also deeply disrespectful to my parents, who, I think it is safe to say, Mr. Beck must never have met.

My father was a Republican, and when in 1960, John F. Kennedy came to our town to campaign, my father was invited to sit on the stand from which he would speak. My father refused, because Kennedy was a Democrat. If my father was alive today, I think he’d be appalled at what the Republicans have turned into. He was a devout Christian, and believed Christians ought to stand together, rather than the different denominations being suspicious of each other, as they had been for most of his life. And he didn’t draw any distinctions between black and white Christians.

My mother was very much in favor of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s, though as a busy mother with 4 children, and later a job, she had little opportunity to support it directly. My parents didn’t hold these positions for reasons of financial gain. They held them because they believed that was what Christians were supposed to do. A good many disagreed then and now.

Interesting as it is, The New Hate in the end is sad. Once someone decides to hate, that person is unlikely to ever be persuaded to change his or her mind. That doesn’t make for a harmonious society, and I think that with all the objective problems that we can see and foresee, a harmonious society would be an immense advantage in trying to solve them. Right now we don’t seem to be that lucky.

War of the Worldviews


War of the Worldviews is Deepak Chopra and Leonard Mlodonow the differences between science and religion. Mlodonow doesn’t see God as being the creator of the universe, and sees science as testing hypotheses before accepting any mistaken ideas. Chopra doesn’t defend traditional religion, and doesn’t condmn science, except for being too narrow. There are a lot of interesting topics in the book.

I’ve never seen the necessity of a divorce between science and religon, and neither did George Gurdjieff, who became interested in science as a young boy. But he witnessed several events that would usually be considered supernatural: someone praying for rain, and rain coming; a faith healing; and someone being raised from the dead. He found that not only did science not explain how these things happened, but  didn’t try to. He decided that science’s view was incomplete (but not invalid, as far as it went), and sought a more complete view.

In this book Chopra argues that the whole universe is conscious. Mlodonow takes a more limited view: consciousness only in entities that can be demonstrated to react to stimuli. He sees human consciousness as being confined to the brain, while Chopra sees the brain as tapping mind throughout the universe. There are comments we can make on both sides. Mlodonow says that brain-mapping research of the past couple of decades strengthens his case. Apparently there’s no evidence (so far) of people receiving stimuli from outside sources, except through the five senses. On the other hand, the big bang theory of the beginning of the universe, supported by evidence that stars and galaxies are receding from each other, presumes that within a very small area, smaller than a molecule, was the potential that produced the entire cosmos. How could this primordial potential be described? Sir James Jeans is quoted as say, :The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine.”

Intelligent design might be a great description of how the universe works, if that term weren’t identified with the Fundamentalist notion that every word of the Bible is literally true. There’s too much evidence to counter that. The world wasn’t created 6,000 years ago, with phony dinosaur bones to confuse people. But evolution is no longer an automatic process either, at least not for humans. Chopra describes the steps: 1. The opening. 2.Revising the meaning of life. 3.Becoming part of the plan. 4. Walking the path. 5.Illumination. To summarize his view, we may have an experience of an unusual consciousness, motivating us to search. If we undertake such a search, we may find something that causes us to revise our view of reality, leading us to work on harmonizing our lives with whatever we find. It takes a lot of work to change our behaviors into what they ought to be, but if we can successfully do that, we have the potential to become illuminated, and much more than we ordinarily are. That’s his view, and presumably, his experience. I have little or no experience of that, but it makes sense to me. So many problems of the world can be traced to people having no satisfying aim, other than short term satisfaction of their desires. This often leads to conflict, since my desire may conflict with yours, and even damage you in some way. If, on the other hand, we take the path of responsibility and duty, we may still have conflicts, but they’re likely to be more fruitful.

Chopra speaks of being asleep: allowing our desires and habits to dominate our lives, and in this he agrees with Gurdjieff, who talked of people ordinarily seeing things upside down, and behaving like machines. To live fruitfully, one must become master of one’s self (though many people prefer to master other people), and if one can do this, life can open up in perhaps painful, but also exciting ways. As one of my friends put it, “Being right isn’t the point. Being is the point,” and I think both Gurdjieff and Chopra would agree. Mlodonow wouldn’t, entirely. For him, science is the way we find out if ideas are mistaken or not. It’s not that he entirely disagrees with Chopra’s worldview, but that there have obviously been mistaken ideas in the past that have caused a great deal of suffering. That’s where the divorce between science and western religion came from: the church (the Catholic church in particular, but not just them) claimed to have all knowledge, or that all people needed to know, was in the Bible. Science proved the first idea to be mistaken: the creation story in Genesis has elements of truth in it, when it says that the world was created in stages, but evidence shows that each stage was much longer than a “day.” So take the Bible for the poetic or mythological truth that it often is, but not literal truth.

Albert Einstein was one of the great scientists who believed that science and religion ought to complement each other, rather than conflict. Science understand how things work in the physical, exterior world. Religion, at its best, knows more about the interior world, and there’s no reason why it can’t be approached with a scientific attitude. Western religions have tended to take the approach of belief, maybe Christianity in particular, but I think also Judaism and Islam. At least some forms of Buddhism have preferred the approach of practice: practice certain disciplines, and experience the results. Then you can think or talk about them. The Buddha is said to have discouraged speculation about God or the gods, in favor of concentration on practical discipline to find out for one’s self. Aleister Crowley, whom many consider to have been a Satanist (and who seems to have been a gifted but flawed individual), seems to have had a similar viewpoint: “Our aim is religion, our method is science.”

Mlodow points out that even when people disagree with science’s findings concerning evolution or global warming, believe in science when it doesn’t contradict their faith. Science has become a powerful tool, often misused, but vastly expanding our knowledge of the world and universe. Religion, or spirituality, as Chopra prefers to say, has its own contribution to make. Any human institution can become corrupt, and often have. The contribution that the correct practice of spirituality can make is to produce people who are incorruptible, know that they have responsibilities, and fulfill them as best they can. Organized religions have largely failed to do this, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, and with the problems of the world apparently snowballing, incorruptible people with real knowledge will be needed to help the human race survive.



Humans can come close to reading each other’s minds. We see a form of that in teamwork, in which a group organizes to become more effective than any individual can be.

On the very primitive level an example of this is slime molds. When there’s plenty around to eat, the individual cells eat independently. When conditions aren’t so good, the cells congregate to form a mold, and go into a state of suspended animation, until food is available again.

This might be an analogy of what people say happened during the Great Depression: people helped each other out more than now. When the country became wealthy again, community started to become lost.

On a higher level of teamwork, are other living creatures: insects, reptiles, mammals and humans, each a conglomeration of cells working together for the benefit of the whole organism.

Teamwork exists on the human level too. Ideally, every marriage and family is a team, though some are dysfunctional. Some people prefer to watch or play individual sports like tennis—more people watch tennis singles matches than doubles, but the most popular sports in this country, and maybe around the world, are team sports.

Many focus on individual stars in baseball, basketball, football, hockey or soccer, but I think watching teams work together can be fascinating. In basketball, a game of almost perpetual motion, when one player moves, so do the others. If the players have been well-coached, they move to complement each other, either to help their team score, or to prevent the other team from scoring. Wilt Chamberlain and Michael Jordan, perhaps the two greatest scorers in the history of basketball, couldn’t score enough alone to win games. They needed teammates to help them, and never won championships until they realized that.

And almost all of us are involved in teams of some sort. Besides family, most of us are parts of teams wherever we work, and (again ideally) help direct our government on every level. Since we each are individuals too, there’s always a tension there. The group can over-restrain the individual, but individuals can do things to the detriment of the group, too. We see that in politics now, where politicians demand that one societal group be rewarded at the expense of another. Of course all politicians claim to have the interests of the whole society at heart, but most people have their own selfish agendas at heart, whether they admit it or not.

At their best, religions promote the primacy of community, especially when they demand that all the community’s members be supported, and model how this should be done. But communities, like individuals, can be exclusive, as well as inclusive. So some religions forcibly convert, and may refuse to allow members to leave, if they wish. Each religion has a belief system which says what works, and these systems can become dogmatic. And many religious people refuse to recognize the similarities in other belief systems, and consider them enemies. So humans always have forces dividing as well as uniting them. When the balance between individual and society is lost, that society is in trouble.

Jesus is famously alleged to have said to his disciples to love one another, and to have preached to society in general to love their neighbors as themselves. Successfully following these admonitions would lead us to balance between ourselves and the groups we belong to. But few feel able to do so, and the easier ways of making groups work; authoritarianism and and manipulation, in all their various forms, eventually fail.

And so does anything else, unless we have internal guides to keep us adjusting to the changing realities in which we participate. All of that is demanding, so we frequently allow ourselves to fall short of the ideal, often with drastic consequences. Nothing comes with an absolute guarantee, so we take the cheap way out, and lose a lot of possible benefits.

So let’s talk about our country, which is also supposed to be a team. Of course it has a lot of teams competing in and with it. Not only are there other races and classes, but other economic interests.American corporations have become international, both manufacturing and selling in other countries besides ours. They may have decided they no longer need ordinary Americans on their teams, since they’ve found ways to manufacture without them. They may also have decided they don’t need ordinary Americans as buyers, since many are making great profits without the unemployment rate getting significantly better. Economics may be a competitive sport, but it’s also a team sport, especially on the national level. If many Americans can’t find jobs, they also can’t buy much. Necessities, if that. That’s no way to make a national economy grow.

Then there are the political teams. Conservatives are the ones who promote individualism, but also have the most team spirit. Hatred is passionate, and teams need passion to succeed. Liberals are less passionate, and also less effective. That doesn’t make for a very rosy picture of the future. We seem to be in the midst of a civil war, even if the actual fighting hasn’t yet begun. Those whom the gods would destroy, they first make mad. Hatred and madness synergize very well, and there’s plenty of both to go around right now.

It would be nice to see liberals get as aggressive as conservatives without descending to the hateful level. Of course conservatives argue that they already have, what with “death panels” and such. Many can’t see beyond the buzzwords, let alone see others in any rational light.

So although humans have the capablity to work together on a high level, sometimes in almost an intuitive dance, they also have the capability to blind themselves to others humanity,  particularly  in dangerously uncertain times, as these are. With worry and fear come paranoia, and there are plenty of people around to feed it. When the tension gets to the brealomg point, then will come the blood. Are Americans exceptional? In some ways we have been, but we seem determined to prove that we no longer are.