The Fiftieth Anniversary of President Kennedy’s Death

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     Like most people, I remember where I was when John F. Kennedy was shot. In class in high school, Math, I think. Unlike most people, it didn’t make a heavy impression on me.

     I was vaguely aware of politics at the time, but it hadn’t made the impression on me that it apparently had on many people of my generation. I hadn’t fallen in love with the Kennedys, as many had. I knew they were more attractive physically than Richard Nixon or his wife, but didn’t really care. I hadn’t yet decided what side of politics I favored. I hadn’t been particularly afraid during the Cuban missle crisis. My world seemed very secure, so the possible danger hadn’t impressed me.

     I became more politically aware somewhat later, but not a lot more. I didn’t like the war in Vietnam, I didn’t like when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, but wasn’t as devastated as many people. I must have been too self-centered for that.

     It must have been around the mid-sixties that I decided I was a liberal, since conservatives seemed all to be racists. That may have been a superficial impression, but I can’t say that my impression has greatly changed since.

     So when people characterize Kennedy as a mediocre president, I don’t disagree. Yes, he handled the Cuban crisis pretty well, after having handled the Bay of Pigs badly, and the missile crisis seems to have impressed a lot of Americans. But he got us into Vietnam in a bigger way than we’d been before, may have arranged for the assassination of the South Vietnamese leader (whose name I don’t recall), and while he seems to have been for civil rights, it took Lyndon Johnson to push the bill through after his death. Maybe he would have become a great president, but the question is open.

     A lot of people were apparently disheartened after Kennedy’s assassination. I wasn’t one of them at that time. I took the hippie movement in San Francisco as a positive and exciting thing. I was generally in favor of the radicals of the Civil Rights movement and its offshoots, but didn’t feel particularly connected to them. My own depression, when it came, had more to do with personal issues than what was going on in public, though there were some pretty disheartening things happening there too. You might say I was sleepwalking all that time, and for quite some time after.

     I suppose we have to wonder what would have happened if the assassinations hadn’t taken place. The sixties might have turned out to be even more positive than they did, but at the same time, we might have found that the Kennedy brothers and Dr. King had feet of clay, and were unable to put their visions into reality. Whoever killed them made sure that we’d never find out.

     It still seems to be unpopular to believe that the assassinations were conspiracies. Conspiracy theorists usually get a bad rap, however convincing their arguments. It seems to be useful that most people believe that lone unstable gunmen were responsible. That view may be even more plausible now, when lone unstable gunmen kill large numbers of people at random. But those three people (and you might add Malcolm X, if you’re so inclined) seem to have threatened a great many people.

     The mainstream media seem to consider it politically incorrect to consider that conspiraces MIGHT have been responsible for these three or four deaths. But from what I read, a LOT of people seem to have either been involved or to have known about a conspiracy prior to President Kennedy’s assassination, and a lot of them died afterwards, many violently. A mathematically impossible number, in fact, as Richard Belzer and his cowriter pointed out in a recent book. It would be nice to be able to believe that a crazy man was responsible, rather than a variety of people, some of whom may have been fanatics, and some of whom seem to have been connected with the highest reaches of government.

     One article I read recently said that what was lost in that assassination was trust in the government, and that does sound accurate. Many people thought the Warren Commission report was a coverup from the beginning, and 50 years later many people don’t have any higher opinion of it.

     Is it merely coincidence that we have so many people believing that government itself is evil? Of course the assassination isn’t the only reason, and there are other reasons for that feeling, some of them quite valid, but the feeling also contributes to certain people’s agendas.

     Another article takes issue with the idea that we lost our innocence with the assassination. It points out that most adults of that time had lived through the Great Depression as well as the most destructive war in history, though that war affected our country less than most. I think that may be the time that we began to lose our naivete as a nation, though. Almost everyone believed in democracy then. I think fewer do now, and those fewer are also more vocal about it. They don’t say it clearly, but it’s increasingly easy to read between the lines.

     One book, The Greater Generation, salutes my generation for, unlike the so-called Greatest Generation, fighting injustice at home, while the Greatest Generation mainly fought it abroad. True, as far as it goes. The Greatest Generation had a lot to overcome, between the Depression and the war, and did so successfully. And were rewarded for that, in quite a few cases, by their own children rebelling against them for inconsistency. No wonder quite a few turned conservative.

     But my generation (not me, particularly) was right in a lot of its attempts at justice, though tactics were often poorly chosen and alienated a lot of people. That’s one reason for the conservative backlash of the last 30 years or more, which seems now to be suffering a backlash of its own.

     Could the Kennedys and Dr. King have prevented a lot of this? We’ll never know, but it’s a shame they didn’t get the chance.

     So, since it’s been 50 years, we’re memorializing John F. Kennedy’s death, with lots of books, articles and probably documentaries at least. I can’t claim to be that interested. I don’t need to know everything about his life, nor about the people around him. I didn’t dislike him, but I didn’t fall in love with him either, as a lot of the country seems to have done. The cult seems much like that of Princess Diana, who was certainly pretty, and didn’t have good luck with her marriage, but has little else about her to interest me.

     The main regret I have about the loss of two white leaders (who happened to be brothers) and two black leaders is the loss of potential. If they had been spared, they might have made their country and world a much better place. But that’s only potential. It’s possible that they might have made mistakes or become corrupt. We don’t know what would have happened. So I have little interest in mourning the former president just because he was handsome and smart. Handsome and smart people aren’t immune to behaving stupidly, and we already know he did.

     We can, though, mourn the dreams of that period that never entirely got realized. Some of us thought this nation would realize the dream of justice, but that hasn’t happened. Racism, as well as bad treatment for other minorities, is still with us. So are unjust wars. So are a lot of other things we were then just beginning to realize on a national level were bad for the country.

     Improvements have been made, but some are trying to rescind them, and a number of things never did get fixed. That’s something worth mourning for. We might regard the loss of those leaders as a sacrifice to ensure the basis of our country was goodness. Some of it may be, but some of it certainly is not, and we seem entirely unable to get rid of the part that is dark. And mostly unable to look at it honestly.

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Depression

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I’ve gotten interested in depression. I’ve written recently about a friend who passed away a month ago, and the terrible depressions he suffered from. That made me wonder just what causes depression.
Like other forms of disease, there may be a variety of causes. I’ve had my own experience with depression, and as far as I can tell, the cause is usually bad choices on my part. This clearly is not the case for everybody. My friend got depressions every winter. That’s not too unusual, and in some cases it has to do with there being less sunny weather than other times of the year. He told me that didn’t apply to him, because it had happened once when he was living in Arizona. No shortage of sunshine there. So that raises the question of just what causes such seasonal depressions.
It seems likely that there’s some kind of physical mechanism that produces it, but when searching online, the explanations are frustratingly vague. One source says that some mental structures may become different. Another says that an MRI  shows a difference between a depressed brain and one that is not, but the differences aren’t clear enough to be the basis for diagnosis. Another talks about lower levels of serotonin in the depressed person, but then says that researchers aren’t so sure how much that has to do with it.

I recently heard that some women, perhaps a considerable minority, go into depression every month because of their periods. That seems to indicate that hormone balances have something to do with it, but apparently no one knows exactly what.
Treatment generally consists of either medications or talk therapy, and use of both is recommended, but that’s palliative. There doesn’t seem to be any real cure for depression that’s more than temporary. Some have some level of depression all the time, others may have bipolar disorder, where depression alternates with mania (which may be more enjoyable, but is no better for the person experiencing it), still others may have depression that recurs irregularly.
I had a horoscope made for me by a friend, who said that the stars were in a bad configuration for me from about the time I graduated from high school till about 15-20 years later. From my perspective, my depression during those years (and I wasn’t depressed all the time, though I was depressed more often than not) resulted from bad choices on my part. If the stars had anything to do with it, it’s not perceptible to me. Obviously, this is not true for everyone.
If the physical aspects of depression are unclear, the psychological aspects may be more understandable. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, whatever the cause, could certainly be a progenitor of depression. People who have been abused, whether in childhood or later, would be liable to experience it, as would people who have experienced any kind of severe trauma. Soldiers are the people one often thinks of in this connection. Being in a foreign country and experiencing threats that come from anywhere from anybody at any time would put one in a heightened state of alertness from which one would feel one could never relax. We’ve probably all heard of veterans who have experienced flashbacks after returning to civilian life, where the dangers of war presumably no longer exist. On a deep level they can’t believe that, though. They would undoubtedly like to, but are unable, so they often self-medicate to relax. The same would probably be true of anyone who experiences abuse. Some may be able to heal, and reach a more or less normal level of being; others seem unable to do so.
So what, exactly, does someone who is depressed feel? Sadness would probably be one feeling, perhaps more or less predominating, but there would also be others. Fear might be another. Fear of expressing what one feels, fear of being punished, whether for the expression of feelings or for having done something wrong, or for having not done what one ought to. And with that sort of fear would come guilt.
I suspect that guilt may be the main common denominator of depression. Guilt for being evil, whether that guilt is deserved or not; guilt for having done wrong, and feeling one deserves to be punished; guilt for feeling things one believes one ought not to feel. The guuilt may well be irrational, but that doesn’t stop one from feeling it.
Soldiers, and others who have experienced brutality, are often said to feel survivor’s guilt. Why should THEY have survived when others didn’t? A friend mentioned Victor Frankl to me, whose books I haven’t read. Frankl was a survivor of Nazi concentration camps, and apparently he felt he survived because he had a purpose: to tell about the horrors he’d experienced, in the hope that no one else would ever have to experience it. That may have been enough to balance any guilt he may have felt that he had survived when others hadn’t.
But it’s also said that children who have been molested or otherwise abused often feel that it’s somehow their own fault. This is obviously irrational, since children don’t have the power to control adults who wish to abuse them. Apparently they know something wrong has happened, but are unable to see it clearly enough to avoid feeling guilt about it. No one should have to suffer abuse, but children are always the most vulnerable to it, and as long as there are adults who are irresponsible, or possibly have been abused themselves, that will unfortunately continue.
Such children may grow up to feel guilty and angry, and be afraid to express either feeling. Or they may go to the opposite extreme and express it too violently, or in otherwise inappropriate ways. This may simply add to the guilt they already feel.
It’s not easy to be psychologically healthy, especially if you’ve experienced trauma. It requires balance and the ability to forgive both one’s self and others. Not everyone finds that possible. A book I read about forgiveness, which I wrote about here, said that it takes time and effort. The woman writing the book told of the man who had molested her when she was in her early teens, and that she’d discovered that it was difficult to forgive him for it. In her case, the man was sorry for what he’d done, and was willing to stick with her through the process, in the hope of making up for his bad behavior. In many cases, that wouldn’t be true.
Some wouldn’t have the strength to go through the process alone, very likely most. Some wouldn’t have access to anyone with the ability or willingness to help them. Depression at least at times would be inevitable in such a situation.
The mechanism of seasonal depression remains obscure. Lack of sunlight may be understandable to a degree, but when that’s not the cause, it’s more difficult to understand. The part that is understandable is that winter is the season most people don’t care much for. At least in the temperate zones of the world, the weather is cold and uncomfortable, and there’s more darkness. Though lack of sunlight might be unpleasant, when that’s not the real issue, then what is?
Winter symbolizes death. Life dies in winter, and is reborn in spring. The fertility religions celebrated this with religious rituals that often included human sacrifice and sexual rituals. Sexuality was a means to magically petition the gods to grant fertility to the community, in both the fields and the beds. The community needed their crops to grow, and children to be born. The whole year was seen as a cycle that repeated forever. This is probably one source of our feelings about sacrifice.
Robert Graves described, especially in The White Goddess. how kings in agricultural societies reigned for a fixed period of time: sometimes a year, sometimes half a year, before being sacrificed, and a new king enthroned to marry the goddess, in the person of her priestess.

Graves said that this system became eventually degenerate. Kings wanted to reign longer, and have the power themselves, instead of merely being companion to the queen. So they negotiated longer reigns, and then often sacrificed others in their place, often children. It’s not hard to see the precedent set playing out in our own time.

It’s uncertain if there’s a link between these ancient behavior patterns and contemporary depression. I think most of us fear death, to one extent or another. If we identify winter with death, which would be quite natural, then the resulting depression would have something to do with death. Fear of death itself, fear of punishment associated with death, fear that we’ve done wrong,  and wish to escape just punishment…Lots of possibilities, and none that I would unhesitatingly endorse.

There are other contemporary possibilities. Depression isn’t uncommon after childbirth. This probably has a physical basis, having to do with hormonal balances. Pollution is another possibility. There are many chemicals and heavy metals in our environment now that may affect us in all sorts of ways we’re unaware of. One author suggested the role of artificial fertilizers and insecticides that artificially promote good crops, but may do so in conflict with the chemical configuration of the soil in any particular place. He suggested there may be a plan for why particular mineral deposits are in various places in the world, and that when we exploit these deposits, we may be tinkering with natural balances we know nothing of, which may come back to harm us. If any of these ideas is valid, there may be many unknown elements to depression.

The part we understand to some extent is the emotional part. We do know that talking about emotions can be helpful. Whether this can lead to an actual cure, or only a degree of relief in any individual case, let alone in general, isn’t something we know enough about to say. Medication can help too, but just how much it does, and how it does are difficult to say.

The ancient Greeks said, Know thyself. Good advice for anyone, and especially for someone having hard times. Knowing ourselves, and how we contribute to our own troubles makes it possible to learn to behave in more positive ways. Struggling to overcome makes us stronger too. These are pretty obvious suggestions, not necessarily very easy to carry out.

Part of the question may be the whole concept of good and evil. If one feels beset by evil, or feels that one IS evil, it’s difficult to feel good about one’s life. George Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher of the 20th century, was unique, or close to it, in his lack of emphasis on evil, including the devil. He saw the problems of mankind as part of our contracted consciousness and automatic behavior which makes us machines rather than real human beings. To struggle against our flaws and try to become more conscious would be what Carlos Casteneda’s Don Juan called, A path with heart. One that would not necessarily succeed, but would be worth putting all one’s effort into.

Again, easily said, not so easily done.

So I continue to wonder just what caused my friend, and so many others, to suffer so deeply. From my perspective he couldn’t have done anything so wrong that he deserved to suffer so. But that’s only my perspective, and there are many things I don’t know. So I have my own struggles to undertake.