5 Times U Don’t Have to Help

Like most self-help articles, this one is mainly directed at the author. I like feeling good about myself, and I like it when other people like me and treat me well.  That’s all pretty normal, but not always helpful. If I or you do nice things for people out of fear that we will be neglected or rejected, or if we judge our own actions against what an idealized good person would do, we will make our lives more stressful than they need to be.

Equally important, we may interfere with other people’s growth and life path by trying to make things too easy for them. We might help them cope or help them succeed, but at the same time deprive them of important learning experiences. Not that helping is wrong, but I want to do it more consciously.

The need to be good or at least to be liked, which often takes the form of compulsive helping, is called “people-pleasing,” and it’s considered an anxiety reaction. Psychotherapist Amy Morin says people-pleasing usually derives from low self-concept or having a traumatic childhood. It can harm you by sucking up energy and time you need for yourself, and can annoy others if we flake out on things you said yes to but were too overcommitted to deliver. There are worse character faults — it’s better to please people than to injure them – but it doesn’t do nearly as much good as we think.

I am learning that many times people would be better off if I didn’t try to please them.  I’m sharing five of these behaviors, because I do them and you might do them too.  Not saying to never please people or help them – that would be awful – but think about it and pick your spots.

  1. Just because someone doesn’t know something that we know, it doesn’t mean we have to tell them. They may not want to or need to know. They may not believe you or understand you, because you’re not the right person to tell them. And let’s face it, you could be wrong.More critically, you may be blocking them from a much richer and deeper experience of finding out for themselves. It’s like psychotherapy; the therapist usually knows what’s wrong after one session, sometimes after 10 minutes. But it does no good to tell the client what is happening; they won’t be able to take in what they are told. The skill of therapy is taking clients on a journey where they figure it out for themselves.  Then they’ll be able to act on the knowledge.
  1. Just because someone is bored, It doesn’t mean we have to entertain them. We may be interfering with their learning to entertain themselves, which we won’t always be there to do.
  2. When someone is sad, we don’t have to cheer them up. Grieving or feeling frustrated might be what they need to do to learn what they need to learn. Even depression can be a healing journey sometimes. It won’t last forever.

People-pleasing can easily become enabling.   If a drinker feels guilty because he went on a binge and missed his wife’s birthday, telling him to go easy on himself may not be what he needs to hear.  Making someone feel better is not the same as making them better or making their situation better. I often make this mistake; I’m good at cheering folks up, but am I doing it for their benefit or to make myself more comfortable?

  1. Especially with children, making them happy really should come second to helping them grow. Not even the Dalai Lama can be happy all the time, and kids need to learn how to self-soothe. We can give them hints e.g. “here’s your teddy bear;” “tell your brother how you feel,” but their mood is not our responsibility.   Inability to self-manage mood is a major disability for kids; which is why people-pleasers make lousy parents
  2. Just because you’re in someone’s way, physically or metaphorically, that doesn’t mean you have to move. You might have more need to be there than they do.  It’s usually easy to step aside, and why wouldn’t you, but sometimes you need to take up space, and they can work around you. Would a tree move in your situation?

You don’t have to help people all the time. When the world brings us a chance to help, we should do it with enthusiasm and gratitude.  Other times, take care of yourself.  You don’t have to solve every problem or even make it better.

If you’ve read this far and got the idea that pleasing people is bad and helping people is wrong, I have failed. Both helping and pleasing people usually do more good than harm. I try not to miss opportunities to thank or compliment people, when I can do it honestly. Sometimes people truly need help and will not be able to grow or move at all without it. But that’s not everyone; it’s not all the time. My core idea is that hard feelings and problems are parts of life. People don’t need to be protected from them; they just need people with whom to face them.

It’s taken a lifetime for me to learn that we don’t need everyone to like us all the time. Whatever we do, some will like us and some will block us. We can be good people even if some don’t see us that way.

 

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Society Has an Immune Disease That’s Killing Us

Millions of people suffer from allergic diseases such as asthma and hay fever, or from autoimmune diseases such as multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, or rheumatoid arthritis. Allergies and autoimmune diseases both come from overactive immune systems’ reacting to harmless substances in the environment or to our own body cells. These diseases can cripple and kill individuals, but our society also suffers from a systemic immune condition. Like someone with an overactive political immune system, America’s extreme overemphasis on safety and protection damages our social fabric and kills people.

To explain, immune diseases often result from our bodies’ not having enough real threats to work on. Our society treats bacteria and viruses as enemies. Anything we can do to kill germs or keep them away from us is supposed to be good for our health. We’re in a war against Nature; we need to suppress it or avoid it with antiseptics, antibiotics, intense house cleaning, hand sanitizers or whatever other weapons science can develop and capitalists can market. We have created artificial low-germ environments that our immune systems have not evolved to handle, and they go haywire.

This is called the Hygiene Hypothesis, and there is a lot of evidence for it. Older siblings have more allergies than younger ones, because the young ones are exposed to their elders’ germs. People who live on farms, around animals, dirt, and plants have less autoimmune disease than those who live in cities. Wealthier people, who often live in cleaner environments, have more autoimmune disease than poorer folks. According to Harvard researcher WA Walker, ‘babies born by cesarean section [So not exposed to germs in the birth canal] have a higher incidence of allergy and type 1 diabetes. Infants given repeated antibiotic regimens during the first year of life are more likely to have asthma as adolescents.’

These outcomes are unfortunate for people like me who live with disabling immune diseases, but how do they apply to society? As with a diseased immune system, our society shows an obsessive focus on protection and safety, along with a deficiency of nurturing and healing, which are also part of a healthy immune system’s job. The systems designed to keep us safe, like police, military, and intelligence agencies, have gone rogue and cause far more harm than they prevent. Our answer to social problems is always to control people, lock them up, not heal them or integrate their perspectives. Meanwhile, our physical and social infrastructure, our caring for each other, grow weaker and millions of people fall into the system’s cracks.

Yin, yang, immunity, and society

Are immune diseases a metaphor for our social problems, or are they the same disease at different levels? According to the book Treating Autoimmune Disease with Chinese Medicine, by Wanzhou Hou MD et al, autoimmune disease is caused by a deficiency of yin energy, one of the two great forces that make up the world. Yin is associated with cool, damp, intuitive, dark, restful, passive, nurturing, gentle, female characteristics. The energy of protection and control is called yang energy. Yang is associated with maleness, hardness, heat, brightness, logic, activity, and dominance. We need both yin and yang in our lives and societies, but when we have too much of one, we’re out of balance and will get sick. Right now, much of the world is run by people with an excess of yang and no visible signs of yin energy at all.

We are starving for lack of yin, the caring, generative energy. On the physical level, resources for preservation and repair of water, transportation, and electrical systems keep shrinking. Bridges collapse; drinking water becomes toxic. On the human level, millions of people now sleep in the streets, while housing is held vacant by speculators. Efforts to feed and comfort homeless people and others in need are increasingly inadequate and in many cases illegal.

How excessively yang are we? The US Federal government has 16 separate “intelligence” agencies monitoring us, to ‘keep us safe.’ According to the Census of Law Enforcement Officers, 70 different Federal agencies have armed officers working for them, a total of about 120,000 full-time armed agents. The National Security Agency (NSA) gathers most online communications and phone conversations Americans make, for our own good, of course.

We have become a warfare state and a police state. The police kill over 1200 Americans every year. Millions are imprisoned to “protect society,” an incarceration rate seen nowhere else in the world, which devastates the communities who suffer it. A less yang-dominated society would keep most of those people free with supervision and support. The military maintains nearly 800 bases in other countries, trying to control the world, sapping resources and making enemies everywhere. (In comparison, the rest of the world’s countries combined have a total of fewer than 50 bases in each other’s territory.)

Society needs to get its yin back. Rather than seeking world dominance, a goal the US power establishment openly seeks, we need to get along with other countries. Instead of flooding our cities with police, we could fix infrastructure, nurture each other, build connection between groups instead of hostility. Only a severely yin deficient, safety-obsessed society would build more prisons while water systems are contaminated and bridges fall apart.

What Would Lao-Tzu Do?

The concept of Yin/Yang grew out of Taoism, the Chinese philosophy that prioritizes balance as the first key to good health and ordered societies. Founder Lao-Tzu and followers highlighted the importance of yin energy and female values, in contrast to the dominant patriarchal philosophies of the time such as Confucianism, or to the ones we live with now.

Taoist practitioner Elizabeth Reininger wrote, “The Dao De Jing — the primary scripture of Taoism — promotes the cultivation of qualities which modern society generally assign to women.” But “there is equality between the masculine and the feminine. They are understood to be two sides of the same coin: one could not exist without the other.” It’s not about gender or feminism, but about balance. Could balancing yin and yang help heal our society?

On her web site Rewireme.com, Chinese medicine practitioner Rose Caiola writes, “Stalking, abuse, rape, unequal treatment, paternalism of all kinds, imperialism, and colonialism are expressions of excessive yang energy used against a group that is seen as weaker….Yin is the perfect counterbalance to yang energy. Cool and deep, like a river of calm, yin thwarts the tendency of yang to keep going until only cinders are left.”

At the individual level, acupuncturists spend a lot of time building yin energy. Courtney Hill LAc advises practices like sleeping more, keeping warm, not working too much, limiting screen and cell phone time, hydrating, eating more fats like avocados and nuts. Go slow, spend time in Nature, and do other things you can see on her site Window of Heaven Acupuncture.

But how does that work on a social level? Eating more nuts probably won’t bring our society into balance. So, what would?

Well, female is yin, so having more women in positions of power should help. But most female leaders we’ve had recently haven’t improved things much, have they? In fact, American officials like Victoria Nuland, Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice and Samantha Power have promoted wars as enthusiastically and catastrophically as any man. It seems plugging a few women into a massively yang, patriarchal power structure is more likely to change the women than to change the structure.

But imagine if all positions of leadership were held by women. Systems and structures and the entire economy would have to change radically, wouldn’t they? The way things are now wouldn’t even make sense. This doesn’t seem possible, however, and we have little evidence it would do much good if it happened, though a few leaders like New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Adern and US representative Tulsi Gabbard seem to be going that hopeful direction.

                               
                                      Jacinda Adern after mosque shooting in NZ

Other than men handing social control over to women, are there other ways a society can become more yin? Chinese medicine teaches that if we don’t, the world will restore our yinyang balance for us, and it won’t be pretty. They say that at their extremes, yin and yang turn onto their opposites. In a human body, a person who gets too cold and too weak (yin), may get an infection, develop a fever and become very hot (yang.) A person who is always angry, with high blood pressure (yang) may suffer a heart attack or stroke and become pale, weak, and passive.

In recent history, some very yang societies have gone bust (yin) and after a long recovery period, become much healthier. Think Nazi Germany, which tried to conquer the world, was destroyed, and is now one of the most successful societies on Earth. The same collapse and transformation will inevitably happen to the United States, though it may take the whole world down with it.

It may be possible for a society to back away from extreme yang without collapsing, but we’d have to really want to. We’d have to elect a lot of women, and we’d have to embrace yin in everything we do, striving to bring ourselves into balance. Let’s try.

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Can We Live Without Hope?

If you’re just now getting desperate about climate catastrophe, endless wars, and the cruelty of the society in which we live, welcome to the club. If you haven’t had such thoughts, you might want to stop reading now, lest you be triggered. But if you sometimes go to despair, where any news medium can take you, this essay might help you cope.

“Desperate” comes from the Latin word for “without hope.”   It’s a bad feeling, but you might be surprised to learn there are ways you can live well without hope.  Your life can still manifest beauty, love, happiness, and even humor. You can still do a lot of good.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not homeless or a refugee. I have friends and family, food, and a warm place to sleep, far from the war zone. So, I can’t speak for everyone; being cold and hungry, traumatized and fearful, could make hope more important. But from what I see and where I sit, despair may be better than false hope.

Despair is not Depression

I’ve lived with a chronic disabling illness (multiple sclerosis) for 40 years. Even before that, I had been aware of the terrible oppression a few people visit on so many others, their immense power and their absolute resistance to change. I’ve known about impending man-made ecological collapse for almost as long.  For years, people would tell me I was depressed, and I would say, “I’m not depressed. I’m in despair. There’s a difference.”

It kept coming up, so I researched it, and they really are different. Like despair, depression makes you sad and fearful, but depression also causes symptoms such as loss of pleasure in things you used to like, loss of interest in the world, disturbed sleep or eating patterns, feelings of worthlessness or uselessness. I didn’t have those.

I did have Despair. I saw no reason to think things would get better, and plenty of science telling us they will get worse. I’ve been living with that version of reality for over 15 years. Occasionally, I do sink into depression, and I can feel the difference right away.  Depression is far more disabling and painful; you just want to lie there and have the world go away.

I’m writing this analysis now because despair is catching on. After the storms, fires, and wars of 2017-18, the ongoing climate chaos, the hundreds of millions of refugees, where is hope? And if we don’t have hope, what are we to do? How do we help each other to cope, motivate ourselves to fight, or increase the chances that life will survive on Earth? How do we keep going and not sink into disabling depression?

Perhaps we can learn how. We are not the first generation to encounter despair.  Watch the James Baldwin movie I Am Not Your Negro, and you will see a man in deep despair over the fate of his people and of their oppressors. Throughout, he medicates his pain with cigarettes and alcohol. Yet he is not depressed. He keeps fighting, writing, and speaking out for justice.  He travels, creates books and movies, has meaningful relationships.

                                                                James Baldwin

The AIDS epidemic of the 80s felt like the end of the world for the gay community in San Francisco. Deborah Gavrin Frangquist remembers: “Just catching a bus in the Castro was an immersion in not just misery but horror. Skeletal men, some with visible lesions, hobbled along leaning on canes. There were so many funerals, so many sick friends to visit. People you hadn’t seen in a couple of months turned out to be dying. It was dizzying, and it felt impossible to catch your balance…. I remember thinking, “Will we ever laugh again? How would we keep going?”

Yet they did keep going. Frangquist reports, “Slowly people figured out what we could do. Ruth Brinker started making food for a handful of sick neighbors; her efforts grew into Project Open Hand, which now feeds thousands of people every day.” Artists created, doctors and nurses reorganized AIDS care; activists fought for more research, which led to better treatments.

The people of the Castro were doing what was necessary in the time and place they were in. They didn’t spend a lot of time hoping. Experiences like theirs may help us handle today’s global disasters.

The Undeniable Benefits of Hope

Research seems to confirm that hope is good for you.  In his book Making Hope Happen,” Dr. Shane Lopez, PhD, wrote “The scientific study of hope shows that how we think about the future is a key determinant of success in school, work, and life. Other conditions being equal, hope leads to a 12 percent gain in academic performance, a 14 percent bump in workplace outcomes, and a 10 percent happiness boost for hopeful people.”

Those 10- 14% benefits don’t sound like much, but medical doctor Jerome Groopman says research shows physiological benefits as well: “Hope can block pain by releasing the brain’s endorphins and enkephalins,” he says. “Hope can also have important effects on fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation and motor function.”

Radical historian Howard Zinn thought hop e was crucial for activists. “Remember that human history is a history not only of cruelty,” he wrote, “but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we remember those times and places where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act.”

Among history’s big believers in hope, novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky said, “To live without hope is to cease to live.”  Religious leader Martin Luther wrote “Everything that is done in this world is done by hope.”

The Surprising Benefits of Despair

So really, what could be wrong with an attitude that helps people keep going, feel better and perform better? Well, some people I admire believe that in times like these, hope is not good at all.

Before I get to them, I have to note that, as one who meditates, it seems that hope has the downside of pushing our thoughts into the future. Shane Lopez saw that as totally positive and encouraged what he called “Nexting” as a daily practice. What plans can I make and how will I carry them out?  He thought planning for the future was the best way to improve your present.  To me, it sounds like a good way to miss the present entirely. When you’re focused on hope for the future, what happens to Now?

While Lopez believed hope enables us to act, environmental activist Derrick Jensen, author of Endgame, thinks hope interferes with the kinds of action we need. He cites the Buddhist saying that hope and fear chase each other’s tails. If you have hope, you have fear; because you have something to lose.

While hope can motivate us; hopelessness can free us, Jensen says. Desperate people are the ones who block tanks on the street, lay their bodies on the gears of destruction to make them stop.  If we are doomed, why not speak out? Why not fight back? What can they do to you that matters in a dissolving world? What use of your life could possibly be more important than fighting to protect the future and everything you love?

But living without hope is hard. The skill, the spiritual challenge of these desperate times involves learning to live now, live well, fight back, and find ways to make life better in whatever small ways we can. Here are some spiritual, psychological and practical ways that might help.

Spiritual Approaches to Despair

Most religions and belief systems seek to allay despair. By taking us outside the surface appearance of things, spirituality can give us needed strength and perspective.

  • The Japanese practice called Wabi-sabi recognizes the impermanence and imperfection of all things. When we realize that everything we love, including ourselves, will someday disappear, we appreciate and love them more. Our days become richer, however many of them there are.
  • Taoism tells us that we know little about the present and nothing about the future. In spite of the scientific predictions of disaster, maybe the worst won’t come. Maybe there will be currently unimaginable breakthroughs or a series of miracles, or something.

And how do we know that death, even extinction if it comes, will be a bad thing? Chuang-Tzu wrote that we fear death, but perhaps it’s a positive transformation, as people who have had near death experiences report. We don’t know.

And when this world ends, there will be another somewhere, sometime, according to Hinduism and all the writers of science fiction. Science itself tell us that the world has ended before. About 2 billion years ago, a new kind of bacteria started producing a poison gas called oxygen that killed off nearly every living thing on Earth, including themselves.  But new species developed that could breathe oxygen and created nearly all the life forms we have on Earth today. Something else may replace us on Earth, or elsewhere, maybe something better.

  • Like wabi-sabi, Buddhism teaches that everything changes. So, rather than fearing change, live in now. This is the place where despair can lead you to joy. If we can stop thinking about the future and the past, focus on the world around and within us, we might notice how beautiful life can be.
  • Christianity and Islam believe in a heavenly afterlife, a better world beyond our daily existence, an eternal one without suffering and loss. Soren Kierkegaard, the philosopher of despair, believed that separation from the eternal (which he called God) is the cause of despair, and coming to God is the only way to truly cure it. Other ways only allow you to tolerate it. He said we must recognize our true nature, that we are all God or part of God. This is probably the core truth that all religions share, however they phrase it. Spending more time in the presence of that truth, through prayer, meditation, religious practice or drugs may enlarge our picture beyond despair. Kierkegaard called this “being comforted by the Eternal.” I’ve heard some Christians call it preparing for the next world.

    Chief Wilma Mankiller

  • Spiritual practices are at the center of many oppressed people’s lives, including those threatened with extinction. The late Cherokee chief Wilma Mankiller wrote, “[Indigenous women] deal with a set of severe social and economic problems in their communities, but they hold the people (including the animals and plants) close to their hearts, working, praying, and drawing on their spiritual beliefs for sustenance.”

Spiritual communities can include ecstatic dance and music that bring people out of daily miseries and anxieties. Think of Pentecostal churches, Native American powwows, Sufi whirling dance, or nonreligious ecstatic activities like Krump dancing.  Spiritual communities give their participants strength.  They provide social and practical support and often include caring for needy people and participation in causes as well as formal religious practice. You might want to join one.

Whirling Sufis

How We Think Makes a Difference

As Howard Zinn pointed out, what we think, believe, and focus on determines how we experience life and how well we can respond to its challenges. Physical reality frames our lives, but our thoughts influence how the picture inside is painted.

  • Practicing gratitude for what you’ve had and have and for the beauty of the world can help us appreciate Now. These need not be big things. Psychologist Duane Bidwell asked children with kidney disease what they were thankful for. “More often than not,” he wrote, “they told us about ordinary moments with family and friends — saying grace around the dinner table, times when they were aware of the abundance they had in their lives, even though … they build their lives around dialysis and medication.”
  • Remember you can feel many things at once. Derrick Jensen wrote, “I am full of rage, sorrow, joy, love, hate, despair, happiness, and a thousand other feelings. We are really fucked. Life is still really good.” Having so much to grieve doesn’t mean we can never be happy. In fact, we should make time for it in our lives.
  • Denial is a gift we were given to help us function with intolerable fear and loss. If you can’t do anything to change a situation, denying it might be the best way to cope. Of course, if you can and should change it, like with an addiction to alcohol or war, denial can be a disaster.

In our current situation, some denial may be necessary.  About four years ago, I made a conscious decision to believe some climate-change-minimizing web sites that sounded pretty good.  I felt much more relaxed and positive about life for eight months, until I had to admit these web sites were drastically wrong. But I don’t deny or begrudge anyone the right to denial, unless they are actively making things worse.

  • Change your focus. I have the bad habit of spending too much time with suffering and apocalypse. After all, it’s easy to do; just a step away in American cities or a click away on the Internet. And we should do what we can to relieve suffering. But if I’m not doing something about it, I should focus on better things.

Our endangered world is still a beautiful place. People are still beautiful beings. In fact, in many ways for many people, life has never been more wonderful. With the help of technology, people are doing amazing things, creating and relating in new ways.  Movies, books, media from all over the world are instantly available. Cultures are developing and interconnecting through travel and the Internet. Knowledge and wisdom are spreading. People are having fun.

Home

We can choose to focus on the beauty as well as the ugliness, on the happiness as well as the grief. Anne Frank, who certainly had a right to despair if anyone ever did, said, “I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.”

Take yourself out of the story. Your role in climate catastrophe, or in wars, racism or other destructive forces is infinitesimal. You didn’t cause them; it’s not your responsibility to fix them; nor is it within your capabilities. You can change your own behavior, maybe, but not everyone else’s. Would an octopus or a goat believe it could save the world? Neither can you or I. We should do what we can; then let it go. Remember you aren’t the only one suffering or despairing. This is the world’s story, not yours or mine.

Things to do

Take some action, even if it’s small: fight back, say something, protect something, help someone. If you take action about a situation, you will feel better, even though you know it’s not enough. I’ve been talking with lifelong activists in their 80s, who have seen much of what they fought for defeated, reversed, or destroyed, and none of them regret how they have spent their lives. Nor have they given up.

Jim McWilliams, who marched in the 1963 March on Washington and is still fighting today at age 85 told me his activism keeps him going. ‘It’s good for you, even when you don’t see a way you’re going to win.’

  • Get together and share with others. The grief, the fightback, and the celebration need to be shared. Make sure to share with the right people – some people are not ready for this yet – but many others are ready and don’t think they can talk about it. You might find that people want company and help in dealing with terrifying realities and futures.
  • Spend time with children; they’re always in now. Blogger Kim Nguyen wrote, “Children do not dwell on what global warming is bringing us. They live for today, and there is a lesson for us there.” I sometimes supervise kids at the playground, and they can be so joyful that it tends to rub off. Animals also enjoy life and can help us do the same.
  • Express emotions, including grief. Cry, laugh. If we don’t express our grief, it builds up when there is so much loss to mourn. But other feelings are important too.
    Finally, what is most important? What really matters? If you comfort one homeless person or keep one species of bacteria from going extinct, does that count? If our activism helps stop one village from being bombed for a couple of months, is that a hope realized? Are very temporary or partial gains worth fighting or hoping for? To come back to the beginning, if there is no hope for general salvation, does hoping for much smaller blessings motivate us to go on?  I’m afraid we all have to decide those answers for ourselves.

So, there are ways to cope with despair.  For me, the most important is love. Not necessarily for one person; you can love as many people and other creatures as exist, up to and including the whole world. Love can be done right up to the last moment, and maybe beyond the last moment.

That hope may sound sort of mystical, maybe naive, but love certainly can make our lives feel better now.   Love can include fighting back and helping others, too. Giving and receiving love is not enough, but combined with opening to spirituality, focusing on Now, and making time for happiness, it might make our remaining time the best it can be.

 

 

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Living in the Masters’ House

The queer Black feminist poet and thinker Audre Lorde famously said, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Thirty years after I first heard that, I can’t claim to understand it from my non-Black, non-Lesbian perspective, but I am starting to realize the importance of the question she raises.

We totally live in the masters’ — I moved the apostrophe because there are many masters — house, or more accurately, the house the masters have built for us. You look out the window, and you see exactly what the masters want you to see. A world of fear, full of terror, of scarcity and constant competition for necessities.

Audre Lorde

From the masters’ house, we see a world in which some people count and most don’t, and animals and plants never do. A world in which we are inadequate, and isolated, where we are constantly prodded to medicate our stress and suffering by consuming. We may medicate with an actual drug, or it might be material success, travel, food, cars, porn, or clothes, or whatever, but we are not to look at what’s causing the depression and anxiety.

You turn on the news or the Net, and you see war everywhere, environmental destruction and misery. We are ruled by corrupt leaders, hired by a class of obscenely wealthy, extremely powerful men whose identities we barely know.

You can escape by watching professional gladiators combat each other in sports arenas, or amateurs humiliate themselves on reality TV. You see or hear “news” that is actually a series of scripted stories, whose reality we may doubt, but which we have no way to investigate. That is the world we live in; that is the masters’ house, a nightmare that isn’t even our own.

Not where we want to live

The masters’ house lives inside of us, too. The isolation, the scarcity, the helplessness, the fear we feel are part of the masters’ house. The master is living in our minds and in our bodies and causing us to do all sorts of things that strengthen him, while harming ourselves, our loved ones and our world.

The master perhaps cannot help himself, because he is living in that same house, just on a different floor. We’re all in different rooms in the same house. Look: Giant gold mines operate in Peru. Thousands of indigenous people have had to flee their ancestral land, either at gun point or because the mines use up and pollute their water. They cling to life among the dispossessed in the cities. Maybe some have started to deal drugs or work as prostitutes.

This catastrophe didn’t just happen: various kinds of people did this to the natives. First, they had to find the gold. Geologists and engineers found it, because that is their job and they are isolated from the people being harmed. If they feel any guilt, they can buy stuff to feel better. That’s the house they live in.

Bankers had to finance the mines. They did this because making more money, in whatever way, is vital to their survival in their mental house. It couldn’t have been a belief that the world needed more gold. There’s plenty of gold.

Because the gold is not concentrated enough to dig out profitably, the mining companies scoop up tons of dirt in trucks and treat it with cyanide and other chemicals to leach out the gold. Someone had to figure out how to do that. Those someones felt disconnected from the Earth and people they were poisoning. They thought they didn’t live in that house, but they do, though the masters own it.

Ordinary workers operate those trucks and those leaching plants. They don’t want to, but in the masters’ house, they “need” the pay to survive. That’s how life in the masters’ house works.

Outside the Masters’ House

Can such a huge house, all around us and within us, be dismantled? What tools could possibly accomplish that, and where would we get them? If we somehow dismantled the house, where would we live?

When told that he couldn’t use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house, activist and professor Robert Jensen replied, “I’ll use whatever tools I want to use.” And Derrick Jensen (no relation,) wrote, “Whoever wrote that you couldn’t use those tools had obviously never dismantled a house, or built one.”

Some tools, though, clearly do belong to the master and cannot be used against his house. Elections come to mind here. Democracy may have been everyone’s tool at one point, but in the modern USA, elections are controlled by corporate media, corporate parties, lobbyists, unelected bureaucrats and spies. Lorde said of such tools, “They may allow us temporarily to beat the master at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Sometimes, though, it’s hard to tell to whom a tool belongs. Are guns the master’s tools? They seem to be, but at times in history the people have used them to dismantle their masters’ house.

Audre Lorde said that art and community were two vital tools women (her audience for this talk) could use. Truth-telling is another. Australian journalist Caitlin Johnstone says “The entire machine of oppression is held together by narrative. By made-up stories. By fairy tales for adults. Those who insist that there is no hope are living in [the masters’] fantasy world.” A truer narrative might cause it to fall.

When we stop believing the master’s lies, we can move out of his house and make a new one for ourselves. How can this be done when the masters’ lies are projected at us 24/7 in dozens of technologies and platforms, what CIA official Frank Wisner called his “Mighty Wurlitzer,” on which he could play any propaganda tune? No matter how creatively we project a more truthful reality, how can people see it, act on it, and not get shot for doing so? Or to win, even if we do get killed in the process?

If those tools have been found, I haven’t heard about them, though art and solidarity are certainly two of them. Audre Lorde said turning differences into strengths is crucial. She thought words could be powerful tools and encouraged women to use them, and to nurture each other.

Will these tools be enough? They haven’t been so far, but while developing more tools, at least we can teach ourselves to see the house for what it is, a gaudy prison, one based on illusion and fear more than on real walls. We can get out; we can bring it down. Keep speaking up.

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When the World Gifts You, Watch Out!

“Good advice is sure enough hard to come by. Bad advice surrounds you constantly.” Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson “Under the Hammer

Be careful about taking unsolicited advice, no matter how well-intentioned or well-informed. Six months ago, I got some expert advice about my wheelchair. Following it has cost me all kinds of money and time and led to some major property destruction. I hope you don’t need wheelchair experience to appreciate this story.

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Message from the Gods: You Can. Just Don’t!

 

                                                          High Technology in Chuang-Tzu’s day

It’s not easy being a god. Everybody wants something from you, but does that mean they should have it? Most of us have seen in our own lives that wanting things and getting them can have harmful effects. The things we want are not always good for us or worth the price.

So, what’s a god to do, especially if they want the best for their creations?

That was Prometheus’ problem. The Greek Titan, whose name means “forethought,” was one of the race of gods that came before Zeus and the gang from Mount Olympus. When Zeus took over, he assigned Prometheus and his brother Epimetheus the job of creating life on Earth.

Prometheus literally sculpted the human race out of clay. We are his children. He fell in love with us.

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Five Times Denial is Good for You

Being in denial has a bad rap. You want someone to change, but they don’t admit they have a problem. There must be something wrong with them.

Is denial really such a bad thing, though? If you deny a self-destructive habit, you could cause serious harm to yourself or others.  Drunk driving would be a classic example.  But in other situations, denial can be good for you.

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What Does God Taste Like?

I’m a little old for First Communion, but it was a powerful experience, so I’m sharing it.  Here’s how it happened.

One Sunday in December, I attended the annual conference of Friends of Sabeel, a Christian coalition supporting Palestinian rights. It was held at St. John’s Presbyterian, a gorgeous church in San Francisco with beautiful stained-glass windows and an arching cathedral ceiling. The meeting was preceded by the church’s religious service.

I got there near the end of the service, in time for the Holy Communion, also called the Eucharist.  I had heard all my life about communion, but I have never understood it or partaken of it before.

Four women held baskets of bread and bowls of juice in the four corners of the chapel. People lined up to take a piece of bread and dip it in the juice.  When I reached the front of the line, the woman holding the basket said, “This is the body of Christ.  This is the sacrifice he made.” (I’m not sure I heard that last sentence correctly. There are different versions. But it was something like that.)

I had read about Catholic communion, which is pretty much the same thing. Some believe the actual body of Jesus is “transubstantiated” into the bread and wine. It’s sometimes called The Lord’s Supper, after what Jesus is reported to have said at his last supper with his disciples, “This bread is my body, given for you. This cup is my blood, poured out for you…Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him.”

Others think communion is a symbol, an affirmation that worshippers are united in Christ. Not really being part of that community, I didn’t know what to think.

So, I was surprised when I got the bread and heard her words, and tasted the bread, I felt like a light was shining on me.  I understood, without thought, that every time we eat or drink, we are literally eating God’s body, of which the Earth and everything on it, including us, are part.

Everything we eat is a gift from God, coming to us from the Sun, through the Earth. The blood sacrifice is real too: for almost everything we eat, someone gave up their life. And all those lives, plant and animal, are part of God, in the same way that we are.

That may not be a mainstream Christian belief, but it is central to most Eastern religions and to mystical traditions everywhere. God and the Universe are the same thing.

The Eucharist - photo by Robert Cheaib

The Eucharist – photo by Robert Cheaib

I wonder why we can’t celebrate communion every time we eat, then.  According to the Christian website Compelling Truth, The Apostle Paul said to remember Christ every time we eat bread or drink wine, but he also warned against just going through the motions. It should be a proper ceremony.

Some Christians believe you can only do communion in a church; or at least with an ordained minister. Most say you have to focus on Christ while you’re tasting the bread.  So far, I’m not including others in a ceremony, but I do think of Communion before I start and as much as possible during a meal.

I sometimes think, ‘This is what God tastes like.’   Some people might think that’s weird, or even that I’m being blasphemous. It doesn’t feel that way to me; it’s an act of worship. It makes me stop to appreciate food and all our gifts more.

I find that preceding each meal, or each bite, with ‘This is the body of Christ’ vastly increases my sense of the gift that food is. It’s not just giving thanks; it’s joining with the food, all of us being part of the same wholeness, with its constant birth and death, killing and being killed. It’s an endless dance, and Communion keeps me in touch with the wonder, grief, and beauty of it all.

I don’t know if I’ll return to church, but I probably need to go somewhere. Taking these ceremonies and beliefs away for their contexts and communities is probably missing much of the power of them. I also plan to continue tasting God in my food until the World tells me to stop. Maybe you will, too.

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How Lucky Are You?

I calculate that I am among the luckiest 2% of humans who have ever lived. Check this list and see where you stack up.

  1. I have always had food, a decent apartment, and a comfortable bed. How many can say that?
  2. I have never been physically abused or traumatized, at least not that I can remember.
  3. I get paid for doing something (writing) that I love to do.
  4. By world historical standards, I’m super rich. I’m a middle-class person in a rich country, of a relatively privileged appearance and gender. I get support from Social Security. Our technology and standard of living is so far above what even royalty had 100 years ago that no one from back then cracks the top 2%.
  5. I can see movies from around the world, hear music from around the world, read books and essays from around the world. How fortunate to have access to all this wonderful stuff that, not long ago, would have required a lifetime of travel and a top 1% level of expense. If there even was such a thing as Bhutanese cinema back then.
  6. Ordinary people travel more than the elites of the past could have dreamed. Travel isn’t a big turn-on for me, but it’s been great to have it available when I need or want to.And then, I live in San Francisco, where the whole world comes anyway. I don’t have to go to them; they come to me. In my city, the food of the world is available any time I want it. There are not one, but tens of cultural events almost every day.
  7. The Bay area also seems immune to global warming. It’s still always in the 50s and 60s here in summer, while most other places are burning up. Don’t know how long that will last, but it’s always comfortable where I live, though more sunshine feel good.

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The Animals Are Trying to Save Us

“People talk about saving the animals. But really the animals are trying to save us.”  Adelia Sandoval, San Francisco 2015

What did this Native American healer mean?  How could animals save people, and why would they want to?

Adelia Sandoval

Adelia Sandoval

Some believe that animals are indeed out to help us, and we should pay attention to them. Understanding the human-animal connection could tell us a lot about who we are. It could help us heal ourselves and our planet.

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