Some Thoughts After Harvey

It’s heartbreaking to see the video of all the people being displaced by Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. Just heartbreaking. The images bring to mind those  of the refugees from Syria washing ashore in Greece, utterly displaced in every possible way.

Two years ago, in a cool Budapest park, we heard a talk by a college professor who had started a movement of professors and ordinary folks. Their goal? To protect and to care for the tens of thousands of refugees who’d made their way to Budapest and were stuck in its three huge train stations, nowhere left to go. The Hungarian government—led by racist nationalists—refused to help the refugees, and instead built a wall on the border to keep more of them out. Sound familiar?

Anyway, this gentleman mobilized hundreds,  then thousands of people to create tent cities, provide food and supplies and medical care, and generally provide the basic human necessities to the suffering refugees. A modern saint, and a movement of honorable citizens more moral than their government.

The images from Houston and Corpus Christi and Crosby and Beaumont and the other cities devastated by the storm show ordinary people doing the same thing, time and again. Helping old people onto boats to rescue them from the flood. Establishing shelters and attending to the basic human needs of the thousands of Texans who escaped death with hardly anything of their own.

Meanwhile, the president’s budget proposal cuts disaster relief. Medical research. Funding for flood insurance through FEMA. Funding for FEMA itself. What takes priority? More war in Afghanistan and the Middle East. A wall on our southern border. Redistributing more of our national treasure to the wealthy, who already own so much of it.

There are floods and hurricanes and wildfires. There are earthquakes. There are killing blizzards and murderous heat waves. None of these are under our control, and we all know they are getting worse. As I write, we are surrounded by hundreds of wildfires around the northern Rockies, their smoke utterly obscuring our view. But far more damaging, there are also the moral outrages and the incessant drumbeat of war, the disruptions of our rights and our freedoms, the rallying fascists who feel so emboldened, and the vacating of our values in favor of those who would turn America into an oligarchy.

My ten minutes have passed, and I must stop. So this ends on a sorrowful note. I apologize for that. Next week’s ten-minute post will be the antidote—but perhaps sorrow is not inappropriate for a time like this. Meanwhile, I will look for the hope.

“Small Everyday Acts of Kindness”

(I’m still experimenting with writing these posts in ten minutes or fewer. I’d love to hear from you about what you think of them!)

Gandalf, the great wizard in Tolkien’s beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy, was asked why he’d chosen a Hobbit, Frodo Baggins, to go up against Sauron, the evil lord who threatened the existence of goodness itself. Gandalf answered, “Some believe it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I have found that it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Frodo Baggins? I am afraid. He is small, but he gives me courage.”

In our world, it seems to be the case that many people think differently. I listen, particularly, to certain of our politicians, whom I can only conclude must be terrified, to judge from their relentless rhetoric of war and their chest-thumping cruelty. It is as if by threatening, by promising death and destruction, by blithely ripping families apart and condemning a generation to poverty, these men—and they are always men—think they can have their way with whomever they wish. Can they?

I doubt it. We wanted to have our way in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, and now North Korea in 2017. After 16 years, we are still in Afghanistan, after 14 we’re still in Iraq, and we’re not getting our way. We wanted to have our way in 1950 in Korea as well, and we are still there, still bellowing in frustrated fury at its leaders.

“Small everyday deeds,” said Gandalf, “keep the darkness at bay.” He was too wise to think that anything could make the darkness vanish and give victory to the light. The best we can hope for, he suggests, is to hold off the darkness, and whatever small everyday deeds of kindness and compassion that you and I can perform will do so.

But what small everyday deed can I do that will keep North Korea or ISIS or any threat at bay? I think that’s not the right question: On the world stage, nothing you or I, as individuals, do will stop the Saurons of our time, nothing, that is, except to vote carefully and to pressure our representatives in government to do the same, and keep pushing for the best. A better question is: What small act can I perform today that will improve my life, my family, my community, the world around me?

The Ring of Power has been handed to each of us, as it was to Frodo, and each of us must find our own particular small everyday act to perform, faithfully, in order to play our small role in the great deeds of our time.

Well, my ten minutes are up. I’ll see you next week!

Context is Everything

Context is Everything

(Recently, I’ve been experimenting with allowing myself only ten minutes to write my blog posts. So far, it’s been fun. Today’s experiment should be fun too.)

In writing fiction (well, in anything that people do together), context is all-important. I’ll stick to fiction, but consider: If you didn’t know the context of President Trump’s infamous blaming of the victims of the Charlottesville fascist rally, you would not realize how wrong his “there’s blame on both sides, on many sides” was. So, to fiction: If the context of a dialog or a series of actions and interactions is clear enough to the reader, much can be left out. Result: The writing can be leaner, faster, cleaner.

For example, consider this piece of dialog in light of its context: A young woman is being seduced by an older man who, despite his age, holds an unaccountable allure for her. And he knows it, knows that she is almost ready to succumb:

She says, “No, this is wrong.”

“Ah, but no one is watching.”

Without knowing the context, a lot of additional dialog would be needed, because the reader would not know how close the girl is to agreeing, nor how well the man understands her. Context allows a great deal to be left out, which in turn permits the reader to exercise much more imagination.

Let me illustrate the importance of context another way, with a marvelous joke that makes exquisite use of missing context:

Farmer Joe was suing a trucking company for injuries sustained in an accident. In court, the company’s fancy lawyer was questioning Farmer Joe.

“Didn’t you say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?” asked the lawyer.

“Well, I’ll tell you what happened. I had just loaded my favorite mule, Bessie, into the trailer and . . .”

“I didn’t ask for any details,” the lawyer interrupted. “Just answer the question. Did you not say, at the scene of the accident, ‘I’m fine’?”

Farmer Joe continued, “Well, I had just got Bessie into the trailer and I was driving down the road . . .”

The lawyer objected. “Judge, I am trying to establish the fact that, at the scene of the accident, this man told the Highway Patrolman that he was just fine. Now, several months later, he’s suing my client. I believe he is a fraud. Please tell him to simply answer the question.”

But the judge was interested in Farmer Joe’s story and said to the lawyer, “I’d like to hear what he has to say about his mule, Bessie.”

Joe thanked the judge and proceeded. “Well, I’d just loaded Bessie into the trailer and was driving her down the highway when this huge semi-truck and trailer ran the stop sign and smacked my truck right in the side. I was thrown into one ditch and Bessie was thrown into the other. I was hurting real bad and couldn’t move. However, I could hear ole Bessie moaning and groaning, so I knew she was in terrible shape.

“A highway patrolman came on the scene. He could hear Bessie moaning so he went over to her. After he looked at her, he took out his gun and shot her between the eyes. Then he crossed the road with his gun in his hand and looked at me.

“He said, ‘Your mule was in such bad shape I had to shoot her. How are you feeling?’ ”

Context is everything!

Okay, my ten minutes is up. Hope you enjoyed this one. See you next time.

Ripples that Reveal

Three groups of people specialize in studying ripples: Detectives, psychologists, and people who fish. That’s right, fisher-people. Why?

Ripples point to something hidden, something lurking just below the surface. When I fished, there were two kinds of things I looked for. First was the kind of under-water structure (submerged trees, weed beds, gravel beds, and so on) where fish hunt for food. Dropping the bait in where they were, and making sure it was the kind of bait the fish liked, usually led to a catch.

Well, sometimes. Okay, now and then.

The second thing I looked for was ripples that didn’t match the pattern of waves, ripples suggesting something moving below the surface–like a fish traveling nearby. The underwater structure created a context that promised fish, and the presence of an occasional ripple above that structure suggested the movement of a fish. “Something’s there! Cast!”

Detectives and psychologists look for a different kind of ripples, although they really are similar to those in the water: They look for unexplained disturbances in the field. (I borrowed the phrase “disturbances in the field” from the excellent novel of the same name by Lynn Sharon Schwartz.) Like the ripples in the water when a stone is thrown into it, these disturbances in the field—the “field” being the client’s usual emotional equilibrium or everyday behavior or the suspect’s story, alibis, and emotional demeanor—suggest something disturbing below. The client seeking help in building self-confidence who, unexpectedly, suffers a panic attack at the mention of her father. The unassuming neighbor who starts receiving strange visitors late at night and suddenly buys a flashy new car.

Such disturbances in the person’s normal presentation of self are suggestive—nothing more—of some anomaly. If the disturbance in the field recurs—for example, if the mention of the client’s father again generates an unexpected anxiety, or the quiet stay-at-home neighbor buys a Porsche and then suddenly flies off to Monaco—the psychologist or the detective may now have a pattern to start analyzing. And that pattern may—or may not—lead to a discovery of something important. Like a fish hidden in the lake.

My ten minutes are up, so next week, I’ll write about how, in my current work-in-progress, “A Patriot’s Campaign,” such ripples make the main character, Deputy Andi Pelton, suspect something is going on with her antagonist, Deputy Brad Ordrew. See you then!

Writing for Ten Minutes

A writer I know, Dwayne P., has a deep desire to write fiction, but such a busy life that he has not found the time. Recently, he was telling our writers’ group about this and what he had realized: He could write for ten minutes each day. Simple. Clear. Doable. “I may not be able to write a novel or even a short story very quickly,” he mused. “But I can write for ten minutes each day, and soon enough, there’ll be a book.” He read three of his ten-minute fictions to us: Lovely, concise stories a few paragraphs long. Any one of the three could be expanded into a full piece of fiction.

One of my many shortcomings as a writer is that I have started this blog and promised a new post every couple of weeks, but I haven’t kept that promise faithfully. For some periods, I post regularly. But then spaces of time pass when I don’t. Often, it’s because I’m absorbed in my current work-in-progress, and don’t make time for the blog. Other times, it’s that I feel at a loss for a meaningful subject to write about. This strikes me as odd—dozens of topics related to Psyche, Spirit, Story interest me. So why do I dry up when pondering a blog post? I suspect the answer is that it takes too long to do justice to those ideas—or so I thought, until Dwayne changed my mind with his simple idea: Write for ten minutes.

If I take ten minutes out of each writing day, I’d be able to create five or more blog posts each week. And writing for ten minutes is a cinch. Take this post: So far, I’ve been writing for nine minutes and seventeen seconds.

So here’s my experiment: Like Dwayne, I am going to write for ten minutes each day on a topic related to this blog. I’ll post once a week. Next week, I’ll post about a problem I was having with a scene in my work-in-progress and how I solved it (I already wrote the post, in ten minutes and four seconds!).

And I’d like to ask you, dear reader, to send me your comments about how this experiment works for you. Ten minutes. See you next week.


Newspeak at Work

What is Doublespeak?

As a writer – of fiction, outside of this blog – I’m always intrigued by imaginative uses of words to communicate, and appalled by equally imaginative uses of words to distort and prevent authentic communication. My sense of intrigue (in both its meanings) has been piqued by the verbal performances of members of the administration, who find curious words to convey their “alternative facts,” that is, their untruths. This, of course, has a venerable history, and not only in politics; but it is the political use of “doublespeak” that I want to talk about here.

Doublespeak, also called “double talk,” happens when one changes or somehow distorts words to make something unpleasant or offensive sound positive. 

The word was given to us by George Orwell in his prescient novel, 1984, which has seen a remarkable surge in sales since the election to the U.S. presidency of one of the world’s masters of doublespeak, Donald J. Trump. You may have heard (incessantly) about him.

Orwell’s novel, if you’re not familiar with it, is a chilling description of life under a dictatorship that controls – and watches, literally – every aspect of human life. One cannot even use the toilet without being watched by the ubiquitous telescreeens. (On an ironic twist of that meme, we now carry our own telescreens – which, as Orwell predicted, can track us everywhere.) As a key feature of the intellectual and moral devaluation of human discourse, the government practices – and insists the “citizens” practice – doublespeak, based on the ability to think (and therefore to say) something, while knowing full well it is utterly false. In order to soften the dissonance, the technique involves using euphemisms and word-distortions.

“Doublespeak” Flows from “Newspeak”

In 1984, Orwell describes how the government of Oceania (the fictional dictatorship) invents a new language whose primary character is to “rid itself of unnecessary words.” For instance, since the word “good” implies the absence of “bad,” there is no need for the word bad. Since the word “peace” implies the absence of war, there is no need for the word war. Instead, prefixes suffice: “Ungood” and “unpeace” cover “bad” and “war.”

The point is that words the government wishes to hide for any reason can be simply be put out of use. The concepts they express will soon follow suit and wither away. Take the case of “collateral damage.” How often do we hear this euphemism for the murder of innocent civilians? This reminds me of something I was taught in college about the Confucian emperors’ practice, when ascending to the throne, of issuing a new dictionary. The goal was to ensure that everyone could use the right meaning for words. The key difference with Orwellian Newspeak, though, is that the aim of the Confucians was to facilitate clear communication across a vast, polyglot empire, whereas the aim of the Oceania government was, to the contrary, to ensure an absence of genuine communication among the citizens. By doing so, the government aimed to control their minds. “Through his creation and explanation of Newspeak, Orwell warns the reader that a government that creates the language and mandates how it is used can control the minds of its citizens.”

Examples of Doublespeak

We already live in an era of vast doublespeak. The website “Your Dictionary,” from which I got my definition of doublespeak above, gives a list of 30 examples we all use in our everyday lives. Have you ever said “John passed” instead of “John died”? Put your dog “to sleep” instead of “euthanized” him? Protested “capital punishment” instead of “state-murder”?

It’s no surprise that many examples of doublespeak come from our government, and always reflect some action or decision that will harm someone. “Pre-emptive strikes” (as opposed to “unprovoked attacks”) have become commonplace. “Ethnic cleansing” is more sanitary than “genocide.”

On the domestic political front, we have seen in recent months a significant uptick in doublespeak . We now talk about “making health care affordable” (Paul Ryan) rather than “taking away people’s health care insurance.” The decision to defund Planned Parenthood (for instance) is spoken of as “protecting the unborn” rather than as “depriving poor women of health care.”

And of course, there is the blanket, one-size-fits-all response to re-phrasing those in the direction of more honesty. Saying that defunding Planned Parenthood, for instance, is “depriving poor women of health care” is attacked from the conservatives as being “failed liberal cant,” despite the fact that it is a much more accurate—and honest—phrase than “protecting the unborn.” (My source here is

On the military side, we hear the phrase “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), which are presumed to be different in kind from “conventional weapons.” But is “the mother of all bombs” that was dropped on an almost-vacant area in Afganistan last week really different in kind from a chemical weapons attack? Sure, the “Mother” (is the word meant to lull us into feeling secure—“Mom’s on the watch”?) only killed (reports vary) 36 or 94 ISIS soldiers. But the bomb was dropped in a nearly deserted corner of Afghanistan; drop the Mother-of-all-bombs on a city and count the bodies.

Doublespeak Is Doublespeak, No Matter Who Says It

No one disputes that ours is a dangerous world, a precarious time. The man who controls our nuclear codes ordered, from his dining table, an airstrike against a Syrian airbase because photos of dead babies made him emotional. Meanwhile, North Korea has succeeded in provoking the Trump team into escalating the tension on the Korean peninsula—at a moment when there is no viable government in the south.

Vice-President Mike Pence went to Seoul, South Korea, and offered stern words to the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong-un. At the end of his statement—filled with innuendo and, yes, doublespeak—we heard this: “There was a period of strategic patience but the era of strategic patience is over.”

Strategic patience?

Mr. Vice-president, did you mean “peace”?

And were you telling us, with the “era of strategic patience” now over, that we are entering a period of war?

Why Not Speak Straight?

“The idea behind Newspeak is that, as language must become less expressive, the mind is more easily controlled.” I find it hard to imagine hoards of citizens carrying signs and marching in the streets against “the end of strategic patience” (that is, war with North Korea).

I cannot imagine the people of the United States rising in anger at Trumpist efforts to “protect the unborn” (that is, to defund women’s health care).

I cannot see my fellow citizens standing shoulder to shoulder in rainy spring weather to protest “tax cuts for the middle class” that in fact actually are for the wealthy, such as Donald Trump, and that – for many working class and single parents –  would result in a tax increase.

What I can envision, though, is citizens learning to see through the doublespeak. Even with telescreens glued to our noses, most Americans have a healthy dose of skepticism about politicians. Sure, the base of the Republican party has acted foolishly, deluded by the doublespeak, but the base’s bedrock remains common sense. They know that drought is drought, even if the president declaims, “There is no drought” in California, it’s just “them shoving the water into the sea.” Many of the people living in the Great Plains have family memories of the Dust Bowl, and they recognize that dust-bowl conditions in California’s central valley are dust-bowl conditions. No amount of doublespeak can change what people know in their bones.

And most of us know that “the end of an era of strategic peace” means a promise of war.

An Emerging Republican Meme: Harming Americans is Merciful and Compassionate

Merciful and Compassionate–redefined

After preliminary scores suggested that the Republicans’ plan to replace the Affordable Care Act would take away the health insurance of between ten and twenty-four million Americans, Paul Ryan went on the offense—literally.

Paul Ryan

He described the repeal-and-replace bills as “an act of mercy.” Sure. Taking health insurance away from millions and reducing Medicaid even more (which pays, albeit poorly, for health care for the poorest, and often sickest, citizens) is merciful—but only to the wealthy, who will get huge tax cuts as a result.

Next, Mick Mulvaney, the White House budget director, defended the draconian budget cuts to social, scientific, diplomatic, medical, educational, cultural, and humanitarian programs this way:

And I think it’s fairly compassionate to go to them [the single mom in Detroit or the coal miner in West Virginia] and say ‘Look, we’re not going to ask you for your hard earned money any more.

‘Single mom of two in Detroit.  Give us your money.

‘We’re not going to do that any more… unless we can guarantee to you that that money is actually [going to] be used in a proper function.

‘And I think that is about as compassionate as you can get.


It’s better for the country if cancer survivors die faster

After that, HHS Secretary Tom Price took the Orwellian doublespeak to a new, appalling low (read the full article here). When a cancer survivor told Price that the repeal-and-replace plan would end his Obamacare and jeopardize his survival, Price said this: “At the end of the day, it’s better for our national budget if cancer patients pass away more quickly, it’s a lousy way to live anyway, and I’m sorry to say it out loud, but it’s the truth.”

The reference “it’s a lousy way to live anyway . . .” was to something he’d said earlier: “I know it’s not pretty, but at the end of the day, even people who are able to fight off cancer . . . they can’t lead 100 percent normal lives, ever again. What kind of an existence is that, to have to survive instead of live?” Remember 1984? “War is Peace, Freedom is Slavery, Ignorance is Strength”? 

No doubt there are cancer survivors who have a lessened quality of life, who survive but suffer. Still, of the many cancer survivors I know, nearly all are living meaningful, active, and enjoyable lives, and want to continue doing so, even if they are not 100%. But Ryan, Mulvaney, and Price are advancing the notion that repealing the Affordable Care Act and advancing a cruel budget are compassionate acts–people with diminished health should die faster. This is not only Orwellian, it is hateful propaganda, party line disguised as truth.

Here is their compassion: Take away people’s health care insurance and replace it with, uh, access to insurance—which all scoring agencies (e.g., the Congressional Budget Office and Standard and Poor’s) believe will cost up to twice what their insurance costs now. Let cancer patients die faster (because surviving cancer means you’ll have a lousy life, and if you die, it helps the budget). Or let the known benefits of social programs for the elderly poor lapse (because the programs really don’t “serve their proper function”). Let school lunch programs be cut or eliminated because “there’s no shown link between free lunch and improved test scores.” So die, sick people. So starve, old people. So go hungry, kids.

An emerging Republican meme

This perverse logic—that taking away people’s health insurance is merciful—seems to be an emerging meme in the Republican propaganda. There are other dishonest memes too—such as this gem from Price: Obamacare has so “weakened the U.S. economy” that without repeal “we’re looking at nationwide riots and another economic recession.” What economy is he talking about? The one that has recovered from the Republican-created Great Recession better than any other developed nation? (Read the Wall Street Journal’s article about that.)

But focus with me on the “merciful act of compassion” meme for a moment. Another adjective I would use for it is obscene.

Follow the logic: Mulvaney says his budget-cutting sword has two sharp edges: He looked at the recipients of federal money (such as the poor single mom in Detroit), and he looked at the people who paid taxes to support federal programs. Since the “single mom in Detroit” or the “coal miner in West Virginia” pay taxes, his “compassionate” budget “has mercy” on them by reducing the programs they may well be depending on (for instance, Title IX protections for the single mom’s daughters or the Coal Miners’ Assistance Program for Appalachian communities). The only compassion in this nonsense is for the very wealthy who will profit, yet again, from tax cuts the poor don’t get.

Mulvaney and Ryan and Price and a whole gaggle of Republican gangsters are saying it, loud and proud: We’re going to steal what meager aid we already give poor people, sick people, old people, and kids, and we’re going to tell them we’re doing it as a kindness to them. All to pay for a whopping jump in the defense and homeland security budget and a massive tax cut for the wealthiest. George Orwell got it right.

Compassion? Mercy? No. It is economic violence. This government is no more merciful and compassionate than the father who beats his child “for your own damn good.”

An Immoral Budget

A shift in focus . . .

I don’t usually write about politics per se in this blog. I prefer to focus on stories, on the psychological dimensions of current issues, or on the spiritual side of events. I’ve been away from the blog for almost two months now, and during that time I’ve watched—and mourned—as the Trump administration has begun to dismantle the institutions of the United States. During that time, while the blog was down, I decided I must act on my conscience. Still, I was troubled by the idea that I might be writing about politics.


But yesterday, the release of Trump’s budget persuaded me that I must. Specifically, what spoke to me was the explanation Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director, offered for why the enormous increase in the military and defense budget will be paid for by equally enormous cuts in programs to protect all the humanitarian, cultural, environmental, and anti-poverty programs. His explanation was and remains a repugnant repudiation of the values reflect the most moral side of the United States. If this budget passes (which I cannot imagine it will), we will have entered not merely a constitutional and institutional crisis, but a moral crisis.


This moral dimension to the budget (any budget reflects the moral values of the administration, but Trump’s most blatantly expresses the immorality of this administration) led me to decide to locate one act of my resistance here on my blog. I realize that will alienate some of my readers, for which I am sorry. I won’t be writing about politics in itself, but about the moral and spiritual dimensions of the current political scene. I will be writing to express my outrage—and I pray, my hope.

Politics is not a-moral, but it can be immoral 

I’m a novelist, but I’m also a psychologist. I recognize that psychological issues often mask spiritual issues. The corrosive shame felt by some folks who seek therapy sometimes hides a profound spiritual emptiness, and begins to dissipate when they find a spiritual path that brings light into their lives. On the social and political level, an actor—Donald Trump, Mick Mulvaney, Sean Spicer, for example—who routinely behaves in flagrantly abusive or dishonest or self-aggrandizing ways may be suffering some kind of psychological trouble. But more importantly, the behavior reflects a lack of spiritual center. This is all the more important to remember about people who pander to honest folks who profess Christianity.


More to my point, we citizens who are routinely forced to endure ugly words and abusive behaviors—via press conferences or TV interviews or executive orders or midnight Tweets—can find our own moral compass wavering. “Can that be true?” “Should I really believe that?” “Am I crazy?” Worse, we can be tempted to express contempt, to resort to vitriol, the last refuge of the powerless. We citizens, facing this, face a moral dilemma ourselves: How can I resist the moral darkness without becoming dark myself? These questions I want to explore in my blog in coming weeks.

A horrific example . . .

Let me give one example: Yesterday, Mick Mulvaney said that the drastic cuts to the humanitarian side of the budget were “probably one of the most compassionate things we can do.” He went on to say that the government had a moral duty to make sure that a “single mom with two kids in Detroit” doesn’t have to pay for programs—like Meals-on-wheels, like free and reduced lunch for poor kids—that don’t have “a proper function.” A proper function?

Because feeding the poor is not a “proper function” of government? Because feeding hungry kids is not a “proper function” of government?


This is beyond repugnant, it is evil.


His argument turns compassion on its head. That single mom in Detroit will suffer greatly under Trump’s budget, and the budget director has the gall to claim that the cuts are being made on her behalf! To pose as the protector of the vulnerable while proposing to attack the institutions that actually protect and serve them, is cancerous. Even more morally appalling, the administration will take the savings from all programs that protect the vulnerable—whether vulnerable folks or vulnerable ecosystems or vulnerable peace agreements and treaties—and redistribute them into the pockets of the wealthiest and the engines of war.


No one asks what the poor mom in Detroit thinks about her taxes going to wage war or to further enrich the wealthiest, who need no more money. These are evil priorities. If the budget—and the ideology behind it—hurt everyone equally, proportionately, that would be debatable but fair. If Meals-on-Wheels and kids’ lunches and the defense department were cut by the same percentage, then okay, we can argue that without diving into the mud. But this budget, launched before St. Paddy’s day, is green with the slime of immorality, not the radiance of hope.

An Impoverishment of Language


“Ecumenical” vs. “Interfaith”: Words reflect views

I’m a writer, so I have two loves: Words, and the sentences they create. No, three: Michele, my wife and best reader. So it was of interest to me when Michele mentioned the phrase “interfaith dialogue.” She’s Jewish, and I’m a former Catholic and dabbler in theologies far and wide. We were talking about dialog among different practitioners of various religious groups, and she said, “Didn’t that used to be called ecumenical?”

It did. And I want to say that the switch of words reflects an impoverishing of our language—and of our worldview.

Back in the 1960s and 1970s, members of differing churches or religious groups talked to one another, attempting to understand what each group contributes to our experience of the sacred, we called our conversations “ecumenical.” Now, such conversations are called “interfaith dialog.”

I mourn the change of the term-of-art from ecumenical to interfaith, because I think it signals a loss of something precious: The notion of “at-home-ness.”

The first two syllables of the word ecumenical derive from the Greek oikos, which means, variously, a house, a home, our family, or our neighborhood or community. The oikos is exactly that intangible something that makes a house a home.

Oikos is also the root for a number of other English words, including ecology. Ecumenical is most often used to refer to work toward Christian unity—the hoped for at-home-ness of the now-separate churches; but the term also refers to gatherings of multiple faiths, as when Jews, Christians, and Muslims meet to discuss their common ground in the domain of the sacred.

Or consider the word ecology. Does it not connote something ‘home-like,’ familial, domestic? We share a home—that home being the world, whether the world we call “Earth,” or the lived world of our homes and towns, or the natural home we call our ecology. Our ecology is the “home” environment we share with multiple species, all of us depending on our environment—and each other—for survival.

Sadly, for me, the word “interfaith” has largely supplanted “ecumenical” when we talk about dialog among differing churches or religions about their common life in the realm of the sacred. When we say “interfaith,” our language is transactional—something will be exchanged between (inter) the participants. My sadness is, the word “interfaith” loses the nuance of home, of the oikos, a belonging to a shared world. It loses all that “home” means to us.

Subtly, and I’d like to say tragically, in transactional thinking we get more concerned with what we can learn from or give to each other, rather than searching for our common ground, our shared home, our oikos. In our ecumenical dialogs in the 1960s and 1970s, our goal was to discover what we shared together, what we intuited together about the sacred and about the obligations our intuitions imposed on us in this world. Now, “inter-faith dialog” is about giving and getting: What can your faith give me to enhance my own? It’s about transactions.

In this spirit, certain Catholic parishes put on “Seder dinners” in their social halls, resembling the Jewish observance in “interfaith” reach-outs, whose objectives include demonstrating not only that Catholics respect their ancestral, if outmoded, Judaism, but also that Jesus’s Last Supper once and for all superseded the Paschal meal. We’ll acknowledge the Seder meal, if you’ll acknowledge us the True Faith. Quid pro quo.


Transactions need not give life

Transactional language is about exchanges, not about life as we actually live it. Indeed, at root, life at home, life lived with our families and neighbors, with those who share our oikos, is mostly non-transactional. When my children were young, for instance, the only really transactional relationship we had was that they did certain household chores (doing the dishes, cleaning their rooms) for which we gave them an “allowance.” (I’ll note that giving an allowance in return for work has its advocates as well as its detractors, but that’s for another discussion.) Beyond that allowance, our shared family and neighborhood life, while there are some actual transactions, far transcends them. And I think most families are the same.

Family life and neighborhood life and community life in general—life lived in the oikos—give intangible, non-quantifiable rewards: Love, companionship, mutual support, and the like. Equally, life in the oikos burdens us with obligations and responsibilities to one another that often are impossible to tally up or to balance against the rewards. There is no quantity that can be assigned to sitting hour after hour at the bedside of one’s sick child or washing the hair of one’s aged parent.

Transactions, on the other hand, involve no intangibles. I select my groceries off the shelf and I pay the checkout person, and I leave. That concludes the transaction. Love, companionship, mutual support need not figure in the transaction at all. Professional diplomacy is another example: Diplomats remain polite, but there is no requirement that they like one another or do anything more than negotiate issues in their own interests.

The corporation, even before Citizens United, is the model par excellance of transactionalism. The corporation gives out its products or services and we pay for them. We need not like or admire Exxon Mobil, but we do pay for its fossil fuels. In return, Exxon Mobil need not care a whit for our communities or our environments, our ecologies, it need only produce a reliable stream of oil and gas. Nowadays, the corporation is the core organizing principle of our public lives, if not our homes. (The corporate thinkers, of course, claim that they organize themselves and their worlds as a household, which is a lie.)

So what?

We live in a world, and especially in a nation, utterly enthralled with the corporate ethos. We’ve sold our soul to the corporation. The heart of all corporate relationships is profit, that is, winnings, and the soul of profit is competition, a sibling of transaction. We adore sports. And sports are competition as transactional conflict organized by means, methods, and goals. As long as the competitors agree to the organizing means, methods, and goals, the conflict does not flare out of control.

Sports obey that rule. But what about political or corporate competition? To the degree that politicians or corporations—or nations—do NOT agree on the parameters, the means, methods, and goals of the struggle, the danger that our conflicts will flare out of control is real and enormous. We see this in Syria currently. We see it in the American government. Essentially transactional, corporate, and competitive, American government and politics are no longer about our neighborhoods, our lived lives, our nation-as-home, but are about ginning up phony conflicts and then organizing them as a competition. To our chagrin (and loss), our politics allows competition with cheating.

Judging by its actions, our Republicans feel little obligation to the poor or the sick, to immigrants, to gays and lesbians and the transgendered folks, or to anyone not like themselves. The current leaders of our nation appear not to feel any responsibility to make life in the country more neighborly. Nor to tell us the truth, truth without which no family and no community can thrive.

In other words, they seem to have no sense of the ecumenical, of the oikos, only of the transaction, the competition for gain.

Is there room for principles?

In a transactional world, the ruling principle is quid pro quo—What do I get for what I give? Don’t think that I’m proposing that there is anything wrong with quid pro quo, as far as it goes (which is not very far). I’m suggesting only that it reflects a poverty of thought, feeling, and spirituality. Within quid pro quo there is no room for love, for generosity, for unasked-for humor, or for spontaneous help, for all the parts of life that make a house a home or a group of homes a neighborhood. I have no objection to paying the grocery store for groceries, but I would object to demanding that my wife pay me when I cook them for her. Paying the hardware store for a snow shovel? Sure. But I’d rebel if my elderly neighbor was forced to pay me to shovel her sidewalk. There’s scant space inside quid pro quo for the realities of family life, neighborhood life, community life. In those more home-like realms, there are other principles at play than quid pro quo.

In a transaction-only world (and world-view), other human values—care, loyalty (even to those who hurt me), compassion, giving to the poor—die of thirst. The very things that make life livable don’t figure in transactional thinking. And so, when religiously serious people talk across the divides between their faiths, we now call it “interfaith” dialog. We don’t use the word ecumenical, which connotes what faith really is about: Being at home amid the sacred.

I’m making this simple point because our language reflects our thinking and our thinking reflects the way we perceive reality. If you think this is a transaction-only world, I suggest that your language reflects that. Pay attention to the words you—and I—use, and especially to the words of the people who talk about the things that matter in our lived lives.

Injuries to Our Spirits


The subtitle of my blog is “Psyche, Story, Spirit.” Today I’m thinking about something that binds together “psyche” and “spirit”—the feelings many Americans have after last week’s election. Many are elated. Many are saddened, or afraid. What I’m interested in, though, is that in earlier elections when Democrats won, those who are now elated were saddened, or afraid. I’m not really interested, at the moment, in the reasons or causes for either side’s emotional responses; what interests me is that finally, between left and right, we have common ground.

That common ground is that now we are all familiar with how it feels to receive an injury to our spirits. By those words I mean to convey a kind of woundedness that not only brings pain, but diminishes our sense of meaning and threatens our hope. What most affected me after the election was the bewildering and, yes, even frightening sense that the truths I’ve trusted may not hold. Since the results came plain, I feel what many people say they feel: They’ve taken my country away. I’ve heard that sentence from folks on the right, and wondered what they meant by it. Finally, I have common ground with those on the right who’ve been so angry and afraid all these years. It is not pleasant ground to stand on, but it’s shared, at least.

Common ground? Really?

Psychologists know, as do folks who suffer PTSD, that the aftermath is sometimes worse than the wound itself. It is one thing to be shocked, to go on auto-pilot, to rely on numbness to make it through a traumatizing situation. But as the days, weeks, months, and years after the event pile up, the longer term consequences start coming to light. And alongside them, along with the pain, come questions, doubts, self-blame, a rupture of connection. thinkerDid I do something to cause the tragedy? Am I wrong, bad, or even evil? Or is someone else to blame, someone I may have counted on or even loved? What’s wrong with this damn world? Who am I after all is said and done? What does this all man? What should I do now? Questions that disrupt the settled world I thought I had.

Perhaps it’s fair to say that this injury to our spirits accompanies many of our presidential elections. Certainly, the nation endured it as a sundering catastrophe in 1860, when the visceral reactions of real people tore the country apart—a gulf that has haunted us since. But the elections of 2000, when we elected a war-maker, and of 2008, when we elected a Black man, and of 2016, when we tried to elect a woman, belong to us who are living now, and are the injurers of our times.

I’m thinking of PTSD too, or in psychologists’ language, “acute stress disorder” (since it’s only days since the event, not months). Combat veterans who suffer PTSD, especially those who had to do things they would never have dreamed of doing in civilian life, report these injuries to the spirit I’m thinking about. So do many survivors of sexual or physical abuse, especially those who accepted the abuse by one person in order to protect someone else—the other parent, for instance, or siblings. Traumatic experiences like those alter a person’s sense of her goodness, of his ability to make a difference by his actions, of being who they thought they were.


Am I implying that the emotional aftermath of losing an election is equivalent to killing in war or witnessing its horrors? Am I arguing that seeing one’s candidate lose is the same as being raped by a drunken father or by a violent boyfriend on a date?


I am, though, trying to say that our spirits can be injured, and that when they are, the result can be fear, shame, anger, blame, confusion, despair. These emotions are the common ground all of us stand on who share strong passions about American politics, and lose. And what challenges me about this common ground is that it can be, may be, the ground of empathy. We on the left may be feeling—and if so, understanding—what those on the right have felt.

Forgive, forget, move on?

Absolutely not.

Each of us will find some way to heal, or so we all can hope. But I’m not ready to forgive. Psychologists remind us that the first step after an offense is not to forgive when there remain unhealed wounds. The first step is to talk, to name the fear, the rage, the despair, or whatever form the injury takes. To talk not only with loved ones, but with whomever will listen. To speak what is true in each of our hearts. That’s the first step.

Forget? I will never forget the obscenity and cruelty of President-elect Trump’s campaign and of his talk. Until he demonstrates compassion for all the citizens, especially the vulnerable and the disenfranchised, in real and tangible ways, my memory of his insults and assaults will stay fresh. But that does not mean I will resist everything he does. What is truly honorable I will support. What benefits real people in real ways, I will support. But when he proposes actions that will harm those who have already suffered much harm—women held back or assaulted, immigrants terrified, Muslims vilified, Jews slandered, disabled people mocked, the elderly threatened, the rebuilders of the infrastructure obstructed, the polluters of the air and water empowered—I will resist.

Move on? Only in one respect: I will move on in my own work of managing my personal spiritual woundedness, and in comforting those around me when I can. I will move on to organize my thinking and my writing and my contributing and my action so that I don’t add to the injuries to the spirit that already pile too high.

What can I do?

It’s a dark time.

Those of us who won the election last week must wait, anxiously, to see whether the promises they counted on are real or merely “politics,” rhetoric designed to fool them into delivering power to the likes of Bannon and Breitbart.

Those of us who lost must grieve and wait as well, to see what emerges from the shadows of that ugly and debasing campaign. I hope that we all, winners and losers, will seek connectedness, not disunion. Civility, not hate.

Still, there have been other dark, perhaps darker, times. hitler-polandThink back to September 1, 1939, the night Hitler invaded Poland. The world awoke next morning shocked, gaggled, unstrung, despairing. Most of us now are shocked, and half of us are unstrung, seventy-seven years later. To many, the world seems just as dark—while others believe a dawn is breaking (though I fear they will soon find their hopes dashed as well).

W. H. Auden wrote a poem about that night, “1st September 1939.” Here is its final stanza.

Defenseless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.


On both sides of our country’s divide, I hope we will listen, and exchange our messages of justice, and, despite the injuries to our spirits, show an affirming flame.