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.

Really?

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

oval-office

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.

Wait.

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?

No.

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.

 

 

A Psychologist’s Thoughts on Trumpism

The “Trump Effect” or “Trumpism”?

I’m a writer of fiction and a psychologist, and I’m observing the current political campaign in the United States with a mix of horror and fascination. I’m not the only one. A few days ago, Gail Sheehy gail-sheehy in Politico magazine published an article about the concerns that thousands of mental health professionals feel about the effect of so-called “Trumpism” on the emotional and mental well-being of the American people. What we usually read in the media are terms such as “the Trump Effect,” focusing narrowly on Donald Trump’s personality, behavior, and rhetoric. Sheehy writes more broadly, focusing on the underlying attitudes and cultural movements that comprise the motivations and attitudes of the larger cultural phenomenon, which some have named “Trumpism.”

I don’t usually write about politics in this blog, but Sheehy’s article spoke to me, since I too, like the people she reports on, find myself feeling more and more demoralized, dispirited, and frightened about the future of our country as it responds to Donald Trump and the cultural currents he represents and exploits–but did not invent.

Demoralized, dispirited, frightened? Really? Why?

Before I dig into that deeper question, I’d encourage you to read Sheehy’s article for the research it presents. That research was done by Dr. William Doherty, a highly respected professor of marriage and family therapy from Minnesota who has done much to promote a more civil and decent society. Based on that work, Doherty wrote a “Manifesto of Citizen Therapists,” in which you can read the argument signed by more than 3000 mental health professionals concerned about “Trumpism,” which Doherty defines descriptively in the “Manifesto” as follows:

Trumpism is an ideology, not an individual, and it may well endure and grow after the Presidential election even if Donald Trump is defeated. (Variants can be seen all over Europe.)

Trumpism is a set of ideas about public life and a set of public practices characterized by:

  • Scapegoating and banishing groups of people who are seen as threats, including immigrants and religious minorities.

  • Degrading, ridiculing, and demeaning rivals and critics.

  • Fostering a cult of the Strong Man who:

    • Appeals to fear and anger

    • Promises to solve our problems if we just trust in him

    • Reinvents history and has little concern for truth

    • Never apologizes or admits mistakes of consequence

    • Sees no need for rational persuasion

    • Subordinates women while claiming to idealize them

    • Disdains public institutions like the courts when they are not subservient

    • Champions national power over international law and respect for other nations

    • Incites and excuses public violence by supporters

The “Manifesto” considers what the mental health professionals see as the causes of Trumpism, as well as its consequences, and they discuss its psychological impact on people exposed to it.

What Doherty’s Research Suggests . . .

Here are a few points brought up in Sheehy’s article about Doherty’s research:

  • Out of more than 1000 respondents to Doherty’s survey, “43 percent of the respondents—not limited to people in therapy—reported experiencing emotional distress related to Trump and his campaign.” In addition, 28% reflected emotional distress about Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and over 90% said their distress is worse than in any previous election. (I’m not writing about Clinton’s campaign because the causes and roots of the distress felt by her opponents is of an entirely different kind that that caused by Trumpism.)
  • A number of the therapists who signed the Manifesto (full disclosure: I have signed it) report an uptick in symptoms of anxiety, depression, or other psychological distress after a significant Trump-related event, such as the recent Presidential Debates.
  • They also report that many of their clients who suffered traumata (abuse, emotional, physical, and/or sexual) in childhood at the hands of a dogmatic, “strong-man” father, find those experiences revived and their impact intensified by Trump’s rhetoric and behavior, especially toward women and marginalized groups (such as immigrants and Muslims).
  • One therapist, a Marine vet, felt compelled to provide a way for his clients to bring their reactions to the campaign into the consulting room. He says, “I wrote a letter about the prevalence of hate speech in the campaign, about terrorism and mass shootings, and left it in my waiting room. I closed by saying, ‘If these things are troubling you, I want to invite you to bring it into your therapy session.’”

Anecdotally, in more than ten conversations with friends during the past week, I have heard repeated stories of disgust, anxiety, anger, and apprehension about the direction of the country triggered by coverage of Trump and his surrogates. Many of my friends have said they cannot bear to watch media coverage any more, because the latest insult or depredation by Trump or his Trumpists is so painful to observe. Some mild-mannered and gentle friends admit that they find themselves feeling unaccustomed anger with Trump because of his behavior toward women, Muslims, and marginalized groups in general.

But more importantly, they–and I–are even more uncomfortable because it has become plain that the gains we thought we had made against racism, hatred of others, and women’s rights are nowhere near as substantial as we thought. Our liberal democracy is much more fragile and threatened than we had dreamed. I myself feel discouraged and deeply worried, as I said before. It’s time I say why.

Why I Feel Distress about Trumpism

I spent forty years providing psychotherapy for people who were abused by people who lived out a worldview that fits the definition of Trumpism. They grew up being afraid—of a parent or parents who abused them, of bullies who attacked them, of shaming by others who found them “different,” of exclusion and rejection. For some, their fear led them to be angry; for most, to being depressed and self-hating. Perhaps most insidious of all, many of my clients feared the “Oh, suck it up” kind of rejection and social abuse so commonly heard from Trumpists who consider any criticism to be invalid and a sign of the critics’ weakness.

No doubt, my saying these things might inflame some; I expect to be accused of emotional weakness and hyper-sensitivity, because I don’t believe that the solution to fear is to turn around and instill more fear in others or to exploit the fear by ginning up hate.

Yes, I am emotionally sensitive. I do care when innocent people are abused–hell, I care when non-innocent people are abused. I think Trumpist bullying, no matter who carries it out, is a stain on our character, and I mean that word stain. But more to the point of my own fears, I am afraid that Trumpism—which will outlast Trump whether he wins or loses the election—is an active cancer on our civic body.

  • Hating Muslims is one step away from hating Jews—and we see in the white nationalist endorsers of Trump exactly that broad-brush anti-Semitism. And I reject anti-Semitism, whatever its form.
  • Promising total violence as a tool of foreign policy—refusing to decline the option of nuclear war, for instance, or promising to “bomb the shit out of them”—isn’t simply a stupid and thoughtless rejection of any standard of international decency and cooperation: It’s immorality writ large.
  • Delighting in the mistreatment of women, sexualizing encounters with them, sizing them up like cattle at auction, claiming to “cherish women” while privately boasting of “moving on her like a b***h,” are signs of a degraded consciousness, but one that women have been battling since the beginning of written history. And before, no doubt. Is this our American version of masculinity? God help us.
  • Rejecting immigrants is not even a short step away from racism—it is fruit of the same tree.

 

I do not want an America where perhaps 35% or 40% of our citizens subscribe to Trumpism, operating out of fear and trembling from behind the façade of the Strong Man. But that’s what we face, at this moment in our history.

So, I think it’s time for people like me to say Stop.

What’s the Alternative?

A simple return to rational discussion of issues would go far. I’d suggest replacing fear with curiosity. Would it be so hard, instead of railing in anger and fear, to ask questions like:

  • What are the immigrants actually like? How do they live their everyday lives? Do they contribute to our society, and how? Where do we find our common humanity?
  • What do the majority of Muslims believe about civil society? What do the majority of Muslims in our country believe and how do they actually behave? Where do we find our common sense of God and the spiritual?
  • What do women think and feel when they hear sexist and lewd comments about their sisters–or about themselves? What do they actually want for the society they live in? What common ground do feminists and non-feminist women stand on together? What do men need to feel safe and equal with women? What do men need to feel safe in letting their defenses down? What do women need to be safe in pointing to men’s misunderstandings and assumptions about them?
  • What are the impulses toward good, decent, civil behavior that citizens feel when they detect injustice–no matter their political affiliation? What are those ideals for the country that are so often referred to without being spelled out? Are punishment, revenge, violence all we have to choose from? (Personally, I doubt it.)

Who do we believe we are, as a nation and a people? I suggest that we have always held a different vision of ourselves, unlike the neo-fascism of the European type and Trumpism, our American version. I cherish, to borrow one of Donald Trump’s favorite words, Abraham Lincoln’s famous “angels of our better nature.” Where do we find them?

Emma Lazarus’s sonnet, inscribed on the Stature of Liberty, reminds us, Americans, of what those angels are. We usually just quote the final stanza, but please read the entire poem, and remember who we once proudly thought of ourselves.

statue-of-liberty

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

 

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

The “Mother of Exiles.” A lovely phrase. Trumpism, to quote its most watched spokesman, “has no idea.”

Tasty Appetizers from My Four Novels

Many of you have read and enjoyed my first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, and many of you have been asking when the next one, Nobody’s Safe Here, will be coming out. I have some exciting news on that, which I’ll be sharing in a week or so. In the meantime, I though you might be interested in reading brief blurbs from the back covers of all four of my books:

  • Climbing the Coliseum, published June 6, 2014, available from Amazon.com, from Xlibris.com, and your local bookstore on request.
  • Nobody’s Safe Here, to be published soon by Black Rose Writing.
  • The Bishop Burned the Lady, coming in 2017.
  • A Patriot’s Campaign, coming in 2017 or early 2018.

Climbing the Coliseum

ClimbCover-252px

Psychologist Ed Northrup, desperate to escape his unhappy life, faces a cluster of mysteries: Why was 14-year-old Grace Ellonson abandoned and where is her mother? Where does rancher Vic Sobstak go when he sneaks off the ranch at night? Why has Vic’s church-organist wife, Maggie, turned up almost fatally drunk? Who’s hanging racist flyers around town? When Ed helps Deputy  Andi Pelton investigate, no one knows the answers, but they’ll soon find out—disastrously. Amid the chaos of the mysteries’ violent collision, Ed, Andi, and Grace face the most formidable decision of their lives.

Nobody’s Safe Here

nsh_front_cover

When cattle baron Magnus Anderssen turns suicidal, psychologist Ed Northrup struggles to help him find the cause – a tragic event buried deep in Magnus’s unconscious. Meanwhile, Deputies Andi Pelton and Boyd Ordrew clash as they investigate Jared Hansen, a boy caught with a weapons cache and a paranoid plan to kill his schoolmates – and a clear record with no previous problems or suffering to explain them! They recruit Ed in the search for whatever caused his radical  transformation from a great kid to a psychotic killer. Will Magnus survive his harrowing therapy? Will Jared’s insanity be resolved in time? Will Andi’s conflict with Deputy Brad Ordrew and Ed’s radical plan to save the boy destroy their romance?  Another story of good people facing extraordinary challenges in beautiful Monastery Valley. . .

The Bishop Burned the Lady (cover design in progress)

A mysterious fire in a remote forest clearing; a young woman’s charred bones in the ashes; unexplained tracks in the rutted road – the only clues Deputy Andi Pelton has to what happened – until she meets a hostile old man living alone in a forest compound that obviously houses many people. Sex trafficking in the Montana wilderness? Psychologist Ed Northrup wants to marry her, but Andi puts him off, absorbed in the investigation–and in a struggle with her own demons. Ed agrees to wit and to help her with the case. What they discover leads them deep into the horrific reality of prison gangs, cults, and murder. When Andi finds the mastermind behind the murder, she nearly loses her life arresting him. And then she must deal with Ed’s proposal . . .

A Patriot’s Campaign (cover design in progress)

“Shots Fired!” The 911 call sends Deputy Andi Pelton to the scene of a murder of a young boy in a garage. The home-owner readily admits killing him, claiming he was “standing my patriotic ground” against an intruder. But as Andi begins the investigation, what she discovers casts doubt on the shooter’s story–and his motive. Her investigation, though, is complicated when Sheriff Ben Stewart, Andi’s mentor, is forced out of the re-election campaign against Deputy Brad Ordrew, who has promised to fire Andi if he wins. Andi has to confront the fact that Ordrew will run unopposed–unless she enters the race against him. Ordrew claims he will run a “patriotic” sheriff’s office, but Andi sees his plans as a cover for militarizing the department. Should she run, which could interfere with her murder inquiry? Or should she do the job she swore to do: concentrate on the murder and take her chances with Ordrew? Which is the truly patriotic thing to do? And who’s the patriot?

I hope these brief teasers stimulate your interest and that you’ll be on the lockout for Nobody’s Safe Here when it comes out. Watch this space!

4 Questions for the End of Life

Last week, I read Atul Gawande’s recent book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. “The end” in the subtitle means the book is about, to borrow Jessica Mitford’s classic title, “the American way of death.” Gawande points out, however, that the problems he sees with how medicine approaches how we die are not limited to the United States, or even to the industrialized world, but are beginning to affect even the developing nations. They’re another corollary to globalism.

Gawande bookAtul Gawande is a neurosurgeon who writes beautifully (he brought me to tears more than once in this short book), and is involved in a handful of meaningful projects related to modern medicine. He believes that medicine, for all the good it does, may not have all the answers to life’s pressing questions—indeed, he sincerely doubts that it does. Further, he is convinced that medicine’s answer for the end of life—which is to try to fix the unfixable, prevent the inevitable—are disastrous. This is his central argument, an argument which I will discuss in a moment.

While I was reading Being Mortal, I began noticing something: The topic of death seems to be everywhere. Not only the violent and senseless deaths that shame our headlines on an almost daily basis, not only the far-away wars and tragic deaths of so many in so many parts of the world, but everyday, ordinary, inevitable death—the kind the vast majority of people will one day face. For example, I was reading a Writers’ Digest interview with the famous editor Terry McDonell, who was the editor or managing editor of many magazines—think Rolling Stone, Esquire, Outside, and Sports Illustrated, among others. He was elected, four years ago, to the Magazine Editors’ Hall of Fame. Some of the luminaries he edited include Hunter S. Thompson, Jim Harrison, Richard Ford, Richard Price, George Plimpton, Peter Matthiessen, Jimmy Buffett, and many others. So when I began the interview, I expected talk abaout writing and writers (there was some, eventually). But it unnerved me to read this about his new book, The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers:

The book is about death. Aging is difficult for everyone. It’s especially difficult for writers because they’re so sensitive to it: to their talents, and to anything that diminishes them.

McDonell book

Wow. Another book about death. But it makes sense: We Boomers are marching into our 70s already, and Boomers are nothing if not interested in our own experiences: having them, talking about them, writing about them, sharing our angst about them, and, if at all possible, making some money off them. So Death, be not proud. We’re not talking about You a lot these days because You are so hot, but because You’re our next Big Thing.

Being Mortal

Dr. Gawande’s book grabbed me by the lapels and shook me (well, okay, I don’t wear suits anymore, so no lapels). One of the points he asserts repeatedly is that the way we die is changing. A hundred years ago, and still today in some corners of the world, death came early and often suddenly. Now, particularly in developed countries and countries where industrialization is underway, scientific medicine and medical care have enabled much longer life spans and made the recovery from accidents and major sudden illnesses much more likely. As a species, we are living longer. Now, death is less often a matter of a sudden catastrophe, but rather of a slow accumulation of small breakdowns, which add up like the frailties of an old car, until there is no reversing them.

He discusses how people adjust and adjust and adjust to these small (and sometimes not so small, but treatable) breakdowns. Aging, in this description, is a process that, over many years, gradually narrows the range of experiences and activities one considers necessary for “the good life.” For instance, thirty years ago, going out for a evening of dinner, drinks, and dancing or a concert or a ball game, was a key part of how I defined living well. Now, it’s lunch with my wife at a quiet restaurant.

A man gets an inner ear infection, which leaves him prone to dizzy spells. He puts up with them, gets used to them, learns to accommodate to them, and eventually gives up doing some of the things he used to value, like dancing or running or climbing a ladder to paint his own house.

And as the range of activities slowly narrows, sometimes imperceptibly, the things that are important also begin to change. I now enjoy these lunches with my wife every bit as much as I once enjoyed my evenings out with friends. Where I used to value action and excitement in trendy venues, now I value easy conversation in comfortable settings. Gawande, in a number of poignant vignettes, shows how, as death nears, people tend to focus in more closely on the people they love and the few activities they value and can do comfortably. Meaning becomes more and more important.

The doctor writes about his father’s dying. A vibrant, robust man whose early goal was not to let the tumor in his spine stop him from the many social, charitable, and athletic activities he cherished. But by the end, he was as satisfied studying photos of his grandchildren as he’d once been practicing medicine or playing tennis or building a university campus in his home town in India. At each stage of the progression of the disease, Gawande’s father fought to keep his previous level of activity until he realized he could not, and was forced to contemplate the new reality. Once he accepted what he’d lost–which did not come easily, but did come–and identified what he still valued that he could still do, once he set his sights on what mattered most to him in the changed circumstances of his illness, he relaxed and his usual buoyant spirit returned, until the crisis began the process all over again.

What is Needed for This to Happen?

Movingly, Gawande discusses how miserably the medical approach to dying—or rather, he notes, to preventing dying—fails to help people to this kind of end, one in which they can realize what remains valuable and can focus on that rather than trying to stop the inevitable train wreck. What is needed, he suggests, is for doctors—and equally, for patients and their families–to discuss four very simple but achingly important questions:

  • How do people understand this thing they are facing (the disease or condition that threatens their life)? What does the condition mean to them—not what is to be done or even what they want done about it, but what its meaning injects into their life?
  • What are their fears at this point in time? What are they afraid of losing now, in the coming days, weeks, months?
  • What are the dying person’s goals? Of the things they fear losing, what can be let go and what are the most important to hang on to as long as possible?
  • What will you need now, today and in the next few days and weeks, to make holding on to those precious things possible for this period of time?

You can well imagine how difficult this conversation will be. Gawande says that he found it sometimes too intimidating even for him, the surgeon. And you can also imagine that these questions will need to be asked and this discussion held many times as a person moves through the aging and dying process.

Caring hands

Consider a young mother, newly diagnosed with metastatic cancer, who wanted to fight the disease “every way I can.” Her husband and her doctor helped her do that, through surgeries and radiation and round after round of trail-and-error chemotherapies. As long as she could keep working and participating in her life, she continued fighting, hanging on to her goal of defeating the cancer and fighting to hang on to what she valued, her work, her lifestyle, her activities.

After many months, she was exhausted, barely able to participate in her family’s life. The therapies were failing, her cancer advancing. Her oncologist, understanding her goal, offered an experimental treatment.

She and her husband held their usual discussion, centered around the four questions. Painstakingly, gingerly, they’d done this each time a new treatment had been offered. She realized this time that she no longer wanted to fight, that fighting now meant long stay in bed, the sickness of chemotherapy, confusion and mental loss. Instead of fighting, she wanted to be free enough of pain and of the drugged-up grogginess caused by the pain that she could sit with her family at dinner even when she couldn’t eat, could help her kids do their homework, could watch TV with them in the evening.

What she now feared losing most was no longer her lifestyle, or even her life—it was losing what time she had left with her husband and children. And so, arrangements were made to help her—now, today, not in the future—get to that goal. That very afternoon, her husband rented a hospital bed for the living room and placed the TV where she and the kids could cuddle and watch their shows. He called an at-home hospice service, and a nurse came and set up routines to maximize her comfort and rest when she was home alone, and ensure her ability to be with the children and her husband when they were home. The hospice nurses not only helped find the right mix of medications to help her stay awake when the kids were home, they taught her things she could do to help herself safely, such as getting to the bathroom without falling. Her life had shrunk down to a very narrow set of activities, but they were activities that meant the world to her now, the activities spending “alive time” with her family rather than enduring treatments with little chance of saving her and sleeping away her remaining time in a hospital bed far from home.

Gawande argues that such an ending to life, focused on achieving still-meaningful personal goals, regardless how small they may be and regardless what else is lost as the end approaches, means the dying person retains a measure of autonomy, choosing what matters, and with those choices, dignity. And he asks us to consider that, as death approaches, we should shift our efforts away from sacrificing the present for the hope of living longer into the future, and instead should sacrifice the future and actually live in the present. He thinks this change in orientation is the key to holding on to and experiencing what is most precious as far as possible at the end. To die well, in other words, we should leave the future and come home to now.

I think we’ve heard that message before . . .

5 Questions Writers Must Know How to Answer and My Mistakes Answering Them

The Five Questions

Ever find a gem on the Internet that exactly met your pressing need of the day? I just did. Amy Collins, a long-time expert on book marketing and sales, runs a wonderful website, www.NewShelves.com, that will intrigue not only authors trying to sell their books, but anyone who loves books and reading. One of her posts caught my attention: “The Five Questions Authors HAVE to Know How to Answer.

As I approach the publication of my second novel, Nobody’s Safe Here, I’m thinking deeply about how I want to market it. And that means I have to figure out how to talk about it, and Amy’s five questions have helped me organize my thinking about that. Here are the five Big Questions:

  1. What’s your book about?
  2. Who needs your book?
  3. What makes your book different?
  4. Where can I get your book?
  5. How are you promoting your book?

In a minute, I’ll pass along my answers to these five Big Questions. First, though, let me tell you about some mistakes I have made when talking about my books.

Mistakes I Always Make when I Talk about My Books.

Any mistake writers can make when talking about their books, I have gleefully made. I’ve made them more than once, even after being told it was a mistake. My favorite mistake is telling too much about the story and the characters. I know I’m making that baby when I get one of two signals: Either my listener’s eyes stray, peering over my shoulder for a rescuer; or my wife, if she’s within earshot, begins to drag her finger across her throat. Yep, I tell way too much of the plot or I describe every main character or I babble on about the book’s themes. This one’s a real doozy.

Amy CollinsAmy Collins, the sales guru, has a quick solution to this mistake. Regarding the first question, “What’s your book about?” she writes, “Answer this question in ONE sentence.” Whoa! She points out that if the listener is at all interested after that one sentence, he or she will ask for more. Obvious, isn’t it? And it’s good psychology—as she says, short answers generate the desire to know more. When you ask for a taste in an ice cream parlor, there’s a reason you only get a tiny little spoon. But man, ONE sentence? I wonder if I’ve answered any question, ever, in one sentence. But you’ll see how I do it now, in a moment.

Another favorite mistake: Assuming no one is really interested, assuming they’re just being polite and so I shouldn’t bore them with talk about me, that is, my book. You can imagine where this one comes from, even without a PhD in psychology! But it has the effect of clamming me up, unless the listener shows more than a passing interest, and leads, when I do start talking, to Mistake #1, telling too much. The dam bursts. It’s either too little or too much.

Mistake #3 is another result of Mistake #2: Not making a pitch. Instead of getting my pitch down so that, succinctly but clearly, I ask listeners to consider buying the book, I stick with themes and content, hoping they’ll be inspired, but not telling them I’d like them to purchase. You’re right, I’m no salesman. Still, one of the purposes of publishing a book is to sell it, right? Moreover, Mistake #3 ignores my grandmother’s oft-given advice: “Blessed is he who tooteth his own horn, for if he tooteth it not, it shall not be tooted.” So, let me warm up my horn.

Tooting Horn

As promised, here are my answers to the big five questions.

My Answers to the Five Questions about My Next Novel

My first novel, Climbing the Coliseum, has been out for two years (check it out!). It’s the first in the Monastery Valley series of psychological suspense novels. Climbing’s sales are not yet in Stephen King’s neighborhood. My next book, the second in the series, is Nobody’s Safe Here. (I’ll have exciting news about its publication in n upcoming blog.) So let me show you how I am going to answer the Five Questions about Nobody’s Safe Here.

Question 1: What’s your book about?

(Remember, I have to answer this in ONE sentence. Watch this!)

Nobody’s Safe Here tells the story of a sixty-year-old rancher suffering the effects of being raped by a priest at age eighteen, of a seventeen-year-old boy who is threatening to shoot his classmates, and of the psychologist and the deputy sheriff who team up to save them both.

Question 2: Who needs your book?

Nobody really needs my book. But readers who like psychological mysteries, strong characters, rich relationships, and dramatic Montana settings will love Nobody’s Safe Here, as will those who enjoy the writing of Louse Penny, Craig Johnson (the Longmire book and TV series), William Kent Krueger, and Tana French.

Question 3: What makes your book different?

Think “Hemingway meets Newsweek.” As in Jonathan Kellerman’s Alex Delaware series, the protagonists are a psychologist, Ed Northrup, and a cop, Deputy Sheriff Andi Pelton. But unlike Kellerman’s Alex and Milo, Ed and Andi not only solve mysteries but also are lovers who face the complications of life in a small mountain town, rather than the gritty urban scene. Like Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache novels, which are also set (usually) in a small town, Nobody’s supporting characters are vivid and the intricate relationships among them are rich and deep. But the mountain West is not rural Ontario, and the veins of conflict there are both social and political. Nobody’s Safe Here mines similar ore to Craig Johnson’s Sheriff Walt Longmire’s, but where Walt solves mysteries as a sheriff, Ed Northrup solves them as a shrink—with the sheriff-style help of his off-and-on lover, Andi Pelton. And woven throughout the book is Ed’s and Andi’s relationship with Grace, Ed’s newly adopted daughter—the three must find a path to be a family while Grace adjusts not just to being sixteen, but also to living in a new community.

Question 4: Where can I get your book?

(Remember, Nobody’s Safe Here hasn’t launched yet, so this is how I will answer when it comes out.) You can find it online, in bookstores, by request at libraries, on my website (www.BillPercyBooks.com), or directly from me (Bill@BillPercyBooks.com). It’s available in both paperback and e-book formats.

Question 5: How are you promoting your book?

My blog, which has attracted nearly 1000 registered users, and my Facebook page (www.Facebook.com/BillPercyBooks), promote my books. I will lead into the book launch with radio interviews in a number of markets in our region: Spokane and eastern Washington state, north Idaho, and western and southwestern Montana, and with numerous book events—signings and readings—in a dozen regional cities as well as in the Midwest. I have scheduled dates to meet with book clubs both in the Northwest and the Midwest during the months following the launch of Nobody’s Safe Here. I have a mailing list of thousands of public libraries in every state in the nation, which I am mining–thanks to Amy Collins’ training course–to get my book in libraries. I also have a mailing list that is growing daily (as is my blog user-list), and will use that to promote the books.

 

So. There’s a taste of my answers to the five Big Questions every writer must know how to answer. I’d love to hear your thoughts about how I can improve them in the Comments, below!

A Prayer on Bastille Day

He must be very tired.

About two hundred yards from where I sit on the deck, a lone osprey sits quietly on his nest atop a Douglas fir, immobile, illuminated by sunset, looking down at the lake. All day, a very busy day, he’s been shuttling to and from his nest, hunting and bringing food back for his offspring—who are just about ready to learn to hunt for themselves.

Lake Pend Oreille Sunset
Lake Pend Oreille Sunset

Perhaps he’s enjoying the view of the lake. I’m curious, though. I’ve never seen the big bird so quiet for so long. It’s been almost 45 minutes, and neither of us has moved. The poor guy must be very tired. Or, perhaps, it’s something else?

These guys never rest, do they?

If you draw a straight line between my chair and the osprey’s nest, our hummingbird feeder hangs directly in that line. By shifting my depth of field close and far, I can focus on the osprey, then on the hummingbirds that visit, then back to the amazingly quiet osprey. A ruby-throated hummingbird hovers, drinks, hovers, drinks again, then perches on the feeder bracket. He too is still. Very still, and I hardly breathe—these little guys never perch here, and I don’t want to scare him away. So, why is he waiting?

For a minute, two, even three, he sits entirely still, facing me. Then, he flits his wings once, twice, defecates a tiny drop, a jewel that falls and sparkles in the evening sunlight. He hovers again, above the feeder, moves in, takes a last drink, vanishes.

Peace and tragedy are siblings

Shortly before I sat down here on my deck in peaceful north Idaho, a maniac waited in a truck until the Bastille Day fireworks in Nice, France, were done, and when the crowd was milling down the Promenade des Anglais, he drove the 19-ton lorry into them and murdered 84 people, injuring  scores of others.

The Beach at Nice
The Beach at Nice

I’ve been to big-city fireworks on the Fourth of July, and I imagine you have, too. I know the crush of the crowd when the display and the oohs and ahs are done, the nowhere-to-go-just-accept-it feeling. I can imagine the screams behind me and my family, the sudden panic around us. I can imagine turning to see what’s happening and beholding the looming lorry, the white death, bearing down.

Here on my deck, soothed by the evening breeze, sharing with the birds the quietest evening of this summer, I am perhaps an infinite distance from Nice and the Promenade Des Anglais. But in one small way, I am there.

How? How?

For the first time in many years, after a career spent in the service of the science of psychology (which requires no gods), I join thousands in Nice: I am praying.

To whom are we praying?

No doubt, you and I answer this in our own ways. I’m not praying to anyone in particular. I just speak words into the soft and darkening air, to the One in whom we live and breathe and have our being. I feel mourning, and imagine that I see mourning—my projection, no doubt—in the osprey’s stillness and the hummingbird’s wait on the feeder bracket.

I pray into the empty sky of the evening for an idea, a thought, any glimmer of a road from all this tragedy to peace. I pray for something I’m afraid I could lose: A word of hope.

No word comes back.

Until I see a boat . . .

. . . crossing Lake Pend Oreille. As I watch, the wake, opening always out in the cut water, fades, diminishes, passes. The boat’s knife has slashed, but it has not wounded, the water. No, water absorbs the violent energy, swells with its effect for a moment, then passes it along. Each molecule of water accepts the blast of energy and passes it to the next. We see the wave, and then it is gone. No molecule is lost or injured, because each accepts what comes, then moves it on.

Can we?

Can you share with me—in this blog post—my sorrow at the human violence in our world? Sorrow for Paris, San Bernardino, Syria, Israel, Istanbul, Ukraine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and Gaza, Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, Baltimore, Orlando, Baton Rouge, Dallas, Minnesota, now Nice. Sorrow for the thousand other places and million other deaths. Can you pass this sorrow along after tasting it for your moment, and ask your fellow human beings, friends, family, Facebook folk, to stop a moment, share the sorrow, then pass it on?

Will you?

Where Do a Writer’s Ideas Come From?

The Sounds of Birds and the Advent of Ideas

Robin

Somewhere in the woods surrounding our home, a robin is warbling his mating song, as serene and beautiful a melody as Bach’s Air in G. Ospreys, mom and dad, cruising the thermals high above their nest in a Ponderosa at the edge of the big lake, go “cheep-cheep-cheep” as they bring fish and mice back to their little ones. Two flickers do their mating dance, swooping up into the middle of a tall tree, then bouncing up branch after branch till they burst off the top branches into thin air (she’s testing his stamina!). Suddenly, all that buoyancy and all that singing in the forest give me an idea!

How? Like the birds, we writers are always busy with our ideas, courting them, falling in love with them, feeding them, growing them up, and coaxing them out to fly on their own. Sometimes, like the robin’s song, our ideas are sweet and lyrical; or like the osprey’s cheep-cheep-cheep, they can be high-toned, frantic, imperious, or parental, patient, informative. Sometimes, our ideas dance like the flickers, bouncing limb-to-limb, perhaps joyous or perhaps urgent (it’s hard to tell the difference, sometimes).

But Where Do These Ideas Come From?

Plato told us that Ideas, which he sometimes called Forms, pre-exist us, insisting that these eternal, abstract Ideas are more real than the appearances we perceive. PlatoFor instance, when I pet Seamus, my sister’s dog, that’s just Seamus. But the Idea of dog, or maybe Dog-ness, is universal and, according to Plato (who puts the teaching in Socrates’ mouth), is more real, because it’s universal, than Seamus is. (But when Seamus goes on a barking binge, he sounds pretty real to me!)

Plato said real Ideas exist beyond the material and phenomenal world available to our senses—and so when a thought that can be worked with, developed, grown, and nurtured into a story pops into someone’s material brain, it is (claims Plato) only a pale reflection of one of those eternal and universal Ideas.

I’m no Platonist. I think that ideas come into my brain-mind from . . . from somewhere else in my brain-mind! Oh, they’re helped along by things happening outside me, to be sure. Let me take the various singings of the birds as an example. I was sitting on my deck reading early in the morning when I first heard the robin’s song and the osprey’s cheeping, and saw the flickers’ chasing one another up the trees. As I watched and listened to the avian activity all around me, I remembered that I had to write a new blog post for this week.

Two separate, unrelated mind-events—perceiving and enjoying the birds’ activities (I’ll call that mind-event A) and recalling a task I needed to perform (call that mind-event B). Something, though, linked them—something at first hidden inside the two mind-events. Unbeknownst to me, by brain had been searching rapidly for something—anything—similar between A and B. Brains are similarity engines, searching for points of resemblance between segments of incoming information. We’re pattern-searchers by instinct, and much of our search for pattern occurs unconsciously. So when I heard birdsong, my brain must have found some sort of similarity between it and my need to write the blog (which must’ve been lurking in the back of my mind already), and served it up to my conscious mind in the form: “Hey! Those birds remind me I have to write the blog!”

The Green-Eye-Shade Guy

Michele has a fun image that is helpful here: She imagines, when she is searching for a word, that there’s a little guy in her brain, sitting on a swivel chair on castors, a green eye-shade on his forehead, Green eye-shade guymadly digging in one file of words to another, searching for that elusive word. Keep the image, but change “words” to “patterns,” and you’ve got the idea. When my little green-eye-shade guy found the similarity between bird activity (A) and blog-writing (B), it was like a package arriving in my consciousness.

As I thought about it, it occurred to me that many ideas arrive like that. (“Arrive” is the wrong word, since it implies the ideas come from someplace outside me. Still, it captures the sense of their visiting unexpectedly, like the FedEx truck.) I think that ideas “come” to me in a process like this: A thing stimulates my awareness. The birds’ business, an article or a paragraph in a book, a physical sensation, a news story. Call it Event A. Without warning (and often without any apparent relevance), Event A reminds me of something else, Event B. The birds’ singing and flying and working and mating reminds me that I need to write this post. But that’s not the actual idea, not yet. It’s just the FedEx package containing the idea. Still, it’s already amazing–what has the birds’ activity to do with writing a blog post?

When I heard the birds and thought of writing this post, I found myself wondering, “What if the birds’ activities were the subject of the blog? What would be the connection?” Until that “what-if” question arose in my mind, no conscious idea connected A with B, or rather, I wasn’t conscious yet of what connected them. As soon as I wondered about it, though, I “woke up”: the ideas with which writers busy themselves have many qualities resembling the busyness of the birds: Serenity, urgency, excitement, joy.

G.Lakoff
George Lakoff

Of course, that resemblance is merely metaphorical—but wait, maybe not “merely” so. George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist and political scientist, contends that human language is built on metaphor, and the discovery of the chunking process of learning done by the brain seems to bear him out. (If you’re interested in learning more, read Maria Popova’s review of Daniel Bor’s The Ravenous Brain; How the New Science of Consciousness Explains our Insatiable Search for Meaning.)

It all happens unconsciously. One experience resembles a second in a fashion that, to conscious inspection, appears utterly random. What does birds being birds have to do with writing my blog? My brain supplied the similarity: the birds were like ideas. And that likeness arose, no doubt, because somewhere in my life and experience I’d seen or heard or felt that likeness before. Birds soar; so do some ideas. Birds are born and die, as do many ideas. Birds can inspire or annoy, as can ideas. In short, a metaphor: Birds are like ideas.

Metaphor as Learning and Thinking

As Lakoff and Bor insist, all human learning, thinking, and language is metaphorical, mediated by “chunking,” the brain’s action of linking pieces of information and creating chains or hierarchies of information based on similarities. Ideas–to write about, to practice in politics, to teach our children, to structure our lives, all sorts of ideas–don’t “arrive” or “come to us” (metaphors) except through metaphors. They “arise” (a metaphor) from the “soil” (another metaphor) of our previous learning. If an idea is powerful, it “imposes itself” on us, if inspiring, it “lifts us up.” Ideas can “move” us, they can “break our hearts,” they can “build us up” or “tear us down.” All metaphors, all true.

And notice: All these metaphors are built on our own physical (material) experience, our bodily experience. George Lakoff co-wrote two books on this with Mark Johnson. The first, published in 1980, was Metaphors we Live By. Their next book, Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and Its Challenge to Western Thought  followed in 1999. (You can probably tell I’m a fan.)

Where do ideas come from? From ourselves, out of our bodies—that is, from our brain-minds’ “insatiable search for meaning,” their relentless search for patterns and chunking of bits of information into increasingly complex thoughts. Birds are ideas, in every sense of that word. Metaphors.

And stories emerge from those seed-metaphors. What if Franz Kafka felt that life in Hapsburg Prague was turning him into a bug? Kafka BugMy next post will reflect on all this as it relates more directly to writing fiction, but here’s today’s takeaway (itself a metaphor): Plato was wrong. Ideas aren’t eternal and self-existent. They’re the product of the incessant and fertile work of our brain-minds, generating patterns, linking them together on the basis of resemblance, finding similarities. Often, all this is to our pleasure, frequently to our dismay, and sometimes, sadly, to our downfall.

More to come.