Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Road Less Traveled, M. Scott Peck, M.D.

I have run across this book so many times in used bookstores that at some point, I don’t know when, it started to indicate in my mind that a store was overstocked with generic titles. I periodically stop in at thrift stores—hoping to salvage some prophetic oracle from the ravages of being sandwiched and left to die a slow death between the James Pattersons and Julie Garwoods of the bargain aisles—and there this book can be found in droves. The title, extrapolated from a poem by the great poet Robert Frost, coerced me on multiple occasions to pick it up and flip through it. The subtitle was hardly captivating, “A new psychology of love, traditional values, and spiritual growth.” I finally decided to take one home to determine to what extent my chronic nausea at seeing it and its legion brethren was valid.

From the outset of reading, I was mildly interested. Soon I became intensely interested. Dr. Peck starts with his definition of a neurosis, and points out that people’s biggest problem is the avoidance of pain. He firmly plants his thesis with a quote from Carl Jung, “[A] neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering.” A regular feature of our existence is change, and with the change of the external world, our internal maps of the world must undergo a change as well, or we become fixated on an outmoded index of reality. But this hurts, and to update one’s worldview is considered by many, albeit unconsciously, a hazard and inconvenience that is not worth the trouble. What’s worse, many would rather obscure any reminder of reality than adjust the old comfortable way of life and thinking.

After this prelude to the meaning of confusion and pain, he pulls back further to the beginning of our psychological development—birth. As a psychoanalyst, following most closely to the traditions of Jung and Freud, he maintains that a much of our malfunctions as adults stem from how we were raised by our parents. A parent who has never learned to discipline their own lives will not know how to affirm or discipline their children in healthy ways. Parenting involves knowing how to suffer with your child to help them learn to overcome their challenges, but without this ability to endure and hold out for the higher good, a parent will remain self-focused and unable to create an environment of stability and trust for a child to feel they are safe, and therefore, valuable. Feeling valuable and rooted is the most important prerequisite for self-discipline and the ability to delay gratification because, understood for what it really is, “self-discipline is self-caring”.

And yet, the author does not espouse a fatalistic sort of hard-wired neurology derived solely from one’s genes and upbringing. He believes firmly in the unique human ability to override past conditioning and forge new paths. He says this autonomous responsibility for one’s self is “perhaps the one [characteristic] that makes us most human...our capacity to do the unnatural, to transcend and hence transform our own nature.” And yet, ironically, this capacity is what we fear, referred to as the “pain of freedom”, for it means that we are master of, or at the very least partly responsible for, our choices, and thus our destiny is what he make of it.

Having established that we have a choice to delay gratification and suffer for the things we value and that will bring joy to our lives, he segways into the goal—and ultimately the deepest impetus—of self-discipline: love. Love, in the mind of Dr. Peck, is the goal of all nature. He defines love by contrasting it with what is often misunderstood as ‘falling in love’. Here Peck provides what I have found to be the most compelling and cogent explanation of physical-emotional infatuation that I have ever heard or read. He describes the phenomenon of falling in love as a total collapse of ego boundaries—the felt perimeters of the limits of one’s body and being—and pouring one’s self into another person’s cramped ego ‘container’ hoping to escape one’s lonely, and loathsome, existence. This inevitably leads to disillusionment as one or both parties realize that they did not extend their world in love, but only squeezed into the already crowded space of another lonely soul.

From there Peck defines genuine love as the extension of one’s ego boundaries without collapse, a thinning of the walls of one’s being to slowly blur the line between one’s self and others. Here Peck admits he leans on a mystery—the progress of a person who loves becoming more and more “identified with the world”. This process of investing one’s self, without losing one’s self, is referred to as cathexis, and Peck develops this by adding that “when we cathect an object outside of ourselves we also psychologically incorporate a representation of that object into ourselves”, and thereby broaden ourselves into less of an isolated and lonely entity.

I truly appreciated Peck’s elucidation of the dangers of co-dependency, referring to it as a form of parasitism. “When you require another individual for your survival, you are a parasite on that individual.” Nasty imagery. Next time you see a parent that refuses to acknowledge the autonomy of their child, refusing to accept that the child may grow up and not need them anymore, try to imagine the parent as a giant leach sucking the life and will out of the child, leaving only a limp, bloodless shell of a thing that will never develop strong legs to run from the giant bloodsucker with its razor-toothed mouth to their throat. Peck believes that for a person to truly benefit from another person, they must both develop firm boundaries or they are both liable to be harmful for each other. “Ego boundaries must be hardened before they can be softened. An identity must be established before it can be transcended.” He even goes so far as to call dependency ‘anti-love’. He urges his readers not to fool themselves into thinking that anything ought to be done exclusively for another person. Some things we must do because they put us right with ourselves, with others, and with God. The right thing is as much for us as it is for another. “Whenever we think of ourselves as doing something [solely] for someone else, we are in some way denying our own responsibility.” He returns again and again to this simple but often terrifying principle: to love another, we must first love ourselves.

The first 150 pages or so were the best. The rest I found to be somewhat speculative and even a bit rash in spots. I believe he is correct in his view that science is first founded on a belief of some sort, an implicit value system, and the denigration of religion by science is often not only as bigoted as any religious belief, but also backwards. Religion and science are mostly concerned with subject and object respectively, and there should be a healthy respect one for the other. Peck recognizes this dichotomy of roles, and does a great job of defending religion against science for the most part, but his book seemed to lose steam as he dabbled in subjects that weren’t his forte. He attempted to wax philosophical, and though I think he did all right and many may find his conclusions enlightening, I found it to stray too far off topic. It is true that his original thoughts in psychoanalysis are indebted to the linking of his philosophy of life to psychology, and his bravery in owning up to personal values in scientific pursuits is a huge leap beyond his peers, but I was more interested in the application of his beliefs in psychoanalysis, rather than a full review of his personal values and faith. That being said, I was much more familiar with the philosophical/theological roots of his work than some of his readers might be, and I recognize that I might have otherwise criticized him for leaving us hanging if he didn’t take the time to unfold how he developed his ideas.

So, the end felt anti-climactic and wound down. But there are other things too that I would warn people of before they read it. He refers to controlling one’s feelings as “slave-owning” (couldn’t he have used employee management or dog-training?) and he was entirely unapologetic about the slave-owning metaphor, riding it hard without even a nod towards the relatively recent struggle of civil rights; he briefly mentions a few times that he condones open marriage to some degree; he believes in psychic healing; and he is intrigued with a fanciful version of Jung’s synchronicity. But in spite of all this, I still consider him to be eminently respectful of the tension between science and religion, and that is a tonic to find in his field of typically aggressive anti-religion and a reductionist view of humanity and a purpose to our existence. He’s a brave psychologist, and his openness to certain ideas, however disagreeable to me, still seems like an honest result of his personal best of reason and love, not a sloppy acceptance of novel psychology.

For me, the first 150 pages were worth the read, and I’ve already purchased another copy for a friend to benefit from the thoughts contained in the first part alone. For the rest of you, check your local Goodwill—I’m sure they have a few copies.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

This book hit its mark. Zusak is a very creative writer, in content and style, and did an amazing job in helping us sympathize with the tyrannized German citizens who hated the bloodshed and evil perpetrated by their country. We all know that there were Jewish sympathizers among the German people, but do we really understand the extent to which the Nazi party terrorized its own citizenry? They were smothered into submission. What frightens me is the startling realization that I have often stereotyped most WWII Germans as sadistic Nazis, while this labeling is the very thing which caused great suffering for the Semitic people who were so much more than a skin color, a physiognomy, a religion, or a cultural curiosity. Zusak lifted us for a glimpse across the boundaries of our prejudices, often unconscious, to sympathize with Germany’s own true heroes and tragic victims.

In John Milton’s work Comus a song so entrancing is heard, it was said it could “create a soul under the ribs of death.” For Zusak, the human odyssey is that song. His narrator, Death, has a heart, and he is engrossed with humans and their experiences—“I am haunted by humans.” This adoration for mankind is the crux of the story, and Zusak reiterates in myriad ways throughout the book that life is worth it—or, as he summarizes Death’s perspective in the author interview at the end of the book, “humans are actually worth it”. Life can appear ugly, but viewed from the right angle, it can be revealed to be the most beautiful dream ever dreamed. Death as narrator views the human enigma as “contradictory…so much good, so much evil. Just add water”; and the novel ends with Death’s urge to ask Liesel “how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.” Max’s comment to Liesel after their Christmas celebration echoed this sentiment: “Often I wish this would all be over, Liesel, but then somehow you do something like walk down the basement steps with a snowman in your hands.” This is essentially self-affirmation and saying ‘yes’ to life with its good and bad. It is the author’s profession of faith that the universe, or some greater all-uniting Being, is awake and can see us; and our tales of suffering in this seemingly senseless world can be made lovely. One can hardly disagree that this story seems brighter for all its darkness.

The title of the book is derived from the power of words to do evil or good. Hitler is described as a conductor by Max, a verbal virtuoso whose ‘forest of farmed thoughts’ warp the public mind to hate. Liesel becomes the antitype to the Conductor, the contender against him. She is the Word Shaker who discovers the power of words, and recognizes the Fuhrer’s abuse of them. “There was once a strange, small man…But there was a word shaker too.” Word Shakers can shake words and meanings from the diseased growth of propaganda, and reuse those words to bring healing and peace. Stealing words and repurposing them is exactly what the Book Thief did, figuratively and literally. A book was stolen from the Nazi book-burning and made into a little girl’s happiness and community peace. Hitler’s Mein Kampf is used to smuggle a Jew into hiding, and ultimately becomes the recycled into freedom literature. Words meant for evil were shaken, stolen back, and used for good; and the “souls of words” remained inside Liesel for her use.

The Book Thief is good literature. It transcends the flat genres of fiction/nonfiction. The story is here, and it speaks to us. Only the best literature can speak to us like this, not law (religious or societal), not science, not history. Those are mere records…this is taste, this is touch. It is the transmission of a piece of another’s vision, a rich soul-soaking in another being’s perspective and feelings, which only the most grounded and enriched authors can afford to their readers. And it does not haplessly ricochet off of the ‘real world’ immediately upon leaving the page—it is authentic, it is real. Even God is given a chance to say something, although his presence and mode of communication is only heard perceived with other ears via the voluminous, thick-as-blood silence that stalks the narrator, death.

Okay, now for a shotgun blast of the things I didn’t like. I’ll make this quick:

· The same three epithets in German are only funny to read the first few hundred times.

· Some parts of the narrative felt like Holocaust kitsch. At times it felt like the author was tinkering with weepy sentimentalism and cartoony exaggeration. I take these as reminders that it is youth fiction, and may very accurately depict the regressive mental/emotional state of war time existence (“War clearly blurred the distinction between logic and superstition”). Death at one point admits that he likes Max’s “stupid gallantry”, which might be the author’s feeling towards many of his characters; and I too grew so enamored with the actors that I willingly fell for much of the histrionics, even some parts that were patent romantic sensationalism or morbidity.

· Sometimes his turns of phrases and experimental grammar bombed. For instance: “Living is living.” Fail.

· Liesel’s treatment of the Mayor’s wife, and her pleasure in stealing wasn’t always as cute and tragic as we were supposed to think. She was just being a whiney brat half the time. And not even a crying ghost with a scraped knee made me feel sorry for her in those moments of her sniveling self-pity and selfishness.

· Book thievery and ‘a book to be stolen’ was a dead horse, twice baked, by the end of the first quarter of the book. Too much reveling of the author in his premise.

· Chapter titles were nearly useless along with the subtitled ‘hints’ about what was coming in that chapter. Completely worthless. Real-time/story-time oscillations were often obnoxious.

· Not sure what I think about the interpolated definitions and ‘secrets’ mid-page. Page filler? I suppose it provided meaningful pause at moments, but it became a prop that was mostly ignored.

But the negative minutia was dwarfed to nothingness by the creative, unpredictable ‘music’ of so much of the rest:

· The narrator Death’s constant reassurance that life is more than the body: you are “caked in your own body.”

· Liesel’s heartbreaking dedication to her dead brother.

· Hans’ tender care and “thereness” (Zusak’s word) for Liesel.

· Rosa’s rough manner, but loyal-to-death soul.

· Hans’ stepping out to help a paraded Jew.

· The story of the Standover Man and the raw, childlike genius of its art and principles.

· Han’s accordion.

· The basement snowman, and Max’s title bouts with Hitler.

· The moment Liesel learns from her disheveled and cursing mother that Max woke up.

· Rudy giving the pilot a teddy bear.

· Rosa’s stalwart and often cloaked love.

· Rudy’s audacity and pride in winning the races.

· The festering ‘itch’ of conscience was the best metaphor that I have EVER come across to help explain the creeping moral decadence that eventuated in the Holocaust. “Somewhere, far down, there was an itch in his heart, but he made it a point not to scratch it. He was afraid of what might come leaking out.”

· Word Shaker story and art

· The moment we find out that Ilsa Hermann adopted Liesel.

The readers, like the author in his interview admits of himself, feel like they have left behind friends. The story wasn’t merely an accurate period piece, it was artistic and enchanting. I can see why this is one of the 30 selections for the World Book Night 2012 (see on which booklovers will be able to distribute 20 specially-printed copies of their favorite book (one title) for free in a public location of their choice. The book was well-paced, well-spaced thematically, and kept things interesting with a few twists in narration style including breaks for graphic art. New readers would be hard pressed to put it down, and it would leave them with a sense of how a good book can offer the unique and surreal experience of, not only seeing the world through another person’s eyes, but recognizing a whole new realm of possibilities within their own continuing story.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Phenomenon of Man (Pierre Teilhard de Chardin)

This was great reading in the first and third parts of the book…though the middle almost killed me with its technicality.

In the early 20th century, Pierre Teilhard became a forerunner in integrating evolution with a theistic worldview, but the greatest import of his work was that he took a dead-eye shot at predicting where naturalistic evolution was heading. Advancing beyond mere rosy humanism, Teilhard fervently believed in the eons-long progress of hominization—the coming to being of humanity. He expresses god-like patience by saying, “After all, half a million years, perhaps even a million, were required for life to pass from the pre-hominids to modern man—should we now start wringing our hands because, less than two centuries after glimpsing a higher state, modern man is still at [war] with himself?” This seems to be the real crux of the book. The spiraling paths of progress may not advance much in our lifetime, but the history of life in the universe has shown that progress is all the history of biological development has ever revealed. Speculate rather, how can there NOT be progress…unless life ceases to be altogether? We have no precedent for progress NOT being made in some corner of the universe. And while this development may appear to leave some species behind while focusing on a tiny growing tip of the universe, Teilhard develops the idea early that nothing in the universe is really detached from anything else. If we can accept that proposition, which he spends some time in constructing, then we can accept seeing (or being) an ostensibly forgotten tail, while the rest moves ‘ahead’. Absolutely no pun intended.

Teilhard writes to buttress hope in a ‘secret complicity between the infinite and the infinitesimal to warm, nourish and sustain to the very end…the consciousness that has emerged between the two. It is upon this complicity that we must depend’. Teilhard marvels at this ‘complicity’—what is it that causes objects in space, big and small, to attract to each other? He theorizes somewhat courageously that even the basic attraction of objects in the universe towards each other, to which we apply the name of gravity, is a type of materially evidenced ‘love’. This may sound romantic and completely absurd to our western sensibility, but as Dr. Sten Odenwald, astronomer at NASA's Goddard Spaceflight Center, stated on his website in reply to a question about our knowledge of gravity, “We don't really understand ANYTHING about our physical world at the deepest level, such as why does gravity exist?” Why couldn’t love, enlarged to subsume the law of mutual attraction that binds the universe together, seek also the unification and concord of human spirits? Would that really pose a problem in a cohesive theory of physical/relational life? To assume that love is merely an emotion, and that humanity is so different a phenomenon as the rest of nature, is to miss the mark. Teilhard boldly reasons, “The only universe capable of containing the human person is an irreversibly ‘personalizing’ universe.” And so the universe is, eo ipso, irreversibly personal. Shouldn’t that logically establish that human love has its root in a larger universal principle that has always existed, like everything else, from the beginning, in what Teilhard calls “an obscure and primordial way”?

Teilhard’s conception of an Omega Point of absolute human union (globalized love) is entirely pertinent in our culture of social networking. It represents the acme of human connections: relationship to the nth degree in what he calls the ‘noosphere’ (mind-sphere), a matrix of highly concentrated and involuted communication—or ‘inter-thinking’ as Julian Huxley put it in the intro. Modern globalization may be bringing us closer in the next century to Teilhard’s reckoning quicker than he could have imagined. When he adduced that ‘totalized love’ would be ‘impossible’ to envision by mere rational projection, it suddenly struck me, by all the signs of instant communication and complex social networking, as very possible indeed. Distance doesn’t dilute dreams…only our grasp of them. Once again, doesn’t all human progress signify the eventual emergence (evolution) of a perfect union? “A universal love is not only psychologically possible; it is the only complete and final way in which we are able to love.” This seems to me what we all want, what is woven into our religions and our highest technological/scientific aspirations, and yet some will laugh at it as if it was a silly dream. But nature has taught us to hope.

His views on the awakening human mind and self-awareness were certainly intriguing. I’ve always thought that the idea of a universe ‘groping’ towards consciousness and unified fulfillment through eons of evolutive progress is very romantic. The impression isn’t necessarily that God is waking up through a pantheistic becoming , but that the mind of God is somehow imprinted and bound together with the material/psychical world while extending beyond it (panentheism). The goal of awakening and full being is included in his Omega Point.

I was a little disappointed with the chapter “The Christian Phenomenon”, which seemed to toss his original ideas and intellectual tour de force into the catch-all, domestic doctrines of orthodox Catholicism. It was as if he was offering something truly novel, only to conclude with a unworthy bow, “The Church was right all along.” Uh, bait-and-switch anyone? Of course, knowing the history of Teilhard’s censorship by the church, this contriteness may have been what got the book in print after all. Now, I understand Teilhard’s trying to harmonize the symbolic content of religion with the flat data of science, but I’m pretty sure his work-a-day science did a good enough job paying tribute to his religious beliefs, possibly outstripping them a tad. By his own admission, his ideas weren’t meant to be taken as strictly science, but rather an ‘interiorisation of matter’, even leading some to wonder if he had been leading them “through facts, through metaphysics, or through dreams.” To which I think Teilhard would cheerily reply, ‘Yes.’ Criticizing any claim to pure objectivity he reminds us, “There is less difference than people think between research and adoration.”

I have a feeling that the thoughts and ideas introduced and reinforced by this book will be with me for a while. The more it sits with me, the more it makes a deeper change. As with every book I read, if you would like a copy of a few pages of great lines from the book, send me a message and I’ll get it to you. It’s great fodder for thought and discussion.

Socrates, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus: From The Great Philosophers (Karl Jaspers)

I was really hoping this book would be paradigm-shattering, as the rest of Jaspers stuff is for me. He is so good with analyzing the history of philosophy and placing the modern era on the grid, but this book was kind-of a letdown honestly. I liked some of it, especially his summary and interpretation of the essence of each major figure of religious history, but as short as the book is, I feel he could have probably cut out a few chapters and still have gotten his point across.

The premise of the book is really Jaspers’ appreciation of world religions, despite his own preference for Christianity. He believes all religions, every idea in fact, whether it be ordered by the intellect or painted by the passions, to be a springboard for one’s personal journey, and as such contains truths and practical tools for one’s future progress. “Every idea, every ethos, every faith, even those of the most primitive religions, was a possible preliminary stage, a jumping-off place, indispensable as such, but not a goal.” No one is born without some truth; nor is anyone born into absolute Truth, but must journey towards it and be continually transformed by it. Jasper’s intention in this book is to discover those starting points, and possibly to reveal their ultimate shortcomings. Jesus himself expressed the shortcomings of his own culture’s doctrines, even the shortcomings of doctrine itself. Life and truth in the great teachings were always more than creeds, they were suggestions for one’s personal experience, through which alone one can access truth, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” One author reminds us of this same truth, “[Action] is truth of the will, and therefore truth of the whole being.” Truth cannot be fully expressed doctrinally in any system.

The section on Jesus portrayed him as a prophet of the coming universal Kingdom of God, which Jaspers believes Jesus expected would arrive in his own lifetime. Jesus believed the Kingdom to be so close at hand, he could almost taste it. He had no qualms in urging everyone to prepare for the coming of the Kingdom, and to dash aside all barriers and temptations of the world that would inhibit their participation in it. The societal outcasts and physically/morally ill were foremost in Christ’s focus because “their souls [were already] shaken and ready for the new faith.” Jaspers believes that, though the Kingdom was never manifested physically, the church became the carrier of the dream and the representation of God’s presence and rule.

I cringe to admit that I think some parts of this book felt a little far-fetched. Jaspers makes a point of saying that we can’t trust all traditional accounts of these persons’ lives, but he’s too precise and narrow in what he deems to be authentic, historical accounts. Higher criticism and form criticism certainly have their place in literary evaluation as far as I’m concerned, but we need to be careful not to think we can completely demythologize documents that were written before our lifetime. History, in my estimation, is a discipline that includes drinking some of the bath water to save the baby. We ought to be careful not to be overly dogmatic in our avoidance of dogmatism.

A lot of it was repetitive. The section on Confucius and Buddha dragged like a towed corpse. The author seemed to wrestle to understand, or to get the reader to understand, eastern religious roots. I think he was at least clear in saying that the western mind can hardly come to understand, or appreciate, eastern belief because it does not easily lend itself to rationale dissection. “To participate in the essence of [another religion’s] truth, we should have to cease to be what we are. The difference lies not in rational positions, but in the whole view of life and manner of thinking.” However, there is some value in trying to glean some principles from other religions that may help to explain our own values and/or deficiencies: “The remoteness of [other religions] need not make us forget that we are all men, all facing the same questions of human existence.”

I think the final chapter in which Jaspers synthesized the major teachings of the ‘big four’ was most enlightening. He believed that these key religious figures all had something in common: the attempt to express and demonstrate the unexplainable. “In order to understand them, one must experience some sort of transformation, a rebirth, a new awareness of reality, an illumination.” And their manner in dealing with death inspired confidence in their followers. “[They] looked death so straight in the eye that it lost its significance.” And maybe most importantly, they all had in common “Originality and a life at their own risk.”

Blink (Malcom Gladwell)

First of all, the subtitle. “The power of thinking without thinking.” Not a very honest beginning. It felt very sophomoric, almost slimy, like a ‘get smart quick’ kind of sell. And that completely asinine phrase inside the front flap, “Don’t think—blink!” What do we have here? A ‘28th habit’ to seduce the bourgeois into thinking he can make his enterprise—be it a career, business, or relationship—soar beyond his philistine peers? In other words, yet another leadership book?

Well, I was wrong…or the Little Brown marketing team is a bunch of leadership junkies. The basic principle of Blink is that ‘decisions made very quickly can be every bit as good as decisions made cautiously and deliberately.’ If this sounds like a truism, that’s because it is; but in this our Age of Information, where developed intellectual prowess and academic pursuits are touted as the key to success, influence, and even happiness, the reminder and thorough illustration of the power of raw, instinctual ability that each individual is born with is much needed. Opportunity for cultured talent is available to anybody, in any situation, because each of us is born with a power of mind/body that in some unique way is unparalleled even by the most gifted minds. In the words of Carl Jung, (who used the terms ‘unconscious’ and ‘conscious’ in place of ‘instinct’ and ‘intellect’, respectively) we are each born with a field of unconscious experience and skill that is infinite and unfathomed in our singular and relatively short-lived lives. Gladwell, I think, is really pushing Blink as an egalitarian value and leveler across pedigrees and social privilege. “The power of knowing, in that first two seconds, is not a gift given magically to a fortunate few. It is an ability that we can all cultivate for ourselves…Thin-slicing is not an exotic gift. It is a central part of what it means to be human.”

I learned so much from Gladwell’s breakdown of ‘thin-slicing’, the ability to take a small sample of experience and interpret accurately the meaning of a moment or future results in a few milliseconds of instinctual reflex. It’s actually a fun experiment to think of all the incredible thin-slicers we know that are experts in one form or another—be it the social, mechanical, philosophical, athletic, scientific or artistic realms. Snap-judgment had a bad connotation in my mind before reading this, but now I can dub this reflex ‘thin-slicing’ and embrace the sheer genius of it all. That’s how I roll.

The idea of psychological priming was also so intriguing to me. To think that a mere image or suggestive thought can do so much to determine our reflexive, unconscious responses! This can work in our favor, or against us. Gladwell cites several studies in which the unconscious attitudes of the subjects were incompatible with their stated conscious values. An opportunity to take a quick test in the book confirmed the fear that we are all operating on some measure of sickeningly deficient stereotypes that we fall back on in alarm or haste. However, there is hope. We can’t help it in the moment, but we can help it before the moment by preparation and intentional priming. A simple primed image or word may be enough to condition the brain to be better managed in unplanned moments. “Our first impressions are generated by our experiences and our environment, which means that we can change our first impressions—we can alter the way we thin-slice—by changing the experiences that comprise those impressions.” Even something as seemingly insignificant as voluntary facial expressions can prime our thoughts to become more positive.

This leads to Gladwell’s assertion that spontaneity isn’t random. There are truly times in our lives and endeavors when time is severely limited, and the best decision has to be a quick decision, or opportunities go up in flame. The best choices can be instantaneous, but the difference between a good blink and a bad blink is literally in the past. The present ‘you’ is almost literally the autopilot of the past ‘you’. Don’t over-think that. If the heart rate is over 145 beats per minute, motor skills begin to lock up; and after 175 there is absolute breakdown of mental functioning. What keeps the heart rate down in moments of crisis? Familiarity, vitality, and structure; and all these are fostered before moments of crisis.

The author made a good case against over-verbalizing our thoughts, presuming to be able to explain all of our motives or foreign situations we find ourselves in. Doing so can badly misconstrue what has happened in moments that are incomprehensible to the conscious mind. It is called “verbal overshadowing”, and the only people who are able to successfully describe their motives or ‘blinks’ are the experts that have thoroughly familiarized themselves with a pscho-somatic activity or an experience. Even then the caution stands.

The last half of the book felt repetitive, maybe because I was ‘blinking’ to conclusions, or maybe because it really was repetitive. After all that talk about priming and avoiding creating premature interpretations, surely we wouldn’t expect Gladwell to miss an opportunity to prime us with as many illustrations—‘pictures’—and expert interpretation as he could with the remaining pages! I was a little disappointed that he didn’t lean away from illustration to more strategic instruction in the last half, but I suppose I can personalize it for myself. Overall a really neat book, and inspiring to focus on ways that I can prime and support better reflexive decisions—blinks—in the future.

Letters To a Young Poet (Rainer Rilke)

My motivation for reading this book—the only reason it was ever on my radar—was the impact a single quote from the book made on me. I was researching the subject of the importance of unanswered questions concerning one’s existence, and I purchased the book after I read the following words, “Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart, and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” That was enough…he had me at have.

Rilke’s view of life being “always right” and using the questioning process—not merely to find answers, but to usher him into the wider unknown—is a theme that plays out continually in poetry and philosophy. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed one’s questioning to be a dead-end if it is ‘denatured’ into objective certainty and not personal growth. He believed philosophy to be a pursuit in which an answer may not even be a possible end, “With all this, we gain no knowledge of an object, but our consciousness of being is transformed.” Rilke balanced his life with this tension of question and growth in a profound way, and his adeptness at it must have become an incredible anchor for young people who felt troubled by the discordant questions gnawing inside them.

Two of the larger themes of Letters is coping with one’s sexuality and feelings of aloneness. He believes these features of human development form the axis of much of our thought and emotions, and if we are to progress in our search for identity, our time alone must be befriended. He calls this utter resignation to solitude a ‘pact with aloneness’ by which we may become reconciled to nature and fully realize oneself. This can help to establish freedom from absolute dependence on others so that one can clarify and return to the fundamental roots of their simple needs as a human being.

There is something mortifying about Rilke’s unfazed honesty and point-blank range. I became increasingly apprehensive about what was written on the next page because I wasn’t sure what ideological limb I would lose when I smacked into it. Like this: “Whoever will seriously consider the question of love will find that, as with the question of death, difficult as it is, there is no enlightened answer, no solution, not the hint of a [purely rational] path has yet been found.” Subtly poetic to be sure, but bullets are no less devastating for being wrapped in cotton. The premise of his courage is a paradox: he believes we are “unutterably alone, essentially, especially in the things most intimate and most important to us”, and yet this admission of existential dereliction he finds to be a strength as it is still a choice, and choice is power and significance. He considers his deepest joys to be bound up in the mysterious sorrow of aloneness, and the self-affirmation of courageous being is his victory.

The book is rich with wisdom, though maybe in spots a little too rich. Rilke apparently was a very sensitive plant, a tender poet whose rhapsody of his ‘betrothal to nature’ starts feeling maudlin and downright sleazy (get a room!). At times I even wondered if his boldness masked mere melancholy, or even passivity cloaked as grit. That is to say, could his courageous questioning of life simply be murmured grievances, and whining against hardship? In the end, I didn’t think so, but the question surfaced often while reading the book. It always concerns me when inner peace is touted as inurement to outer conflict. Although this is an improvement over trying to create inner peace by eliminating outer discomfort (that would lead to inner ‘sleep’ instead), inner peace can be best experienced through right conduct in the very heart of strife or woe. I think, in general, this is what Rilke would say as well, although he was vague on this in some parts. To be fair, he did start the Letters with a concession to complexity: “[Works of art] are not as easily understood nor as expressible as people usually would like us to believe. Most happenings are beyond expression; they exist where a word has never intruded…Even the best writers can err in their expressions when they are asked to interpret the faintest of impulses and that which is beyond words… [If you want to write well,] draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.” Smells like a bargain to me: honesty and beauty in lieu of certainty and knowledge.

Traditionally this book has been a gift idea for graduates, but I’m not sure who I’d recommend this book to. I would have loved its style in my college days, but I’m not sure that someone who isn’t a reflective, melancholy, poet-type would be able to keep their lunch down. Rilke, we love you, but let’s keep that lust for life to a romantic-but-not-smutty PG-13, shall we?

“Chris, was it really that bad?”

Chris’ answer:
“Of course not. What are you, some kind of idjut?”

Sidebar: Christopher Hitchens humorously derived the title of one of his books from this same work and called it “Letters To a Young Contrarian.” In an often haughty and even vitriolic tone, he sportingly spews consolation for those young people who are trying to do the right thing, but are feeling discouraged by conflict or pressure to conform. His mockery of his enemies, and his light-hearted deprecation of his own self and his compadres who take themselves too seriously, is the scathing hallmark of his style that is the polar opposite of Rilke’s. Yet, although Hitchens’ book may not be nearly as kind or florid as Rilke’s, it rings as true, and has probably done as much good in the world.

Godric (Frederick Buechner)

Godric was leant to me by a friend, but it sat on the shelf for almost a year awaiting a breach in my perpetual reading list. Recently I was ready to just give it back without reading because I had held on it so long, but an endorsement on the back cover caught my eye literally moments before I handed it back: “From the book’s opening sentence…any sensible reader will be caught in Godric’s grip...” (Peter Prescott, Newsweek). Well, that sounded like a challenge. “Five friends I had, and two of them snakes.” Upon reading that first line I was skewered like a live pig, but squealing thenceforward with delight through the rest of book.

Frederick Buechner truly writes with a masterful literary and poetic quality. It was irreverent, but wonderfully so, for it happened to balance out the sense of histrionic piety throughout other parts of the book. It was hilarious, crude, and beautiful at the same time. Some of the lines made me blush in modesty (“…My bullocks shriveled to beansize in their sack and old One-eye scarce a barnacle’s length clear of my belly and crying a-mercy”). Some lines struck me dumb with awe (“‘Hold fast to Christ,’ I said, and she to me, ‘In Hell, you are the only Christ I have.’”). It is raw and witty (“[He prayed to] a God he must have hoped by then ruled elsewhere than the carcasses of mortal men”). His prose sings (“Why did we weep?...more than anything, I think, we wept for us, and so it is ever with tears. Whatever be their outward cause, within the chancel of the heart it’s we ourselves for whom they finally fall”). He writes like he doesn’t have to work hard at it. It flows too naturally to have been under stylistic duress of any kind, and I imagine this sort of writing would have eventually unraveled had its author been overly cognizant of his own gifting. It pays tribute to its medieval theme (a middle ages saint), yet it speaks with a modern poignancy and timeless relevance.

You have to be vigilant reading this book, especially at first. The meaning of a sentence will suddenly leap and twist mid-sentence to double back on itself with another ending than you anticipated. He brilliantly evades clich├ęs and predictable interpretations of his characters. If you place yourself in the shoes of the much-derided Reginald, Godric’s biographer, you’d get a good feel for how Buechner chafes at conventional interpretations of religion. He does only as much as he has to in order to help the reader understand something, but he leaves some experience raw and undefined, out of the reach of a deconstructing desire to digest the universe and God almighty with it. Buechner is content with not knowing some things, even about God. “He learned that it was Jesu saved him from the sea, though saved him why, or saved for what deep end he did not learn, nor has he learned it to this day.”

The foibles of his saint, Godric, comes with its medieval share of disgusting habits, a mystical view of nature and religion, slavish self-flagellation, inflation of God’s wrath, deflation of his mercy, and a devaluation of self as a parasite that God tolerates. In worshipful moments Godric slithers and moans like a man who has not yet learned that if a creature can out-moral his God, then by all appearances at least he has bested his God in the only way that counts. The saint cowers because he has not yet realized that if God need defend his belt against us, then we must be formidable challengers indeed. Thus it is pride and not humility that envisions God as monster, and we the despised worms between his toes over which he glowers in greed for his breath back. I for one want no god who suffers my existence merely to pave his roads and bejewel his throne by my praise and groveling adoration. Such a god would be in greater need of my charity, than I his.

There are some truly tragic moments in this story (spoiler alert!). I hate that Godric left De Granville’s pre-pubescent wife to suffer the shame and torment of De Granville’s cruelty. I hate that his friend Mouse died without knowing how much Godric cared. I hate that Godric’s brother was so desperate for a soul-tether, but drowned while searching in the night for his sister. I hate how Godric and his sister fell in love with each other, but were doomed to never find social acceptance of their relationship. But I hated with the author, because I loved with him his story, and his characters.

Clearly Buechner loves the tragic-heroic story of humanity, as dark as it is in some places. But ‘from the slime all gods have risen’, and the author’s celebration of the triumph of love and truth shines through the blackest shadows of human history. He loves mankind for what he is—sexual, sinful, self-punishing, dirty, smelly, starving for a laugh, drowning in his tears. And he loves mankind for what he can be: “As a man dies many times before he’s dead, so does he wend from birth to birth until, by grace, he comes alive at last.” Make no mistake, Godric may have been written as a period piece, but it is reflective of Buechner’s own beliefs. With all of Godric’s flaws, he is still honest, a character trait quite possibly prized by Buechner above every other value except courage and faith.

I have one question that remains after my first bump into Buechner: have I discovered a living Lewis? Methinks so.

How To Survive The End Of the World As We Know It (James Rawles)

I saw this sitting on a center stand at the library, and thought it might be interesting. Rawles is a survivalist expert, former U.S. Army Intelligence officer, founder/editor of, and a preparedness consultant for some very wealthy clients. That alone told me that this book was no joke. Rawles does lean towards the stereotype of a cultish doomsday prophet, but he seriously knows his stuff, and if you can avoid being sucked down the eddy of fear-mongering and what sometimes feels like an apocalypse- obsession, you might actually learn a thing or two about how to take care of your family during an electrical ‘grid-down’, economic depression, oil/gas shortage, or some other disaster scenario.

Rawles begins the book with a description of possible dystopian vignettes that I found to be very persuasive. He refers to the ‘thin veneer of civilization’ which, when peeled back, will reveal desperate hordes of people, reduced to animal instinct, who would be ready to do whatever it takes to survive and provide for their families. What would you do to feed your starving child? What would you do not to live with your neighborhood’s sewage pouring into your home? What would you do to make sure your family doesn’t freeze in the night, or die a long and agonizing death at the ravages of some simple virus that a small dose of antibiotics would cure? That’s enough to scare many people into barbaric acts and a lifestyle unconscionable in scope (not to mention acts quite possibly unconscious in intent since the only way to perpetuate some crimes is to repress them as far as possible from consciousness and debilitating guilt). For real examples in America, read some stories from the Katrina/New Orleans disaster. It seems clear to me: if a grid-down occurs for a long enough period of time, we are all pretty much S.O.L. without a good plan.

Now, let this be said, this book is close to an exhaustive list of considerations for the survivalist, and by no means can be followed assiduously except by the very wealthy, very retired, and I would add, very obsessive personalities. Swallowed whole, which is not necessarily how the author intended this book to be read, it is utterly impractical and unrealistic for moderate-income households and relatively busy lives. The value-restructuring that would be necessary to prepare fully as the author advises, even in his ‘Plan B’ recommendations, would implode family/relationship time and any sort of a positive outlook on life. We’re talking about stockpiling 20 years of vitamin fortified, diet-balanced food in underground vaults, camouflaged campers, behind rows of books in the home, buried in decoy packing boxes in the basement, hidden inside a gutted couch—and meticulously rotating out that food when its shelf life is exhausted. That’s just the beginning: chainsaw with all safety gear, earth-tone wardrobe, all forms of fuel, several vehicles, a small arsenal, home alarms, lighting, filtering and safe rooms/vaults. There’s even directions on how to dispose of dead bodies (gloves/goggles/apron, double wrap the body in garbage bags, and…bury in the backyard AWAY from the water). You’d seriously have to lead a double-life (double-boring!!) to make this all work.

My point is—this shouldn’t be used as survivalist manual as much as a guide. You simply can’t start reading this thinking that you can do it all— not only is it impossible for most people, but it would also be a mind-blowing waste of life…even if ‘grid-down’ comes sooner than expected. The emotional/relational/ temporal capital required to stage a ‘back-up life’ would quickly drain a person’s recourses, health and present happiness. No sense in wasting good times in order to survive the bad times. A bit of good planning and prudent choices would be enough to save this book from hysteria, but anything more than that might turn you into a troll.

I was, however, convinced of a few needs. 1) A handgun. If things get bad, I believe the risk of looting and assault will increase as a very real possibility. I think it is imperative that every home have some means of defense that is enough to stop a big body cold in its tracks, be it beast or man. Theoretically, and philosophically, I can shoot and not feel bad. I could even wish an attacker well in the next life, but I believe in a sturdy defense in this life for myself and my family. 2) Water sourcing skills and water filter. 3) First aid kit with antibiotics. 4) Tool kit with bolt-cutters and duct tape. 5) Salt lick to draw animals. Experts say it’s absurdly-easy hunting.

Even while Rawles doles out end-of-the-world exhortations, he interestingly enough includes charity clauses, and even ends his book with an altruistic reminder to “give charitably”. He believes in ‘covenant community’ as a synergistic survival tactic—more specifically multi-family co-ops, as a small community coalition is more sustainable at the outset. Beyond even a utilitarian view of generosity, he believes in sharing as a means to maintaining spiritual health and ultimately beefing up one’s credit with God. His credence in eternal rewards and the virtue of love is almost enough, in my mind, to make me think more kindly on his habit of swinging manically on the cord of the village bell screeching “We’re all gonna die!” There might also be a mini savior-complex going on here; but if things go to hell, I for one wouldn’t be afraid to ask him for help. And who knows, I might even bow to him if he asked nicely. We’ll see. I’ll play it by ear.

One of the best pieces of information I gathered was on the subject of emergency preparedness on a tight budget. Check out the link on

Population density maps for ideal retreats:

Breathe, You Are Alive (Thich Nhat Han)

This book was really just a follow up to the more detailed and complete "The Heart Of the Buddha's Teaching" by the same author. This book delved into to meaning of the Sutra On the Full Awareness Of Breathing attributed to Buddha. It gives the sutra, and offers some commentary, although the commentary was predictable and didn't reveal much beneath the surface of the meditative words. Below is the complete Sutra, with minor paraphrastic revisions. I have since committed it to memory and have used it many times in meditation and breathing exercises.

1.Breathing in a long breath, I know, “I am breathing in a long breath.” Breathing out a long breath, I know, “I am breathing out a long breath.”
2.Breathing in a short breath, I know, “I am breathing in a short breath.” Breathing out a short breath, I know, “I am breathing out a short breath.”
3.I am breathing in and am aware of my whole body. I am breathing out and am aware of my whole body.
4.I am breathing in and making my whole body calm and at peace. I am breathing out and making my whole body calm and at peace.

1.I am breathing in and feeling joyful. I am breathing out and feeling joyful.
2.I am breathing in and feeling happy. I am breathing out and feeling happy.
3.I am breathing in and am aware of my thoughts and feelings. I am breathing out and am aware of my thoughts and feelings.
4.I am breathing in and making my thoughts and feelings calm and at peace. I am breathing out and making my thoughts and feelings calm and at peace.

1.I am breathing in and am aware of my mind [consciousness]. I am breathing out and am aware of my mind.
2.I am breathing in and making my mind happy and at peace. I am breathing out and making my mind happy and at peace.
3.I am breathing in and concentrating my mind [in the present]. I am breathing out and concentrating my mind.
4.I am breathing in and liberating my mind. I am breathing out and liberating my mind.

1.I am breathing in and observing the impermanent nature of all dharmas [phenomena and desires]. I am breathing out and observing the impermanent nature of all dharmas.
2.I am breathing in and observing the fading of all dharmas. I am breathing out and observing the fading of all dharmas.
3.I am breathing in and liberating my mind. I am breathing out and liberating my mind.
4.I am breathing in and letting go. I am breathing out and letting go.