Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Barack Obama - A 'Transformational' Figure?

When former Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama for president recently, he referred to him as a "transformational figure." By lending support to Obama, the former General becomes the latest in a long line of well-respected national figures to throw their lot in with the young Senator from Illinois.

Of course anything can happen, but at the moment, with just a few days remaining until the election, Barack Obama appears to have made the personal transformation from long shot wunderkind and political rock star to full-fledged, viable candidate for Guardian of the Dream.

Barack Obama has plainly revealed to his detractors that he is possessed of the kind of political sensibilities and personal gravitas one would expect of a true leader. Even though many no doubt disagree with a number of his stated positions on important issues, the most pressing need this time around is for a person with the ability to inspire, to reclaim the respect of foreign governments, and to re-state America's moral authority among the community of nations. Mr. Obama possesses these credentials.

Challenges for the next president - whoever he is - will demand transformations of another kind. Division, fear, and alienation need transforming into unity, hope, and belonging; arrogance, unilateralism, and mistrust need transforming into humility, collaboration, and confidence. However austere the convictions of the next Commander-in-Chief, they must be expressed with a calm and reassuring demeanor, not the shoot-from-the-hip, take-no-prisoners-or-if-you-do-torture-them approach that has done this country so much disservice the last eight years.

Disabling extremist political elements in countries like Iran, North Korea or Pakistan will only be achieved by removing their primary basis for legitimacy: the aggressive and threatening posture of a misguided U.S. foreign policy. Each of these countries, Iran in particular, is populated by masses wanting to see improved relations with the United States. A departure from the outgoing administration's confrontational policies is plainly called for. Barack Obama understands this need.

Thus, my 20-year political love affair with Ralph Nader is coming to an end. It was a good run. As for the growing allure of the Green Party, I want to make certain we at least take a first step in the right direction with a sensitive liberal and promising pragmatist like Mr. Obama.

The closer this political season gets to its day of reckoning, the clearer the message becomes: Barack Obama is ready to lead - and poised to transform.

Friday, October 24, 2008

A Quote From Thomas Fuller On Forgiveness

Thomas Fuller (1608-1661)
English Clergyman and Historian

"He that cannot forgive others
breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself;
for every man has need to be forgiven."
~ Thomas Fuller

A Few Thoughts:

Nothing demands as much, nor rewards so completely, as forgiveness. In its purest form, the act of forgiving requires the ego to suspend its need to prevail. A profound selflessness is at the core of the perfect offering of forgiveness.

Is it any wonder finding forgiveness is so often such a difficult thing to do? Our very pride must be supplanted by humility before an honest attempt at forgiving can even be made. But like most demanding commodities, the more we employ them, the easier they become to enlist.

Offering an apology is often the least threatening way of soliciting forgiveness. Lending apology and forgiveness so often invites reciprocation in kind. How often does it come to pass after saying to someone, "I'm sorry. It was all my fault," are we met with, "No. no. I'm the one who should be sorry. It was all my fault." The healing is instantaneous and comprehensive. The fleeting yet genuine intimacy that is achieved provides a nearly transcendent moment of mutual harmony.

As one who is in need of much forgiveness, I am taking the wise words of Thomas Fuller to heart and using them to challenge my more intransigent nature and become a more forgiving person.

If only sublimating one's pride weren't such a formidable task.

Monday, October 20, 2008

A Brief 'Trek' Through the Abortion Debate

In one episode of Star Trek The Next Generation, the creative trustees of the Gene Roddenberry vision gently yet imaginatively tackle the issue of abortion. The tact it assumes is a sensitive if predictable one.

In The Child (Season 2, Episode 1) Counselor Deanna Troi has become pregnant but not the old fashioned way. An alien life force in the form of a glowing speck of light engages Deanna in a brief, futuristic kind of intimacy while she is asleep and suddenly she is nurturing a new life within. Owing to the inexplicable nature of her pregnant condition, Captain Picard calls for a conference of senior officers to consider the situation.

As he always does, the Captain carefully listens to the comments of each of his underlings. Worf, the Klingon security administrator, not surprisingly advocates strongly for termination of the pregnancy citing, as one might expect, the security concerns of the Enterprise and its crew. After everyone has had his say, Deanna makes the pronouncement, "Do what you must to protect the ship, but know this: I am having this baby." Acknowledging that the decision is ultimately hers to make, the Captain adjourns the gathering saying, "It would appear, then, that this meeting is over."

Thus, in one succinct exchange, a very enlightened solution appears to have been made. The principle of choice is upheld, and Deanna's decision adheres to what the Roddenberry vision demands: the near-absolute respect for all living creatures. The question is, which part of this scenario is meant to prevail, the principle of choice or the affirmation of life?

Not to be lost in this dilemma is another of this episode's wider considerations. Ian, the young alien offspring who wondrously attains mid-childhood age in only a few short days, is the mysterious source of radiation that is allowing a plasma plague to endanger the lives of those on board. When the young boy realizes this, he sacrifices his human self in order to save everyone on the Enterprise, then reverts to his original light-beam state and disappears.

Not surprisingly, the powerful ideal of affirming life whenever possible seems to be the overriding Roddenberry message, and yet he does not shrink from symbolically depicting the complex nature of the entire pro-choice/pro-life debate.

In a clever sort of duality, there is something for each side of the debate in this well-crafted morality play. Maybe it's precisely what Gene Roddenberry had in mind.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

A Quote from Sigmund Freud

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)
Austrian Psychiatrist and "Father" of Psychoanalysis

"When man is freed of religion,
he has a better chance to live a normal and wholesome life."
~ Sigmund Freud

A Few Thoughts:

•My own experience allows me a slight variation on this quote as a personal expression: Since being free of religion, I have lived a more normal and wholesome life.

•Freud's psychological explanation for God and religion is uncomplicated: Owing to feelings of helplessness and guilt, the need for security and forgiveness arises, so people invent for themselves an entity that will provide precisely those things. - Philosophy of Sigmund Freud - Religion As Wish Fulfillment - In short, religion is seen as "childish delusion," and atheism as "grown-up realism."

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Understanding the Coulter Culture - Take 2

In his recent post, Hate Talk In America, the very enjoyable questionsaboutfaith reminds us just how resistant the malevolently repugnant Ann Coulter still is to the forces of civility and reason. By insidious design, she has most of us right where she wants us - talking about her. For Ms. Coulter there simply is no such thing as bad publicity. Indeed, she gets much more mileage out of her disagreeable critics than she does her own like-minded minions.

The utter irascibility Ann Coulter is famous for has made her wealthy beyond avarice. This despite having to endure more frequent questions about her extreme brand of conservatism, offensive methods, and intellectual integrity.

Apparently, we are still missing a big piece of the Ann Coulter puzzle. She often takes a stand contrary to that of her inquisitors out of a sense of compulsion. So averse is she to the prospect of appearing moderate or even nuanced in her positions, she will not hesitate to propose the incendiary just to maintain a sense of hostility. I'm no shrink, but this smacks of personality disorder.

In an earlier post, Understanding the Coulter Culture, I proposed that Ms. Coulter was little more than a showman obsessed by the need for controversy and self-promotion. These traits, while largely remaining her motivation, now seem more like symptoms of a subtle psychological disturbance rather than anything orderly or healthful.

That Ms. Coulter's mental equilibrium might be slightly askew offers some explanation for her preposterous utterances. But what are we to make of the masses who revel in her bombastic rhetoric? She appears to have become the David Koresh of the Coulter Cult providing sanctuary for the caustically conservative, politically impressionable, and ideologically irredeemable.

As for those who continually provide Ann Coulter the venues for her so-called political analysis, they should be the ones leading all of us to the next meeting of Enablers Anonymous. I'll even make the coffee. And one by one we can each give testimony as to why we are helpless against the addiction of facilitation when it comes to providing Ann Coulter with her own insatiable craving - an audience.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Could I Have Been Wrong All Along?

Will wonders ever cease? Recent events have necessitated something quite unpleasant: my contemplating the notion that I could - yes, actually could - be wrong about something! Not an easy thing for an arrogant, smug-mug like myself to swallow.

In truth, the question, "Could I have been wrong all along?" begs another maybe-not-so-simple question, that being: "About what, specifically?" In all candor, I am fully prepared to accede in some respects, but defend in others.

It seems I have not fully appreciated a few crude realities about certain aspects of life. One of them being that most people in their seventies and eighties come from a generation that persistently resorts to the practice of internalizing that which today's more enlightened perspective strongly suggests they not internalize - things like mental illness, abuse, the far-reaching effects of alcoholism, and sordid, emotional family dynamics to name just a few.

The internalizing of these phenomena predictably causes serious problems in maintaining relationships. Its effects are usually so profound the only wise course of action is the intervention of mental health professionals. But today's more aged generation is often mistrusting of this "new" way of coping, opting instead to keep it all bottled up and turn to things like God and religion - or worse.

It has been proposed to me that this is not only a viable solution, but the only solution many older people will consider. And for that reason, making an appeal to one that he or she "get help" becomes an act of futility, especially when the appeal is coming from someone whose worldview is diametrically opposed to that of the person so in need of help. The glaring lack of any foundation built upon trust - owing to these conflicting worldviews - virtually disqualifies that person from being the best candidate to even attempt such a thing. In fact, to my short-sighted amazement, it apparently can cause a lot of pain.

As I mentioned to the person who made me aware of this, I can buy this way of thinking so long as it is not packaged and sold as a sort of better informed or higher kind of reasoning. On the contrary, it represents a total capitulation to a solution that is far from ideal.

And what about the consequences? We can't forget those. The consequences of this internalizing option has serious drawbacks. Among them the continued absence of any intimacy and love being shared between this victim and her family. Whereas, the getting help option offers what may be the best hope for a life consisting of at least a smattering of love and happiness. My antagonists, here, seem perfectly willing to accept that my mother live on without these benefits. It is a very sad and imperfect choice, to say the least.

So, to the argument that I am not the one to be making these appeals to my mother, fine - point well taken. Why, then, don't any of the other principals try to make the case? For two reasons. First, none of them have cultivated any trust with her either. And second, they have convinced themselves that their option is by far the least objectionable of the two.

Is it possible that some lingering anger over perceptions of having been misparented are providing at least some of my motivation? Absolutely. To deny this would be dishonest. It is categorically untrue, however, that I am attempting to impose my personal belief system on my mother. Her revulsion toward my skeptical philosophy speaks much more to her intolerance than it does anything else.

It suddenly occurs to me that I am not really admitting to being wrong about very much here, am I? Well, fuck it! I tried. I can't help it - I'm just an imperious little bastard whose arrogance knows no bounds and whose impertinence is quickly approaching legendary status!

So much for this exercise in humility.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Quote from Edwin Markham

Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
Modern American Poet

"For all your days be prepared, and meet them ever alike.
When you are the anvil, bear - when you are the hammer, strike."
~ Edwin Markham

A Few Thoughts:

It seems I had heard the expression, "When you are the anvil, bear - when you are the hammer, strike." What I wasn't aware of was that it was part of a more complete and rhyming quotation. Nor was I aware it was attributable to Edwin Markham, who is also new to me.

There were a number of lawyers in my family, and my dad would tell me how they lived by this expression as a sort of dictum in their legal practice. It was the only context I was aware of for a long time. I can see how it would apply to life in general, but that second part has a surgical feel to it, sort of terse and impersonal.

Maybe it takes a certain personality to live by this piece of advice, and I'm not at all certain I have it.

I thought I'd start a new feature on my blog, presenting interesting quotes from time to time that may seem to have a broad appeal. Hope you enjoy.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Unappealing, Uninspiring, Unenlightened

Like most journeys of self-discovery, mine began as a solitary endeavor. Long before I had ever heard of Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens and God Is Not Great, or Sam Harris and The End of Faith, I was well on my way toward repudiating my earlier life and inaugurating a wonderful new kind of day for celebration, the Feast of the Renunciation.

It was important to me that I formally recognize my emancipation from religious preoccupation. It was a day worth commemorating. The stultifying weight of superstition, dogma and nonsensical thoughts being lifted from my overburdened shoulders provided so much relief, quantifying its soothing effect on my emotional well-being is difficult to do.

It took as long as it did for me to begin this journey of liberation because I was virtually set upon by my religious handlers for so long, and because religious indoctrination as a child - when done with the perverse efficiency it usually is - has a way of enduring both time and challenge.

The simple act of freely expressing my thoughts here on a lonely blog has provided immeasurable comfort as well as an increasing sense of belonging as I continue to find other well-rounded, free-thinking bloggers. To my pleasant surprise, the few religious people who have seen fit to comment have been quite palatable. It is my very intention to engage people of faith to propose to them that we celebrate what it is we have in common: our humanity and, hopefully, our love of life. Sometimes it seems to work; other times I am gently pelted with reasons why it can't work.

Three basic qualities about my former life of relative religiosity come to mind when I consider how empty it had become: unappealing; uninspiring; and unenlightened.

  • First, it was unappealing to me because of its innumerable and incessant self-righteous affirmations, as well as its exclusionary tendencies. Dissent of any kind as to things substantive was not tolerated and left one with feelings of impertinence. Further, people who did not openly affirm their status as god-fearing creatures were not only socially alienated, but also told directly that their destinies were irredeemable. Very unappealing.

  • Second, it was uninspiring to me because for all its attestations of wonder and magnificence emanating from a so-called god, it paled in comparison to the awe-inspiring sensations I would experience when contemplating the transcendent splendor of nature itself. The process of man's discovering and understanding things previously held to be mysterious was amazing enough in and of itself. Attributing all knowledge and understanding to a higher power was taking something very precious away from us: our natural thirst to achieve for ourselves that which lends to us the very knowledge and understanding we seek.

  • And finally, it was unenlightened to me because propagating its core tenets was fueling so much hatred and disharmony in the world. We've got a couple of missing office towers in New York that speak to this very issue rather poignantly. Even moderate religious views were becoming more and more distasteful to me because, in practice, they unfailingly abdicated the ultimate responsibility of securing our own stations in life, as well as our destinies, to an entity other than ourselves. This is all to say nothing of just how unenlightened it plainly is to believe that morality is necessarily derived from a supernatural source. Further, any worldview that nominates religion as its guiding structure is simply ill-equipped to handle the challenges presented by a society based on diversity and pluralism.

Yes, it took a while, but I eventually found myself crafting an outlook on life that required three very different qualities. It had to be appealing, inspiring, and enlightened.

My old life was ever so close - yet ever so far away.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Remembering a Religious Friend

Lives Lived Well and the Lessons That They Teach
The following was published in the New York Times, January 2, 2000:


PAUL T. LAFFIN was a product of a Hartford family renowned for its advocacy for the sick and distressed. His siblings included two nurses, a health care worker and a director of a group home.

Mr. Laffin worked for a time as a psychiatric technician at Hartford Hospital after graduating from Merrimack College. But a decade ago, he switched to something closer to his heart. He joined the staff of St. Elizabeth Center, a shelter for the homeless on Main Street, eventually becoming its associate director. He was known both for the zest he brought to the job and his nonjudgmental attitude toward the people who lived there.

''He cared about people,'' said Sister Patricia McKeon, executive director of Mercy Housing and Shelter Group, the parent organization for the shelter. ''He really cared, and he went the extra mile for them. They weren't just numbers.''

Mr. Laffin, 42, died on Sept. 20 (1999) on a street near the homeless shelter as a result of a random attack by a mentally ill man who had been hospitalized three times in psychiatric wards for threatening people.

Remembering Paul Laffin

It's been almost nine years since my childhood friend Paul Laffin met his much-lamented demise. Paul came from a very religious family, one which on the surface didn't appear to be burdened with much dysfunction - unlike my own religious family. His mother and father were virtual icons in the local Catholic church, involving themselves in a number of other-than-Sunday activities.

Paul and I began our obligatory Catholic education in the second grade at St. Peter's School, which was located right next door to the very place Paul would find himself employed many years later, the St. Elizabeth Shelter for the Homeless. In real distance, his journey only took him a few feet, but in a much more meaningful way, it took him right to the end of his life.

To be honest, Paul and I were little more than a couple of child-hooligans in the second grade. As an example, for no other reason than the fact that we were allowed to return to class twenty minutes later than everyone else, we often attended Mass at noon in the church next door. We did little else than trade baseball cards and shoot spitballs from the back pews, yet we were always greeted warmly upon our return to class because we were considered so devoted for attending Mass on such a regular basis. There's no other way to put it. We were engaged in naked, religious fraud, pure and simple.

Our propensity for hijinks usually extended right up until the closing prayer of the day. With Paul seated in the first desk by the window and I seated in the first desk by the door, we would often glare at each other from across the room in a duel-to-the-death staring contest during the recitation. One afternoon, I got the better of Paul when right after the opening few words of the Act of Contrition, our contest suddenly ended with Paul flailing his arms up in the air, keeling over at the waist, and bursting out loud in uncontrollable laughter. I can still recall the nun who led us in prayer that day pinching Paul by the tip of the ear, whisking him toward the door and saying to him, "You find something funny about the Act of Contrition, Mr. Laffin? Maybe you can go down to the Principal's office and tell him just what that would be." How I contained myself as Paul was ushered past me, his head tilted sideways, I'll never know.

Paul and I shared something else unusual. We each lost a sibling to suicide; I, an older brother named Stephen, and he, a younger sister named Mary. Mary had the face of an angel and a personality to match. That she would find herself so conflicted she would resort to self destruction defied all logic. It was plain that the demon of despair was an equal opportunity destroyer of lives. And as difficult as this is to admit, I often wondered whether the extremely religious environment she was brought up in had anything to do with her demise. It hurts to even suggest it, but I know what pressures can be brought to bear by religiously overzealous parents. (As I mentioned in my earlier post, Recalling a Brother's Suicide, I believe this very influence was a major factor in my brother Stephen's last desperate act.)

Paul was a very religious person, but in a private and casual sort of way. It was his humanity that was most evident at any given moment. Years ago, I would occasionally run into him at the corner pub where Paul liked to go after working his usual second shift as a psychiatric technician at Hartford Hospital. After listening to some of the stories he would tell me, I understood completely why he often needed to imbibe after work. "Those people are crazy!" Paul once said to me. "They're in a tough way aren't they, Paul?" I replied, attempting to dole out a little empathy for him and those whom he cared for. Paul's response, "No. Not the patients. The staff! They're crazy!" Conversations without laughter were not possible with Paul Laffin. His sense of humor was both infectious and relentless. Often just the look on his face was more than enough to get me started.

I'm certain Paul would have remained a friend to me if he were with us today despite my divergent path as regards religious faith. He certainly seemed to be the kind of person who understood that it is the quest for truth that is important, not any arrogantly self-assured notion that one person could be in total possession of it. Celebrating that which we had in common - our humanity - would have been more than enough to sustain our friendship.

We miss you, Paul. Thanks for that laugh in the second grade at St. Peter's, and thanks for all the wonderful work you did at St. Elizabeth's.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

"Egregiously" Aggrieved

The devil visited a lawyer's office and made him an offer. "I can arrange some things for you, " the devil said. "I'll increase your income five-fold. Your partners will love you; your clients will respect you; you'll have four months of vacation each year and live to be a hundred. All I require in return is that your wife's soul, your children's souls, and their children's souls rot in hell for eternity."The lawyer thought for a moment. "What's the catch?" he asked.

Lawyers. Why is it everybody hates them until they need one? Well, for a lot of reasons, but we won't go into them right now. My father was a lawyer; my uncle was a lawyer; I have a brother who is a lawyer; I even had an aunt who was a nun and had a law degree! They all had a few things in common. They were bright, articulate, of even temperament, and - they loved the word "egregious."

Once while playing golf with my lawyer brother, he missed a short birdie putt and proceeded to put the blame on me saying, "You know, I would have made that putt if you hadn't so egregiously stepped in my line." Somehow, the normally forgivable offense of stepping in your opponent's line was, by virtue of its being so egregious, elevated to the status of "crime against nature."

What is it about the word "egregious" that appeals to the literary arsenal of lawyers? For one thing, lawyers are in the business of advocacy, which is just a fancy way of saying that they have to argue for the positions of their clients whether they believe in them or not. And the word "egregious" comes in handy for just that purpose.

The dictionary ascribes definitions for the word "egregious" that include "conspicuously offensive," "flagrant" and "extraordinary in a bad way." Thus, this word is nearly perfect for the purpose of attacking the credibility of one's opponent, because it proposes that one's client is so severely aggrieved, believing the other side's point of view would defy reason. And what better way to colour an argument than to suggest an opponent's unreasonableness.

This devious trick also comes in very handy in ideological arguments. Looking back, I've noticed it is not beyond my own methods to employ this tactic - and this word. Its main function is simply to disgracefully beg my own point of view regardless of where the substance of my arguments lie. It reminds me of the following variation on a famous legal axiom: "If the law is on your side, argue the law; if the facts are on your side, argue the facts; if neither the law nor the facts are on your side, stand up on the table and shout!" Sprinkling one's argument with the word "egregious" and its variations is usually nothing more than one's way of standing on the table and shouting. It is very useful for deflecting attention away from the weakness of one's point of view.

But don't ask me to give up using this word. It works like no other. And even though there are a million reasons not to aspire to being one, it makes me sound a little like a lawyer.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go wash the dishes. They would have been done had my daughter not so egregiously dismissed my request to do them an hour ago!