Saturday, July 09, 2016


Considering how to design meaningful ceremonies that hope to invite the Sacred is not so much a matter of knowing things as admitting that there is so much we — you and I — don’t know, and —even more worrying — don’t know that we don’t know.  Our body does much unconsciously, edits the incoming sensory code drastically, organizes the brain in selective ways chosen in infancy, and supplies cover stories that keep us from access to raw code.  

Much of learning art is figuring out how to get at whatever the body is not picking up on, actively hiding.  Art’s work is revelation.  But if everything that comes to the senses had to be considered, we’d soon be paralyzed — overwhelmed.  And indeed people who have damage to their internal editing process are living demonstrations.  Stunned.

Institutions, hegemonies, families and society in general are also invested in keeping each of us focused on their interests.  I’m always a little startled when I make some kind of generalization, maybe tentatively, that is immediately seized upon and used for institutional evidence and endorsement.  If I write an indictment of Christianity, some Christian is bound to read it as endorsement. 

It means that much of what I call “running the writing through the wringer” is an attempt to prevent misinterpretation.  Families are particularly prone to looking at their members through stereotypes, either those of the bad seed — the assigned villain — or those of the little genius who is not and doesn’t want to be.  If one’s own family doesn’t think one is real, who can?

Harlow's monkey experiment

Bowlby studied children who were hospitalized without their mothers or whose mothers simply abandoned them for a period of time.  At first the little ones roared with protest, made their displeasure known any way they could.  Then they despaired and sank into depression for a while.  The third stage was that they seemed never to have had any problem.  They were just indifferent and went on with life.  But if, after a while, the mother came back, the child did not welcome her, didn’t seem to recognize her.  In fact, rejection was total and deep.  To the mother it felt like punishment.  To the child it felt like preventing anything so painful happening again.

This same sequence can happen with society.  We’re in the roaring smashing stage in parts of the cities right now.  Clearly some politicians are in denial, simply making declarations of the truth of what they wish really WERE true.  Across suburbia and in small towns, the people go right on mowing the lawn and loading the dishwasher as though nothing has changed.  If the daughter is pregnant or the son is gay, throw them out.  Declare they don’t exist.

Sadly, if a child blocks affection, interaction, encouragement and comforting for fear of pain and more rejection, that child’s development can be severely distorted, close to the point of psychosis or at least sociopathy.  The hope is that contact with the Sacred can break through that shell, re-associate the dissociation, and lend the courage to trust or at least test.  But that’s another of the grandiose narcissisms so typical of humans.

The problem is fatal when the dissociation is so severe and seductive that the only safe place is death.  If the cause is “only” neglect or severe discipline, that doesn’t come close to the catastrophic damage of torture, atrocious bodily invasion, culture collapse.  We do not like to think the worst happens to the least deserving.

What many people think is safety is simply conformity.  There are ceremonies and in conventional society — if you don’t think about them or challenge them, they mostly work — if the society is not too confused or dangerous.  But forming little gated bubbles is a great temptation for pockets of like-minded people and doing that both corrodes larger alliances for economic and defensive institutions and limits the evolution of the people in those guarded places.  By pushing out anyone who seems dangerously different, they make themselves targets and psychologically justify the predatory behavior of the outsiders.

Conformity for the sake of safety is a kind of blindness, a paralysis, and it is “fractal” in the sense that guarded anxious people create the same pattern in their family dynamics and those add up to whole communities that are “stuck” and xenophobic, not to say racist.  What was patriotism becomes jingoism, reducing icons of unity like flags and statues to focal points for resentment.  The Sacred evaporates.

It is replaced by greed and profit.  Damaged kids make great little money-makers, either directly (errand runners for drug and gambling criminals) or indirectly through the funding in the institutional response to disorder (prisons and policing).  Of course, they are natural commodities for trafficking.  

HIV, hepatitis, and tuberculosis — plus violence — keep the kids enervated and powerless, so they plug the pharma industry into the system and die before they can form alliances.  Media machines are divided between flogging fear because it sells and converting real virtue into Disneyland ride tickets.

In the face of all that, imprinting and attachment still happen, still make entrance points for change and caring right in the middle of thieves and rapists, racketeers and bribed politicians.  Mutation and evolution happen right in the middle of war and tragedy.  Survival happens.

Not every person is corrupt and selfish.  Many social groups and individuals still manage to raise healthy children and to reach out to the suffering.  Empathy educates us all.  Our mammal hearts are warm.  It has been the secret of the persistence of our kind for aeons.  

The fall of the Roman Empire has been on our minds for quite a while and Jared Diamond has explained vividly how some civilizations thrive and others collapse — mostly a matter of resources rather than virtue.  But now we have the fossils of two hundred rough drafts of hominins and near-humans, mostly their teeth and brain-cases.  They bite.  We should not deny and reject them.  

When I saw that an academic paper was entitled “F**k Jared Diamond,” and by now has followers and even a YouTube video, I laughed.  Now I suppose I’m going to have to sort through it all to see what it means.  It won’t be anything Sacred.   But who knows.  Maybe it will be real.

As a shortcut, I watched the YouTube rant.  It seems a Native American wants to indict Europe for its atrocities in America and uses China as contrast -- blocking out the Black Plague from Asia that decimated Europe and ignoring Genghis Khan.  The irony is that Diamond's main occupation has been focussed on songbirds in New Guinea, not even Chinese bird flu which occasionally sweeps the world.

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