Tuesday, December 13, 2011

True Intelligence is Imagination, or Why neither 'Liberal' nor 'Conservative' is a dirty word

Two of my favorite quotes from Albert Einstein:

"The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination."

"We can't solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them."

I'm a fan of pragmatism, but also of imagination. Flannery O'Connor said, "Fiction is after truth." We dream our way into the future, and hearts are rarely changed through cold logic but through the power of NARRATIVE (story), which touches the capacity of the heart -- moves us in visceral ways, not intellectual.

And there's nothing wrong with that. Inspiration and imagination are what made Steve Jobs, Steve Jobs, or Tesla, Tesla, or da Vinci, da Vinci -- or Einstein, Einstein. Logic is a tool, not our muse. Yet as always, wisdom lies in the Middle Way (to paraphrase Apollo), or the Tao. The balance. Ungrounded flights of fancy can be impractical, idealistic ideologies can be overly rigid, but too much pragmatism locks us into outworn modes of thinking (and being) in which we try to solve old problems with old thinking.

The best road is the Middle Way: conserve what works, but be progressive enough not fear change.

To find the middle path is important. There is VALUE in both political approaches -- conservative and progressive -- although I'll be honest and say (optimist that I am), I favor the balance being slightly to the progressive side ... but not at the expense of (true) conservative input. Conservatism shouldn't be confused with any religious ideology (which is too often the case in current US politics). My late maternal uncle was a died-in-the-wool conservative Republican ... and an evangelical atheist. ("Evangelical" defines a tendency, not a religion: "evangelism" means "to actively promote and proselytize a particular viewpoint." One can be "evangelical" about her work at the local humane society, or about his vegan lifestyle.)

Please note that being conservative politically need NOT equate to promoting any particular religion or set of "faith values," may even lead to condemning religion. (Ayn Rand, anybody?) In fact, towards the end of his life, my uncle was (by his own admission to me) rather horrified by the Religious Right's hijacking of "his" party. In a long phone conversation once, he told me he wasn't really a fan of Reagan, even while he liked his policies, as he saw Reagan's presidency to be the beginning of (Christian) Fundamentalist dominance of the party of Teddy Roosevelt.

I did not always agree with his (political) conclusions, but particularly as an adult, I found him interesting to talk to, as he was well-read, intelligent, observant, and thoughtful. He made excellent points. I valued his opinion, even when I didn't share it, and I found that I often agreed with his assessment of problems, just not with the best ways to solve them. He was in favor of civil rights for blacks long before it was in vogue ... and at variance not only with other Republicans, but some Democrats. I find it interesting that BOTH my mother, a progressive Democrat (b. 1924), and her brother, a conservative Republican (b. 1919), supported civil rights for blacks before it was "popular." Both had the capacity to think outside the box. By contrast, my father, who I love dearly, still has issues with a black man in the white house, even while loudly proclaiming to his conservative Republican friends, "And what's WRONG with being a liberal?!" (Keep in mind, he's 87.) I doubt most of my liberal under-30 students and friends would consider him a "liberal." Yet by the standards of HIS generation, he most certainly is. Ironically, by some modern standards, so would my uncle have been, the self-avowed conservative.

Oh, those PESKY problems of human definition! What defined "liberal" and "conservative" has changed. My father is a liberal, and my uncle was a conservative by the (political) definitions of their WWII era. The Modern Generation may idolize the Greatest Generation ... but we don't view things the same. I find it somewhat ironic that religion has infused politics far more in our era than in the supposedly more religious era of my parent's generation. Or perhaps that's WHY religion has risen to the forefront. The dominant religious culture can no longer be assumed.

People don't always fall into our neat categories of expectation, and we have to grow OUT of our preconceptions. Real, flesh-and-blood human beings don't fit well into prepackaged ideologies.

That -- IMNSHO -- is a large part of the problem in politics today. Everyone wants to SAY the right thing, not do the right thing. Because in our world of Immediate Social Media (and 30-second soundbytes that promote over-simplification) not saying the right thing will likely result in a failure to be re-elected. and the flow of information about what people DO say is picked up and magnified a hundred times over what it was only 20 years ago. The slightest slip of the tongue (on either side of the political fence), or any deviation from the consecrated political canon of one's party can -- and often does -- go viral not just by the end of the day, but sometimes by the end of the hour.

It occurs to me that Term Limits grant a certain FREEDOM. Might be wise to explore them again for both the senate and congress ...

In any case, and back to my uncle, I found that honest respect gave us a point of contact from which fruitful dialogue could begin. Down the years, I've had other friends (and family members) who held conservative political views compared to mine, but who had an open mind (rather than a dogged, ideological one). I have valued their observations and thought, even when my own assessments differed.

I can not only disagree with you and still like you, I can disagree with you and still RESPECT you.

Can you do the same for me?

Mutual respect lies at the core of the fast-becoming-lost art of Jeffersonian Debate, of which the cardinal rule is RESPECT for the opposition. To use parliamentary terminology, we can each be "The Loyal Opposition" to the other; mutual respect grants permission for reasoned dissent. And that's why the current political climate is so poisoned. Our society has elevated disrespect in the political realm (et al.) to admirable status. Far BE it from us to consider *compromise*! "Compromise" has become a dirty word. One "compromises" values, one "sells out" to the other side, one "gives in" to the opponent's demands. A wo/man of STRONG VALUES wouldn't do such a thing! No compromise = strong values = good/moral person.


That's Zero-Sum competition, not good politics.

I win. You lose.

With that sort of attitude, there's no room for discussion, so why bother?

We must come back to the center -- or we're doomed. Not just as a country, but as a world society. When compromise is seen as a moral weakness, not a necessity for a healthy democracy, civility (and civilization) is lost.

More than one psychological study has shown a link between fear of the new/change and those who self-identify as "conservative" versus those who embrace the new/change and those who self-identify as "progressives." This is hardly a surprise to those familiar with the old meaning of those terms. Truth is, sticking only with the "tried and true" gets us nowhere, while uncareful embracing of the "new" can lead right down the primrose path to well-intentioned disaster. Sometimes, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," is GOOD advice.

But as any decent military general, past or present, would point out, no battles are won by sticking only with what worked before. The Cyruses, the Alexanders, the Caesars, the Belisariuses, the Subutais, the Napoleons, the Tecumsehs, the Crazy Horseses ... they're innovators. THINK too much (and too long) and you lose the advantage. Rely strictly on what worked before, and you lose not just the advantage, but the battle.

"New" is not a dirty word. Nor is "progressive" -- nor even (gasp) LIBERAL. Yet the flip side requires that "conservative" can't be a dirty word, either.

It's the dreamers who will save the world. They see where we need to go. And history represents movement FORWARD. But the pragmatists will build the solid ground frame from which they can launch.

We need each other.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Wounded Healer (or Happy Thanksgiving)

This Thanksgiving season, I’ve been pondering what I’m thankful for. See, I spent Thanksgiving Day alone.

My son was with his father’s family (which is a yearly tradition I believe important; I’m not angry). My own family is too spread out to get together easily. And this year, I didn’t get an invitation to another house on the day of Thanksgiving itself.

Of course the day celebrated isn’t important, whether Thursday, Friday, Saturday … or the Wednesday before. Who cares? But I was feeling a little sorry for myself on Thursday, to be honest. We’ve all been there -- the fear that we’re unloved and wouldn’t be missed if we died tomorrow. And note: I don’t think it wrong to ask for attention from our friends … as long as we give it ourselves in turn. Friendship is a two-way street, and martyr complexes are no more healthy than self-absorption. παν μέτρον άριστον. (All things in moderation.)

Now yes, I’m well aware I have a house, plenty of food, my health, a job I (mostly) like, and can pay my bills … all things too many don’t have. But when feeling lonely, material things don’t mean much. In my experience, on their death beds, people aren’t eager to say goodbye to their flat-screen TV or killer laptop or toaster oven.

We need people with skin on.

Trouble was, I was waiting for people with skin on to come to me.

On Friday, I went to share turkey and football with friends, and Saturday a buddy spent several hours of his time fixing my garbage disposal … because he could, and I needed help. I was reminded of what “thanksgiving” means … and rather disgusted with myself, I bailed on my own private pity party.

I also realized what I’m grateful for. Strange as it may sound … I’m grateful for a broken heart.

“The only whole heart is a broken heart.”

Because in breaking we are humbled.

“The world likes winners.” “Nothing succeeds like success.” Yet the world (or at least the U.S.) also likes underdogs and reluctant heroes who rise above … as long as they succeed in the end. And yes, it makes great story if we fail a little before we get to the top -- adversity overcome.

Trouble is, that’s the simple story. Most of us fail before we succeed, yes -- but we fail again (more than once) after we’ve succeeded, too. We fail, fail, fail, succeed, fail, fail, succeed, fail, succeed -- and maybe, finally, we realize success or failure isn’t the important part. That’s reality, not Hollywood.

When I was still doing hospital work and counseling, The Wounded Healer was a popular concept for what we were about. It’s even the title of a book by Henri Nouwen about ministry by service. I recommend it. Yes, it’s Christian. So what? It’s wise. The concept itself goes back to Greek mythology: the centaur Khiron (Chiron) who taught heroes. He was accidentally wounded by a poisoned arrow of Herakles (Hercules), but despite all his medical knowledge, couldn’t heal himself. Yet being immortal, he also couldn’t die. Condemned to live with the continual pain, he grew wise … but that wisdom sprang from compassion, not knowledge. (Educated by Apollo, he was plenty smart, but that wasn’t the point.) Jung would later discuss the archetype in his own work.

“We’re strongest in our broken places.” We heard that a lot in psych classes/CPE/training. It’s where we’ve failed that we learn most and can help others best -- if we take time to learn from the failure (which means laying down our pride … and/or our rose-colored glasses).

Some years later (back in grad school at PSU for my history degree), I re-read Ernest Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms. When younger, I’d disliked Hemmingway. A master of simplicity, he wasn’t dramatic enough for me when I was a teen. (Naturally -- everything’s a crisis to a teen.) I didn’t come to like him till my senior year in college when (an English major) I was forced to read A Farewell to Arms and For Whom the Bell Tolls … then wondered what the hell was WRONG with me not to love Hemmingway, or at least Hemmingway's novels? His personal life was a mess; J.D. Salinger once called him a “gallant rogue.” He did Testosterone-Poisoned things in order to look suitably “manly” (war correspondent, hunter, et al.) He drank too much, had affairs, and multiple wives back when divorce wasn’t common. He suffered from depression, and shot himself just shy of his 62nd birthday. I wouldn’t recommend him as a role model. Yet he loved his cats, and the very sensitivity that led to his depression also made him a humanitarian and great observer of human nature. He used his gift for language to tell profound stories. Whatever his rep, his works aren’t novels “for men.” They’re novels. Period. They show us to ourselves, both the really ugly and the truly noble.

If anybody knew broken hearts, it was Hemmingway.

And it’s Hemmingway who said, "The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places." He’s the originator of that paraphrased quote bolded above.

Yet there’s more TO that quote. It continues: “But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.”

Cynical Hemmingway? Perhaps.

But the people who get things done in life are not, usually, the naïve or overly ideological. Maybe that wasn’t quite what Hemmingway meant … but maybe it was. He had a talent for depth in simplicity.

After all, what are some of the most powerful statements we can ever make?

I’m sorry.

I was wrong.

I care about you.

How can I help?

Lean on me, I’m your friend.

I love you.

No 25-cent words in those phrases. No purple prose. But when meant, there is nothing deeper we can say. Nothing wiser.

Wisdom isn’t knowledge. Knowledge springs from intellect. Wisdom springs from compassion.

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

The wisest man I ever knew (my maternal grandfather) had an 8th grade education. Ironically -- or wisely -- he made sure all his own children got through high school and even had some college if they wanted it. He knew education important. It can prepare the ground for planting. Yet the seeds come from living (existential). More, they come from failure. They come from screwing up.

Knowledge leads to arrogance. It’s one of the cardinal sins of grad students and young professionals everywhere -- the Snooty Phase of Knowing More Than Anyone Else. We become judgmental. We assume too much. And we forget how to hear. Not just listen -- HEAR.

If we’re lucky, somebody knocks the arrogance out of us and the sense back into us. It happened to me in the spring of my first year at PSU. I think I was fortunate, getting it early. I set myself against a (new) assistant professor in the department … and nearly lost my teaching assistantship as a result of my need to show off how much more I knew than the professor. And I was WRONG. Not in the details I complained about (I was actually right). But I was WRONG and a royal ASS in how I handled it.

In retrospect, I’m quite sorry that I gave the poor guy such a hard time. He didn’t deserve that. And some years later, *I* got called on the carpet for how *I* was teaching a class. (Karma.) Fortunately, the fellow sent in to evaluate me was a lot older -- and wiser -- and his response to the complaint was basically, “Chill. She’s young. She’s learning. She’s not that bad, and I’ll fix what she’s not so good at.” And he did. By being KIND.

Compassion is the root of wisdom.

And wisdom springs from humility. We think we know … then we find out we don’t. We were wrong. Mistaken. Maybe even deluded. We were arrogant.

We get our hearts broken.

And we become human in the process.

If we can pick ourselves up, our hearts get a little bigger, a little stronger. They beat a little harder for the pain of others because we’ve been there. We aren’t the very good, we aren’t the very gentle, and we aren’t the very brave.

So we’re still alive.

And that’s when we get busy, and get things done. And if we’re lucky, life won’t be in any hurry to kill us -- so we can get a lot done in the meantime.

Personally, I’m aiming for about 90 before I’m ready to pass the torch.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Black Cats

Black Cats are GOOD Luck …

In honor of the 6th birthday of my son’s cat, Licorice, I decided to do a blog post on black cats. The superstition surrounding them leads to such sad circumstances as black cats staying in shelters and humane societies longer than any other color (some say almost twice as long!). This makes me cry. Most of my life, I’ve had Siamese, especially blue points. I love me my Meezers. Life isn’t complete without a (talkative) Siamese to welcome you home. That said, however, the next most frequent cat type I’ve had?

Plain ol’ Alley Black.

I love black cats almost as much as Siamese.

First, I think they’re beautiful. There’s nothing like the sleek, blue-sheen of true black fur. Ebony. Onyx. Carbon. Coal. Raven. They’re absolutely gorgeous.

Second, “black” is nature’s most popular color. Dogs, cats … there are more black dogs and cats than almost any other color (except maybe gray). But people consider BLACK “bad luck” and are more reluctant to adopt them.

This is silly. The association of black with “evil,” “witchcraft,” “sin,” and “death” is unfortunate. Nor is it universal. Not a few societies see WHITE as the color of death, not black. Let me also point out that BLACK soil is considered the most fertile. Black is RICH, not evil. In my own native culture, black is the sacred color of the north -- not bad at all.

The (obvious) connection seems to be that night = black = unable to see things (easily) = mysterious/dangerous/evil, while day = white/gold/yellow = good = able to see things easily. This makes a certain sense in eras before electric lighting. But it’s led to all sorts of unfortunate social assumptions that have harmed “black” beings … whether those were black African slaves, or black cats (or dogs), or even bats. But oh boy, where would we be without bats?! There’s another much maligned creature who are our FRIENDS. And, in the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit I think bats are the coolest mammals ever! (Who wouldn’t want sonar and hearing like theirs?!) Like bees, the world needs bats.

Black is beautiful. It may be a cliché of the ‘60s, but it’s also true. Whether skin or fur, BLACK IS TRULY BEAUTIFUL. So are white, and red, and brown, and yellow. But this blog entry is about BLACK.

Black cats. It’s considered lucky, you know, to OWN a black cat (or be owned by one!). It’s GOOD luck to have one enter your house. Being greeted at the door by a black cat, or touching one is also GOOD luck.

Adopt a BLACK cat. Please. Encourage others to do so. There aren’t a lot of statistics about adoptions, but -- as mentioned above -- what we have say black cats (and dogs, but *especially* black cats) stay in shelters longer than any other color. People fear them for NO good reason. Licorice was the only black cat with two gray siblings, but guess who got adopted first? He did! Ian saw him in the window as soon as we walked into the humane society, and he said, “Mommy, I want THAT one.” Mom, with due caution, suggested we look at several cats. So we did. But as soon as they brought Licorice into the room, he ran to Ian who welcomed him with open arms. That was the cat we took home that day, and secretly, I was glad that my son wanted the BLACK one. They’ve been best friends ever since. He saw the beauty of a black cat, and that cat has been one of the best-tempered, smartest cats I’ve ever known. The irony? We got a couple of extra “perks” for adopting the black cat, including a special knitted blanket. Why? People don’t WANT black cats/dogs.

Again, this makes me very sad. Take it from someone who’s had more than one … black cats are the BEST luck you’ll ever take home.

Next time you’re considering a new cat, look -- hard -- at the black ones.